Israel's War on Gaza Affirms the Collapse of Liberal World Order

The distinction between Hamas and Gaza Palestinians has been elided to justify this collective punishment. The fact that Hamas is the elected government in Gaza is being marshaled as the rationale for the collective punishment of Gaza Palestinians is absurd.

Like many others, I have been very disturbed by the events around Israel and Gaza. It is impossible not to be moved by the sheer horror of two million people being trapped on a thin sliver of land while being pounded by bombs from above, losing their loved ones, homes and the lives they have built over the years. More than 11,000 Palestinians have been killed since the war began a little over a month ago, including more than 4500 children. The videos and pictures on social media – of a trembling child, tiny corpses – are too much to take in. This carnage must be stopped, there must be a ceasefire1.

It is difficult not to have a strong visceral reaction to such suffering; however, I am conscious of my distance from this conflict in which all principal stakeholders have personally experienced loss at one time or the other. Some tentativeness is only fitting. I am not going to write about what was done or what should be done – there are very many columns and podcasts from more relevant people to read and listen to.

By and large, the ones I most agree with converge on the following points: what Hamas did was an act of terrorism deserving of unequivocal condemnation; any meaningful discussion must be situated in the context and history of Israel and Palestine, which includes not just Jewish persecution but also the expulsion of Palestinians and their continued oppression; Israel cannot not go after Hamas, not least because the primary responsibility of any state is to provide security to its citizenry and its geopolitical context which requires establishing some manner of deterrence for such acts; but going after Hamas means targeted action instead of this unconscionable bombing of the entire Gaza strip which is leading to unacceptable civilian casualties; ultimately, the only lasting resolution will be political, which affords Palestinians dignity and agency instead of treating this as a security issue in perpetuity; and that Netanyahu is a tool responsible for propping up Hamas and for fomenting divisions in Israel, which made it susceptible to Hamas’ attack.

This column is thus not about the specifics of the Israel-Gaza situation but reflections brought on by what’s happening there.

First, for me, the conflict has led to the collapse of any remaining delusions about the sanctity of the liberal world order. The basic premise of the liberal world order is equal dignity and value of all human life – and its automatic extension, a commitment to truth and justice. However, everything about the way Israel is going about its campaign against Hamas – the de-humaniwing rhetoric, cutting off water, power, and other supplies to Gaza, indiscriminately raining down bombs on Gaza while ignoring the mounting civilian cost – goes against this premise. But what has put paid to this delusion is not just what Israel is doing but the endorsement of Israel’s actions by the apparent torchbearers of liberal democracy.

When Russia invaded Ukraine, it was very clear that Putin was the bad guy, the entire free world was ranged against Russia (with some abstentions but certainly no endorsement). But now, not only is the world leadership not coming together as one to demand a ceasefire but there is a clampdown on those who are.

A damaged school building in Gaza. Photo: X/@UN_SPExperts

In conversations, people have raised similarities between US actions in Yemen, Syria – and of course the invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan. There are, of course, similarities but there are also significant differences in the nature and scale of attack, which sets the present moment apart. Two are civil wars with foreign involvement providing support to one or the other faction in a proxy war, here an entire population is besieged. In the others, there was at least some pretense of wanting to avoid civilian casualties. One example of this was the aftermath of the Afghanistan wedding party strike.  There is no such pretense here, Israel with the backing of the United States is just brazening it out. Collective punishment is the de facto and de jure policy of this attack on Gaza.

The second recurring thought has been how the distinction between Hamas and Gaza Palestinians has been elided to justify this collective punishment. The fact that Hamas is the elected government in Gaza is marshaled as the rationale for the collective punishment of Gaza Palestinians. This is of course absurd – only a minority of voters actually voted for Hamas based on overall turnout and Hamas votes. Also what of the thousands of children too young to vote but who have become “collateral damage” of Israel’s destruction of Gaza? However, the underlying principle too needs to be called out. Even if a government is ostensibly very popular, the government of a country is not the people of the country because representation by its very nature is flawed and approximate, not precise. In fact, very often even supporters of a regime may disagree with the regime on individual issues.

Effacing the distinction between the leadership and the people leaves no room for internal differences, democratic dissent, opposition, and individual agency. Equally, this glosses over the real constraints of people in being able to represent themselves given the limited alternatives available to them. This mistake is made in democratic countries too, especially by liberal leaders and intellectuals who sometimes disparage voters of right-wing parties as racist or bigoted without introspecting on their own inability to fully understand and/or represent people in their country.

The corollary to the collapse of the liberal order is the demise of old uncertainties. It is not just the sense that outright war is a thing of the past or more generally that those in charge will do the right thing – but that it is no longer clear what is the organising principle of our society. In the last few years, the global leadership – political, corporate, media, and other institutions – has shown itself to be insular, incompetent, and more interested in showmanship than moving issues forward in an equitable way. Charlatans, extremists, and rank opportunists have captured the discourse. All of this has contributed to a sense of chaos – what Yeats wrote so evocatively in his poem The Second Coming, “Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold; Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world”.

This piece first appeared on the author’s blog

Ruchi Gupta writes about democracy, tech, public discourse & contestations for power in India.