For almost two months, I wrestled with whether to write this post – not because I feared the potential blowback, but simply because I have dear friends and loved ones with strong connections and feelings on both sides of the war between Israel and the Palestinians. I deeply care about them, and I didn’t want to tarnish those relationships by offending them.
But as a human as a human being who proclaims himself to be a writer…as a person who cherishes the immense value in every human life, regardless of race, culture or religion…and most importantly, as a person who not only comes from an oppressed people, but who has lived under the boot of oppression for most of his life, I have decided I have an obligation as a human to speak out.
No, I’m not a scholar on this conflict or on the history that gives it context. But I know what is morally wrong when I see it and I just can’t stay silent in good conscience as children and other civilians are indiscriminately killed. So, here are my thoughts:
When is revenge ok, and to what degree?
Let me start with a story. In Wellington Park, DC, some guys from a rival neighborhood “invaded” and, in a spray of their bullets, an innocent 10-year-old girl was killed. This is morally wrong, right?
Then, in retaliation for one of their “own” being killed, a group of guys from Wellington Park fought back, shooting at their rivals in a southeast DC park. This time, an 11-year-old boy was caught in the middle and shot in the head. Most people would say that’s morally wrong too. Neither of those children deserved what they got.
So, why is it that when Israel kills (as of Dec. 9) more than 9,000 children (compared to 36 Israeli children murdered by Hamas in its Oct. 7 attack) our American government has so far refused to back calls for a ceasefire? In fact, the Biden administration has called for more military “aid” for Israel, without conditions.
On the podcast “Pod Save the World,” former President Barack Obama said, “What Hamas did was horrific and there’s no justification for it. What is also true is that the occupation and what’s happening to Palestinians is unbearable. We have to admit that nobody’s hands are clean, and that all of us are complicit to some degree.”
Root causes matter
I agree with Obama to an extent. Yes, what Hamas did was horrible. The latest counts show that 766 civilians were killed during the Oct. 7 attack (the rest were members of the Israeli security forces). “Theoretically,” anyone with principles believes that is wrong. However, governments kill civilians all the time when they feel threatened. It’s estimated that U.S. forces killed at least 243,000 and 280,000 civilians, respectively, in our wars against Afghanistan and Iraq. Yes, Hamas is not considered a formal government, since the Palestinian territories have not been allowed the official status of statehood, but that is indeed the role it plays in Gaza.) The U.S. has rightfully been castigated for its carnage in Iraq, since weapons of mass destruction were never found. But in the case of the Gaza Strip, as Obama points out, “the occupation and what’s happening to Palestinians is unbearable.” That occupation has been going on for more than 17 years. The Palestinians in Gaza cannot exit without permit, are not allowed to export most goods they manage to produce and have electricity for only a couple of hours a day. As a result, 85% of the population live in poverty and 63% are dependent on humanitarian aid. Almost 85% of the population have never been outside of Gaza.
I am reminded of an observation made by Michelle Alexander in her seminal book on mass incarceration of American blacks, The New Jim Crow:
The easy answer (to “criminal acts”) is to wag a finger at those who are behaving badly But the more difficult answer the more courageous one is to say yes, yes we should be concerned about the behavior of men trapped in ghetto communities, but the deep failure of morality is our own Are we willing to demonize a population, declare a war against them, and then stand back and heap shame and contempt upon them for failing to behave like model citizens while under attack?
It’s a simple fact: Oppression breeds hate for the oppressor. Yet the United States and Israel will never admit their roles in this conflict. What they, and most all Western governments for that matter, fail to understand is that oppression almost always results in the oppressed fighting back in some form. When they have tried all the “legal” and nonviolent means they can, some members of the oppressed population will resort to violence. This is what happened with Nelson Mandela and his African National Congress (ANC) party in South Africa during apartheid. This is what happened with the U.S. civil rights movement, which gave birth to the Black Panthers, as well as Martin Luther King Jr. This is what happened in prison with the rebellion in Attica.
Violent resistance is a human condition
But perhaps the most ironic parallel is the tactics chosen by Jews living in British Mandate Palestine in the 1930s-40s, as they struggled to carve out their own country. In 1931, the more militant elements of the movement formed the Irgun a group widely labeled a terrorist organization and responsible for the murder of many civilian Palestinians as well as British soldiers. Perhaps their most famous attack was the bombing of the King David Hotel in Jerusalem, which served as headquarters for the British administration. Ninety-one were killed and 46 were injured. One of the Irgun leaders was Menachim Begin, who later became the sixth prime minister of the new state of Israel.
It’s not desirable, but the use of violence by an oppressed population must be understood as an expected reaction. The only solution is to end the oppression.
As Ta-Nehisi Coates stated in his interview with Amy Goodman on Democracy Now, I too understand “the rage that comes when you have a history of oppression. I understand the anger. I understand the humiliation that comes from being subjected to manifold oppression.” Especially when people look away from it like it is nothing.
I remember when I was sent back to federal prison in 2020, after living for more than a year in the much more humane DC jail. My first stop was the high-security Hazelton prison in West Virginia. My feeling, quite simply, was terror. I was dehumanized again after I had, for a brief time, regained my humanity. Once again, I was treated like nothing…worse than a piece of trash. I was called a nigger by white COs as they ridiculed me. I felt like I was trapped and that these COs had my life in their hands as they controlled whether I ate, showered or spoke with my family members. Even whether I lived.
That feeling created hate for them. I remember having to restrain myself from writing a post about how being locked up in these rural areas with all-white staff made many of us hate white people and want to harm them upon release. And I haven’t suffered half the indignities the Palestinians have, through no fault of their own except where they were born.
Revenge is not the answer
As of this writing, more than an estimated 18,000 Palestinians in Gaza have been killed. Entire neighborhoods have been wiped out. Millions of people have been displaced. Hospitals and universities have been destroyed along with the teachers, doctors and other leaders who are needed to eventually rebuild. There is an extreme shortage of food and clean water. These are people, not animals. And all of this harm is for what? It clearly won’t prevent hatred from building up and boiling over once again down the road. The only answer that comes to mind is REVENGE.
In his Democracy Now interview, Ta-Nehisi Coates stated, “I keep hearing this term repeated over and over again: ‘the right to self-defense.’ But what about the right to dignity? What about the right to be able to support yourself and your family?” Well, yeah, what about it? Do we just not care about human dignity unless it has something to do with our people, or our tribe…?
Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant was quoted in the media as saying that, “We are fighting human animals and we will act accordingly.” This what war does. It makes people see their enemies as subhuman, and thus rightful targets for extermination. It gives its combatants an unquenchable lust for revenge and retaliation. And what nobody is saying and what the U.S. and Israeli governments seem to be missing is that this doesn’t just happen on one side. The Palestinians also will feel this lust for revenge for years to come. As a result, this war against Hamas cannot solve the problem between the Palestinians and Israel. In fact, it will only exacerbate it for generations. Even if Israeli forces can kill all active Hamas fighters, the way that they are treating the Palestinians will motivate many others to take their place.
Violence corrupts completely. War breeds more war. Hate breeds hate!
For stories about life inside Gaza right now, visit We Are Not Numbers, a youth storytelling project founded by my collaborator, Pam Bailey.