Every minute that passes, countless people are enduring varying degrees of terror, trauma, pain, anxiety, anger, helplessness, paralysis, disgust, as the horrendous atrocity crimes by an authoritarian Israeli state and occupying force pile up in Gaza, with the overt and tacit endorsement of those that have the power to meaningfully intervene.
At the very centre of the catastrophe, are the people of Gaza themselves, caged in, bombed out, starved, parched, killed. Palestinians in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, the Palestinian diaspora, Israeli allies who are anti-occupation, anti-authoritarianism and pro-peace, citizens of the world with a conscience – all of us are shaken to our core. Helpless, we watch genocide play out on our TV screens, cheered on by warmongers, as those calling for peace, freedom, proportionality and respect of international law are attacked, doxed, criminalised.
I am a Sri Lankan human rights lawyer and activist, now living in London. My work is predominantly on the right to nationality and the rights of stateless people. I am writing this piece because my conscience doesn’t allow me to stay silent. I don’t have a big platform but I will use what platform I have to stand in solidarity with victims of senseless violence, terror and criminality. My own lived experience of growing up with Sri Lanka’s civil war, and my work experience on statelessness globally, shapes my perspective on this catastrophe.
Hopefully my reflections will bring some comfort or clarity to those who read this.
Lessons from Sri Lanka
I belong to the ethnic majority Sinhala community of Sri Lanka, though I’m from a Christian religious minority. There’s no denying my privilege which is rooted in language (English speaking), geography (Urban, Colombo), family and ethnicity. My parents are well respected for their work in peace and social justice, and it was this family grounding which shaped who I am. Without attempting to make any comparisons between Sri Lanka and Palestine/Israel, here are some insights from Sri Lanka which I’d like to share:
- Navigating the deep polarisation in Sri Lankan society was extremely difficult. As a Sinhalese who rejected and fought against structures of discrimination and violence that predominantly targeted Tamils and Muslims, I felt deep anger and shame towards the ethno-nationalist views that pervaded Sinhala society and the Sri Lankan state. But I also knew that my privilege was rooted in this very reality, which meant that whatever threats my family or Sinhala colleagues and friends endured, they simply paled into insignificance when compared to the risks taken by Tamil and Muslim compatriots and friends.
I empathise and stand with Israeli citizens who reject the occupation, the colonialist expansionist project and who are committed to fighting rising authoritarianism in their country. I understand how difficult a dance this can be, calling out bigotry among family and friends, finding ways to grieve loved ones who are victims of violence — while always being mindful of sinister agendas to weaponise your grief to further the very things you are fighting against.
- I learnt that the self-serving logic of violence only enriches the powerful, only justifies the otherwise unjustifiable, and only causes deep pain, suffering and harm to our communities. The tragedy of seeing my country being reduced to a cheap parody of itself — watching the evening news and comparing the number of casualties in order to claim another day of "victory" — will always stick with me. I am aware that as the language and logic of violence become the norm, the risks of standing with the oppressed or speaking the language of reconciliation, justice and peace only heighten. We then sometimes engage in self-censorship or are pressurised into caveating ourselves — to fit into a discourse framed and policed by those who espouse ethno-nationalism. Sometimes we succumb to the pressure — we don’t say what’s on our minds, or we say it differently.
For anyone feeling this way today, who are self-censoring for fear of being doxed and of reprisal, I say, don’t be hard on yourself. Self-care is a crucially important skill that we need to learn, and re-learn, and re-re-learn. Sometimes, the odds are stacked so heavily against you, that you just cannot risk the fallout. This is ok. The fact that you go through this thought process is important. Preserve yourself, refresh, renew and find another way.
- The reduction of discourse into absolute, polarised binary opposites is another huge challenge. As George Bush famously said, "you are either with us, or against us". The "terrorist" label is used by warmongers and supremacists as an argument clincher, a conversation ender, a moral higher ground claimed, completely obtuse to the sewer we’ve thrown ourselves into and are burrowing deeper into still. In Sri Lanka, all Tamils and those fighting for social and political justice, were expected to denounce the terrorism of the LTTE, before they would be allowed to speak. This is a performative, reductionist nonsense, which is both intellectually and morally dishonest. The requirement stemmed from the racist viewpoint that all Tamils were presumed to be terrorists (or terrorist sympathisers), who therefore had to first redeem or distance themselves in order to be viewed as legitimate. This was, of course, both a trap and a deflection. A trap because it disregarded the complex history of state violence and structural discrimination against minorities which had brought us to where we were; a deflection because it then set up the discourse to focus on the terrorism of the LTTE.
Today, commentors are expected to preface any statement with a condemnation of Hamas atrocities. As the Palestinian ambassador to the UK has articulately conveyed in several interviews, the very premise of this question must be rejected. What is particularly galling, is that these types of questions are repeatedly put to people with proven track records of anti-violence and working for peace in extremely challenging circumstances, while those who openly espouse supremacist and genocidal agendas are rarely asked the same.
- I’ve also seen the ultimately terrifying force that an unconscionable state can unleash on an impoverished, traumatised and terrified community, trapped and targeted by the very state that claims its mission is humanitarian. Truth and meaning are among the first casualties of war. This was true of Sri Lanka, as it is true of Palestine/Israel. Dehumanising the "enemy" is an essential prerequisite for the barbarity that follows. But dehumanisation isn’t a one-way street. The more violence is justified, tolerated and cheered, the more that suffering is ignored, minimised and gaslit, our collective humanity suffers. The sequence of events and the narrative that the Sri Lankan state built, culminating in the horrific end-stages of the war, was a deeply dishonest one, which mainstream society bought into. It was also ‘allowed’ by an international community that was ultimately complicit through its failure to do everything possible to prevent the committing of atrocities against Sri Lankan citizens.
Look for the voices that speak against the grain. Israelis whose loved ones were killed, who denounce Israel’s vengeance filled indiscriminate retaliation. Palestinians who have endured multi-generational trauma but still see all taking of life as tragedy. The cry for peace and justice, for preserving the sanctity of life, which is all around us, but on a frequency that isn’t being picked up by a media that legitimises violence and war.
Lessons from statelessness
My work on statelessness has also given me a range of perspectives and experiences. It cannot go unsaid that Palestinians are perhaps the largest stateless community in the world. The establishment of Israel in 1948 marked the beginning of the ethnic cleansing, forced displacement, and statelessness of Palestinians. The ongoing Israeli settler-colonialism and occupation of Palestine deny Palestinians their collective national rights and the right to self-determination, leaving millions of Palestinian stateless. Ironically and tragically, Palestinian statelessness was born out of centuries of racism, antisemitism, pogroms and citizenship stripping against Jewish people in Europe, that culminated in the holocaust, one of the lowest points of our humanity.
The crimes of the Israeli state have ratcheted up under its current far-right government. The crime of apartheid, the expansionist and violent settlement project, and the Israeli state’s complete control over all facets of Palestinian lives from the mundane to the extreme are all well documented; even as this government openly attacks democratic institutions in Israel, violently dismantling citizen protests. This administration has openly and unashamedly articulated its genocidal intent, and is now following its words with actions. There is no scenario in which a serious and honest assessment of the situation can overlook this reality.
So here we have a situation in which a people, made stateless, dispossessed of their lands and ghettoised, are now being indiscriminately attacked in the pursuit of the genocidal ideology of an authoritarian and extremist group that has grabbed power in Israel. The world — led by powerful countries such as the US and the UK — is looking on, cheering, and vilifying anyone who shows the temerity to stand for humanity.
Again, while a direct comparison should be avoided, the genocide of the Rohingya gives us some perspective. All aspects of Rohingya lives were controlled by the illegitimate military Myanmar state, which ghettoised the community, subjected it to extreme forms of cruelty, violence and restrictions that became normalised in the eyes of the world over time. They were stripped of their nationality and made stateless. They were dehumanised to the extent that UN agencies and world leaders even refused to use the name "Rohingya" when speaking of them. The ground was laid and genocide followed. After the fact, there was plenty of handwringing, feigned surprise and faux solidarity by the very actors who had the information and the power to prevent this tragedy.
On Palestine today, it’s more than silence. It’s the shameless endorsement of the narrative of a regime that is not even pretending to hide its genocidal intent. It’s giving them carte blanche to kill. It’s — at best — talking about "humanitarian corridors" and access to relief, as if somehow, it is more humane to tend to the wounded and feed the starving so they can be made "fit enough" to again be indiscriminately attacked and killed. When the only appropriate response is calling for an immediate cessation of violence, the moral contortionism displayed by world leaders is abhorrent.
Statelessness exists because of state violence. And state violence is easier to perpetrate (and justify) against stateless people. This is a self-fulfilling cycle, which can only be broken through intervention by a responsible, principled international community. While the obligation to prevent genocide is unqualified and absolute, there’s an argument to be made that this obligation is even sharper when the victims are stateless.
This is larger than our views
I know where I stand on the Palestinian issue — the right to statehood, the right to self-determination, an end to occupation, and the opportunity for Palestinian people to build lives of dignity, without outside interference or control. I also know there are sensible and good people who have very different views. This is not about reaching consensus on resolutions to this deeply entrenched and polarising multi-generational crisis; certainly not in the heat of this catastrophe.
This is about something much more fundamental. It is about the lives of people, which once lost can never be regained. It is about the irreparable trauma of those who remain. It is about hundreds of thousands of children who cannot make sense of the language defying terror they face. It is about those in high office publicly calling Palestinians animals and pursuing their collective punishment in the most violent and indiscriminate ways, simply for existing and desiring freedom.
This is a struggle to preserve the floor, or even the basement, of our humanity. Whatever our political views, whatever our perspective, whatever lived experience we carry with us, if we cannot do everything in our power to resist this, our humanity too will be lost.
Do what we can
Catastrophes of this nature are so huge, that it is easy to be completely overwhelmed into a state of helplessness, paralysis and depression. I have been navigating these feelings and emotions for the last several days. And so, I try to pick myself up and do what I can. And that raises the question, what can we do?
We all have our spheres of influence — some relatively small, some quite significant. Our families, work-spaces, political representatives, communities etc. We can try our best to push the needle of change through these spheres, by speaking, educating, standing up. My experience is that many such attempts will be shut down, but nonetheless, it is important to persevere.
If you know anyone impacted, either directly or indirectly, reach out to them and show solidarity. It can be incredibly isolating to endure trauma and grief, particularly in societies which are indifferent or hostile to experiences and viewpoints that contest dominant narratives.
We need to educate ourselves on the histories of the conflict and the experiences of those who have fought for justice and peace on all sides. Resist the temptation to reduce intergenerational traumas to polarising slogans. Search for and amplify the voices that simmer just under the surface, that have been suppressed because they counter the logic of violence, colonialism and occupation.
I would like to conclude by sharing the words of two colleagues and friends I am in close touch with:
“They’re all in one room on the 3rd floor of the building so when they bomb, they die first thing all together” — A Palestinian friend with family in Gaza
“I’m really scared, they are gonna wipe out Gaza” — An Israeli friend who works for peace and against the occupation
I want to believe that our collective humanity has the power to save us form ourselves.
But I am shaken to the core.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the position of MalaysiaNow.