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The war between Israel and Hamas has awoken a hypocrisy in most of us, hasn’t it? A twisting of standards. A willingness to accept the unacceptable from our own side, so to speak, and condemn any hint of an indiscretion from the other.

Selective outrage, selective empathy, selective morals, selective concern for civilian life. Selective humanity, really. And to that list you can add a depressingly common symptom of our current poisonous, polarised politics: selective hearing.

This is the art of listening to someone of another political persuasion speak, seizing upon a small handful of words that sound vaguely incriminating, and then studiously ignoring all the surrounding context that would expose your fury as hollow.

I hesitate to express too much sympathy for the Secretary-General of the United Nations, Antonio Guterres, who after all gets paid a perfectly comfortable-without-quite-being-embarrassingly-exorbitant salary to zip around the world impotently stating the obvious to people. Any job that involves bouncing between luxury hotels as frequently as Taylor Swift changes outfits is hardly a prison of human suffering.

And yet.

This week Mr Guterres’ message was no less obvious, and no more objectionable, than his usual vanilla diplospeak: civilian deaths bad. Dead kids bad. As political material goes it had all the edge of a bouncy castle. But goodness me, did it make people angry.

I’m going give you the quote that launched a thousand shouty TV panel segments. First in isolation, and then, after we’ve covered some of the reaction, in context.

“It is important to also recognise the attacks by Hamas did not happen in a vacuum. The Palestinian people have been subjected to 56 years of suffocating occupation. They have seen their land steadily devoured by settlements and plagued by violence; their economy stifled; their people displaced and their homes demolished. Their hopes for a political solution to their plight have been vanishing.”

Israel’s Ambassador to the United Nations, Gilad Erdan, said this amounted to “justifying terrorism”, and called for Mr Guterres to resign. Its Foreign Minister, Eli Cohen, claimed the Secretary-General had “expressed an understanding for terrorism and murder”. Mr Cohen was “so upset” by Mr Guterres’ speech that he cancelled a scheduled meeting with him.

The Israeli government announced it would refuse visas to UN representatives, such as the body’s Under-Secretary for Humanitarian Affairs, to “teach them a lesson”, which strikes me as Mean Girls-level petty. “Antonio Guterres is a fugly slut. DO NOT TRUST HIM.”

These are just the official channels of the Israeli government, never mind the hyperbole merchants of social media, who do rather tend to blur together.

Now, here is the same remark in context.

“I have condemned unequivocally the horrifying and unprecedented October 7 acts of terror by Hamas in Israel.

“Nothing can justify the deliberate killing, injuring and kidnapping of civilian targets. All hostages must be treated humanely and released immediately, and without conditions. I respectfully note the presence among us of members of their families.

“It is important to also recognise the attacks by Hamas did not happen in a vacuum. The Palestinian people have been subjected to 56 years of suffocating occupation. They have seen their land steadily devoured by settlements and plagued by violence; their economy stifled; their people displaced and their homes demolished. Their hopes for a political solution to their plight have been vanishing.

“But the grievances of the Palestinian people cannot justify the appalling attacks by Hamas. And those appalling attacks cannot justify the collective punishment of the Palestinian people. Even war has rules.”

You see the selective deafness, yes? We are to believe that Mr Guterres “justified terrorism”, in a speech that stressed “nothing can justify” terrorism, and said whatever grievances the Palestinian people have “cannot justify” Hamas’s atrocities.

Even the supposedly offending paragraph, listing various examples of Palestinian misery, is not remotely inaccurate. Not a word of it. My email’s at the end of this article, readers – by all means, tell me where that paragraph is wrong.

It’s not really a matter of accuracy, is it? It’s a matter of emphasis. Of the facts we choose to highlight and those awkward ones we prefer to ignore.

Yes, the Palestinians have been displaced, and encroached upon, and economically hamstrung. They’ve endured the bad faith of others for decades – not just Israel, but the duplicitous Arab states who pose as their allies. They have seen Israeli settlements spread and the Israeli government’s interest in a two-state solution dwindle.

None of that excuses terrorism. It is not an attack on Israel, nor an expression of support for Hamas, to note the basic facts of the Palestinians’ suffering or the growing hopelessness they must feel.

But it is not enough for the Israeli government, it seems, that we condemn Hamas and its barbaric methods. It’s not enough to oppose the killing of civilians, any civilians, without qualification. What’s demanded of us is a refusal to accept any nuance; fealty to the idea that Israel is 100 per cent in the right and the Palestinians 100 per cent in the wrong.

Any expression of support or sympathy for the Palestinians who, whatever the crimes perpetrated in their name, have suffered countless indignities, is heresy. Forbidden. Worthy of a diplomat losing his job, or of a humanitarian mission being scuppered.

It works in reverse as well. There are supporters of Palestinian rights who are wilfully blind to Hamas’s horrors, and consider any expression of solidarity with victimised Israeli civilians to be evidence of some vile moral rot. Who fail to notice the obvious evil standing over their shoulder in the mirror, glaring into their eyes.

It’s so very, very tiring, and so often disingenuous. It is a paltry challenge, barely a challenge at all in fact, to acknowledge that innocents, victims, blameless people live on both sides; that the Israelis and Palestinians are all trapped in the same cycle of torment.

The greatest cause for pessimism is, quite remarkably, not the decades of stalled diplomatic progress. It’s the stubborn refusal to see that the other side’s suffering also counts, and also matters – and that it’s OK to say so.

Twitter: @SamClench

Email: samuel.clench@news.com.au



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