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On Netanyahu’s speech and gendering Israel’s occupation of Palestine

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu gave his highly anticipated diatribe against Iran’s “tentacles of terror” yesterday morning before a joint meeting of Congress. 

The GOP-orchestrated address — composed of roughly equal parts war-mongering and fabrication — has driven a partisan wedge between Democrats and Republicans. Citing protocol of not meeting foreign leaders two weeks before their elections, President Obama shunned his Israeli counterpart. And though too many members of Congress gave too many standing ovations, more than 50 Democrats (including Elizabeth Warren) skipped the event and have since called it “condescending” and “straight out of Dick Cheney’s playbook.”

But as Ali Abunimah points out at The Huffington Post, “just because Obama, Netanyahu and their partisan followers may be peeved at each other does not change the basic dynamic of full US support for Israel’s occupation of millions of Palestinians, the continuation of which guarantees ongoing suffering with regional repercussions.” Similar to Netanyahu’s speech, Warren and other politicians’ statements to #SkiptheSpeech, as well as popular media coverage, has completely ignored any mention of Palestine, its citizens, or its occupation. (Even Israeli TV cut away from coverage of the speech last night to report on a viral video of Israeli soldiers inciting trained dogs to attack and maul a Palestinian boy.)

Many have already written on why working towards peace and justice and the very survival of the Palestinian people is a feminist issue. We recognize the desperate need to amplify and center narratives of Palestinian livelihood and victimhood within American consciousness. In the run-up to Netanyahu’s visit, we have found ourselves often trying to do so by again pointing to the horrifying assault on Gaza just a few months ago (in addition to these and these and these countless other forms of violence).

And many times, describing these assaults has meant repeatedly using language that points to a glaring majority of victims as always civilian, and a disproportionate number as women and children. But while the killing of women and children is horrific, Maya Mikdashi points out that “in the reiteration of these disturbing facts there is something missing: the public mourning of Palestinian men killed by Israel’s war machine.” As we continue drawing attention and demanding recognition of Israeli violence against Palestinians, Mikdashi’s remarkable piece from last summer over at Jadaliyya still serves as an incredibly relevant read on how this form of gendered analysis can be racist and destructive:

Today, we should be aware of how the trope of “womenandchildren” is circulating in relation to Gaza and to Palestine more broadly. This trope accomplishes many discursive feats, two of which are most prominent: The massifying of women and children into an undistinguishable group brought together by the “sameness” of gender and sex, and the reproduction of the male Palestinian body (and the male Arab body more generally) as always already dangerous. Thus the status of male Palestinians (a designation that includes boys aged fifteen and up, and sometimes boys as young as thirteen) as “civilians” is always circumspect.

In this framework, the killing of women and girls and pre-teen and underage boys is to be marked, but boys and men are presumed guilty of what they might do if allowed to live their lives. Furthermore, these boys and men are potentially dangerous not only to the militaries that occupy them, but to those womenandchildren who actually are civilians. The young boys, after all, may grow up to be violent extremists. Thus, kill the flesh—extinguish the potential.

This statement aims to mobilize the gendered discourse of the War on Terror, a discourse that plays on the affective registers of US liberalism through a pandering to feminist and LGBTQ rights. This pandering allows Islamophobia and war to be manifested as a public and international good—after all, it is “we” that are defending the helpless from the ravages of Muslim and Arab men. Laleh Khalili has called this “the use of gendered ‘telling’ to distinguish those who are to be protected from those who are to be feared or destroyed.

The status of Muslim men as inherently uncivilian should come as unsurprising. The New York Times broke a story a few years ago on how the Obama administration institutionalized this mindset in its foreign policy: all military-age males in a strike zone are counted as combatants by our government (rather than civilian casualties), unless there is explicit intelligence posthumously proving them innocent. This mindset of Israeli and US war machines, as Mikdashi adeptly illustrates, does not protect Palestinian queers and women and children: rather, “it kills them, maims them, and dispossesses them alongside their loved ones—for the simple reason that they are Palestinian, and thus able to be killed with impunity while the world watches.”

She concludes:

The emphasis on the killing of womenandchildren, to the exclusion of Palestinian boys and men, further normalizes and erases the structures and successes of Israeli settler colonialism. …To insist on publicly mourning all of the Palestinian dead, men and women and children—at moments of military invasion and during the everyday space of occupation and colonization—is to insist on their right to have been alive in the first place.

Header Image Credit: Huffington Post

Mahroh is a community organizer and law student who believes in building a world where black and brown women and our communities are able to live free of violence. Prior to law school, Mahroh was the Executive Director of Know Your IX, a national survivor- and youth-led organization empowering students to end gender violence and a junior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Her research addresses the ways militarization, racism, and sexual violence impact communities of color transnationally.

Mahroh is currently at Harvard Law School, organizing against state and gender-based violence.

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