Gaza in End Times

The Al Aqsa mosque is the third holiest site in Islam.

9 mins read
People mourn victims killed during Israeli airstrikes in the southern Gaza Strip city of Rafah, on Feb. 12, 2024.(Photo by Khaled Omar/Xinhua)

“Whether the victims of October 7th in Israel or the ongoing attack on Gaza, all the victims of dehumanisation, how do we resist?” ~ Jonathan Glazer, director of The Zone of Interest (Oscar acceptance speech)

The Pali Canon has the original tale, but it’s the version in the commentaries we know. In both stories, she is Kisa Gotami, a thin girl who marries young. Then comes the divergence. In the story we know she loses her baby to illness, refuses to accept his death, and rushes from healer to healer, cradling the dead body, seeking life. The Buddha is her final refuge. He tells her to bring a mustard seed from a house into which death hasn’t entered. She walks the length and breadth of the city. In every house someone has died, sometime.

In Gaza, most families have suffered a violent death in the last five months. According to a March survey by the Palestinian Centre for Survey Research, 60% of Gazans have lost at least one family member since Israeli offensive began. More than 32,142 reported deaths as I write. 70% of the victims are women and children.

This spectacle of blood, this daily dose of death and destruction visited on a captive population, is creating a sea-change in global opinion – against Israel. Mr. Netanyahu has become an embarrassment, even to those politicians who bear-hugged him in the immediate aftermath of Hamas’ murderous attack and continued to embrace him as the Israeli military machine killed 1000, 5000, even 10,000 Gazan children. The number of murdered children is now 13,430 – that is in under six months. How many more children would be killed if this war continues for another month, six months, a year? The calculations are easy to make but harder to swallow, even for many American politicians.

So Chuck Schumer, the staunchly pro-Israel majority leader of the US senate, warned, “Israel cannot survive if it becomes a pariah.” And Nancy Pelosi, former American speaker and another died-in-the-wool Israeli-supporter, agreed. The nakedness of the war has become unaffordable for many of Israel’s international enablers. They prefer it to be veiled. (Not Donald Trump though. His son-in-law Jared Kushner enthused about the ‘very valuable’ waterfront properties in Gaza during a February discussion in Harvard about the Middle East).  

Some Israelis are finally becoming aware of the cost of war, to themselves. Bibi – stop killing Israel, read a giant banner carried by Israeli protestors demonstrating outside prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s private home. The protestors want Mr. Netanyahu to step down and hold early elections (elections are due only in 2026). He may not survive an immediate election but Israel’s hard right will, those extremists who want to starve Gazans to death or dream of a second Nakba or the Third Temple on the land Al Aqsa mosque stands today. Mr. Netanyahu might not be popular, but the war is. Still. Most of those who protest against Mr. Netanyahu don’t see the genocide next door, the dying babies, the wailing parents. Only the growing international opprobrium resulting from that carnage.

That opprobrium will increase, especially with mass starvation looming in Gaza, the intended outcome of Israeli policies. Last week, British foreign secretary David Cameron publicly criticised Israel for obstructing international aid to starving and sick Gazans. Aid cannot get in due to “arbitrary denials by the government of Israel and lengthy clearance procedures, including multiple screenings and narrow opening windows in daylight hours.”

His surprise is surprising because this is what Israel said it will do before launching its offensive. The country’s political and military leaders called Gazans human animals and talked about starving them to death in the crudest terms. They are walking that talk now.

In Sri Lanka, the Rajapaksas named the Fourth Eelam War a Humanitarian Operation with zero-civilian casualties. President Mahinda Rajapaksa even said that Lankan soldiers fought this ‘humanitarian operation’ with the UN Declaration of Human Rights in one hand and a rice packet for refugees over one shoulder, their hearts full of love for civilian Tamils. The Rajapaksas had to sugar-coat the bloody truth because they feared international reaction. Without that concern, the final offensive would have claimed many more civilian lives.

After the October 7th murderous attack by Hamas, Israel got a blank cheque from the West, and therefore saw no need either for restraint or for concealment. “Going after Hamas is legitimate; obliterating vast swathes of Gaza is not. Using proportionate force is legal; but collective punishment and forced movement of civilians is not,” former UK foreign secretary Ben Wallace recently pointed out. But that distinction was not made clear to Israel. The West’s unconditional support enabled genocide. It is a warning of how unliveable this world would become if every country is free to wage its wars in whatever way it wants.

Universal extremism

In January 2024, Britain’s chief rabbi Ephraim Mirvis made a speech endorsing Israel’s war against Gaza. “We can be proud of the state of Israel, what it represents…what Israel is doing is the most outstanding thing a decent responsible country can do for its citizens.”

In January 2024, Palestinian death toll surpassed 25000. In January 2024, the number of dead Palestinian children was almost 10,000. In January 2024, there was an ‘acute food shortage’ in Gaza, according to UN; “…the highest share of people facing high levels of acute food insecurity (ever recorded) for any given area or country.” The UN secretary general called the situation ‘heart breaking’.

Calling such horrors ‘outstanding’ and their perpetrators ‘decent’ and ‘responsible’ is reminiscent of the corrupting and poisonous language of Nazism. Viktor Klemperer, professor of French Literature and Holocaust-survivor, in his eponymous book named that language LTI – Lingua Tertii Imperii – the Language of the Third Reich. “If someone replaces the words ‘heroic’ and ‘virtuous’ with ‘fanatical’ for long enough, he will come to believe that a fanatic really is a virtuous hero; and that no one can be a hero without fanaticism. The Third Right did not invent the words ‘fanatic’ and ‘fanaticism’; it just changed their value…” (The Language of the Third Reich).

The Rajapaksas, unknowingly, emulated this model when they replaced war with ‘humanitarian offensive’, soldier with ‘war-hero’, and open prison camps with ‘welfare villages’. This linguistic inversion continues to this day, and is practiced even by those vehemently opposed to the Rajapaksas. In the parlance of Lankan Opposition, soldiers are still war-heroes, the war is still a humanitarian operation, and Tamil civilian deaths are the perennial unmentionable, as if zero-civilian casualties were the reality rather than Rajapaksa myth. As Professor Klemperer said, we have imbibed so many tiny drops of verbal arsenic that our body is saturated with poison and we have become immune to it. We don’t even notice what we are saying when we say humanitarian operation or war hero; or when we valorise retired military personnel without mentioning Tamil civilian casualties. Like the chief rabbi of UK, who takes as irrefutable fact, the rightness of Israel state in its treatment of Palestinians, be it in Gaza, West Bank or elsewhere. His approach to enemy deaths is reminiscent of the monks of Mahawamsa, who assured a conscience-stricken King Dutugemunu that he did no wrong in war since the enemy dead were non-Buddhists and thus ‘beasts’.

Jews, Slavs, and Gypsies were Untermenschen not just to the Nazis but also to many a German. The Palestinians are Untermenschen not just to Zionists but also to many an Israeli or non-Israeli Jew. Dehumanisation is the road to carnage, anywhere, anytime. Jonathan Glazer’s Zone of Interest which won the award for Best International Film at the Oscars is about the normal, ordinary life of Rudolf Höss, the commandant of Auschwitz, lived within olfactory-distance of the death camp’s massive crematoria. According to Mr. Glazer the movie “looks into the dark corners of human capacity… I think what is inside this film is what we do to each other as human beings. We see others as lesser than ourselves, different from ourselves. Somehow, step by step, that leads to atrocity.”

Mr. Glazer, a Jew, was excoriated for anti-Semitism. Extremism owns Israel now; Palestine too; that stark divide which permits neither nuance nor dissent. Yet, as historian Geoffrey Levin points out in his new book, Our Palestinian Question, opposing Zionism and Israel on the issue of Palestinian rights was not uncommon either in Israel or the US for decades. He writes how the state of Israel worked systematically to silence and cancel dissenting Jews, like journalist William Zukerman, once a prominent voice among progressive American Jews. That erasure was so successful there’s not even a Wikipedia page about him

Mr. Glazer argues that the ending of this relative openness can be largely attributed to a pop-culture phenomenon, Leon Uris’s Exodus. The bestselling book was turned into a blockbuster Hollywood movie starring Paul Newman. In his opinion the movie was the reason America really fell in love with Israel.

Now a real-life movie is making America fall a little bit out of love with Israel. A war in which the main victims are not armed combatants but unarmed women and children is not the best advertisement for any country. The Gaza war, as Brazilian President Lula said, is not “…a war of soldiers against soldiers. It’s a war between a highly prepared army and women and children.” And the lacerating images of those pitiful deaths cannot be hidden from the public gaze in this age of social media. The growing public disenchantment with Israel, and the mounting protests, is forcing many American, British, and European politicians to rethink their unconditional support for Israel’s genocidal war.

Sacrificial (red) cows?

Writing from Selma, Alabama, in March 1965, Elizabeth Hardwick, writer and co-founder of the New York Review of Books, observed that the singular nature of Martin Luther King’s protest and “the quality and the extent of his success sprang from a soil of religion…” Dr King and his white racist opponents drew their inspiration and justification from the same Bible. The paradox of religion is its capacity to seed both movingly good and repulsively evil. In his book, The End of Enlightenment, historian Richard Whatmore writes that ‘enthusiasm’ understood as fanaticism was anathema to many Enlightenment thinkers. What mattered was not what you believed but how you believed it, an understandable consideration when memories of devastating internecine wars between Christians were still fresh.

Whether a religion seeds a Martin Luther King or a Joseph Kony (and the Lord’s Resistance Army) depends not so much on what religion you believe in but how you believe in it. And for a fanatic of any religion, even the annihilation of a large swathe of humankind is an acceptable sacrifice.   

In one of its propaganda videos, Hamas claimed that it launched the October 7th attack to save the Al Aqsa mosque (a claim that doesn’t dovetail with the gruesome targeting of civilians) from destruction. Some Orthodox Jews are planning to sacrifice a red cow as a prelude to repossessing the Temple of the Mount, Hamas warned.

If Hamas actually wanted to save the Al Aqsa mosque, it should have targeted the West Bank settlement housing three red heifers and not Kibbutzim in Israel peopled mostly by non-Orthodox progressive Jews. For the red cows do exist in reality, born in Texas and airlifted at enormous cost to Israel and being held in West Bank until the time comes.

The First Temple of Judaism was destroyed by Babylonian armies and the Second Temple by Roman legions. Building the Third Temple has been the dream of many Jews for millennia. In the meantime, an Umayyad Caliph built the Al Aqsa mosque on the empty land. According to media reports, some right-wing ultra-Orthodox Jews are actually planning to demolish Al Aqsa mosque and build the ‘Third Temple’ there. They believe that sacrificing an unblemished red heifer who is exactly three years old on the Mount of Olives will be necessary to win divine approval for this project.

An Israeli organisation, The Temple Institute, with the support of some evangelical Christian groups in the US, is now keeping the three red cows in an undisclosed location in West Bank. An altar is reportedly being constructed. The Temple Institute is said to be readying to carry out the sacrifice sometime this year, possibly before Passover which falls on April 22nd, perhaps as early as the Easter weekend, on March 29th, which is the Sabbath of the Red Heifer. The sacrifice and the resultant ash-and-water mixture are believed to be capable of purifying all of Israel of ritual impurities and allow Jews to enter the Temple of the Mount.

Will there be an Ayodhya in Jerusalem?

The Al Aqsa mosque is the third holiest site in Islam. Any mob attack on it could open floodgates of violence in Middle East and beyond. No Islamic leader will be able to withstand the resulting fury in their streets.

Project Red Cow is no secret. Israeli leaders cannot be unaware of the danger of the situation getting out of hand, of Israel-Palestine conflict spiralling over into a Jewish-Islamic war, as Hamas would dearly desire. Yet the circus of insanity is being allowed to proceed. Even if sanity dawns at the eleventh hour and serious steps are taken to stop the sacrifice, this will not be the end. For fanaticism is a sickness of the mind. And extremism which begins with destruction often ends up with self-destruction.

Tisaranee Gunasekara

The writer is a senior political commentator in Colombo.

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