The indecency of the phrase ‘humanitarian pause’ is obvious. There is nothing humanitarian about a brief interlude between bouts of horrendous violence. There is no true ‘pause’, merely the calm before the storm continues. We are witnessing the bureaucratization of immorality, the use of old words with great meaning (‘humanitarian’) and their reduction to new, empty phrases that betray their original meanings. Before the debris from the first rounds of Israeli bombs could be cleared, the bombing resumed just as viciously as before.
The word ‘humanitarian’ has been severely bruised by the West. You might remember another phrase, ‘humanitarian intervention’, that was used as cover for the destruction of Libya in 2011 after the legitimacy of Western military intervention had been eviscerated by the illegal US invasion of Iraq in 2003. To rehabilitate this legitimacy, the West pushed the United Nations to hold a conference that resulted in a new doctrine, Responsibility to Protect (R2P), which, while purporting to ‘ensure that the international community never again fails to halt the mass atrocity crimes of genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity’, instead provided the West with a UN Security Council mandate (under Chapter VII of the UN Charter) for the use of force. The attack on Libya in 2011 took place under this doctrine. The guise of humanitarianism was used to destroy the Libyan state and throw the country into what appears to be a permanent civil war. There has never been even a whiff of R2P when it comes to the Israeli bombardment of Gaza (not in 2008–09, not in 2014, and not now).
It does not seem to matter that more Palestinians have been displaced and killed by Israel since 7 October than were displaced and killed in the Nakba (‘Catastrophe’) of 1948. If the word ‘humanitarian’ meant something in 1948, it certainly does not mean much now.
As the numbers of the dead and displaced increase, a sense of numbness grows. It began with a hundred dead, then a hundred more, and is rapidly escalating into the tens of thousands. In Iraq, approximately a million people were killed by the US onslaught, the sheer scale of death and the anonymity surrounding it forcing a sense of distance from the rest of the world. It is difficult to wrap one’s head around these numbers unless there are stories attached to each of the dead and displaced.
Part of the problem here is that the international division of humanity makes for unjust accounting of human life: were the Palestinians killed in Gaza treated with as much dignity as the Israelis killed on 7 October? Are their lives, and deaths, assigned equal worth? The uneven response to these deaths, alongside the uncritical acceptance of this unevenness, suggests that this international division of humanity remains in place and is not only accepted, but also perpetuated, by Western leaders, who make allowances for the killing of more brown bodies than white ones, the latter seen as precious, the former seen as disposable.
During the ‘humanitarian pause’, a hostage transfer took place through which Hamas and the Palestinian factions released 110 Israelis while Israel released 240 Palestinian women and children. The stories of the Israeli casualties, many of them residents of settlements near the Gaza perimeter fence, and other hostages such as the Thai and Nepalese fieldworkers are now well-known. Less frequently discussed and much less understood are the stories of the Palestinian casualties. Equally disregarded is the fact that after 7 October, Israel launched a mass campaign to detain over 3,000 Palestinians, including nearly 200 children. There are more Palestinians in Israeli prisons now than before 7 October. During the first four days of the truce alone, Israel arrested almost as many Palestinians as it released through the hostage transfer.
It is of note that most (more than two-thirds) of the Palestinians released from Israeli prisons are never charged with any crime and have been held in ‘administrative detention’ in the military’s legal system, meaning that they are held without a time limit, ‘without trial [and] without having committed an offence, on the grounds that he or she plans to break the law in the future’, as defined by the human rights organization B’Tselem. Some of them have been lost in the maze of the Israeli incarceration system indefinitely, unable to exercise even the most basic right of habeas corpus, with no court appearance, no access to a lawyer, and no access to the evidence against them. Israel currently holds more than 7,000 Palestinian political prisoners, many of them associated with left-wing factions (such as the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine and the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine). More than 2,000 of these prisoners are being held in administrative detention.
Many of these Palestinian prisoners are children. Many of them spend years in the Israeli system, often under administrative detention, unable to make a case for their release. The Defense for Children International (Palestine) reports that 500–700 children are detained each year, and a chilling report from the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) in 2015 showed that Israel is in full violation of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (1990). Article 37 of the convention says that the ‘arrest, detention, or imprisonment of a child shall be in conformity with the law and shall be used only as a measure of last resort and for the shortest appropriate period of time’. As multiple cases show, Israel uses arrests as a measure of first resort and holds children for long periods of time.
Defense for Children International studied sworn affidavits from 766 child detainees from the occupied West Bank arrested between 1 January 2016 and 31 December 2022. The following data emerged from their analysis: 75% were subjected
Tere aaqa ne kiya ek Filistin barbaad
Mere zakhmon ne kiye kitne Filistin aabaad.
Your enemies destroyed one Palestine.
My wounds populated many Palestines.
Faiz’s poem ‘A Lullaby for a Palestinian Child’, written during the Israeli invasion
of Lebanon in 1982, reflects the reality facing Palestinian children today:
Don’t cry children.
Your mother has just cried herself to sleep.
Don’t cry children.
Your father has just left this world of sorrow.
Don’t cry children,
Your brother is in an alien land.
Your sister too has gone there.
Don’t cry children.
The dead sun has just been bathed and the moon is buried in
Don’t cry children.
For if you cry,
Your mother, father, brother, and sister
And the sun, and the moon
Will make you cry ever more.
Maybe if you smile,
They’ll one day return, disguised
to play with you.
Vijay Prashad is the George and Martha Kellner Chair of South Asian History and
Director of International Studies at Trinity College, Hartford, CT. Prashad is the author
of many books. Vijay Prashad’s most recent book (with Noam Chomsky) is The
Withdrawal: Iraq, Libya, Afghanistan and the Fragility of US Power (New Press, August
2022). He can be reached at: email@example.com
Originally published: Tricontinental Institute for Social Research, 7 December 2023.
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