The murder of six-year-old Wadea Al Fayoume, a Palestinian-American boy living near Chicago, on Saturday was a heinous act committed with a brutality that matched the killing of so many children in Israel and Palestine since October 7.
The office of the local sheriff says the suspected murderer, 71-year-old Joseph Czuba, stabbed Wadea more than two dozen times with a large, serrated knife. Mr Czuba is also accused of stabbing Wadea’s mother, Hanaan Shahin. Police say he targeted the pair “due to them being Muslim and the ongoing Middle Eastern conflict involving Hamas and the Israelis”. In this context, Wadea Al Fayoume is another victim in the terrible violence in the Middle East, that spans decades, not just this month.
Hundreds of children’s lives – Palestinian and Israeli – have been lost in the past 10 days, first in Hamas’s killing spree and many more in the relentless, indiscriminate Israeli bombing of Gaza that ensued. The images of these dead children have been politicised and weaponised as part of the campaigns led by the Israeli government and Hamas to draw support for their respective causes. Last week, the Israeli government’s official account on X, formerly known as Twitter, published a graphic photo of a dead Israeli infant’s body, even as the country’s air strikes had by then killed more than 300 Palestinian children in Gaza. Hamas, for its part, has not only taken Israeli children as hostages, but instructed Gazan civilians to remain in the northern half of the Gaza Strip, where Israel’s bombing campaign is focused, seemingly oblivious to the fear that doing so would expose many more young lives to mortal peril.
The continued slaying of so many children, followed by calculated efforts to transform their memories into a clarion call for further bloodshed, disgraces any righteous anger and disrespects victims’ families. For all but the families of those killed – particularly governments and those watching the conflict from overseas – these deaths ought to inspire only grief, empathy and greater resolve for peace.
But that reaction has been far too rare among many western politicians who have stumbled over themselves to paint an iniquitous portrait of victimhood that justifies an indiscriminate bombing campaign in Gaza. The poisonous atmosphere fomented in the past week directly led to young Wadea’s murder, in his own home, in the very fashion of the Hamas attack that was used by his killer to justify his hatred.
This will rightly frighten and alarm not only Arabs and Muslims in the West, but also other minority communities, including Jews, who have also been the target of vile hate crimes recently.
US President Joe Biden says he is “sickened” by Wadea’s killing, and American law enforcement agencies have promised vigilance. But the police cannot be everywhere at once, and the war in Israel and Palestine is exacerbating underlying prejudices. Racism, Islamophobia and anti-Semitism did not begin with the Middle East conflict, but this latest war has already shown how a polarised atmosphere can have direct, and murderous, consequences.
Many countries right now are the scene of emotional and angry street protests and counter protests. Although these attract many people who are sincere in their horror at what is happening in Gaza and elsewhere, there are also those who opportunistically use them to spread hatred or peddle a simplistic view of the conflict in which there are no innocents on the other side.
Those with authority or influence must be vigilant with their words. This does not mean having to water down their political positions, but it does mean taking an explicit stance against hatred and dehumanisation. And they must, in their attitude towards those prosecuting this war, be aware that what transpires in Palestine and Israel will reverberate far afield. Wadea Al Fayoume’s murder was a ghastly crime, but actions that add to the death toll of children in this conflict should be equally unconscionable.