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The Gaza genocide: The “war on terror” on speed dial

April 23, 2024

By Ishaq Abdul-Rahim, researcher in history.

It was midsummer 2002, and the world’s main state superpower, the United States of America, was steadily working itself into a sustained rage over its incipient “war on terror”. The 2001 attacks on the American mainland were not yet a year gone; Afghanistan had been overrun and occupied; draconian policies enforced and institutionalized in a network of intelligence gathering, imprisonment and abduction, renditions and torture, that ran the gamut from Guantanamo Bay and Helwan to Saydnaya and Jaslyk; and the war drums were pounding for an invasion of Iraq. Side by side with this war was the crackdown on a budding Palestinian insurgency by its brutal Israeli occupants – then ruled, as today, by the far-right Likud Party, whose links to the American government were close, and barely concealed, even by Israel’s standards.

As part of its crackdown, Israel located and struck by air Hamas military commander Salah Shihadeh in his home, killing neighbours and kin along with him. Even the United States – more firmly prejudiced in Israel’s favour than ever – saw it necessary to condemn the attack, taking place as it did far from any battlefield and in the middle of a densely crowded city. Israel, comfortably aware that this would not imperil unconditional American support, continued along, assassinating any number of Palestinian leaders with scant regard for bystanders.

Sure enough, the United States not only fell silent on Israeli assassinations but actively employed the tactic in their “war on terror”; within a decade of the Israeli assassinations, assassination airstrikes were a hallmark of American wars from Afghanistan to Somalia, occasionally killing militant commanders and more often incinerating local bystanders. As so often happens, other states picked up on the American precedent: countries from Russia to Saudi Arabia, Iran to the United Arab Emirates, Morocco to Turkiye employ assassination by airstrike. Woe betide any military-aged male in the general vicinity of a suspected militant, who might be posthumously written off as militants; woe betide, as well, other bystanders.

Aerial assassinations are not the only Israeli knockoff that has gone viral. Often viewed as an outpost of some civilization or other – “Judaeo-Christian”, “Western”, “democratic”, yet always European colonial – the Zionist state has a long and intricate relationship with political, security, and military establishments throughout most of Europe and North America. When the war on terror was launched under Bush, the overlap between Israel’s Likud party and American neoconservative ideologues was so obvious that to comment on this _fait-accompli _was almost beside the point. This cabal redesigned international security norms and perceptions – including that of repressed yet restive, ungovernable, _alien _Muslims – according to how the Israeli far-right and their neoconservative friends viewed the world. Though explicit hostility was dialled down under liberal governments such as those of Barack Obama, the basic framework remained for years. Whenever there was friction with some Muslim faction or another – and such friction was frequent given the rich, bloodied entanglement of Euro-American hard power in any number of Muslim countries from Mali to Pakistan – Muslim communities not only abroad but even at home would be subjected to systemic surveillance and control methods, usually with a healthy dollop of anti-Muslim animus tossed in.

By the late 2010s these forces assumed a life of their own, and far-right nationalism changed societies and governments in Europe and America. This split local establishments; centrists and liberals had little compunction about vicious force abroad, but balked at its impact at home. Recall Hillary Clinton, who once scolded rightwing opponents’ hostility to American Muslims but lost no time in spreading propagandistic rape claims about Muslim men abroad. Today liberals from Joseph Biden, Obama’s former deputy, rightfully look askance at the brutish tribalism of the far-right, even as their foreign policy retains influence by the same neoconservatives who midwifed the far-right into public respectability. For it is hard to find in the Anglophone world far-right figures who were not at some point helped along by, and often retain links to, the neoconservatives who birthed the “war on terror” – from Stephen “Tommy Robinson” Yaxley-Lennon and Douglas Murray in Britain to Milo Yiannapoulos and Frank Gaffney in the United States. The far-right brought home the same attitude long promoted abroad, which saw Islam as a civilizational threat to either be defeated, policed, or contained. It is not surprising after a generation of manufacturing scares against one “foreign” minority that the politics of hate and division would spread.

Though the American “war on terror” with its myopic presumptions resulted in an abysmal failure, perhaps best epitomized by their undignified flight from a twenty-year Afghanistan occupation, for Israel’s regime it served as a useful template on which to fall back. The Likud Party in particular has always had a rabidly anti-Islam, anti-Muslim, and anti-Arab flavour: the war on terrorism saw these pathologies internationalized and systemized, foremost by its Likud-friendly neoconservative architects. Unlike Washington, where a price in blood and treasure forced liberals of the Biden school to belatedly admit the folly of such adventurism, Tel Aviv never had to pay a price for its myopia: on the contrary, unconditional and lavish American support helped ensure a complete lack of self-accountability in Israel, where brutish aggressiveness – best epitomized by prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s longevity – reaped political rewards. This was also the case abroad: along with similarly rabid far-right regimes like India’s, one Arab regime after another, uneasy at domestic or regional rivals and hoping to benefit from Israeli contacts in Washington, scrambled over themselves to recognize Israel in return for practical geopolitical impunity.

To the self-serving and long-debunked foundational mythos of the Israeli state – the idea that Palestinian Arabs must pay the price for European antisemitism; that a Jewish ethnostate was necessary to transform Jews from persecuted minority to self-assertive power; that opposition to such an ethnostate could only emanate from primordial hatred of Jews – Netanyahu and similar far-right Israeli politicians added a particularly anti-Muslim, anti-Arab touch. This was perhaps best epitomized by the Israeli prime minister’s grotesque attempt to offload Adolf Hitler’s guilt for the Holocaust from Nazi Germany onto Palestinians. But there were plenty of self-serving myths to go around: Palestinians supposedly did not value life; Palestinian birth rates were a demographic threat; Palestinians were brainwashed into irrational hate for a state that had made an explicit point of torturing them into exile.

These myths, applied beyond Palestinians specifically to Muslims at large, have become internationalized in the twenty-first century: not only have parties like Britain’s increasingly rightwing Tories used them to stir up hatred against Muslims, and foreigners generally, whenever convenient, but even states from India and Myanmar to Hungary and France have adopted them as policy. This goes beyond the far-right, even if many centrists and liberals recognized the drawbacks of such dehumanization and sought to at least superficially pull them back. A good part of liberal electoral strategy in recent years has been solemn assurances that their rightwing opponents present a mortal threat to minorities, including Muslims, who must therefore lend their unconditional support to liberals or centrists. Yet as the unconditional support thrown by Biden, Trudeau, Emmanuel Macron, Anthony Albanese, and others toward a genocidal ethnonationalist Israeli state shows, this supposed principle vanishes when it comes to foreign policy and Israel specifically.

To be clear – Ghazza has been under blockade, much of it outright siege, and subjected to repeated military assaults, for over fifteen years. Pogroms and routine persecution have been the norm in the Israeli-occupied West Bank. Yet when a Palestinian raid led by Hamas broke out of the city, as besieged garrisons do, and attacked the outlying settlements, this was presented not as a predictable result of a generation-long blockade but as a wild bout of raging antisemitism. The fact that many of the hundreds killed were slain not by Palestinians but by an Israeli military caught napping – as per an infamous military norm that legitimizes killing civilians rather than letting them be taken prisoner as leverage for the enemy; the fact that the original casualties were wildly inflated, at least two hundred having been Palestinian fighters in what was less a massacre and more a battle; the fact that Israel hurriedly wiped out evidence of what had occurred out of supposed “respect” for the dead; these were forgotten: what was important was that Israel had been attacked and, in the infamous invocation of many an American and European politician, had to defend itself. The lie that more Jews had been killed than at any time since the Holocaust – itself a lie in purely statistical terms, since some three thousand Jewish soldiers were killed during the 1973 war over Sinai – was systemically disseminated by Netanyahu’s regime, which recognized that – as had been the case in the 1973 war’s aftermath – the government could collapse over such a security lapse.

Instead, Netanyahu sought to fortify his own position and turn threat into opportunity by tossing red Palestinian meat at his far-right base: Ghazza would be destroyed, and its population expelled into the Sinai. In turn an Israeli public that has consistently rewarded far-right ethnonationalism would be placated with more beachfront “real estate”. To manufacture international consent for what amounts to ethnic cleansing and genocide, any number of grotesque lies were manufactured, often on the spot by far-right activists masquerading as aid workers, such as Yossi Landau of the far-right Zaka organization, who stood to gain by the same genocide. These in turn were splashed across front pages worldwide, and repeated by dissembling politicians who instinctually sided with Israel over the “terrorists'' of Hamas. The fact that nearly every Israeli accusation, from sexual violence to infanticide, rested on the repeatedly debunked and often self-contradictory claims of such obviously invested activists, did not stop its enablers from breathlessly repeating them, or turning a blind eye when Israeli soldiers indulged in much the same butchery and depravation of which they had accused the Palestinians en masse. A full list of examples would fill a heavy book, but it has been a constant pattern: where everything else fails, Zionist propaganda has constantly resorted to the basest instincts to dehumanize their victims.

But proof is beside the point, which is that the colonial settler state had spoken, binding its enablers in governments and media throughout the Global North to repeat even its most outrageous claims with no question of a standard of proof. The same thing happened when South Africa took Israel to the international court for genocide in February 2024, rather than address the issue, much of whose evidence had been explicitly broadcast by both Palestinian victims and gleefully indiscreet Israeli soldiers and officials, Tel Aviv instead lashed out at the United Nations’ local agency for refugees, draining the Palestinians of major humanitarian support when it was most needed. By the time this and other relentlessly broadcast Israeli calumnies had been proven baseless, the damage was long done: not only have tens of thousands of Palestinians been systemically slaughtered, a horrifying proportion of them children, but a disastrous famine has been imposed on the Ghazza Strip.

If they have lied about everything else, Israel’s dissemblers have been right about one thing: American leaders and soldiers got away with atrocities of a similar stripe, though rarely the same intensity, in its own “war on terror”. They neglect to mention, of course, Tel Aviv’s fundamental role in inciting Washington into the same war, particularly in Iraq whose invasion by the United States was urged by successive Israeli regimes since the 1990s. But because the war on terror, incorporating and popularizing Israel-favoured tactics as aerial assassination, occurred with such general impunity for American officials involved – whether they were involved in lies and misinformation about its raison d’etre, or torture, or mass slaughter – Israeli propagandists very quickly and consciously drew the parallel with their own campaign in Ghazza, fatuously likening Hamas to the Nazis – the authors of the Holocaust, if anything, are now unthinkably whitewashed as if anything more civilized. Israeli officials as high as the presidency have resorted to flagrant lies borrowed wholesale from the war on terror, from claims that Hamas was seeking weapons of mass destruction to staging videos and audio that blame Palestinians for their own slaughter.

Even if the outrages against Palestine were not enough, this Israeli resuscitation of the “war on terror” also spells trouble for minority Muslims, and other supporters of Palestine – including even Jewish critics of Tel Aviv. In their quest to drown out criticism, Israeli officials, channels, and cheerleaders have regularly engaged with and amplified anti-Muslim, anti-Islam, and anti-Arab voices. Draconian measures in states such as Germany and Britain – crackdowns and vilifications of peaceful protests, threatening the careers of pro-Palestinian speakers, and appeals to ugly bigotry that are not so much dogwhistle as foghorn – threaten a very real revival of the war on terror’s worst excesses at a moment where neither the “West” nor Muslims therein or without can afford it.

The so-called “war on terrorism” unleashed a generation of unaccountable bloodshed, lies, corruption, torture, and indeed terror throughout and beyond the Muslim world. Any Muslim, and person of remote conscience, must do whatever is within their capacity to stop Israel’s attempt to revive it at the cost of the Palestinians. If the livestreamed genocide of Palestinians does not make plain the costs, such a war will not stop there.

CC Image courtesy of US Embassy on Flikr

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The Gaza genocide: The “war on terror” on speed dial
The Gaza genocide: The “war on terror” on speed dial