Josephine Varghese: What is happening to civilians in Gaza is March 15 many times over – NZ must demand an immediate ceasefire and peace process

Josephine Varghese: What is happening to civilians in Gaza is March 15 many times over – NZ must demand an immediate ceasefire and peace process

Six Palestinians were among those killed on March 15, 2019, in Christchurch. At the time, New Zealand government and media insisted that they were with the victims of violence. “This is not who we are” the Prime Minister insisted. “They are us”. Yet the horrific plight of 2 million people under siege in Gaza seems to be falling on deaf ears. The New Zealand government has failed to demonstrate its stated commitment to human rights and international law on the Israel-Palestine issue.

During a protest march organised in the aftermath of March 15, I talked about how the violence displayed by the terrorist on March 15 was inextricably connected to the dominant Western (colonial) worldview and the institutionalised foreign policy of Anglo-European nations. I argued that in opposing the terrorist violence of March 15, we must also oppose the operation of Islamophobia, neocolonialism, and racism at institutional and structural levels globally.

On March 15, in what was described as “the darkest day” in modern New Zealand history, 51 innocents lost their lives. In Iraq, the 2003 war caused by the United States, the United Kingdom and their allies led to a million deaths and many million more displacements. There were no displays of solidarity with Iraq from Western governments (as we see today with Ukraine). The nations that committed the illegal invasion were not banned from international sporting events nor subject to sanctions or charges from the International Criminal Court, despite widespread reports of war crimes and human rights abuses. The sons and daughters of working class American and British families also fought and died in a war that only benefited the shareholders of the military industrial complex and oil lobby who largely control US foreign policy.

USA and allies thereafter intervened in Syria and Libya and continued their occupation of Afghanistan. They were also involved in multiple coups around the world, including the removal of Bolivia’s first indigenous President, Evo Morales and the recent removal of Imran Khan in Pakistan. They continue to impose suffocating sanctions on multiple developing nations including Iran, North Korea, Zimbabwe and Venezuela, causing unimaginable suffering for common people in these countries.

There is a clear double standard in the so-called rules based international order. And the double-standard is not random. It follows the power-structures established through 400 years of Anglo-European colonialism-capitalism (hyphenated to show the overlap between the two systems).

There are two ways of understanding racism and discrimination. One is an individual-centred approach and the other is an institutional/structural approach. The dominant debates around racism in the West disproportionately focus on individual racism, that is, the prejudices and biases that are expressed at an inter-personal level. Although individual racism is a problem, it is only the tip of the iceberg. The far-reaching impacts of racism are effected through structures (policies, laws, media narratives, global institutions etc) that frame local and global politics.

Institutional racism as we see it in the world today has its origins largely in European colonialism,  which continues into the 21st century through neocolonialism. It refers to the racism that is embedded within established institutions (eg: govt policy, media, laws etc). It is reproduced by both ‘liberal’ and conservative governments in the West, for instance, Joe Biden, Emmanuel Macron, Angela Merkel, Jacinda Ardern, Barack Obama, Rishi Sunak, George W. Bush, and Tony Blair. All these leaders have supported the Western establishment’s institutional racism, the best expressions of which can be found in Western foreign policy.

So, for instance, Jacinda Ardern, in her response to March 15 vehemently opposed individual racism/islamophobia. However, her foreign policy took New Zealand much closer to the United States and its allies, who are among the worst perpetrators of institutional racism across the world, whose foreign policy has led to the death and displacement of millions of people in the Middle East and North Africa in the 21st century alone.

Connections with the situation in Gaza

The plight of the people in Palestine is a textbook example of the operation of institutional racism and colonial violence. The Palestinian people have been displaced from their homes and lands through a decision made by Britain (their former coloniser) and its allies, without democratic consensus.  Thereafter, being ghettoised into increasingly narrow enclaves, heavily militarised and controlled by the Israel Defence Force (IDF).

In the aftermath of the Second World War and the horrifying Holocaust on Jewish people by European fascists, the top-down establishment of the state of Israel led to the dispossession and displacement of Palestinians who had little to do with the horrors of the Holocaust.

Many observers have argued that since its establishment, Israel has been a crucial economic and military outpost securing Western interests within the Middle East, a region with huge strategic and economic significance globally.

Regardless of how one understands the history of the Israel-Palestine conflict, the Palestinian experience is one of human suffering, dispossession, and subjugation. How, then, can one expect peace to be achieved, under repression and injustice?

Peace and conflict studies scholar Johan Galtung discussed two concepts of peace. Negative peace and positive peace.

Negative peace refers to a situation where direct violence is absent. However, negative peace hides indirect/structural violence (unjust political and economic systems) within it. The presence of structural violence makes negative peace highly unstable, and susceptible to direct physical violence.

Positive peace, on the other hand, refers to the absence of both direct and structural violence. In other words, positive peace refers to the existence of justice. Only under circumstances of positive peace, can there be long-lasting stability and prosperity for all.

Since 1948, there has never been a period of positive peace for Palestinian people. Unless and until the fundamental human rights of Palestinians are upheld and injustices addressed, there cannot be a resolution to the conflict in Palestine.

In the media and from powerful politicians, time again we hear dehumanising narratives about Palestinians. The language and rhetoric used is starkly similar to colonial narratives about non-western peoples and similar to the language used by the March 15 terrorist.

In the last two weeks of IDF’s siege on Gaza, over 4000 Palestinians have died. Even before Hamas’ October 7 deadly attacks in which over a 1000 Israelis were killed, the IDF was brutalising civilians in Gaza and the Westbank. In the Westbank (where Hamas does not operate), this year alone, 38 children were killed by the IDF.

What is happening in Palestine is March 15 many times over. We cannot be silent. Attacks on places of worship (churches, mosques), hospitals, schools and markets both before and after the Hamas strikes are unacceptable.

I join millions of Jews around the world who advocate for peace and de-escalation through an immediate ceasefire and a peace process which will lead to the recognition of Palestinian statehood.

Justice is the seed. Peace is the flower.

Dr Josephine Varghese is a former political analyst and researcher for Democracy Project.

This article can be republished under a Creative Commons CC BY-ND 4.0  license. Attributions should include a link to the Democracy Project.