EDITORIAL: Palestine and the Unspeakable

16 October, 2023
Senior editor Lina Mounzer prefaces this week’s special Palestine issue with an editorial about the death and destruction that visited Israelis and is now the daily and nightly horror faced by Gazans.


This moment, as I’m writing these words, this moment, as you’re reading them, Gaza is being ground to dust under Israeli bombardment. At this very moment, people are trying to pull the bodies of their loved ones out from under the pulverized remains of their own homes. Entire families have been wiped from the civil register. It is estimated that some 1,000 bodies remain trapped under the wreckage, very likely bringing the death toll to an unfathomable 4,000 people. Four thousand people in just over a week. That is an average of over 400 people a day being killed. It is incredibly cruel math to have to do, but Palestinian lives under Israeli occupation have always been subject to this inhuman calculus. How many Palestinian lives equal one Israeli life? Many have been asking that question this past week, some with incredulity and horror, and some with total seriousness. The answer this time seems to be none, and all. No amount of Palestinian lives can avenge the Israeli lives lost. And so all the people of Gaza must be exterminated.

The bombardment of Gaza this time comes in retaliation for a brutal and unprecedented attack carried out by Hamas fighters on October 7. A number of fighters paraglided over the fence encircling the Strip and went door to door on a rampage through the kibbutzes and settlements surrounding Gaza, massacring hundreds of people and taking about 150 others back as hostages. An attack of singular horror for the Israeli people, reverberating through Jewish communities across the world as the nightmare of the past — the past of ghettoes and pogroms and concentration camps, the past that they and the world had vowed would take place “never again” — came roaring awake once more. For the people of Gaza, this latest round of bombardment is just that, the latest round of bombardment, only this time it’s worse than anything that has come before.

The editor-in-chief of Jewish Currents, Arielle Angel, tries, in an expansive, brilliant editorial, to grapple with holding these two realities side by side, with how to allow for the resonances of two different generational traumas for two different peoples without having them negate one another, while at the same time acknowledging the crushing actuality of the Israeli occupation, which is not past but cruelly present. “One of the most terrible things about this event is the sense of its inevitability,” she writes. “The violence of apartheid and colonialism begets more violence. Many people have struggled with the straightjacket of this inevitability, straining to articulate that its recognition does not mean its embrace.” It bears repeating: its recognition does not mean its embrace. At the same time, it must be recognized. An annihilation looms before us. In fact, it has already begun.

In a press conference on October 9, Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant announced the state’s intentions. “We are imposing a complete siege on Gaza,” he declared. “There will be no electricity, no food, no water, no fuel, everything will be closed.” And then, as though this wasn’t clear from his previous words, from the bantustans in the West Bank, from the 16-year siege of Gaza, from the thousands of shells and bombs dropped on that same besieged population, he decided to drive the point home: “We are fighting against human animals, and we act accordingly.”

Such collective punishment is considered a war crime under international law, but of course international law only applies to human beings, not “human animals.” The phrase stood, disseminated as is without judgment in the Western media, seen only as a harsh but fitting expression of Israeli anger and, therefore, unquestioned and unquestionable.

There is no safe place in Gaza. No shelter, no reprieve. Hospitals have been warned to evacuate, grievously injured, immovable patients and all. Gazans were given 24 hours to flee the north: an exodus of 1.1 million people, all asked to leave their homes within 24 hours. Then, the routes south they’d been assured were safe were bombed. Entire convoys of people incinerated. There is no more room for the dead in the morgues.

Anger. Many words have been written this last week about grief and mourning, about which deaths are grievable, about which lives deserve mourning, about mourning and grief as acts of solidarity or the lack of vocal grief and mourning as proof of indifference. Less has been written about anger. About who has the right to be angry, and why, and how anger might be spent when it is an entire people raging, raging about the present but goaded to biblical fury by the ghosts of the past. Israeli anger has always been seen as righteous and historically rooted, while Palestinian anger arises simply out of an innate barbarism without other cause. If the recent history of Western warfare has taught us anything it is that if your anger is righteous enough, then any violence born of that anger is righteous too. Thus you may engage in mass slaughter and remain mostly blameless in the eyes of the world. Those that have been slaughtered are not people, after all, but human animals.

There is no safe place in Gaza. No shelter, no reprieve. Hospitals have been warned to evacuate, grievously injured, immovable patients and all. Gazans were given 24 hours to flee the north: an exodus of 1.1 million people, all asked to leave their homes within 24 hours. Then, the routes south they’d been assured were safe were bombed. Entire convoys of people incinerated. There is no more room for the dead in the morgues. There is “no time to dig up the bodies” either, as Ghassan Abu Sitta, a plastic surgeon from Gaza, wrote on X. “When I drove from North Gaza to Shifa last night, the stench of decaying bodies every time you drove by a destroyed building was overwhelming.” Social media sites are full of photos of dead Gazans, crying Gazans, Gazans begging for help, Gazans saying their last goodbyes to the world. The last post from Dr. Belal Aldabbour reads: “Soon, the last sliver of electricity and connection will be exhausted. If I die, remember that I, we, were individuals, humans, we had names, dreams, and achievements, and our only fault was that we were just classified as inferior.” That was October 11. Nothing since.

The out-of-control depravity of the violence now in Gaza shows us, hard as it is to believe, that in previous bouts of rage the Israeli state remained restrained in its response. The international community, chief among them the US, would always eventually pull it back from the brink. After some unstated ceiling to the death toll, the international community would, like an indulgent parent, cluck “now, now, that’s enough of that.” This time there is no such restraint and no such admonishments. The narrative of “Israel has a right to defend itself” remains steadfast, repeated like a mantra. In fact, a state department memo circulated on October 13 — already nearly a week into the bombing — warned diplomats working on the Middle East against using three specific phrases in their press materials: “de-escalation/ceasefire,” “end to violence/bloodshed” and “restoring calm.” In other words, there is no hope of ceasefire, no end to bloodshed, no calm. But it’s not just diplomats acting as stenographers for the Israeli state. Many journalists have enthusiastically signed up for the job as well, repeating claims from the IDF without checking facts, twisting themselves into rhetorical pretzels to avoid damning language, referring to Gazans, en masse, as terrorists, all together responsible for the Israeli tragedy, as though they were a single hand wielding Hamas’s guns.

Make no mistake, this is a war of words, too. Of foregrounding certain words, certain narratives, and silencing others. Gazans are being gradually cut off from the world as their power goes out. According to Reuters, “the Israeli communications minister is seeking cabinet approval to shut down Al Jazeera’s bureau in Israel.” Human rights lawyer Noura Erakat relays that CBS News refused to air an interview they’d done with her, while ABC refused to air one with writer Mohammad El-Kurd and CNN with political analyst Youssef Munayyer. The Frankfurt Book Fair has canceled an award ceremony for Palestinian writer Adania Shibli, then lied that she had consented to the decision. Pro-Palestinian demonstrations have been demonized the world over as “celebrations of terrorism” or outright banned.

Since words are so important, so dangerous, then let us call what’s unfolding in Gaza, right before the world’s eyes, exactly what it is: a genocide. A second Nakba. What else might we call this mass slaughter, this forced expulsion of a people from their homes, their cities, their lives? Israel and the US are attempting to pressure Egypt to take in refugees from Palestine, to build them a tent city in the desert. The Palestinians don’t want to leave. They know what happens if they leave, for it has happened before. If they leave, there is no return.

But there are also voices and acts of solidarity. Jews the world over, including in Israel, have been declaring and protesting: “not in my name.” Irish press and politicians have been vocal in their condemnation. The Vatican put out a statement “expressing worry primarily for Gazan civilians while Israel is burying 1,300 people who have been murdered.” Yet even this mildest of remarks, which still foregrounds the Israeli tragedy, was deemed “unacceptable” by Israel’s foreign minister.

A ground invasion of Gaza is being planned. Settler attacks in the West Bank have increased, with settlers arming themselves further. There has been constant fighting on the Lebanese border between Israel and different factions inside Lebanon, its tenor escalating by the day. Civilians in Lebanon have been killed, including a journalist, who, like Shireen Abu Akleh before him, was clearly wearing a press vest and helmet. There are no sane voices by the powers that be calling for an end to the violence, let alone an end to the occupation. There seems to be no concern either that a regional war is possible, almost imminent, even as we stare down the barrels of its anti-tank missiles and aircraft carriers. I write this from Beirut, where this morning I received a message from my other embassy — a passport acquired when my family fled from a previous war in Lebanon — advising me to “consider leaving while commercial options remain available.” The implication, of course, is that the airport will be the first thing to be bombed, as it was in the 2006 Israeli war against Lebanon, and there will be no easy way out. I have a passport that permits me to leave at a moment’s notice. My husband doesn’t. We stay, and wait, glued to the news, our anxiety drowned out by the absolute horror we are watching befall the people of Gaza.

There is no recompense for all this death, destruction, and ongoing trauma. There are hardly any words that fit its magnitude. But let us at least use the words they don’t want us to use: Occupation. Apartheid. Colonization. Forced expulsion. Ethnic cleansing. Nakba. Genocide. Let us keep using them, insisting on them, and let us also hear Palestinian voices, read Palestinian words, understand Palestinian narratives, give grace to Palestinian subjectivity and grief and anger. Give it just as much weight as Israeli subjectivity, Israeli grief, Israeli anger. That is all. Just equal weight, equal grace. Even if it seems the two can’t coexist without negating one another. Now, more than ever, we must have enough imagination for a different kind of world. For we know exactly what happens when we start seeing human beings, speaking of human beings, as human animals. It is the horror of annihilation. And it has already begun.

—Lina Mounzer

The Ongoing Nakba—Rasha Al-Jundi’s Embroidery Series

Vera Tamari’s Lifetime of Palestinian Art

A Day in the Life of Abed Salama: A Palestine Story

Palestine 1936 Sheds New Light on Arab-Israeli Conflict


1 comment

  1. I just can’t wrap my mind about yet another cruel question (almost in the same vein of your rhetorical mathematical questions elsewhere in the editorial): How can colonized Palestinians who believe in armed struggle engage in violent resistance against their oppressors and colonizers without giving the Israelis the impression that they’re killing them as Jews? Israel is an ethno-theocracy created for the Jews with an underpinning principle made into law and actively applied since 1950 that Jews around the world have a right of “return” to Israel. How come then Palestinians can target whatever they count as non-civilian Israelis without necessarily being “targeting Jews”, i.e. military targets that happened to be Jews because that’s exactly the very racist nature and demographic structure of Zionist Israeli?!
    That said, I believe we must make a clear and crucial distinction between two aspects of what Palestinians did on October 7: (1) There was an unprecedented act of purely legitimate armed resistance against the Israeli army and police, (2) There were cold-blood massacres, kidnappings, and attacks against civilian settlers, revelers, and kibbutzim communities.
    Treating these two aspects equally as condemnable, criminal (and possibly anti-Semitic) aggressions is a grave mistake, just as treating them equally as commendable acts is a grave mistake. Indeed, one of them is entirely commendable and the other is entirely condemnable.

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