Obscene. According to Alain Rey’s French etymological dictionary, the adjective, taken from the Latin obscenus, means “boding ill, sinister”, and it has passed into contemporary usage in the sense of “having a dreadful aspect which should be concealed.”
Antigone in Jerusalem
“Obscene” is the first word brought to mind by the images from the funeral of the Palestinian journalist Shireen Abu Akleh, killed on Thursday 12 May by the Israeli police. Soldiers attacked her coffin, nearly overturning it, clubbing demonstrators, throwing stun grenades, and tearing down Palestinian flags. Apart from any political judgement, this action strikes a blow at the most profound tenets of human dignity, violating a sacred principle going back to the dawn of time, the right to be buried in dignity, exemplified by the myth of Antigone (Sophocles). She berates King Creon, who had refused his brother a tomb, and whose orders she had defied: “I did not believe your proclamations so strong that the laws of the Gods, unwritten and eternally certain, might be overridden by a mere mortal.”
Israel makes no effort to “conceal” its actions, since it does not consider them “obscene”. It acts openly, with the chutzpa, the arrogance, the colonial assumption of superiority which marks not only the majority of the Israeli political class, but also a large part of the media parroting the line of the army’s spokespersons. Itamar Ben-Gvir, although a fascist lawmaker – like a good number of the current government or opposition, albeit with varying nuances – expressed a sentiment widely shared in Israel when he wrote: “When terrorists fire on our soldiers in Jenin, they must respond with all necessary force, even when the “journalists” of Al Jazeera are present in the area in the middle of the battle, to disturb our soldiers.”
His phrase underlines the fact that Shirin Abu Akleh’s killing was not an “accident”, but the result of a deliberate, systematic, considered policy. How else to explain the fact that none of the Israeli journalists covering the same events has ever been killed, while Reporters Without Border says that 35 of their Palestinian colleagues have been “eliminated” since 2001, most of them photographers and cameramen, the most “dangerous” because their images show what is happening on the ground? This asymmetry is just one of the facets of the apartheid in operation in Israel-Palestine, so well described by Amnesty International: depending on whether you are occupier or occupied, Israeli “judgements” will make you black or white, to paraphrase La Fontaine, the sentence most often being the death penalty for the weakest.
Can the criminal investigate his own crime?
For once, the murder of Shireen Abu Akleh stirred rather more international official reaction than usual. Her fame, the fact that she was a US citizen and a Christian by faith, all helped. The UN Security Council even adopted a resolution condemning the crime and demanding an “immediate, in-depth, transparent and impartial” investigation, without, however, going as far as to demand that it should be international, which Israel refuses in any circumstances. So, can those responsible for the crime be associated with the conduct of an enquiry? For years, Israeli human rights organisations such as B’Tselem, or international ones like Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch (HRW), have been documenting the way the Israeli army’s “investigations” practically never reach a conclusion.
Will these official protests lead anywhere? The answer is already there: No. There will not be an international investigation, because neither the West, nor the Arab countries which have normalised relations with Israel, are ready to go beyond verbal denunciations which will not bother anybody. Nor are they ready to admit that, as recent history can attest, every concession made to Israel, far from producing “moderation” from Tel Aviv, simply encourages further colonisation and repression. Who remembers that the UAE maintained that the opening of an Israeli embassy in Abu Dhabi would lead to a change of direction in Israeli policy? And American and European softness on the Israeli government, “our ally in the war on terror” – has that led to even a slowdown in settlement building in the occupied territories which they pretend to condemn?
A Supreme Court which endorses the occupation
Two recent facts have just confirmed Israel’s total indifference to the “remonstrations” of its friends. The Israeli Supreme Court endorsed the biggest displacement of population since 1967, the expulsion of around 1,000 Palestinians from eight villages south of Hebron, ruling shamelessly that Israeli law overrides international law. Too busy punishing Russia, the West did not react. And on the very day of Shireen Abu Akleh’s funeral, the Israeli government announced the construction of 4,400 new housing units in the West Bank settlements. Why should it hold back, when it knows it risks no consequences, with any condemnations ending up in the Foreign Ministry waste bins, and compensation in the form of perpetual expressions of support for Israel? Support repeated by Emmanuel Macron in May 2022, when he pledged to strengthen with Israel “cooperation on all levels, including the European… Israel’s security is at the heart of our partnership.” He even lauded Israeli efforts to “avoid an escalation” in Jerusalem.
What has been happening in the Holy Land for decades is neither an episode in the “war on terror”, nor a clash between two equal parties, as some media and commentators imply. The Palestinians are not being attacked by extraterrestrials, as one might gather from the reaction of the French Foreign Minister, Jean-Yves Le Drian, on his official Twitter account. “I am deeply shocked and alarmed by the unacceptable violence which has prevented the funeral procession of Mrs Shireen Abu Akleh to proceed in peace and dignity.”
As for all those who preach to the Palestinians, rebuking them for the use of force, albeit much more limited than that deployed by the Israelis, let us remember the words of Nelson Mandela, an icon for many commentators when he was a revolutionary leading the struggle to end the apartheid regime of which Israel was one of the most faithful allies to the end: “A freedom fighter learns the hard way that it is the oppressor who defines the nature of the struggle, and the oppressed is often left no recourse but to use methods that mirror those of the oppressor. At a point, one can only fight fire with fire.”
No doubt we will never know which Israeli soldier pulled the trigger and killed the Palestinian journalist. But what we do know already is that the chain of complicity is a long one. It may begin in Tel Aviv, but it stretches to Washington, slips through Abu Dhabi and Rabat, and slides into Paris and Brussels. The murder of Shireen Abu Akleh is not the act of a lone wolf; it is a collective crime.