Ceasefire is a first step towards justice at home and abroad

Graphic attributed to the artist KILL JOY. Art accessed from AGAINSTAPARTHEID.ART

I AM GRIEVING for every Palestinian, Israeli, and American life lost to this violence, and my heart breaks for all those who will be forever traumatized because of it. War and retaliatory violence doesn’t achieve accountability or justice; it only leads to more death and human suffering,” said Congresswoman Cori Bush. “Today [October 25] I am introducing the Ceasefire Now Resolution, vital legislation that calls for de-escalation and an immediate ceasefire in Israel and Occupied Palestine, and for humanitarian assistance to urgently be delivered to the 2.2 million people under siege and trapped in Gaza. The United States bears a unique responsibility to exhaust every diplomatic tool at our disposal to prevent mass atrocities and save lives. We can’t bomb our way to peace, equality, and freedom. With thousands of lives lost and millions more at stake, we need a ceasefire now.”

Congresswoman Bush and veterans demanding Ceasefire stand in front of Capitol holding “Veterans for Ceasefire Now” sign
Rep. Cori Bush urging passage of the Ceasefire Now resolution, with veteran advocates, on the steps of the Capitol Building on November 9th.

“I grieve the Palestinian and Israeli lives lost yesterday, today, and every day,” Rep. Rashida Tlaib wrote in a statement, as a co-sponsor of the Ceasefire Now Resolution, adding “The failure to recognize the violent reality of living under siege, occupation, and apartheid makes no one safer. We cannot ignore the humanity in each other. As long as our country provides billions in unconditional funding to support the apartheid government, this heartbreaking cycle of violence will continue.”

In addition to Bush and Tlaib, the bill was co-sponsored by Representatives André Carson, Summer Lee, and Delia C. Ramirez and joined by eight other members of Congress: Jamaal Bowman, Bonnie Watson Coleman, Jesús “Chuy” García, Jonathan Jackson, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar, Ayanna Pressley, and Nydia Velázquez (a list now grown larger). 

If we wish to understand the sentiment that lies behind this resolution, we may want to listen to the lines of Palestinian poet Samih Al-Qasim who himself saw the inside of Israeli prisons on more than one occasion:

And destruction’s tide
rises higher still than the tide,
and the angel’s wing grows distant,
and the winds of devastation draw near,
and you sit atop the earth:
no moaning interferes,
no ark comes to save you,
no olive branch is here in the orbit,
and over death you wither
folding your shirt on the heart’s ordeal.

You fold and all,
Strange and sad –
sadder than water.

Samih al-Qasim and the language of revolution | Middle East Eye
Contemporary photo of Palestinian poet Samih al-Qasim. Photo from Middle East Eye.

Like the struggle for peace and justice everywhere, the resolution seems fragile, a whisper against the rising tide of war.  Yet a whisper can turn into a cry, a small step can be the path that leads out of the abyss. It is striking the fierce opposition this simple plea arouses. The line is drawn – war or peace, oppression or freedom, human empathy or destruction.  It is up to us to choose.

Blaming the Victim

Despite law-and-order demagogues who proclaim violence as originating from “bad” individuals or cultures, violence does not spring from the void — it has root causes and those causes need to be understood if the violence is to be overcome and resolved.

We should not forget that there is a violence that has defined the conditions of life in Gaza; one which the phrase “open air prison” begins to suggest. There is violence in the conditions of life in the West Bank in which apartheid-like barriers keep apart Israelis and occupied Palestinians, freedom of movement for the former based on denial of freedom of movement for the latter.  And there is violence in treating some groups of citizens in society as having fewer rights than other groups of citizens as happens to Palestinians within the borders of Israel itself. Until Palestinians are able to live as free men and women, violence in all its forms will persist.

Palestinian women demonstrate against Israeli soldiers in the Jabalia refugee camp in Gaza City. Female protesters in Jabalia, Gaza By Robert Croma. License: CC BY NC SA 2.0 https://snl.no/intifada

Noting this does not take away from responsibility of any who act in wanton disregard for human life. When a child is killed, the reason behind it does not matter – there is a lifeless body, there is grief. To talk about causes and reasons at that point seems itself to be a crime. But what does it mean when one child’s death matters and another child’s death doesn’t? For we need to recognize that Palestinian deaths – the killing of Palestinian children by Israeli soldiers – in the past year barely made a dent in the news. The names, the hopes of a life cut short, the anger and hurt of grieving parents, they all barely entered into the consciousness of our media, of our society. Acknowledging that does not relativize the pain experienced by those who lost loved ones in the Hamas attack on Israel, rather the reverse is true; it is an argument to organize for equality for hope in life, rather than equality in grieving.  

By failing to confront the use of force by those with power to suppress those without, we make inevitable the seemingly endless cycles of violence and counter violence.  Many who are unable to see that connection are blinded by the racism which we know all too well from our own society.  After all, the rhetoric of “superpredators” used by politicians to justify enactment of the draconian laws that have led to the extraordinary rates of mass incarceration in the United States was designed to characterize some people as less than human, to deny social causes to individual behaviors. Militarized policing and tossing out the concept of “innocent before proven guilty” in turn normalized mass incarceration as the chosen means of addressing crime, rather than enaction of social policies to transform the equality promised in words into equality in life as experienced. Unfortunately, and tellingly, it has led to the practice of arresting and charging children as adults, giving decades-long sentences even to children in their early teens. A racial blind spot allows that to happen; a field of vision that sees whole categories of people as irredeemable.

Moreover, that blind spot goes one step further – it enables the “neutral” observer from afar to blame the community for being responsible for its own oppression. Too many African Americans in prison, living in poverty, lacking education? – well it is “their” fault; we (one can insert whatever “we” one wants here) had to overcome challenges too. It is a logic that lies just below the surface of society – open racists and right-wingers make it explicit, yet far too many –  who otherwise perceive themselves as liberal minded – fall into the same mindset.  Were it not so, the continued structural discrimination afflicting African Americans (or of Native Americans, or those of Spanish-speaking immigrant heritage) would be viewed as intolerable – meaning it would not be tolerated and social policy and budgetary priorities would be so reordered to address those inequities. But, of course, it is tolerated, at an enormous cost to us as a society, at an enormous cost to all working people. Tolerated through a rationalization that blames the victims: i.e. blaming personal or familial or community dysfunction, blaming bad leadership or bad decisions as the reason for lack of progress by those who have been and still are being held back.

Familiar refrains all and returns us to Palestine-Israel—and our failure to hold those who have power responsible, a refusal to look at the structure of society that creates such conflicts, an unwillingness to look at the systemic basis for oppression, an unwillingness to look for systemic solutions. Instead, we have violence, counter-violence, and the continuation of the unacceptable – alongside the easy answer of seeing conflict as reflecting ancient hatreds, irrational peoples, divisions rooted in history and blood, and other stereotypes that deny the humanity of those involved. It is that denial which links Islamaphobia and anti-Semitism, seeing people as identities that deny humanity, as if solutions can be found apart from social justice, apart from peace.

Roots of War 

Therein lies the determined opposition to the call for a cease fire. A cease fire, in and of itself, simply means stopping the killing, killing which those with the greater fire power are quite unready to stop. Yet without a cease fire, war continues, without a cease fire there is no basis for the release of the hostages Hamas is holding in Gaza (or the reciprocal release of Palestinian political prisoners, many detained for years without charges).  

But for those interested in maintaining the status quo – in the Middle East and in our own country – the demand for a cease fire is threatening, because it means negotiation, and negotiations might call the existing status quo into question. For Palestinians and Israelis solutions that end the reality of oppression experienced by millions and allow all to live a life of peace with justice, will require such negotiations, as happened in Ireland and South Africa. Ultimately, allowing equal political rights to all will enable divides over issues to be resolved through political means, through democratic struggle. How this will be achieved is for the people who live or are from the region to determine, as genuine democratic rights and equality is not what those in power in Israel want, however much it is needed.  

While those of us abroad can have our opinions about one solution or another, no solution imposed from abroad will be lasting. What those of us who stand in solidarity with the Palestinians can do, however, is to end the interference by our government which has long supported Israeli violations of international law and its denial of Palestinian human rights. 

Far from being an honest broker, our government’s policy for years has been determined by the perceived need of our “power elite” – those corporate, military and political circles that conduct foreign policy — to maintain US primacy in world affairs. The same sects that call for “democracy,” after all, support Saudi Arabia, the same sects that denounce wars of aggression invaded Iraq and Afghanistan. And the same sects that talk of economic growth are those that have imposed structural adjustment policies around the world, devastating for local populations, while being quite a boon for global capital and profits. The military, far from being a vehicle for national defense, has become an instrument of domination, and a never ending cash cow for the parasitical arms industry. These same sets of policies have their domestic equivalent, in anti-unionism, in the outflow of jobs, in privatization, in mass incarceration, in police violence, and in the racism that is intensified by the insecurity of life these bring. For all those, today’s call for a ceasefire is a threat, for all others it ought to be a call to action.

Reminders from the past

Profits for some – hardship for many. It is no accident that Reps. Bush, Tlaib and the other DSA members and progressives in the House who initiated this call for a ceasefire are the same who support social justice and redistributive measures domestically. The demand for a ceasefire is a demand for justice for Palestinians, it is a demand for peace for Palestinians and Israelis alike, it is part of a campaign to cut the US military budget and to begin to spend funds for humanitarian needs abroad and for social programs at home. Peace and justice are intertwined here, abroad and everywhere. And in that spirit, these words from a novel by Fred Wander, written as a recollection of his childhood in the Buchenwald concentration camp, provide a fitting call to action:

“But when I return, Feinberg says that night in block sixteen, if I should live so long, and I return to the ground-floor apartment in Rue des Rosiers, I’ll stand and listen, the walls will talk:  You lived here, the walls will say, you brought up your children here, where are they now, how have you watched over them?  And I will answer: I believed, I trusted God.  I was happy, I’ll say. Every day I was happy. Had worries, I argued with my loved ones, with my wife, with the kids, I cursed, committed sins of every kind, lied a thousand little lies, that was life, that was my life.  And, still I was happy, they were my most beautiful years, with my children, with my wife, all together … But the walls will demand an accounting, they will ask: You sat here and wasted your time. You dreamed. You knew nothing. And what happened, where are they now? – I don’t know, I’ll say.  And then I will cry. But the walls will be quite cold:  Now you are crying because misfortune has descended upon you. Back then you didn’t cry? And yet the world was full of misery.  You didn’t see it?”

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