You turned 18 a couple of days ago! An adult. How time flies!
Hey, remember a few years ago, you told me, ‘Papa, I think God is like a moral compass thingy for me’. You were so right. Being compassionate, humane, and fair, being able to listen and be sensitive to the needs and feelings of others that you share this world with – that is what having a ‘moral compass’ is. And believe me, the world needs that right now.
Your social media feeds must be full of videos from Gaza and Israel, isn’t it? Rockets being fired, indiscriminate bombings, destroyed buildings, people dead, people injured, people in fear, people who have lost loved ones. Thousands, literally, have been killed in the last one week.
There’s also a lot of anger, with most people taking sides. Ministers of the Israeli government, politicians from countries allied to them, raging against Hamas, the Palestinian militant group whose rocket attack on 7th October set off this round of violence. At the same time, some governments friendly to the Palestinians, members of the Palestinian diaspora across the world, and other folks, are calling out the chronic violence committed against Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank over the years by the Israeli Defence Forces (IDF).
So what does your just-turned-18 moral compass ‘thingy’ say? Something is off, right? Here is Hamas, and the IDF, both indulging in extreme violence, both numb to the destruction they are causing, both trying to explain their violence as ‘just’ – isn’t there actually something terribly wrong with both of them?
To my mind, Hamas and the Israeli war machine are two sides of the same coin that is defined by one word – violence. Both are practically addicted to violence, and share a terrible worldview – that the problems of the world can only be addressed by resorting to bombings and killings, and through instilling fear and terror among those opposed to them. Both see the human cost, military and civilian, as acceptable collateral damage.
And so, surely, both need to be condemned. Plain and simple.
I can see that you get it. And yet, amazingly, a lot of people don’t. The really worrying thing is that many of those who don’t get it, are people currently in charge of the world. Sample this –
“We kiss the hands of those who planned the attack on the Zionist regime,” said Iran’s leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, soon after the Hamas attacks. Iran, as you know, is Hamas’s biggest supporter. “The great liberation has begun,” said a big billboard in Tehran. Their logic is simple, the enemy of my enemy, is my friend. Iran and Israel are sworn enemies. US too, calls Iran a fundamentalist, regressive, rogue nation. More about this in a minute.
Then, on the other side, here are statements from Israel’s leaders – Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s tweet, describing Hamas – ‘They are savages’. Yoav Gallant, Israel’s Defence Minister said – “We are fighting against human animals”
On 7th October, Hamas launched a surprise attack on Israel, which started with literally firing around 5,000 rockets into the country, which killed hundreds, including civilians. Alongside, teams of Hamas militia crossed into Israel, some of them targeting civilians. Reports say Hamas killed 260 Israeli youth attending a music festival. An unknown, but large number of Israeli citizens have also been taken hostage, and Hamas has said it may execute one hostage for every Israeli bombing, and even broadcast the execution.
If this threat wasn’t inhuman enough, the response of Israel Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich is almost as callous – ‘We can’t worry about the hostages too much, now is the time to be cruel…’. This sums up how numb both sides are to violence, where even the likelihood of collateral deaths, even of their own people, no longer matters.
While this is the immediate picture, let’s rewind a bit as well. Even if we travel back just 15 years, we can see how the violence has been constant, on a huge, agonizing scale. According to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), since 2008, 6,407 Palestinians and 308 Israelis have died in conflict situations. Also 152,560 Palestinians and 6,307 Israelis injured. The dead include 1,440 Palestinian children, and 25 Israeli children.https://www.ochaopt.org/data/casualties
People even play politics over these numbers. Some say that the much higher Palestinian casualties show that the IDF is the bigger perpetrator. Some point back at Hamas’s ‘terror’ tactics over the years, including the use of suicide bombers. But to my mind, these massive numbers on both sides, only point towards blind bloodlust. How can both sides not see that violence is not working? The IDF’s violence is not making the lives of Israelis safer. Hamas’s violence is not protecting the Palestinians either.
Unfortunately, far from calling on them to back down, over the years, both sides have only had almost unstinted support from their respective ‘backers’. Israel has the United States, and several other Western nations in its corner, while Hamas has Iran fully committed to its cause. This gives both Israel and Hamas almost limitless funding, arms, and logistical support. Both sides justify their violence by pointing at the other – Hamas points at Israel’s systematic choking of all economic growth in the West Bank, and particularly in Gaza. You will repeatedly hear of Gaza being described as the world’s largest ‘open air jail’, as access into and out of Gaza has been controlled by Israel for decades – from livelihoods, to food, to medical and building supplies.
Human rights activists and countries supporting the Palestinians say that the anger from Israel’s aggression, from the choking of Gaza, to the extending of Israeli settlements beyond agreed boundaries, fuels anger and support for Hamas. Israel says its actions are ‘retaliatory’ and it is Hamas’s violence that must first end.
Religion is the other dangerous dimension and for long, many have made it a Jewish vs Muslim confrontation. You would have noticed how a few days back students in Harvard University, who supported the Palestinians, were called out as ‘anti-Semites’. The irony, of course, is that there are so many Christian supremacists, who are in fact anti-Jewish and anti-Muslim (but that’s the subject of a another letter, so..)
But surely all this must be called out. We can’t be tricked into a ‘chicken-and-egg’, or a ‘who-started-it’ debate. That debate will never end. Someone will take you back to the Arab-Israeli 1967 war, someone will take you back a 100 years to the British ‘promise’ of a Jewish nation in Palestine, someone will take you back to the Crusades. Ugghh! No, we are not going to fall for that.
Let me end by mentioning a political leader who is getting it right. That guy is Hamza Yousaf, the First Minister of Scotland (essentially Scotland’s PM!). Of Pakistani origin, he’s already a path-breaker, by being Scotland’s first South Asian First Minister. Yousaf’s Palestinian origin father-in-law and Scottish mother-in-law are currently stranded in Gaza. They had gone to meet an ailing relative. Even as he went on air, expressing his helplessness at not knowing if they were safe, he stayed away from taking sides. At a prayer service in memory of a Glasgow resident killed in the Hamas attack, Yousaf told the Jewish community, ‘Your grief is my grief.’ He later met up with Palestinians and categorically stated that the loss of innocent lives in both Israel and Gaza cannot be justified, and called for the opening of humanitarian corridors in Gaza.
Now that is statesmanship! This man is a Muslim, leading a Western power. But instead of succumbing to the pressures of ‘picking a side’, of doing what may be ‘politically popular’ in Scotland, he came out squarely against violence, in any form, being practised by any one, for any reason. Like Hamza Yousaf, it is time for other world leaders, and even for all of us people who choose our leaders, to reclaim and get back to using our ‘moral compass thingy’.
It’s your world now. Become a ‘moral compass’ evangelist in your corner of the world.
(Rohit Khanna is a journalist, commentator and video storyteller. He has been Managing Editor at The Quint, Executive Producer of Investigations & Special Projects at CNN-IBN, and is a 2-time Ramnath Goenka award winner)
Disclaimer: These are the personal opinions of the author.