Sunday, December 17, 2023

Carpet Bombing Is Not ‘Self-Defense’

Photo: Fire and smoke rise following Israeli airstrikes in northern Gaza Strip, Monday, Oct. 30, 2023.

By Sofia Uriagereka-Herburger 

The Pitt News Senior Staff Columnist

OCTOBER 31, 2023 - When white phosphorus comes in contact with human skin, it can burn all the way down to the bone. Even if one is able to extinguish it, it can continue burning. The person it is burning through will feel completely alone, even if there are others risking the same agony to help them. It burns the respiratory tract and damages eyesight. It is not even considered a chemical weapon by the international community anymore — it’s an incendiary one. The use of it against civilians is widely classified and understood as a war crime. Israel has launched white phosphorus into Gaza since Oct. 10, with even earlier yet unconfirmed reports. 

Israel has killed over 8,000 Palestinians in the last three weeks in response to the Hamas attack on Oct. 7 on Israel, which killed approximately 1,400 Israelis. 

Before anything else, I feel that some things must be stated, if only for the sake of not straying from the argument at hand. Targeting civilians is unacceptable. All civilian deaths are horrific, and the pain felt by those in mourning is impossible to ignore. I sincerely hope that the Israeli state engages in negotiations and that Hamas safely returns the Israeli hostages to their families soon. 

Neither this article nor any expression of a desire to see Palestinians live in peace is a cheapening or a disparaging of the loss felt by Palestinians and Israelis alike. I understand that for many, the deaths of Israeli civilians are the first deaths they have heard of in this “conflict” and that for many, this is their first time attempting to recognize the depth of violence that has besieged Palestine for the better part of the last century. I understand that the sudden visibility of violence makes grief complex and that the level of propaganda enforced in the U.S. makes it genuinely difficult for people to even recognize it. All that said, there is nothing in the world that justifies the actions of the Israeli state towards Palestinian civilians. Nothing. 

There does not exist an excuse for the killing of 8,000 people. I will not entertain any justification for it, and neither should anyone interested in emerging from this period of hideous violence — an end which will hopefully not signal the total destruction of Gaza — with any semblance of a conscience intact. Please, for your own sake, listen to the thousands of Palestinian voices urging you to recognize their humanity and the thousands of Jewish voices urging an end to the weaponization of their grief and profound faith as justification for genocide. 

There will never be a justification for a military this powerful to exercise such a brutal hegemony on a civilian population with no military, and no bomb shelters, even. Under this apartheid, Palestinians do not even have the right to leave behind their homes, to escape  –  Israel sends airstrikes to where it directs Palestinians to flee. In Gaza, they do not have tanks. They do not have missiles, or white phosphorus, or over $260 billion in aid from the U.S.

As of Oct. 25, Israel has dropped 12,000 tons of bombs on the Gaza Strip, a site commonly referred to as an “open-air prison,” roughly the size of Detroit, with approximately 2 million inhabitants, more than half of which are children. If you cannot comprehend the repugnancy of dropping 12,000 tons of bombs on a civilian population, if those figures are not enough for you, perhaps contextualization will help. That is an estimated equivalence to the tonnage of the nuclear bomb the American government dropped on Hiroshima in 1945.

I sometimes wonder, when reading and listening to the vitriolic racism that people espouse, when someone has the temerity to suggest that Palestinians deserve to live in peace on their own land — what would these people, who object so staunchly, have said about Japan in 1945?

What would they have said in the days of apartheid in South Africa? What did they say during the U.S. occupation of Iraq that killed over 1 million? I think I know the answer. 

I think it’s clear by now that anyone who seeks to paint all civilians — including children — as insidious, violent, “savages,” as “sons of darkness,” has no ability to recognize the humanity of anyone who does not look like them. Anyone who justifies the collective punishment of thousands — anyone who gives a state defined by many as an active apartheid state on multiple occasions the moral authority to punish civilians — cannot recognize the depravity they condone. 

I have had people try to make the case to me that the children in Gaza, in particular the 17-year-olds, are going to eventually “join Hamas” if they are not “already in it.” If this is what you tell yourself when something will not let you sleep at night — some persistent, intangible feeling, in the core of your ribs or at the back of your mind — then maybe I’ll be the first to tell you that feeling is guilt, and it is rotting away inside you. Do you know a 17-year-old? Have you ever met one? Is there anything in the world that you think would justify a bomb tearing them into pieces? Is there anything that would make it logical for them to suffocate slowly under rubble? 

I’m writing this on Oct. 29, which marks 23 years since photographers captured barely 15-year-old Faris Odeh throwing a rock at an Israeli tank. The image became famous and synonymous with the bravery and the stark reality of the lives of Palestinian children. All the “complexity” constantly referenced as an excuse for the silence from the rest of the world vanished, as if the willingness captured in the photo — the willingness of Faris, at 5-foot-4, to die, the willingness of the soldiers in the tank, of the tank itself, to kill — had wiped away the fog. On Nov. 8, eleven days after the photo was taken, the Israeli Defense Force shot him in the neck. He bled to death. 

Another picture made famous over two decades ago, of Jamal Al-Durrah trying desperately to shield his 12-year-old son Muhammad from IDF gunfire, came from a video. Journalist Talal Abu Rahma was able to record the IDF shooting the twelve-year-old boy in his father’s arms. Abu Rahma was accused of somehow “staging” the video and was not vindicated by French courts until 2013. Israel has banned the journalist from returning to Gaza since 2017.

There are no words in this limited language, perhaps in any language, that can explain what it is like to watch that footage. I remember the first time I saw stills from it, years ago now, and asked myself the question I have been unable to answer, and to stop asking, since that moment. How can anyone look at a child’s fear, take in a father’s love, take in the desperation and the humanity and the terror so potent it is immobilizing, then look down a barrel and shoot? 

That video is 23 years old, and Muhammad Al-Durrah and Faris Odeh’s names, for so many of us, have served as arguments more powerful than any present in a UN speech or in seemingly spineless American journalism. Just two names, not even a complete sentence. This is a state that kills children with no hesitation. This is a state that has been filmed and photographed committing those killings. The international communities that we give the powers of governance to have known this for 23 years at the very least. They have watched as these children throw rocks at tanks, as these civilians are crushed under tons of explosives. What else is there to say? 

Jamal Al-Durrah, Muhammad’s father, appeared in another video last week on Oct. 15. His brothers were killed in Israel’s airstrikes, and he wanted to say goodbye to them. I want to know what those who refuse to criticize apartheid, or indiscriminate bombing, or shooting civilians, have to say to him. I want to know what explanation they have for the level of brutality and grief he has dealt with. 

I want to hear a justification for indiscriminate strikes. I want to hear how they are possibly, by any stretch of the imagination, just “self-defense.” I want to hear these cowardly, blunderingly foolish, profoundly cruel politicians explain why “now is not the time to call for a ceasefire.” Explain it as if you were talking to a child. As if you were talking to a 15-year-old and a 12-year-old, and you had just sent billions of dollars to the military that shot them to death. 

If you hear people calling for a ceasefire, begging for an end to bombs and white phosphorus and for desperately needed medical aid, and you find it possible to object to that, because you view that as somehow “condoning terrorism,” I urge you to reexamine how deeply rooted your prejudices are. I urge you to try and remember the value of a human life, the value of every person you love and have ever loved, and imagine what it would be like if a state dropped a bomb on you and ended each of those lives. Eliminating every memory, every fight, every secret, every favorite color, every future aspiration. Eliminating all the nuance and contradictions that make each singular life worth celebrating and protecting. Destroying over three thousand children’s bodies before those complexities could even have the chance to become full-fledged. 

Israel has killed at least 3,324 children in three weeks. As of Oct. 26, Israel has destroyed 47 bloodlines in Palestine. Every single member of these 47 families that managed to survive the occupation and the apartheid is gone. The children, the elderly, those so resoundingly, unequivocally innocent that even the pundits and the politicians and the ordinary racists who call any Palestinian of a certain age a “terrorist” have nothing to say. 

And what else is left to say, really? Peace will not come to Gaza without, at the very least, a ceasefire. A ceasefire is not possible without many powerful people and institutions making a concerted effort to remember the humanity of the Palestinians, which they have denied for so very long. 

As for those of us who watch, from continents away, as the country that we live in finances and condones an attempt at genocide, we cannot look away. We cannot look back in 10 years and write long-form essays asking “how this happened.” We cannot resign ourselves, or perpetrate the profound ignominy of acting as though Gaza is already gone. 

There may come a day when this violence ends, and even a day when peace is no longer a faraway dream even for children. But there will never be a day when the war crimes committed against Palestinians will be justified or forgotten. 

Sofia Uriagereka-Herburger writes about politics and international and domestic social movements. Write to her at 


About the Contributor

Sofia Uriagereka-Herburger, Senior Staff Columnist

Sofia Uriagereka is a senior majoring in Anthropology. She writes primarily about politics, both domestic and international.

No comments:

Post a Comment