The “Both Sides” Perspective on Palestine and What It Tells Us About the Ceasefire

In what was recently precipitated by a court order expulsion of Palestinians from the neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah, during the week of Eid, Israeli forces have tear-gassed Al-Aqsa mosque, leveled press and residential buildings with rockets, fired white phosphorus into the streets, ransacked Palestinian businesses, and killed over 232 Palestinians so far, 62 of whom are children, most of whom are certainly civilians. By the time you read this certainly even more unconscionable acts will have occured. 

In response to these events, the UK’s Boris Johnson called “for both sides to show restraint.” Representatives of the European Union called on “all sides to engage in de-escalatory efforts.” US Secretary of State Tony Blinken stated “we urge de-escalation on all sides, we also recognize Israel’s legitimate right to defend itself and to defend its people and its territory. It is critical for all sides to ensure calm and de-escalate tensions and avoid violent confrontations.”

One can see why some people may find this rhetoric appealing. Finding fault in “both sides” is an effective way to communicate a sophisticated and plausibly sympathetic perspective without having to define any real positions for what that perspective might be. And to call for de-escalating violence is a particularly deft move — “violence” and “escalation” are concepts that don’t exactly poll with your typical disinterested Westerner, and you don’t even need to assert where or how much there is violence, necessarily, just that wherever it might happen to be you think it’s not a good idea that it’s there. Wouldn’t it be nice if all the violence could simply stop? And why couldn’t it?

But an appropriate analysis of these events should identify such statements as an obscene false equivalence, as can be similarly identified by the left in the slogan “All Lives Matter.” “All Lives Matter,” as a slogan, while in the broad sense seems obviously true, nevertheless in context plays a role of its opposite, championing death. “All Lives Matter” as a slogan serves only as a reaction to the struggle against the police killings and incarcerations of Black lives sloganized by “Black Lives Matter” to dismiss a neo-colonial injustice as unnecessary or unimportant — reactionary in the most literal sense. To characterize what happened to Palestinians over the past few weeks as “violence on both sides” is to similarly play a role in enabling the violence that has been taking place unilaterally and over decades.

From any proper account of the struggle, the false equivalence with Israel/Palestine is plain: not only are the deaths from the struggle disproportionately Palestinian (at rate of 87% since 2000), but the military and political conditions are wholly incommensurate. From 1948, roughly a million Palestinians have been displaced from their homes, while Israelis face no such displacement. Israel controls essentially the entirety of the territory, 98.4% claimed as its own and the remaining 1.6% of Gaza strip under tight control. The 1.8 million Palestinians living in Israeli live under a second-class citizenship: almost all land in Israel is prohibited for Palestinians to own and any residency in Jerusalem by Palestinians is revocable at any time. The 2 million Palestinians who live in Gaza live under Israeli imposed blockade, prevented from reliable access to food, clean water, fuel, electricity, medical supplies, or education. 

And placed with the statement “we also recognize Israel’s legitimate right to defend itself” as the United States Secretary of State did, the United States not only willfully mischaracterizes the struggle but also plays into a well-worn Zionist rationalization. From the Zionist perspective, there can be no limit to the destruction and violence incurred so long as there is some detectable resistance on the other side which will allow it to be justified as self-defense. Any ounce of Palestinian backlash, no matter of the Israeli atrocity which provoked it, can be asserted to be some fresh aggression for Israel to have been responding to. So rather than Israel as a merciless bomber of a civilian population it will be argued in the West that Israel has shown incredible restraint but is simply the much superior fighter, as for example this Lockheed Martin backed Australian think tank argues. The same justification has been used by Israel historically before, such as with the “preemptive strike” justification for the Six-Day War in 1967 wherein Israel completely wiped Palestine from the map.

But the empty condemnations responding to this latest escalation are more than just words, they are indications of a broader worldview which is wholly unequipped to address the root problem. Liberal leaders in the West have called for a ceasefire and it is currently being enacted. And so from “both sides” rhetoric we have a “both sides” policy: we are told that the problem is not the disproportionate violence, or the 90,000 recently displaced persons, or the whole colonial project, but the fighting itself, specifically, certain types of violence associated with the military or terrorism seen as disruptive to the current status quo. It is a solution that is not a solution, a peace that is not a peace, an answer made only to satisfy the artificial created demands of liberal decorum and international law but none of the material injustices. And in doing so it has satisfied everything it needs in order to ensure the continuation of the 7th largest importer of United States military weaponry and a major justification for United States military funding domestically. 

What is missing from this liberal conception of Israel/Palestine is a historical, material, and international class analysis. Israeli and Palestine are not two objects floating in space, disconnected from political, social, or economic forces, happening to bump into each other at random, like two strangers arriving at the same corner from different directions. (A ceasefire would be suitable for such things, if they existed.) Israel is a colonizer of Palestine, the United States is an imperial power against the Middle East, Jerusalem real estate is resettling Sheikh Jarrah, and violent IDF soldiers are carrying out ethnic cleansing against an Palestinian population, all of which are struggles of oppressors against oppressed in an international system of exploitation known as capitalism. It is these relations that govern these world events and the behaviors of those within it, not the vacuous “both sides” geopolitics of liberal imagination.

Similarly insufficient is the impulse to insert a different explanation for the Israel/Palestine struggle in substitution of class analysis, such as religion, as has been argued in the United States, even amongst those associated with the left. Does Israeli require Judaism to colonize, or Palestine require Islam to resist? Little more than we should believe that the Indian Removal Act was a Christian evangelical expression or that the Seminoles resisted displacement only out of regard for Little Giver or for Breathmaker. What religious distinction denoted redlining in the 20th century? Assertions like these appear designed to confine the stakes of the Israel/Palestine struggle to a difference of the subjective or of the spiritual only, a characterization which has never resembled the colonization of Palestine.

The liberal conception of Israel/Palestine not only contains no understanding of space but also no understanding of time, like a judge with no memory who is therefore easily fooled or a bribed guard whose recollection of events becomes increasingly hazy. From a snapshot of just these past few weeks (well, perhaps a blurry one) Israel may look like a parked vehicle, but it has been driving straight over Palestine for the past century. The journey of modern Israel has been fueled by imperialism and colonialism from the outset — in WW1 as a spoil of war for defeating the Ottoman empire, the British empire was granted the war-torn territory of Palestine in what was called the British Mandate for Palestine — after it had promised the indigenous Palestinian Arabs of the region autonomy in each exchange for their support in the war (a promise it clearly broke). Britain had in fact made conflicting commitments during WW1; the British had also promised Palestine to the French and had also outlined a vision for a Jewish homeland in Palestine known as the Balfour Declaration. The Balfour Declaration was no matter of conscience but an imperialist stratagem with a veneer of Zionist propaganda: the gesture was deliberately to win favor with Jews in United States in hopes to bring the United States into the war and to settle Palestine with a pro-British population which would allow them access to the Suez canal in support of their colony in India. So it’s in the context of these origins that understand the modern state of Israel: a Western Imperial power ceasing land through conquest, sending settlers from the West to occupy indigenous lands, and maintaining control for its continued hegemony. 

And it is this Israel/Palestine colonizer relation which so much dominates the nature of this struggle that news of a ceasefire remains an unconvincing counterfactual. Could international agreements like a ceasefire qualify as steps towards improving the relationship between Israel/Palestine? Could Biden’s ceasefire in fact be decolonial? Once again history humiliates this idea. Israel has violated ceasefire agreements in 1949, 1956, 1967, 1973, at least three times in the 1980s, at least five times in the 2000s, and at least four times in the 2010s, in the form of “preemptive strikes,” targeted raids, and political or military assassinations. That Israel has done anything other than defended against imminent attacks, policed local instabilities, and killed suspected terrorists when it has repeated its cycle of promise, provocation, invasion is something that Israel has never reckoned with. The present ceasefire has already been introduced by raiding Al-Aqsa with tear gas. Plans for Israel to break the ceasefire in what it will term as a preemptive strike have already been advanced by a Senior Netanyahu aide. While a good faith commitment to ending violence and provocation and the transition to peaceful coexistence in the form of a ceasefire would be uncontroversially a good thing, in the medium and long term that’s never what it has been or can presently ever allowed to be because verbal international agreements are not what dictates world events but the ever evolving international class struggle.

So on this point let there be no confusion. We should be against colonization. We should be against violence. We should want peace and the end of the struggle. to want the day to pass when for the last time all the firing will truly and finally cease. We should want it so badly, in fact, so as to hope to no longer be able to afford to think or to feel in ways that enable that violence, that willfully or incidentally turn a blind eye, or that play directly into its hands. And it’s from the place that we will see the violence behind the calls to end the violence, the ways that the firings will continue because of the terms under which they will be ceased. We must resolve not to deny the reality of this struggle or where in it we must stand.