Ever since three Israeli teens went missing, in early June, Israeli forces have launched an offensive, collective punishment campaign. They have killed, injured and arrested hundreds of Palestinians. One particular occurrence has garnered mass media attention this past week: the death of Palestinian teenager, Muhammed Abu Khdeir, and the beating of his cousin, Tariq Abu Khdeir; both attacked by Israeli forces, in what is believed to be an act of revenge. Palestinians have taken advantage of the rare media spotlight to relay their unjust living conditions and struggles in the face of the Israeli oppressor. And yet, even in this moment with the world’s attention on them, Palestinians are still falling victim to Israel’s collective punishment narrative, fueling the racism and hate between the occupier and the occupied.
As the power-holder, Israel controls the media, angling it in their favor by creating a rigid righteous-enemy dichotomy. The righteous, of course, being Israelis— who launch attacks against Palestinian children, pulverize their homes, and control their land and resources— and the enemy being Palestinians, who lack the resources to defend themselves, let alone retaliate. This narrative, which pits one against the other, has villainized the entire Palestinian population, dehumanized the three Israeli teens in the media, and allowed racists attitudes to persist among populations from both sides of the conflict.
Within the narrative, Israel has transformed innocent children into another bodily object, volleyed in the heated Palestine-Israel conflict most notably through their #BringBackOurBoys twitter campaign, which only served to transform the Israeli teens into politicized bodies. Referred to most times in the media in plain terms—stripped of their identity— as “the three Israeli teens” or “a Palestinian boy,” the children have become dehumanized and added as a statistic to use against the enemy or targeted as a representative of the entire enemy population. Israel has come to perceive the bodies of children as both valuable and yet equally dispensable to serve in nationalist purposes. This process of dehumanizing and body politicking—the fundamentalist Israel-sponsored narrative — further feeds into their collective punishment ideology.
The collective punishment ideology stems from the concept of metaphysical collectivism in which groups “are not just organized crowds of people, that they have a metaphysical-identity that does not reduce to a mere sum of human-being members.” In other words, groups organize and identify themselves around common goals and desires, and, in the process, lose individual agency and responsibility. Based on this definition, Israelis and Palestinians no longer view each other as human beings but rather a collective identity, ideology, and enemy.
This perception of the collective is most clearly visible when Israeli lawmaker Ayelet Shaked posted on Facebook what is ultimately a call for Palestinian genocide a day after Abu Khdeir’s murder—an innocent child in all of this. Electronic Intifada reports, “[the post] is a call for genocide because it declares that ‘the entire Palestinian people is the enemy’ and justifies its destruction, ‘including its elderly and its women, its cities and its villages, its property and its infrastructure.’ It is a call for genocide because it calls for the slaughter of Palestinian mothers who give birth to ‘little snakes.’”
When faced with the facts, Sheked’s post holds little weight next to the numbers, which underscore the infuriating asymmetry in killings within the Israeli-Palestine conflict. According to B’tselem, an Israeli human rights group, between Jan. 2009 and May 2014, 575 Palestinians were killed at the hands of Israeli forces in drastic comparison to the 38 Israelis. Additionally, Israeli forces have killed 84 Palestinian minors compared to the six Israeli minors killed by Palestinians. And according to the Middle East Monitor, since 2000, Israeli forces have killed more than 1500 children, which is the equivalent to one Palestinian child killed by Israel every three days for the past 13 years.
While these statistics alone should galvanize international support and result in actions against Israel for their unjust collective punishment campaigns, there has been no real action, only mere words of condemnation. That is not enough to challenge Israel’s collectivist mentality.
It is important to mention that Palestinians are not completely innocent in the role they play within the narrative. Limited in agency and the choices available to them, Palestinians responded to the politicization of the Israeli teens by doing the same after the murder of Abu Khdeir, robbing him of his humanity and transforming him into a symbol of martydom. Lost is the essence that made him a boy that walked this earth just a few days earlier. Now, his corpse remains behind as a politicized commodity. Though the Palestinian response is simply reactionary to Israel’s collectivist mentality, it does not discount the fact that an agency of choice was made, even if it was made out of desperation.
On both sides of the conflict, individuals and children are being reduced to nothing more than side effects of war and statistics used for political advantage, encouraging racism and hatred to persist. Until something is done to change the direction of the narrative, there will never be peace, tolerance, and justice in the region and hate will run rampant. Though Israel holds the power to change the narrative, they will never do so because they are not the victims. Therefore, the responsibility lies in the hands of the oppressed to fight for their freedom by challenging Israel’s collectivist mentality rather than adopting it. The only way to do so is by humanizing both the Israelis and Palestinians, even if in the face of brutal injustice it is difficult to remember that there are Palestinian-sympathizers and justice-supporters among the Israelis too. And just like the Palestinians are not monolithic, neither are the Israelis.
Palestinians may be aching for justice, but there are humans on both sides. The first step in humanizing and challenging the ideology behind collective punishment is remembering the lives of all four innocent children side-by-side, who were senselessly murdered: Muhammad Abu Khdeir, Gil-Ad Shaer, Eyal Yifrah, and Naftali Fraenkel. As Linda Sarsour argues in an article for Mic, “Politics should never guide our outrage when it comes to children being murdered on either side of a situation. After all, there’s no relativism in the tears of mothers.”