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The Danger of Staying Neutral During War

by Libby Pierzak-Pee

For decades, Gaza, one of the most densely populated areas in the world, has been marred by political instability, military conflict, and periodic outbreaks of violence resulting in a humanitarian crisis of staggering proportions. 


The October 7th, 2023, Hamas terrorist attack was the deadliest terrorist attack against Israel since the state’s establishment in 1948. Hamas entered southern Israel and raided military posts and a musical festival, killing an estimated 1200 people and took an estimated 240 people back to Gaza as hostages. 



There is also evidence pointing to Hamas’ systematic use of rape and sexual violence against women and girls as a weapon of war.

 

On October 8th, 2023, Israel formally declared war on Hamas and began a sustained bombing campaign on Gaza. They have since launched a ground attack and have blocked supplies including medicine, food and fuel from entering the territory.

 

The atrocities that continue to be committed in Gaza shines a light on our collective response to human suffering. In the face of such events, the question of our neutrality and impartiality arises. 


Is neutrality an assumed position, or simply a screen behind which we hide our cowardice and complicity?

 

There is an incredible irony to the global outpouring of support and solidarity for the people of Ukraine, and yet that same support is not extended to Palestinian and Israeli civilians caught in the crossfire. This comparison is not to judge one conflict over another, but to ask why the west continues to cherry-pick who gains their empathy and outrage.

 

Whenever atrocities occur, the west often responds in one of four ways: “thoughts and prayers” swiftly followed by air strikes that they deny being involved in and/or funding; speeches highlighting the injustice of innocent civilians caught up in war whilst offering refuge and safety (but only to those who are white); turning a blind eye to injustice through abstention and silence; or partaking in collective virtue signalling, particularly on social media.

 

It appears to be the case that social media activism gives people a smokescreen to hide behind, by allowing them to engage with social issues on a level that makes it appear as if they genuinely care, only for them to not do anything else after they have posted. 


Unfortunately, this turns discussions of war, conflict, and genocide into nothing more than a trend to hop on before returning to post their regular #ad #paidpromotion #gifted content. 

 

Too many people, particularly those who are often vocal in their views on politics, gender, sexuality and race, are reluctant to voice their opinions when it comes to Gaza - with the recurring argument for said neutrality being to remain ‘neutral’ on a ‘complex’ issue.

 

For example, many western activists, both public figures and individuals who claim to be feminists, are completely silent when it comes to discussions surrounding the necessity of a ceasefire in Gaza, and the collective suffering of both Palestinian and Israeli women and children.

 

It is astounding how western feminists condemn Hamas’s actions towards Israeli women during the October 7th attack and their treatment of female hostages in the aftermath, and rightly so, yet remain silent about Israel’s similarly appalling actions against Palestinian women. 


Israel’s bombardment of Gaza and near-total siege have already killed thousands of Palestinian women and children. 


Many more have been displaced with no access to shelter and supplies and an estimated 45,000 pregnant women and 68,0000 breastfeeding mothers are at risk of anaemia, bleeding and death. 


Furthermore, hundreds of Palestinian women and children in the West Bank remain imprisoned, trying to survive in atrocious conditions.

 

Western women’s empathy and outrage is deliberately targeted and based on their individual personal identities and political affiliations, rather than being aligned with the universal tenets of feminism, respecting the diversity of all women's experiences, identities, knowledge and strengths and striving to empower all women to realise their full rights, opportunities, power and autonomy. 


Their silence perpetuates a form of feminism imbued with colonial and imperial prejudices. This ‘colonial feminism’ intertwined with imperial power structures, allows the rhetoric of women’s liberation to be co-opted to further the aims of the powerful, at the expense of the oppressed.

 

In times of war and conflict where ostensible displays of allyship and solidarity are needed, even our political leaders are reluctant to express their stance, having remained somewhat indifferent on the global stage through their continued abstention on Gaza at the UN.

 

On 8th December 2023, the US vetoed the resolution calling for a ceasefire. Thirteen countries on the 15 member council supported the motion, with the UK abstaining.

 

On 12th December 2023, a resounding vote at the UN General Assembly backed a call for an immediate humanitarian ceasefire in Gaza. This vote highlighted the consensus around the world for the need to stop Israel’s assault on Gaza, which has left more than 23,000 Palestinians dead, wounded more than 55,000 and displaced 1.9 million people.

 

The resolution expressed “grave concern over the catastrophic humanitarian situation in the Gaza Strip and the suffering of the Palestinian civilian population” and stated that Palestinians and Israelis must be protected in accordance with international humanitarian law. 


It also demanded that all parties comply with international humanitarian law “notably with regard to the protection of civilians” and called for “the immediate and unconditional release of all hostages”.

 

153 member states out of the 193 total membership backed the ceasefire, while 10 countries including the US and Israel, opposed the motion. The UK was among the 23 countries to abstain on the motion. 


Whilst this motion was largely symbolic and has little binding on the conflict itself, global opinion had shifted from the previous motion from 27 October that called for a “humanitarian truce” which passed by a vote of 120-14 with 45 abstentions. Again, the UK abstained from this motion.

 

Despite the UK pledging £87 million in aid to the Occupied Palestinian Territories for 2023, since 2015 the British government have licensed arms sales to Israel worth more than £474 million. This includes components for combat aircrafts, tanks, missiles, small arms and ammunitions. 


Furthermore, the UK provides approximately 15% of the components in the F-35 stealth bomber aircraft currently being used in Gaza. The government says it has not provided “lethal or military equipment other than medical supplies to Israel” since 7 October 2023.

 

Under the UK’s arms export regime, licences cannot be granted where there is a clear risk that items might be used to facilitate a serious violation of international humanitarian law. The Israeli military’s conduct in Gaza creates a risk of UK arms being used in grave abuses including reinforcing the unlawful blockade and carrying out unlawful attacks on civilians and civilians infrastructure. Providing weapons knowingly, would make the UK complicit in such abuses.

 

Currently, neither the UK government nor the Labour Party support an immediate ceasefire in Gaza, but have previously supported temporary “humanitarian pauses” in the fighting for delivery of aid.

 

On 15 November 2023, the House of Commons voted on the SNP amendment in the King’s Speech debates which pressed all parties to agree to a humanitarian ceasefire. This failed to pass with 293 against to 125 in favour.

 

However public opinion differs, as a recent YouGov poll commissioned by Medical Aid for Palestinians (MAP) and the Council for Arab-British Understanding (Caabu), found that 71% of the British public believe there should be an immediate ceasefire in Israel and Palestine. The poll also highlights the lack of public confidence in both the government and the opposition’s handling of the conflict. 



Only 17% of people approve of the UK government’s handling of the conflict, versus 29% disapproving, and only 9% of people approve of the Labour Party’s handling of the conflict, versus 30% disapproving.

 

This lack of confidence should be a wake-up call to political leaders to realign themselves with public sentiment and international law in order to back a resolution to the conflict and the catastrophic humanitarian situation that continues to unfold in Gaza.

 

The roots of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict are deep-rooted and intertwined. It is crucial to recognise that security and peace for both the Palestinians and Israelis are not mutually exclusive, they are interconnected goals that will require a negotiated resolution.

 

Whilst both sides claim their right to self-defence, innocent civilians continue to get caught up in the never-ending cycle of violence and destruction. Standards in hygiene, sanitation, water, food security and shelter are not being met across multiple territories and resources are dwindling. Until they are met, the more suffering and loss of life there will be.

 

It shouldn’t be polarising or controversial to say that genocide is wrong. It shouldn’t be polarising or controversial to say that terror attacks committed by political extremist and military groups are wrong. It shouldn’t be controversial to ask for civilians in Gaza to not be bombed or used as collateral damage by those in leadership / military positions. 


It should not be polarising or controversial to say that the systematic onslaught of rape and sexual violence used against women and young girls as a weapon of war is inexcusable. Yet divisive narratives continue to dominate the headlines, polarising public opinion.

 

The images, voices and testimonies we are exposed to generate strong emotions: shock, anger, rage, despair, astonishment, compassion, desolation. They shake us as individuals, leaving us to question our values, our morals, our ability to empathise. And they are supposed to. 


However, in the face of overwhelming terror, there can be no neutrality or impartiality. Abstention and selective silence are no longer an option.

 

Physical actions in the outside world such as donating money to relief funds, signing petitions, attending marches and rallies, sending emails to local MPs in support of a ceasefire and educating yourself, require more effort and are a testament to an individual’s commitment to a cause. 

 

The international community has a collective responsibility and a moral obligation to address the ongoing crisis. This obligation and empathy should extend beyond providing humanitarian aid, and fulfilling individual nations’ own geopolitical interests. Calls for a ceasefire are justified. The principles of humanity cannot be selectively applied as and when you feel like it to whomever you feel like.

 

We must decide whether to hold our political leaders accountable for their actions, urging them to prioritise effective diplomacy in order to ensure the future of the region by working towards a stable and equitable resolution to the conflict for all, or turn away and face the consequences of our ignorance and indifference.


Edited by Emily Duff

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