With apologies to Emerson, appealing for “balance” in apportioning blame to “both sides” in Israel-Palestine is the hobgoblin of little minds. Yet this is the constant calling card of mainstream commentary on the conflict and its mode is, likewise, often evoked through another constituent of the pundit’s lexicon: “context.”
In recent days, this has manifested itself quite annoyingly in criticism surrounding Max Blumenthal’s excellent book, Goliath: Life and Loathing in Greater Israel. The most prominent critics to date, Eric Alterman of The Nation and JJ Goldberg of the Jewish Daily Forward, express exasperation with the book’s supposed lack of “context.” Alterman complains:
Blumenthal evinces no interest in the larger context of Israel’s actions. Potential threats that emanate from Hamas, Hezbollah, Al Qaeda, Syria, Iran, etc., receive virtually no mention in these pages.
Goldberg mirrors this sentiment:
Blumenthal doesn’t know the history and ignores the inconvenient bits of the present, which is one reason his book has flopped. Worse, he thinks he knows all he needs to know, and just what readers need to know. He describes Israel’s assault on Gaza without telling of the thousands of rockets bombarding Negev towns for years beforehand. He touchingly recounts the 2004 assassination of Hamas founder Abdel Aziz al-Rantissi but doesn’t mention the hundreds of Israelis killed by Rantissi’s suicide bombers. The Palestinians are guilty of nothing. Israel’s actions are entirely unprovoked, motivated by pure racism.
So, where is the context? What is the context? It is astonishing that the answer, so readily apparent, has yet to be given explicitly to Alterman and Goldberg’s charge: colonialism is the context.
Settler-colonialism–the immigration of people seeking to erect a system of privilege on new shores, requiring, variously, the dispossession of the extant indigenous people, usurpation of their land and natural resources, and imposition of political authority against their will–is the ultimate progenitor of the cycle of violence that will inevitably come to fruition wherever settler-colonists land, from the Americas to Africa to Palestine.
Blumenthal deftly weaves this contextual thread throughout the tapestry he presents to readers. One example, funny enough, is found in the very passage alluded to by Goldberg about Hamas co-founder Abdel Aziz al-Rantissi. Describing “screening operations” in Gaza ordered by Moshe Dayan in the wake of the tripartite Israeli-British-French invasion of Egypt in 1956, Blumenthal writes:
In the refugee camps of Khan Younis and Rafah, Israeli soldiers rounded up all men aged fifteen to fifty-five, herded them into open lots, beating many along the way with wooden clubs, then lined them up against concrete walls and executed them by the dozens. Israeli forces killed as many as 275 unarmed civilians in Khan Younis…
The streets of the refugee camps were left lined with long rows of dead bodies bearing bullet wounds in the back of their heads. During the massacre, a Khan Younis resident named Abdel Aziz al-Rantissi witnessed the execution of his uncle. Rantissi was just nine years old at the time. “It left a wound in my heart that can never heal,” he said. “I’m telling you a story, and I am almost crying… They planted hatred in our hearts.” When Rantissi came of age, he helped found Hamas, the Islamist military and political faction that currently rules the Gaza Strip.
On April 17, 2004, Rantissi was blown to pieces by an Israeli missile strike during a punishing campaign of demolitions, raids and assassinations Israel waged to suppress the Second Intifada in the occupied Palestinian territories.
The life and death of Al-Rantissi illustrate the wages of colonialism in microcosm: a boy, born in a village a year before he was expelled along with its other inhabitants by Zionist colonial forces in 1948 and traumatized at the age of nine when he witnesses Zionist forces executing his uncle in their refugee camp, became a man who helped form an organization that would target colonists through means fair and foul. The most salient factor shaping the contours of Al-Rantissi’s life was the aggression of colonists: from being expelled from his birthplace as a baby to the punitive expeditions witnessed in his childhood.
Over and over throughout the book, Blumenthal conjures the ghosts of Zionist colonization’s seminal event, the Nakba of 1948, implicating it in subtle and not-so-subtle terms as the wellspring from which all conflict in Israel-Palestine flows; yet the likes of Alterman and Goldberg clamor for “context.”
When Europeans came to this continent, they tore asunder the indigenous societies that existed here. In response to the onslaught they faced, some natives engaged in resistance–sometimes in the form of attacks against the colonists’ regular armed forces, sometimes in the form of terrorizing unarmed colonist women and children, ostensibly innocent people. But who among us today would say that “both sides” were at fault for the complete destruction of indigenous American society at the hands of colonists, or for the wars of ethnic cleansing (a.k.a. “the Indian Wars”) and untold human suffering that followed? Simply put, there would have been no violence, no 200 years worth of Indian Wars had colonial-settlers not attempted to impose their presence and authority in the Americas through violence and ethnic cleansing in the first place. It is an eminently one-sided problem when you get to the root of it–to act as though there is some moral parity between the colonists who arrived employing systematic, terrorist violence on a civilization-shattering scale in order to forge their own sovereign entity against the desire of (and eventually upon the ruins of) indigenous communities, and the natives who fought back and may have employed terrorism themselves is absurd and curiously vulgar.
While condemning attacks on unarmed non-combatants is an easy moral call to make, who among us would mention Native American raids on European settlements without acknowledging the genocidal violence leveled against them? Who would speak of Nat Turner’s orgy of violence against white Virginians without mentioning the dehumanizing and obscene institution of slavery?
Something tells me that “contextualizing” Hamas’s rockets as falling in the vicinity of the ethnically cleansed and colonist-occupied birthplace of the group’s refugee co-founder would not find favor with Alterman or Goldberg. Same for contextualizing the threat that Hezbollah poses to the colonial-settler state, a state whose rapacious military adventurism in Lebanon–which, lest we forget, was originally prosecuted to quash the resistance of Palestine’s natives-cum-refugees–precipitated the group’s formation in the first place. And yet, without endorsing the methods or platforms of the aforementioned groups, this is the context that matters most.