I wasn’t surprised when Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu boasted of “hellfire” raining down on Gaza. Hellfire is exactly what the 2.2 million Palestinians trapped in Gaza are enduring, in one of the worst humanitarian crises in recent memory.
Since Oct. 7, more than 11,000 Palestinians have been killed in Gaza, and more than 25,000 have been injured. There have been at least 235 attacks on health care facilities and workers; more than 60 percent of primary care facilities aren’t functioning. Most necessities of life have been restricted since Israel imposed a blockade on the territory in 2005. That siege was tightened even further on Oct. 10, leaving people without sufficient drinking water, sanitation, medical supplies, electricity, fuel and food. More than a million Palestinians have been driven from their homes in an act of forced population transfer.
Palestinians and people of conscience the world over have been crying out for these atrocities to end, but their outcry has been met with dismissal from Western leaders like President Joe Biden, who are fueling the violence with their unconditional support for Israel and refusal to call for a ceasefire.
How can Biden, who projects himself as a president of character, rationality and empathy, be so at ease with Palestinian deaths? Is the president apathetic to the mass, indiscriminate bombardment Israel is inflicting on civilians trapped in Gaza, many of them children? Where is the outrage and compassion for not only Israelis but for the long suffering of Palestinians oppressed by Israel?
I first set foot in Israel/Palestine in 1974 as an archaeology student. There was tension in the land, but I traveled through the country with relative ease. I returned in 2014, with a delegation of Black cultural artists and commentators. This time, confronted with Israel’s ever deepening military occupation and the land-grabbing wall it built on Palestinian land in the West Bank, I got flashbacks of my own experiences of segregation in Baltimore, as well as fighting to dismantle South African apartheid. Two years later, I led a group of predominantly Black pastors back to Israel/Palestine.
As we witnessed the long lines of Palestinians at Israeli military checkpoints, different license plates for Israelis and Palestinians, the heavy, oppressive presence of Israel’s occupying army and the restricted flow of water into Palestinian villages, we were reminded of the mantra of George Wallace, former governor of Alabama: “Segregation now, segregation tomorrow, and segregation forever!”
The current crisis in Gaza did not begin on Oct. 7. Since the founding of the state in 1948, Israel has constructed and maintained a multi-tiered system of racist oppression against Palestinians that many human rights groups have declared amounts to the crime of apartheid. Yet, Western governments — particularly the U.S. — have not only remained largely silent to Israel’s egregious ongoing human rights violations but actively aided and abetted them for decades.
What is taking place now is the result of an ideology of racial superiority coupled with the power to enforce racial dominance. This is the course that Israel has taken, with the support of military aid from the U.S. This enforced racial dominance, however, is unsustainable. As the death toll in Gaza grows higher each day; as Israel attacks refugee camps; as it displaces an estimated 1.4 million people; as it detains, tortures and kills people in the West Bank, it deepens the animosity felt by Palestinians.
The world, at last, is waking up. As children drink sea water, doctors perform surgeries without anesthesia and refugee camps are turned to rubble, people are saying “no more!” Israel may succeed in “wip[ing] Hamas off the face of the map,” but something else will emerge in its place. The continual dehumanization of Palestinians will lead to greater strife, pain and violence for everyone.
Does President Biden recognize his failures in preventing the current crisis by not previously speaking out or taking action against the injustices facing Palestinians? With his many years in the Senate and White House, he’s had ample opportunity to call for an end to Israel’s brutal oppression of the Palestinian people; to say, “enough is enough” and demand that Israel respect Palestinian freedom and rights with respect, dignity and justice. But he hasn’t done so. Now, he is squandering another opportunity to demand justice for the Palestinian people free from Israeli dominance.
It’s not too late for Biden to demand a ceasefire and push Israel toward recognizing the need for Palestinian freedom. This is the only way out of this destructive quagmire. It’s time for leadership, not continual political pandering.
Israel must take steps so that its existence will no longer be founded on the domination and subjugation of Palestinians. If Israel continues to sink to the basest human values, seeking to complete the genocide it started in 1948, it will find itself more isolated and vulnerable than ever before. President Biden must urge Israel to change course and move into the future with hope, morality and bravery by immediately agreeing to a ceasefire and ending Israel’s siege and occupation.
The Rev. Graylan Scott Hagler is the senior adviser to The Fellowship of Reconciliation, USA and pastor emeritus of Plymouth Congregational United Church of Christ in Washington, D.C.
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