Recently, political journalist Sunny Hundal tweeted in relation to the left’s alleged obsession with Israel: “In isolation, Israel does a lot of bad things re: human rights.
Is it uniquely bad? Is it worse than others? Not even close. So if you’re obsessed by actions of Jews, don’t be surprised if people suspect your motives”. Similar sentiments have been expressed by LBC radio host Maajid Nawaz, who has declared that Israel is “the constant what-about excuse used by everyone who doesn’t want to address some real grave, serious issues in the Middle East but constantly wants to point fingers instead at the Middle East’s only secular, democratic and yes, very imperfect, country”.
Likewise, former Labour MP Ian Austin recently wrote an article for Express & Star in which he asserts that “many people on the left have become obsessed with Israel. This tiny country – the world’s only Jewish state and the Middle East’s only democracy – seems to attract more criticism than all the world’s other controversies combined… Of course, Israel’s not perfect. What country is? But where else in the Middle East would you find free and fair elections, a free and vibrant media; a robust and independent judiciary and strong trade unions?”.
As a factual matter, it is untrue that the left is single-mindedly focused on Israel; when I was on the committee of my university’s Socialist Students Society a few years ago, we had meetings on the Israel-Palestine conflict, the economic crisis in Venezuela, protests in Iran, Saudi Arabia’s war on Yemen, Bolsonaro’s election in Brazil, gun violence in the US and the prospect of reforming the EU, among other international issues.
Former Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, who is one of the most important left-wing figures in British political history, has been a life-long champion of the rights of not only Palestinians, but also Kurds, Western Saharans, West Papuans, hagossians, and numerous other oppressed peoples. Nevertheless, even if it were true that the left does focus on Israel more than other countries, this would not be unjustified because, contrary to the claims of the aforementioned commentators, there are certain respects in which Israel’s human rights violations are uniquely severe in the international arena.
For example, Israel’s military occupation of the West Bank and Gaza is the longest-running military occupation in modern history. It has been ongoing now for 53 years and has been characterized by systematic and egregious human rights violations such as home demolitions, torture, night raids, abduction and imprisonment of children, harassment at checkpoints, the killing of civilians, destruction of agriculture, and daily humiliation at the hands of soldiers and settlers (all of this is documented in great detail by the Israeli human rights organization B’Tselem).
All military occupations are brutal and vicious; to have to endure one that is also predicated on deliberate displacement and dispossession for 53 years is simply unimaginable for most people. In the case of Gaza, the occupation has been compounded by an illegal siege that has been ongoing now for 13 years; in 2015, then UNRWA Commissioner-General Pierre Krahenbuhl described Israel’s siege of Gaza as the “longest in history” and “a very extreme form [of] illegal collective punishment”.
The siege prevents anyone from leaving Gaza, apart from in exceptional cases; for example, sick children are sometimes allowed to receive medical treatment in the West Bank, but their parents aren’t allowed to accompany them – even when it means that the children are forced to die alone (as in the case of 5-year-old Aisha alLoulou). Anyone who tries to fish beyond the contaminated coastal waters of Gaza gets either shot at or kidnapped by the Israeli navy, and anyone who crosses the barbed-wire fence into Israel runs the risk of being murdered by the IDF (as in the case of 17-year-old Emad Khalil Ibrahim Shahin, who crossed over in 2018 and was returned to his family one year later in a body bag).
As a result of the siege, 97% of the water in Gaza is now unfit for human consumption; according to Sara Roy, Senior Research Fellow at Harvard University’s Centre for Middle East Studies, this means that “Innocent human beings, most of them young, are slowly being poisoned by the water they drink and likely by the soil in which they plant”.
Thus, Israel has been carrying out the longest-running military occupation in modern history and the longest-running siege in modern history. These two facts alone render Israel unique in terms of the scope of its brutality and criminality.
There are other respects in which Israel stands out from other countries in its use of terror and violence; for example, it is one of the most aggressive countries in the world, having waged wars of aggression against Lebanon in 1978, 1982, 1993, 1996 and 2006, and against Gaza in 2004, 2006, 2008/9, 2012 and 2014, killing huge numbers of civilians in the process (all while issuing threats and carrying out various covert attacks against Iran, which are all in violation of the UN Charter).
Furthermore, according to Amnesty International, Israel is “the only country in the world that automatically prosecutes children in military courts that lack fundamental fair rights and guarantees” (the military courts have a 99% conviction rate).
Children are routinely abused during interrogations (the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child has reported that “Palestinian children arrested by [Israeli] military and police are systematically subject to degrading treatment, and often to acts of torture”), and in the overwhelming majority of cases, their parents are excluded from the entire ‘judicial’ process. It is worth noting that all of these human rights violations are directly enabled and facilitated by both the US and the UK.
These are all examples of how, in many ways, Israel is uniquely evil. The easiest way for Israel to stop being singled out for criticism – whether real or imagined – would be for it to stop singling itself out with its appalling human rights record.
– Irfan Chowdhury is a freelance writer who has previously been published in openDemocracy, The Iranian, Mondoweiss, Peace News and Hastings In Focus. He also runs a blog, where he mostly writes about British foreign policy, the Israel-Palestine conflict and civil liberties: https://irfanchowdhury98.com/ He contributed this article to The Palestine Chronicle.