Why did it take the deaths of western aid workers in Gaza for Joe Biden to act?

The short answer seems to be: white lives matter. Palestinian lives? Well, not so much

The Israeli air strike that killed seven aid workers in Gaza drew criticism from western leaders, but many failed to act when more than 200 other humanitarians, mostly Palestinian, died during the past six months. AP
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News that US President Joe Biden finally told Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu last Thursday that there had to be an “immediate ceasefire” in Gaza, and that Israel should agree a deal with Hamas “without delay”, ought to be cause for celebration. We can certainly be glad Mr Biden has reached this point. And yet this also feels like a moment of the utmost shame collectively for the US, the UK and all the western countries that have supported and supplied Israel in its grotesquely punitive campaign against the Palestinian people.

For Mr Biden has come to this decision not because the death toll may have reached 34,000, according to some Palestinian sources. Not because after six months of this war, as US Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said last Friday, “we are at the brink: of mass starvation; of regional conflagration; of a total loss of faith in global standards and norms”. Not because around 60 per cent of all buildings in Gaza have been damaged or destroyed, over 1.7 million people have been internally displaced and the scale of destruction visited on farmland and tree cover so great that some have suggested it may amount to ecocide, a possible war crime. And not because a new investigation alleges, as Sulaiman Hakemy wrote in these pages, that “the Israeli military has used AI software to carry out killings of not only suspected militants but also civilians in Gaza on a scale so grand, so purposeful, that it would throw any Israeli army claim of adherence to international law out the window.”

No. Mr Biden has reached the end of his tether (if, indeed, he has) because Israel targeted and killed six western aid workers from the charity World Central Kitchen. A Palestinian was also in the three cars which the military destroyed one by one. But we can safely assume that it is not why Mr Biden was “outraged and heartbroken” over the incident, given his administration’s general indifference to the around 200 aid workers – most of them Palestinian – who have already died during the war. Their deaths did not provoke Mr Biden to call for an “immediate ceasefire”. Of course not. As one participant in a New York Times podcast conceded last week: “Frankly, I don’t think we would be having this conversation if a group of Palestinian aid workers had been killed.”

But the deaths of three Britons, one Pole, one Australian, and one American-Canadian: now that’s really serious, apparently. A friend sent me an image of The Independent website’s front page editorial as soon as he got it: “Enough. It may seem wrong that, after more than 30,000 Palestinians in Gaza have perished, it took the deaths of just seven international aid workers to stir Western governments into a sense of outrage, but that is the reality.” At least that’s honest.

The British-Israeli writer Rachel Shabi put it more strongly in a post on X: “The sudden concern when Israel kills western aid workers is a nauseating display of racism, of whose lives count.”

We can certainly be glad Mr Biden has reached this point. And yet this also feels like a moment of the utmost shame for those countries that have supported and supplied Israel in its grotesquely punitive campaign

And many thousands of miles away in Malaysia, after years of living far from Europe, for the first time I feel ashamed to be British and western. Why? You might ask. I’ve opposed Israel’s murderous retribution for October 7 from the start. I wouldn’t vote for any of Mr Netanyahu’s enablers, who include both UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and Labour leader Keir Starmer.

I’m only half British anyway. Can’t I say that what I regard as the disgraceful role played by both the UK’s government and official opposition has absolutely nothing to do with me?

The truth is, no, not really. As a foreigner abroad, no matter how at home you may feel, sometimes you have to accept that you are often perceived as a representative of your country of birth, like it or not. Perhaps especially if you don’t live in an expat bubble or enclave. During my four years at Malaysia’s national think tank, for instance, I was the only westerner there. Not unreasonably, I was expected to have an informed view on everything to do with Britain, Europe and often the West as a whole. This was brought home to me in 2016 when I was asked to be on a panel discussing the US pivot to Asia at a university in Kuala Lumpur. “We wanted to get an American,” the professor explained. “But we couldn’t find one, so we thought you’d do instead.”

I’ve already had one Malaysian media figure imply to me, quite strongly, that I had to answer for, or at least concede the existence of, what he called a “decades-long conspiracy of silence on what’s going on in Israel” embedded in Europe and America, and involving guilt about the Holocaust, Islamophobia and racism. I don’t blame him. Neither would I be surprised if any Malaysians were to ask me angrily why the West could tolerate everything Israel has done in Gaza, but the deaths of six western aid workers was too much?

The answers are shaming. Because as far as the leaders of the US, UK and some other western countries are concerned, the short version seems to be: white lives matter, American, European and Australian lives matter. Palestinian lives? Well, not so much.

What other conclusion could you draw from the timing of Mr Biden’s demand for a ceasefire, and a West that only now cries out “enough”?

Published: April 08, 2024, 2:00 PM