What is the value of a Palestinian life? For those retaining delusions not already buried in the rubble of Gaza alongside entire families – like the Zorobs, the Kashtans, the Attalahs – Joe Biden offered a definitive answer last week. In a statement marking 100 days since the current horror began, he rightly showed empathy for the plight of hostages – whose abduction by Hamas represents a grave war crime – and their traumatised families. Yet there was not a single mention of Palestinians.
That politicians and media outlets alike have not bothered to disguise their contempt for Palestinian life will prove consequential. Indeed, this phenomenon is not new, and those repercussions are now violently felt. If the world’s powerful nations had not so brazenly shrugged off three-quarters of a million Palestinians being driven from their homes 76 years ago, accompanied by an estimated 15,000 suffering violent deaths, the seeds of today’s bitter harvest would not have been planted. Political and media elites started as they meant to go on. How many know that last year, before the indefensible atrocities committed by Hamas on 7 October, 234 Palestinians had been killed by Israeli forces in the West Bank alone, more than three dozen of them children? Life is cheap, they say. It is apparently meaningless if you are Palestinian.
If even some worth had been attached to Palestinian life then decades of occupation, siege, illegal colonisation, apartheid, violent repression and mass slaughter might never have happened. Oppressing others becomes difficult to sustain when their humanity is accepted.
Even some resigned to western indifference towards Palestinian life may have expected that, after such murderous carnage, the dam would eventually break. Surely 10,000 children suffering violent deaths, or the 10 kids having one or both legs amputated each day, often without anaesthetic, would stir powerful emotions. Surely 5,500 pregnant women giving birth each month – many having caesareans without anaesthetic – or newborns dying of hypothermia and diarrhoea would trigger unstoppable revulsion. Surely projections that, within a year, a quarter of Gaza’s population could die because of Israel’s destruction of the healthcare system alone, would lead to overpowering demands for something, anything, to end this obscenity. Surely endless stories of aid workers, journalists or medics being slaughtered along with multiple relatives – or even their entire family – because of an Israeli missile would eventually trigger an overwhelming chorus in western society: this is deranged, a despicable madness, it must stop?
This has not happened, and this is why the consequences will be severe.
The devaluing of Palestinian life is not a supposition, it is a statistical fact. According to a new study of coverage in major US newspapers, for every Israeli death Israelis are mentioned eight times – or at a rate 16 times more per death than that of Palestinians. An analysis of BBC coverage by data specialists Dana Najjar and Jan Lietava found a similarly devastating disparity, and that humanising terms such as “mother” or “husband” were used far less often to describe Palestinians, while emotive terms such as “massacre” or “slaughter’” were almost only ever applied to the Israeli victims of Hamas’ atrocities.
All this will have a profound impact. For a start, forget about any future western claims about human rights and international law. Much of the world already regarded such self-righteousness with contempt, as simply the latest ruse to advance the strategic interests of countries that became rich at the expense of the rest of the globe: centuries of often genocidal colonisation bred lasting cynicism, as did more recent bloodbaths such as the Iraq war, or active support for pliable tyrannies across multiple continents. After the west armed and backed Israel as it imposed mass death on Gaza through bombs, bullets, hunger, thirst and the destruction of medical facilities, nobody other than the terminally gullible will listen to such claims ever again.
But it’s not just other countries that western political and media elites should be panicking about. They face moral collapse at home, too. Younger generations in countries such as the US and Britain have grown up taking racism far more seriously than those before them, and polling shows they are far more sympathetic to Palestinians than older citizens are. They are avid users of social media, where they witness footage of the seemingly endless atrocities in Gaza, and Israeli soldiers gleefully serving up war crimes as fodder for public amusement. Irish lawyer Blinne Ní Ghrálaigh, while laying out South Africa’s case against Israel in the international court of justice, described this as “the first genocide in history where its victims are broadcasting their own destruction in real time in the desperate, so far vain hope that the world might do something.” For younger generations exposed to numerous video clips of screaming mothers clutching the lifeless corpses of their newborns, this whole episode has proven instructive.
What do these young people then make of media coverage, or the statements of politicians, that don’t seem to treat Palestinian life as having any worth at all? What conclusions are being drawn about the growing minority populations of western countries whose media and political elites are making so little effort to disguise their contempt for Palestinian life as it is extinguished on such a biblical scale?
So yes, we have seen how the refusal to treat Palestinians as human beings made today’s nightmare inevitable. We can see how the moral claims used to justify western global dominance are permanently shredded. But little thought has been given to how political and media elites in western nations have torched their moral authority, leaving it to fester alongside thousands of unidentified Palestinian corpses buried under the rubble. A turning point, to be sure, with consequences that will only be understood when it is much too late.
Owen Jones is a Guardian columnist
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