The moral high ground that the US and Western democracies took while chastising Russian President Vladimir Putin for sending his army to Ukraine in February 2022 is strangely missing when it comes to close ally Israel and Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu’s response to the Hamas onslaught on Israel last month. Granted, 1,400 people, mostly civilians, were killed and over 200 people, including children and old people, were taken hostage in the surprise attack. But Israel’s response—carpet bombing of the Gaza Strip, killing nearly 10,000 civilians, 40 per cent of them children—is being accepted without question. The West’s high moral principles have gone out of the window.
Israel has broken all international rules of war with impunity. Civilians in the Gaza Strip have no place to hide. Nothing is off limits for the Israeli air force, be it schools, ambulance services, hospitals, mosques, civilian housing or even the UN-sponsored refugee camps, as the one in Nabila. UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres has said that Gaza is turning into a “graveyard for children” and called for a ceasefire.
The world watched with respectful silence as Yoav Gallant, Israel’s defence minister, said at the start of operations: “I have ordered a complete siege on the Gaza Strip. There will be no electricity, no food, no fuel, everything is closed. We are fighting human animals and we are acting accordingly.” Writing in The Guardian, Moustafa Bayoumi, writer and professor, had this to say about Gallant’s words: “Let’s be clear: Gallant’s language is not the rhetoric of deterrence. It’s the language of genocide.”
The plight of over two million residents trapped in Gaza is not just turning global opinion against Israel, but the double standards of the US and its allies are getting exposed, especially in the Global South.
If the Russian invasion of Ukraine had divided the world into two camps, the current action in Gaza has further amplified the schism and exposed the different standards that Western democracies apply when it comes to civilian killings in Ukraine and that of Palestinians in Gaza. The responses to the two wars by the West are starkly different.
Biden had termed the Russian missile strikes on Ukrainian cities as “barbaric”, and referred to Moscow’s action as “crimes against humanity”. Yet no such language is used when Gaza City is destroyed and civilians killed. This has reinforced the view of the West’s hypocrisy. The New York Times quoted Hanna Notte, an analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, as saying: “There is a perception that the West cares more about Ukrainian refugees, about Ukrainian civilians’ suffering than we do when they are suffering in Yemen, in Gaza, in Sudan, in Syria.” That has often been the view of developing countries and there are numerous examples, starkly brought out when Ukrainian refugees were welcomed all across Europe with open arms, because they were “like us”, while those from Afghanistan, Syria and other places had little public sympathy because they were “non white, non-Christian”.
India knows a thing or two about this, as Foreign Minister S Jaishankar made plain in public comments to western journalists and diplomats during the fuss over India’s oil purchases from Russia, placed under widespread sanctions by the Joe Biden administration.
Here is an example. John Kirby, the Pentagon spokesman, commented on the Russian President: “It’s hard to look at what he [Putin] is doing in Ukraine, what his forces are doing in Ukraine, and think that any ethical, moral individual could justify that... So, I can’t talk to his psychology, but I think we can all speak to his depravity.” This was in the early phase of the Ukraine war.
Now after Israel’s punitive military assault on Gaza, the tone is altogether different. “This is war. It is combat. It is bloody. It is ugly, and it’s going to be messy. Innocent civilians are going to be hurt going forward,” Kirby asserted. To a reporter’s question, “Has the US set or discussed any possible red lines?” he responded, “No.”
“President Putin’s craven lust for land and power will fail …democracies of the world will stand guard over our freedom today, tomorrow, and forever. That’s what’s at stake here: Freedom,” Biden said in Poland, on the first anniversary of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
What the Global South is asking is what about Palestinian land, what about their freedom? Do democratic governments wage wars without a care about civilian casualties? Or does Biden agree with Israel’s defence minister that Hamas operates in a land full of human animals? These are questions that are troubling many people across the world.
Significantly, the leaders of the world’s democracies, the US and Western Europe have refrained from uttering a single word publicly against Israel. Nor is there American support for a ceasefire, as Secretary of State Antony Blinken, in his third tour of the region since the Hamas attack, echoed Israel’s views that if the task is unfinished and Hamas is not completely eliminated, it could regroup and pose a fresh danger to Israel. The carnage of civilians is of little consequence, though there have been perfunctory calls for a pause to the fighting by President Biden and his senior officials.
Netanyahu, heading the most extremist religious hardline government ever to be formed in Israel, has rejected all calls for a ceasefire. The prime minister himself, largely unpopular for corrupt practices and his attempts to browbeat the judiciary, has got the perfect chance to resurrect his political career by taking control of Gaza. At the same time, Netanyahu, as well as the Israeli military have to show concrete results from the war front. That will come, not just by destroying Gaza City, but by killing the top Hamas leadership and rescuing the 200 hostages.
No less a person than even Queen Rania of Jordan, whose husband had been a fast friend of the US, could not refrain from pulling up the international community for being stone-deaf when it came to the plight of the people in Gaza. “This is the first time in modern history that there is such human suffering and the world is not even calling for a ceasefire,” she said in an interview to CNN. “So, the silence is deafening—and to many in our region, it makes the western world complicit.” She added, “Are we being told that it is wrong to kill a family, an entire family, at gunpoint, but it’s okay to shell them to death?”
And Qatar’s foreign minister, Mohammed bin Abdulrahman al-Thani, said: “It is not permissible to condemn the killing of civilians in one context and justify it in another,” exposing the double standards of the Western leaders.
Angelina Jolie, Hollywood A-lister and a person who had worked with the UN Human Rights Committee for over 20 years, pointed accusing fingers at the world powers. “By refusing to demand a humanitarian ceasefire and blocking the UN Security Council from imposing one on both parties, world leaders are complicit in these crimes,” she said, calling for a ceasefire.
(This appeared in the print as 'Global Prejudice')