Protests of both despair and conflict in Gaza
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Protests of both despair and conflict in Gaza

These are crazy times. Biblical disturbances in nature, such as the repeated torrential rain in Dubai or the mass fish die-off in Vietnam's overheated reservoir, seem to mirror our overheated politics and social environment.

At such moments, it is crucial to keep a cool head and analyse all the weird phenomena as closely, objectively and dispassionately as possible. And few phenomena nowadays are weirder than the protests surrounding Israel's bombardment and invasion of Gaza in response to Hamas' terrorist attack last October.

We should acknowledge the rhetoric from some politicised Muslims, such as those who recently demonstrated in Hamburg, Germany, chanting "Kalifat ist die Lösung" ("Caliphate is the solution"). And we should concede that, despite the massive presence of Jews among the protesters, there are at least a few true anti-Semites among them (just as there are some genocidal maniacs in Israel).

While many commentators have noted the parallel between today's pro-Palestinian demonstrations and the 1968 student protests against the Vietnam War, the Italian philosopher Franco Berardi points to an important difference. Rhetorically, at least, the 1968 protesters explicitly identified with the anti-imperialist Viet Cong position and a broader socialist project, whereas today's protesters very rarely identify with Hamas and instead are "identifying with despair".

As Berardi puts it: "Despair is the psychological and also cultural trait that explains the wide identification of young people with the Palestinians. I think that the majority of the students today are consciously or unconsciously expecting the irreversible worsening of the conditions of life, irreversible climate change, a long-lasting period of war and the looming danger of a nuclear precipitation of the conflicts that are underway in many points of the geopolitical map".

Signs of this panic are everywhere, so allow me to offer just two examples. First, last month, 12 US senators sent a letter to the International Criminal Court threatening it with sanctions should it decide to issue an arrest warrant for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Although this was strictly a Republican undertaking, President Joe Biden's administration has also pressured the ICC not to charge Israeli officials over war crimes committed in Gaza. Such threats signal nothing less than the demise of shared global values. Though this ideal was always somewhat hypocritical, governments at least upheld it in spirit.

The second recent example supports the same conclusion. On May 4, France (complying with a German-issued visa ban) denied entry to Ghassan Abu-Sitta, a British-Palestinian surgeon who was scheduled to provide testimony to the French Senate on what he had witnessed while treating victims of the war in Gaza. With such crude acts of censorship and marginalisation happening before our eyes, it is no longer an exaggeration to say that our democracies are crumbling.

Everyone knows that the situation in Gaza is unacceptable. But a great deal of energy has been devoted to postponing the kind of intervention that the crisis requires. After the Oct 7 attacks, Israel emphasised the raw realities of what Hamas had done. Let the images speak for themselves, Israeli authorities said. The brutal killings and rapes had been recorded by the perpetrators and were there for everyone to see. There was no need for complex contextualisation.

Can we not now say the same about the Palestinian suffering in Gaza? Let the images speak for themselves. See the starving people in packed improvised tents, the children slowly dying as Israeli strikes continue to reduce buildings to ruins, then to rubble and then to dust.

So, what should the Biden administration do? For starters, the US can join the global initiative to recognise Palestine as a state. Far from being an obstacle to peace in the Middle East, Palestinian statehood is a precondition for serious negotiations between the two sides. By contrast, rejecting (or endlessly postponing) such recognition will inevitably support the fatalistic conclusion that war is the only option.

Strange as it may sound, we are witnessing one of the downsides of America's loss of hegemonic power (as was also the case with the US withdrawal from northern Syria and then Afghanistan). Ideally, the US would simply invade Gaza from the sea, re-establish peace and order, and provide the population with humanitarian assistance. But don't count on it. One can always rely on the US to miss an opportunity to deploy its remaining imperial power for a good cause. ©2024 Project Syndicate

Slavoj Žižek, Professor of Philosophy at the European Graduate School, is International Director of the Birkbeck Institute for the Humanities at the University of London.

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