Understanding how the Israeli conflict has become a war about the freedom of speech

Pro-Palestinian Demonstration in Kreuzberg, Germany

The great Chinese philosopher Confucius in his teachings wrote, ‘He who seeks revenge, digs two graves’. With Confucius’ advice being issued over two and a half millennia ago, one would think humanity would have learned how to interact and live side by side. The abhorrent killing of innocent Israeli citizens by the Palestinian terrorist group Hamas, has prompted abhorrent killing of innocent Palestinians, by the State of Israel. Many graves have been dug and many more will surely follow.

I had intended to look at the history of these two people but the shocking attack on free speech and political expression has led me to lean towards exploring the ripple effects this war is having globally. Whatever we can say about the good, bad and ugly of our own state, our media has been largely free to express a myriad of opinions and our mainstream outlets are free to broadcast a spectrum of ideas. Local papers like our own ‘West Cork People’ have given voice to many positions and this is, thankfully, part of our cultural strength, something that we should not take for granted and should be willing to defend at all costs.

We all know that one of the oldest adages associated with war is ‘truth is the first casualty’. Whose truth? Free speech does not mean owning the truth but rather allowing debate, discourse and disagreement. People will make up their minds about any conflict based on anything from their own value systems to their religion, to their upbringings. In spite of that, it is a shared basic tenant of ALL humanity that we defend our right to live peaceably, and place the protection of vulnerable people, especially children, as an unshakable foundation of our humanity. That’s a principle that transcends all cultures, sides and societies. Well, that’s what I thought.

This latest episode began on October 7 with Hamas’ deadly attack on Israeli citizens, killing 1,400 people and kidnapping over 200 people. It was condemned universally and rightly so. Israel then declared its right to defend itself. That is the right of any state. Here is where things changed quickly. The state of Israel began to bomb the Gaza strip, a tiny slither of land that is only twenty-five miles long and approximately five wide. Two million people live there, making it one of the most densely populated areas of the world. What makes it worse is they are fenced in and, since 2005, have been subject to a land and sea blockade by Israel and Egypt. In the interests of balance we have to remember that, while both of the aforementioned countries feared the movement of Hamas and weapons permeating its borders, this blanket application of border walls and blockades has had a devastating effect on millions of non-Hamas Palestinians inside Gaza. Their freedom to travel, work and access goods has been curtailed for years behind this eastern Iron Curtain. They are an island, cut off from their West Bank Palestinian brethren. Within a few days of the attacks, the state of Israel declared that it was going to target the northern part of Gaza and told the million-plus citizens that call it home to move south, along a clustered and highly damaged road network. They were given twenty-four hours. Imagine a million trying to drive on the M50 in one go! Impossible.

The retaliation was swift. Gaza came under bombardment. Israel state claimed it was targeting Hamas strongholds. It didn’t seem to matter that most who were dying were civilians. It’s no secret that, akin to the Vietcong, Hamas has a network of tunnels under Gaza that are impervious to the bombs. In Vietnam, when the Americans carpet-bombed the jungles they didn’t manage to lay a finger on their enemy, while at the same time they destroyed village life. An Irish Palestinian man speaking on Irish radio this week, reiterated this, telling the audience that Hamas are untouched underground while the ordinary people suffer. Israel cut off water and electricity, inflicting a blanket, medieval-type siege on the world’s biggest open-air prison. Humanitarian corridors were closed and only now, a minuscule number of trucks are allowed entry (twenty a day, compared to the six-hundred that usually are needed to supply the businesses, hospitals and everyday shops). 

We then started hearing the word ‘disproportionate’. Many who were disgusted by the murder of innocent Israelis, were soon questioning the ‘disproportionate’ response of the state of Israel which was beginning to unleash death on civilian women, men and children. There are rules to war. When you fight your enemy, by the laws of international community and the laws of humanity, you must not target and kill the innocent, the civilians, the children. With frightening speed, the conversation was being shut down by Israeli diplomats, politicians and those who have business ties to that country. It seemed their rallying cry – that their people have a right to defend themselves, and that the murder of their people was wrong – is only to be applied one way. The President of the European Commission, Ursula Von Der Leyen, supported Israel but did not use her powerful position to remind it that it must be respectful of international law. Our Taoiseach criticised her and said it was ‘not balanced’ because it didn’t take into account the suffering of the Palestinian civilians caught in the middle. President O’Higgins condemned Hamas but also wanted innocent civilians to be protected in Gaza. He went on to add that any action ‘must be in accordance with international law, humanitarian needs and respect for the decisions of the United Nations. And that actions by Israel could lead to a huge humanitarian crisis’ (which has inevitably happened and is worsening by Israel’s refusal to allow adequate aid in). The Israeli state machine began to turn its cogs. Our president was accused by the Israeli ambassador to Ireland of spreading ‘misinformation’ and using ‘inflammatory language’. It’s like something out of a Cold War movie.

The attack on free speech and expression has alarmingly escalated. The UK Home Secretary, Suella Braverman, told her senior police officers to clamp down on anti-Semitic behaviour that might arise in the UK, but it’s worrying that waving Palestinian flags and chanting for the freedom of Arabs could also be a criminal offence. It is right to have laws to protect people, but shouldn’t it be for all people? This is dangerous territory. Antonio Guterres UN Secretary General, has been called on by Israeli officials to resign after he dared to say what everyone understands, that ‘The Hamas attack was linked to fifty-six years of suffocating occupation’. The brother of Hayim Katsman, a victim of the Hamas murders, spoke out against Israeli retaliation. He said his brother was a peace activist who indeed had done some charity work with Palestinians. At his eulogy, he said his brother would not want Israel to respond like they have. It made headlines across the globe except in Israel whose papers would not run the story. ‘Group think’ is another form of censorship. The erosion of free speech is everywhere.

Closer to home, Paddy Cosgrave, Trinity graduate and founder of the Web Summit that brings together global tech companies, condemned Hamas for their murders. He also said, “I also believe that, in defending itself, Israel should adhere to international law and the Geneva Conventions – i.e. not commit war crimes. This belief applies equally to any state in any war. No country should breach these laws, even if atrocities were committed against it.” Israel business and influential tech companies rallied against his free speech and circled the wagons around the only messaging in town – Israel is right. Cosgrave has been forced to resign. It’s not all politicians, presidents and business gurus that get affected. A young Dublin woman, who posted on a private WhatsApp group that she believed that Israel was now behaving like a ‘terrorist state’ because of the ‘indiscriminate bombing’, was fired from her job at Wix, a software company that is Israeli owned. It’s like something from Big Brother, as the tentacles of Israeli suppression of free speech, has come to our shores.

Geopolitically, Israel has been protected by the vested interests of the USA and the UK who sought allies in a zone that was hostile to their world view. Germany has been a huge supporter to Israel (militarily giving them access to billions of dollars of weaponry at little or no cost) mainly to assuage their own war guilt at their former government’s (the Nazi regime) looting and stealing of Jewish property and capital. Note, they never offered a Jewish homeland within their own borders, instead supporting one in some distant land, far away from their shores. The language used by Israel state has sought to subliminally garner support from its political allies. Israeli politicians referred to it as ‘Israelis’ 9/11’, a hallowed American date. Their politicians hyperbolically called it the worst attacks on the Jews since the Holocaust, but already 6,000 Palestinians have died, four times more than the Israelis since October 7. 

I could have written about the fact that Palestine wasn’t a deserted land when the international community sold the world a lie, ‘A land without people, for a people without a land’. I could have discussed the ‘Balfour Declaration’ of 1917, when the colonial British decided that this part of the world would be ideal for ‘the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people’. I could have given an account of the two states in 1948; how after the Arab nations (who were the aggressors), attacked Israel because they saw that 700,000 of their people would be in Israel-controlled areas, the after-effect was that Palestinian land shrunk further and was never reinstated. Subsequently many of those Palestinians were forcefully driven out of the new state of Israel. I could have told you how after another war in 1967, Israel (who this time was the aggressor), took more land belonging to Palestine and the ‘international city of Jerusalem’. I could have told you that further Israeli expansions and settlements in the West Bank, like the plantations of Ulster, have further weakened Palestinian claims for their own state. Instead I ask you to examine the history for yourself and make up your own mind. That is why we must protect free speech and allow all sides to have a voice, not shut it down.

Kieran Doyle

Kieran Doyle is a playwright, a historian & author, and the produce of the History Show on http://westcorkfm.ie

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