Palestinians: The “Guilty Victims”



In his extensive review of the horrors American wars inflict on civilian populations The Death of Others: The Fate of Civilians in America’s Wars MIT international relations scholar John Tirman articulates a concept of the “guilty victim” within the context of the European genocidal conquest of North America:

“An interesting question arises in how indifference rose with respect to the indigenous tribes in America …for the white indifference toward Native Americans could not be more apparent. [Native Americans] resisted but were defeated, and entire nations were victims. This however was the intention of frontier ideas–the Indians would be not merely defeated and subdued but annihilated: they were meant to be victims, guilty victims.”

The poignancy of these observations are of particular interest when examining the US-Israeli military assault on the civilian population of Gaza. Gazans, like the “Indians” of North America, have been relegated to the role of “guilty victims.” This reality is not only apparent in the discourse which surrounds the current mass slaughter–for example, the recurring cliche of Hamas “human shields”–but in the imagery as well. Cartoons have been published in the New York Times, The Australian, and online publications like the Legal Insurrection reinforcing this pernicious narrative. In The Australian cartoon (pictured above) a young Palestinian child with a stuffed animal tucked under his arm–presumably to amplify the “propaganda value” of the suicide mission–is encouraged by a masked Hamas fighter to “win the PR war for Daddy.” This notion, that Palestinians sacrifice their children to be murdered by US weaponry to elicit the sympathy of “westerners”, is not only racist in the extreme but completely dismisses the factual record. As scholars like Noura Erakat have astutely noted, “International human rights organizations”–Amnesty International for example–“have investigated these claims have determined that they are not true.” Yet this mythology of Palestinian human shields endures. One of the more repugnant illustrations of this myth surfaced on CBS Face the Nation where host Bob Schieffer intoned “In the Middle East, the Palestinian people find themselves in the grip of a terrorist group that has embarked on a strategy to get its own children killed in order to build sympathy for its cause.”

Bt5ky4nCQAAXsHzElsewhere, Hamas is portrayed as a rabidly antisemitic terrorist group singularly focused on murdering all Jews. This trope was recently endorsed in the Legal Insurrection which featured a cartoon of a Hamas fighter at a table with John Kerry and Benjamin Netanyahu. Playing the role of the “honest broker”, Kerry asks Netanyahu “could you at least meet him half way?” Meanwhile, the Hamas fighter grimaces angrily with a dynamite strapped boy in his lap (reinforcing the human shield cliche) holding a sign that reads “Demands: Death to all Jews.” In addition to completely ignoring the demands that Hamas actually made of Israel in their ceasefire proposal–none of which included anything that would remotely suggest what this comic portrays, a ceasefire proposal Israeli journalist Gideon Levy deemed “just”–it completely inverts the situation on the ground. Far from incredibly weak arguments that Hamas is intent to eliminate Israel, Israel has actually been implementing these kinds of policies. In the words of Henry Siegman in a recent Democracy Now! interview, “Israel’s charter … is to prevent the emergence of a Palestinian state. And they have built up their army and their armaments to implement that policy.” Siegman continues “the difference between Hamas and the state of Israel is that the state of Israel is actually doing it. They’re actually implementing it, and they’re actually preventing a Palestinian state, which doesn’t exist.” This is to say nothing of the numerous videos of Israelis in the streets chanting “Death to Arabs” which, for inexplicable reasons, failed to make it into the creative universe of accomplished cartoon artists like A.F. Branco as an Israeli “demand.”

New York Times reprising the hospital as "refuge for insurgents" myth for Hamas.
New York Times reprising the hospital as “refuge for insurgents” myth for Hamas.

So the overarching question is why do these racist and slanderous accusations persist despite the lack of empirical evidence to support them? Tirman is informative on this count as well. Citing a psychological study on American attitudes about civilian deaths in Iraq and Afghanistan, Tirman writes “participants showed a strong ethnocentric valuation of lives, and, in particular, more indifference to the number of lives lost or saved for the outgroup.” Translation: brown corpses were less likely to elicit the sympathies of the American public than white ones. One graphic example of this was in the Bush administration’s war against Al Jazeera. A 2005 Washington Post article reported that “Bush administration officials have contended that through [Al-Jazeera’s] type of broadcasting the network often serves as a conduit for terrorist propaganda.” In addition to bombing Al Jazeera offices in Baghdad and Kabul, Secretary of State Colin Powell condemned Al Jazeera for “inciting anti-Americanism.” Al-Jazeera engaged in such “incitement” by “scooping the world with its tape of the US bombardments and Bin Laden’s televised statements.” Similar rationalizations were prevalent when the US laid siege to Fallujah General Hospital in November 2004, which incidentally bears striking similarities to the current Israeli massacres in Gaza. Writing for the New York Times, Richard Oppel Jr. soberly described the war crime: “At 10 p.m., Iraqi troops clambered off seven-ton trucks, sprinting with American Special Forces soldiers around the side of the main building of the hospital, considered a refuge for insurgents and a center of propaganda against allied forces, entering the complex to bewildered looks from patients and employees.” The idea that the hospitals served as a “refuge for insurgents and a center of propaganda” went unquestioned. In accord with their identity as “guilty victims”, Iraqis also aspired to elicit our sympathies with their “telegenic” suffering. However, victims on the ground in Fallujah gave a radically different picture. On the US bombing of Iraq’s Nazzal Emergency Hospital, Dr. Asma Khamis al-Muhannadi recalled the terrifying scene:

“I will always remember this. I was taking care of a woman who was giving birth and the baby was still connected to its mother through the umbilical cord. The US soldier asked the National Guardsman to arrest me, and the guard ties my hands with ropes … The two doctors who were with us on the road–there were people from the Red Cross and the Association of Muslim Scholars–were completely stripped of their clothes … They even inspected their hair, anything they could think of.”

Perhaps this is why “western leaders” are so chillingly silent about the civilian corpses piling up in Gaza. It’s essentially a repeat, in different scale, of US war crimes in Iraq. The ruthless attack on ambulances, hospitals, and journalistic agencies are simply symptoms of a population that has been declared by their imperial overlords to be “guilty victims.” So transparent are the similarities that Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman virtually repeated Colin Powell’s condemnation of Al Jazeera in his description of the network as the “central pillar of the propaganda apparatus of Hamas.” According to Haaretz’s diplomatic correspondent Barak Ravid the Foreign Minister went on to say “just as Britain would not allow Der Sturmer (a notorious Nazi publication) in London or the United States would not permit al-Qaeda TV, Israel would seek to ban Al Jazeera.”

It is this deep sociocultural and historical record of state terrorism that helps to explain why Netanyahu can appear on television and ridicule Hamas’ use of “telegenically dead” Palestinians and no one in the media can bring themselves to describe him as a racist or someone who harbors genocidal ambitions. Quite apart from mere statements justifying mass killing, Netanyahu’s words and the establishment press in the United States that uncritically reproduces them are advancing the “frontier ideas” of their genocidal predecessors. So as Israel continues to “restore quiet” in the land of “guilty victims” we should remember that we are among the guilty victimizers.


The Deaths of Others: The Fate of Civilians in America’s Wars by John Tirman


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