Why do Arab lives not seem to matter to so many western leaders?

It's the most plausible conclusion for why the US still refuses to call for an immediate ceasefire in Gaza

The war in Gaza has claimed more than 30,000 Palestinian lives. Reuters
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It was the response to the news – that five people were killed by an aid package whose parachute failed to open when it was dropped over Gaza last Friday – that did it for me. The shock was that there was no shock. The reaction was a kind of absence. There certainly weren’t any cries of outrage from a Global North whose leaders seem to have become inured to Palestinian deaths.

But it’s more than just inured. For there is still no call for an immediate ceasefire from the administration of US President Joe Biden in Washington. Indeed, when the UN Security Council voted on a motion calling for just that late last month, the US vetoed it while the UK abstained. And to be taking that stance today, after all the ongoing death and destruction, can only mean that you do not regard Palestinians as being anything like yourself. You must have dehumanised them. For how else could stopping this war not be a matter of the utmost urgency?

You can’t know anyone like Abbas Milhem, the executive director of the Palestinian Farmers’ Union, whom I wrote about last October. Don’t tell him, as apologists for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government would, that he should blame Hamas for the deaths of his elderly parents-in-law. It was Israeli missiles that slammed into their home in what they thought was a safe part of Gaza just a few days after October 7, killing everyone inside.

No one who has met Husam Zomlot, the Palestinian ambassador to the UK, could dismiss – as unfortunate or a sad but inevitable consequence of October 7 – the deaths of his wife’s aunt and her family after an Israeli missile wrecked their home and blasted his wife’s seven-year-old cousin right out of the house, leaving her body dangling on a wall.

When all criticisms of Israel are said to be anti-Semitic, the term has been stripped of its weight and seriousness

You couldn’t possibly do that, not if you recognise their common humanity. Not if Global North leaders realise that Palestinians are just like them. They go – or they used to go – to school and university, they celebrated and partied, they dreamed of becoming brain surgeons and concert pianists, and, just as in the West, some did. They have lives of meaning and consequence. To paraphrase Shakespeare, if you prick them, they do indeed bleed.

But governments that are not only still refusing to call for an unconditional ceasefire, but which are also still supplying Israel with money and weapons, cannot possibly recognise that. Just as the common humanity they share with ordinary Yemenis cannot have been uppermost in their minds when they launched bombing parties to deter Houthi attacks on commercial shipping in the Red Sea. Wasn’t there a high risk of collateral damage? I can’t say I noticed many politicians worrying about that. Lots of people have been dying in Yemen for years, after all. What’s a few more?

European countries recognised their common humanity with Ukrainian refugees very quickly after the Russian invasion in 2022. Of course, it helped that they were “Europeans with blonde hair and blue eyes”, as one former Ukrainian official put it. Could it be that it’s much easier to dehumanise Arabs, and Arab Muslims in particular? Their deaths seem far more tolerable.

The flipside of this is an unceasing political backing of Israel, whatever its leadership and armed forces do, that does neither the country nor the wider Jewish population any favours. We already know that Israel has become a pariah in large parts of the world owing to its leadership’s response to the attacks of October 7. But the heated debate over whether anti-Zionism equates to anti-Semitism is a diversion. I know vast numbers of people who are concerned with, many serious scholars of, Palestine-Israel, and not one of them denies the right of Israel to exist. (Some call for a one-state solution, but that is not the same thing.)

But when all criticisms of the country or references to “apartheid” in that context are said to be anti-Semitic, the term has been stripped of its weight and seriousness. Not only is that a scandalous misuse of what ought to be the gravest of charges, it also makes it harder to call out genuine anti-Semitism. It’s like crying wolf, but it’s a ploy that is increasingly used by Israeli apologists in the Global North.

The Israeli film director Yuval Abraham suffered just that accusation last month when his film No Other Land won the best documentary award at the Berlin Film Festival. In his speech, he called for a ceasefire in Gaza and described a “situation of apartheid” in a land where he and his Palestinian colleague Basel Adra “are not equal”. Cue outrage in the German media the next day.

“To stand on German soil as the son of Holocaust survivors and call for a ceasefire – and to then be labelled as anti-Semitic is not only outrageous, it is also literally putting Jewish lives in danger,” Abraham told the Guardian. “If this is Germany’s way of dealing with its guilt over the Holocaust, they are emptying it of all meaning.” As someone with close friends and family who are Jewish, the idea that the concept of anti-Semitism could be “emptied of all meaning” makes me shudder.

And so it goes on, with the US continuously acquiescing with whatever the Netanyahu government does. For sure, Mr Biden makes some public criticisms, but according to reports in Israeli media, it turns out that even the delivery of aid by sea to Gaza and the creation of a pier that Mr Biden announced in his State of the Union address were actually Mr Netanyahu’s idea.

The only conclusion to be drawn is that Mr Biden and other leaders from the Global North don’t really believe that Palestinian lives matter, let alone recognise them as equal in worth to their own. Because if they did, they’d have to insist on an immediate halt to Israel’s murderous campaign. Wouldn’t they?

Published: March 14, 2024, 7:00 AM