What do you say to children for whom the Red Sea doesn’t part? – Mohammed El-Kurd, poet/writer
In a recent interview with SkyNews, the Israeli UK ambassador, Tzipi Hotovely, was asked about her view of Gaza’s humanitarian crisis. Her response was to claim that “there is no humanitarian crisis…” Then, when confronted with pictures of Palestinian civilians showing that there is, indeed, a humanitarian crisis unfolding, she paused and asked the reporter, “Are you a mother? If you saw your children executed in front of your eyes, will you expect your government to think about those Nazis committing those crimes and to say, ‘Wait a second, first of all we need to protect the enemy and then my children.’ Your children come as priority to your Prime Minister.”
Hotovely’s rhetoric reveals two things at work within Israel’s broader war propaganda: (1) the question “Are you a mother?” shifts the analytical framework from a political one to a purely ethical one, devoid of politics and historicity; and (2) the complete erasure of Palestinian mothers in Hotovely’s words – mothers who actually have seen their children executed in front of their eyes every day for the past 75 years – shows the colonial reality that underpins Israeli-Palestinian relations, and the way Palestinians, like other colonized and oppressed peoples, continue to be relegated to the category of non-human.
“Are you a mother?”
In his book, No Future, Professor Lee Edelman interrogates the image of ‘the Child’ as an ideological tool a state uses to formulate, develop, and preserve its current hegemonic framework. The Child is an ongoing political project, often used by states when confronted with what it perceives as existential threats, to highlight there is only ‘one’ correct side you can land on. For clarity, the image of ‘the Child’ must not be confused with the lives and experiences of real children throughout history. Rather, the Child is a fantasy image, a state prop, that is ‘oppressively political’ by nature because it outlines the acceptable parameters of political discourse.
We’ve seen the image of the Child regularly used in western political discourse as a tool of oppression against marginalized groups. In the context of trans rights, the Child is often deployed to pit the children’s safety and innocence against the so-called dangers of letting trans people use the public bathrooms that match their gender identity, as if all trans people are just dangerous, sexual predators whose main target are children. Or, that children are simply ‘too young’ to learn about gender identity, as Doug Ford decried when he handed out electoral promises to parents like candy to repeal then Premier Kathleen Wynne’s sex-ed curriculum.
Other contexts include the demonization of feminist discourse as propaganda taking away the futures of ‘young boys’ (see: Brock Turner, who Washington Post’s Michael E. Miller called a “baby-faced Stanford freshman” with a bright future at risk because his sexual assault victim dared to report his crime) and the constant backlash against the prison abolition movement: “Well, if there are no prisons, then what about the child rapists?”
The image of the Child then, as a political project, is to serve what the state needs to continually perpetuate itself and conserve itself, according to Edelman. The effects of this are to silence or quell any kind of meaningful resistance to the dominant hegemonic structures by painting those who support the resistance as ‘immoral’ or ‘unethical’. The Child imposes ideological limits on what is morally acceptable, and anything beyond what is acceptable is simply unthinkable and cast outside the political domain. It becomes a vapid dialogue of ethics.
So, when Hotovely asks the SkyNews reporter, “Are you a mother?”, she depoliticizes Israel’s actions: there is no humanitarian crisis because Israel is simply a parent protecting their children from harm. This is not to deny the fact there were real Israeli children killed in Hamas’ attack. But, Hotovely’s own rhetoric undermines the loss of Israeli civilians because they ignore the very real, very material consequences of Israeli state policy for the last 75 years. In removing the context in which Israeli civilians died on October 7, their deaths are callously used as a discursive tool to shape the only ‘logical’ response in Israel’s eyes: complete annihilation of Palestine. The ideological limits are established and any response other than unequivocal denunciation of Hamas, and support for Israel, is simply unacceptable. In other words, to frame the question of Israeli state response as purely ethical is to remain trapped in dialectical violence where ongoing civilian death is all but guaranteed.
But really, what about the children?
The other jarring aspect of Hotovely’s interview is the complete erasure of Palestinian mothers and children, as if Palestinian mothers who watch their children die are not justified in wanting what Israeli mothers should want. Palestinian writer Mohammed El-Kurd recently wrote about how the “industry standard is to dehumanize Palestinians” in mainstream western media. Indeed, Hotovely’s use of the word ‘Nazis’ to dehumanize Hamas, and by extension, Palestinians (including children), is textbook genocidal language. And yet, when an Israeli government official says it, there’s zero pushback from western journalists. It should also be highlighted that later in Hotovely’s interview, she talks about Hamas soldiers “beheading” 40 babies, a claim which remains unverified by any international organization. Never mind that, at the time of this interview, there were over 700 real Palestinian children killed; the fantastical image of 40 beheaded babies warranted more emotional response. This, too, went unchallenged in the interview.
Currently, the death toll of children in Gaza has risen to 1524, with a child being killed every 15 minutes. While this is appalling on its own, it’s important to remember the children of Gaza have lived under violent conditions for the past 15 years under a blockade—some are born and only know of life in an open-air prison. Before this latest genocidal campaign, the Defence for Children International Palestine (DCIP) estimated that at least 1000 children in Gaza since 2005 were killed due to Israel’s military offensives. At least four out of five children in Gaza live with depression, grief and fear as a result of their conditions. The dehumanization of Palestinian children is not new; it is the result of a long, insidious process of devaluing Palestinian life—man, woman and child—altogether.
For what it’s worth, Israel is a signatory to the United Nations’ Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) since July 3, 1990 (ratified on October 3, 1991), which affirms children’s human rights. Specifically, Article 6 requires that “(1) State Parties recognize that every child has the inherent right to life” and (2) “State Parties shall ensure to the maximum extent possible the survival and development of the child.” Based on this alone, Israel has failed to live up to its legal obligations to the children of Gaza. The Israeli Army itself admits its bombing campaign is focused on ‘damage and not accuracy.’ And yet again, Israel is left unchecked. If Israel can kill with impunity the most vulnerable (children), what does that mean for everyone else?
Ultimately, the dehumanization of Palestinians points to the frailties of a liberal world order that purports to be universal in its definition of ‘humanity’ but in fact serves only to perpetuate the same colonial realities that colonized peoples everywhere know too well. The category of ‘human’ does not apply to black/brown/native bodies; it never has. This is how children in Gaza can be killed in mass numbers and our governments and media will not call their deaths ‘genocide’; how Canada’s own colonial history has led to the uncovering of mass graves of Indigenous children; how there continues to be over 4000 missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls; how Black people continue to be subjected to state violence for something as simple as driving with a broken taillight; and how a six-year-old boy Palestinian-American boy in Plainfield, IL can be stabbed to death 26 times by his own landlord, who yelled, “You Muslims must die!” Dehumanization is built into the very systems that govern our relations with each other.
It’s enraging to see the hypocrisy and complacency of our governments and mainstream media. At the same time, it is not new. Oppressed peoples everywhere know their humanity is not given, it is fought for and asserted through struggle. The Palestinian people have struggled for their humanity for the last 75 years. The rest of us owe it to them now to join their struggle because that is what justice and humanity, in the most collective and meaningful sense, command us to do. We can create a materially just world and it starts with Palestinian liberation. Gaza’s children are our children; Gaza’s families are our families. Our collective future is tied together to a free Palestine, from the river to the sea.
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