The following text message tells the whole story of what pro-Palestinian communities around the world are fighting for, and what pro-Israelis are fighting against: “We are delighted to report that Chelsea and Westminster Hospital has removed a display of artwork designed by children from Gaza.”
That was the summary of a news report published on the homepage of the pro-Israel lobby group UK Lawyers for Israel (UKLFI). The group is credited — if credit is the right word — as being the party that managed to persuade the administration of a hospital in West London to take down a few pieces of artwork created by refugee children in the besieged Gaza Strip.
Explaining the logic behind their relentless campaign to remove the children’s art, UKLFI said that “Jewish patients” in the hospital “felt vulnerable and victimized by the display”. The few pieces of artwork depicted the Dome of the Rock in occupied East Jerusalem, the Palestinian flag and other symbols that shouldn’t really “victimize” anyone. The UKLFI article was later edited, with the offensive summary removed, although it is still accessible on social media.
As ridiculous as this story sounds, it is, in fact, the very essence of the anti-Palestinian campaign launched by Israel and its allies worldwide. While Palestinians are fighting for basic human rights, freedom and sovereignty as enshrined in international law, the pro-Israel camp is fighting for the total erasure of everything Palestinian.
Some call this cultural genocide or ethnocide. While Palestinians have been familiar with this Israeli practice in Palestine since the very inception of the occupation state, the boundaries of the war have been expanded to reach anywhere in the world, especially in the western hemisphere.
The inhumanity of UKLFI and their allies is quite palpable, but the group cannot be the only party deserving blame. Those lawyers are but a continuation of an Israeli colonial culture that sees the very existence of a Palestinian people with a political discourse, including refugee children’s art, as an “existential threat” to the occupation state.
The relationship between the very existence of a country and children’s art may seem absurd — and it is — but it has its own, albeit strange, logic: as long as these refugee children recognize themselves as Palestinians, they will continue to count themselves, and be counted by others, as being part of a larger whole, the Palestinian people. This self-awareness, and the recognition by others — for example, patients and staff at a London hospital — of this collective Palestinian identity, makes it difficult, in fact, impossible, for Israel to win.
For Palestinians and Israelis, victory means two entirely different things, which cannot be reconciled. For Palestinians, victory means freedom for the Palestinian people and equality for all. For Israel, victory can only be achieved through the erasure of the Palestinians geographically, historically, culturally and in every other way that could form part of a people’s identity.
Sadly, the Chelsea and Westminster Hospital is now an active participant in this tragic erasure of the Palestinians, the same way that Virgin Airlines bowed to pressure in 2018 when it agreed to remove “Palestinian-inspired couscous” from its menu. At the time, this story appeared as if it was a strange episode in the so-called “Palestinian-Israeli conflict”, although, in reality, the story represented the very core of this “conflict”.
For Israel, the war in Palestine has revolved around three basic tasks: acquiring land; erasing the people; and rewriting history. The first task has been largely achieved through a process of ethnic cleansing and unhinged colonization of Palestine since 1947-48. The current extreme right-wing government of Benjamin Netanyahu is only hoping to finalize this process. The second task involves more than ethnic cleansing, because even the mere awareness of Palestinians, wherever they are, of their collective identity, constitutes a problem. Thus, the active process of cultural genocide. And although Israel has succeeded in rewriting history for many years, that task is now being challenged, thanks to the tenacity of Palestinians and their allies, and the power of social and digital media.
Palestinians are arguably the greatest beneficiary of the rise of digital media. It has contributed to the decentralization of political and even historical narratives. For decades, the popular understanding of what constitutes “Israel” and “Palestine” in mainstream imagination was largely controlled through a specific Israeli-sanctioned narrative. Those who deviated from this narrative were attacked and marginalized, and almost always accused of “anti-Semitism”. While these tactics are still unleashed at critics of Israel, the outcome is no longer guaranteed.
For example, a single tweet exposing the “delight” of UKLFI has received over 2 million views on Twitter. Millions of outraged Brits and social media users around the world have turned what was meant to be a local story into one of the most discussed topics worldwide on Palestine and Israel. Predictably, not many social media users shared in the “delight” of UKLFI, thus forcing the lobby group to reword the original article. More importantly, millions of people have, in a single day, been introduced to a whole new topic on Palestine and Israel: cultural erasure. The “victory” has turned into a complete embarrassment for the pro-Israel lobby; perhaps even defeat.
Thanks to the growing popularity of the Palestinian cause and the impact of social media, initial Israeli victories almost always backfire. Another recent example was the dismissal and the swift reinstatement of the former Director of Human Rights Watch (HRW), Kenneth Roth. In January, Roth’s fellowship at Harvard University’s Kennedy School was revoked due to the HRW report that defines Israel as an apartheid regime. A major campaign started by small, alternative media organizations resulted in the reinstatement of Roth within days. This and other cases demonstrate that criticizing Israel is no longer a career-ender, as was often the case in the past.
Israel continues to employ out-of-date tactics to control the conversation and narrative on its occupation of Palestine. It is failing because those traditional tactics can no longer work in a modern world in which access to information is decentralized, and where no amount of censorship can control the conversation. For Palestinians, this new reality is an opportunity to widen their circle of support around the world. For Israel, the mission is a precarious one, especially when initial victories could, in hours, become total defeats.
– Ramzy Baroud is a journalist and the Editor of the Palestine Chronicle. He is the author of five books. His latest is ‘These Chains Will Be Broken: Palestinian Stories of Struggle and Defiance in Israeli Prisons’. Baroud is a Non-resident Senior Research Fellow at the Center for Islam and Global Affairs (CIGA) and also at the Afro-Middle East Center (AMEC).