As brutal war rages and famine looms, look at pictures of Gaza and keep saying: ‘this is not normal’


Nesrine Malik

Of all the threats to those suffering, one of the most frightening is that we tire – and their plight becomes background noiseMon 25 Mar 2024 06.00 GMTShare

Cast your mind back to early 2022, more than two years ago now. Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine was such a shock, such a break with decades of political consensus, that it was treated as an act of aggression that could not for one moment be accepted or made peace with, only urgently rebuffed. Condemnations, lamentations and pledges of support, both for Ukraine’s military effort and its displaced people, all signified the same thing – this was an aberration that would not be allowed to pass.

But pass it did. Russia has since suffered heavy losses and the war is referred to now as a “quagmire” for Putin, but pass it did. US arms support is dwindling, and a sizeable aid package has been stuck, blocked by partisan mischief, in the House of Representatives for months now. Just as striking is how the invasion has become relegated from high news and politics to another item jostling for attention, sympathy and outrage. An obscene banality of war is that if it goes on long enough, life will rearrange around it.

Now imagine an act of aggression that had no such universal, full-throated condemnation, no pledges of large aid packages and no support or schemes for refugees. In fact, imagine one where the aid and military support is being provided, but it is to the party that is killing civilians and invading their territory. How much harder is it then, to maintain that sense of urgency and outrage? To keep it in the headlines? To keep the pressure up on politicians? To keep it even alive in your heart? It has been almost six months since Israel launched its assault in Gaza. But even as the images of dead children buried in rubble give way to those of dead children emaciated from hunger, there is an unmistakable sense of fade.

Some of that fade is by design. Why would a matter that raises awkward questions for politicians be kept in the spotlight by those same politicians who have either supported Israel’s actions or dragged their feet in condemning them. The result is not just avoidance, but dilution. The scale of the crisis in Gaza is not brought to us from the lecterns of the US president or his spokespeople, the sort of representatives who (still, jarringly) speak about Russian war crimes and how they must not be tolerated or normalised. On the first anniversary of the Ukraine invasion, the US secretary of state, Antony Blinken, addressed the United Nations security council and said: “Day after day of Russia’s atrocities, it’s easy to become numb to the horror, to lose our ability to feel shock and outrage. But we can never let the crimes Russia is committing become our new normal. Bucha is not normal. Mariupol is not normal. Irpin is not normal. Bombing schools and hospitals and apartment buildings to rubble is not normal.”

Gaza is not normal, but you won’t hear Blinken pleading that you not become desensitised to it. Instead it will come from human rights organisations, experts, reporters and aid workers who warn that what amounts to “utter annihilation” is not only exceptional, it is beyond description. But their collective efforts, admirable and credible as they are, catch in a bottleneck when they reach the powers that can do anything about them.

So the fact that the assault on Gaza has resulted in the “biggest cohort of paediatric amputees in history”, or that if things remain as they are, Gaza will fall to “the most intense famine since the second world war”, will not be acted upon by supporters and underwriters – both practical and moral – of Israel’s offensive, beyond what are increasingly farcical requests that the Israeli government behave more reasonably. The volume at which such historic horrors are amplified is always artificially set to one that is much quieter than it should be – which at this point, is nothing short of at maximum.

That silencing also smothers and makes harder the work of those members of the general public who have, for months now, through protest and campaigning, tried to keep that volume as high as it can be; to simply state that this is not normal. But not only is their message being ignored, it is being actively suppressed through attempts to ban protest altogether, or imply relentlessly that it is about something else – anything else, rather than anger and worry about the fate of those in Gaza. An almost eerie outcome is that as hundreds of thousands pound the streets around the world on a weekly basis and tell their representatives how they feel, their voices are muted, or others speak for them; they become ventriloquist dummies for politicians who present them as parodies of threat and menace.

Then there is just the fatigue. Fatigue from anger, from being given the run around by politicians, from exposure to events that no human can witness for an extended period of time without some sort of numbing, self-defence impulse kicking in. A double whammy burnout that comes from exposure to scenes and statements, casually posted by Israeli officials or sourced from their own cameras, of unarmed civilians being killed by drone missiles – but also the silence about them from official parties, even as the footage tears through WhatsApp messages and social media timelines. The problem when unheard-of things happen, is that once they do, they are then heard of.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has said he is determined to carry out an invasion of Rafah in Gaza, despite the misgivings of Joe Biden

But normalisation also comes from successfully presenting acts of man as acts of God. The more time passes and nothing is done about Gaza, the more it settles in the global conflict pool as something now just too complex (a “quagmire” if you will) to address. And in a way it is an act of nature, in the sense that the political alliances and historical legacies that made it possible are too hardwired to be undone without major disruption to decades-old political, military and racial settlements. How is fatigue not to set in, when one wakes up every day to battle with the geopolitical gods?

This is something perpetrators and abettors count on. That there will be a point – no matter how intense the scrutiny or distress – when things simply move on through sheer force of human nature, media cycles, and political introversion, especially as decisive elections loom. It feels like the moment when that wager pays off is nearing.

But the window of engagement and its global scale have already lasted longer than anyone expected, wrong-footing politicians and frustrating them in their efforts to manage public opinion. And with both a Rafah ground invasion and intense famine looming, the pressure on Israel and its supporters might continue to defy all the political bets.

Courtesy The Guardian.

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