Sunday, July 20, 2014

"Sderot Cinema" And The Politics Of Victimhood

The current Israel-Gaza conflict is a flashpoint of the politics of victimhood. Both sides are struggling to present themselves as the victim and the other as the aggressor. Every civilian caught up in war is to some extent a victim. However, competing discourses pick and choose which victims matter politically, and whose sense of victimhood is legitimized. 

It is ironic that despite being among the more victimized groups in the conflict, the citizens of Sderot have been treated during the current conflict as anything but. At the core of this discourse is the picture by Danish journalist Alan Sørenson showing the “Sderot Cinema,” - citizens watching the Israeli Air Force strike targets in Gaza. 

Sørenson posted the picture on July 9, 2014. To date, it has been retweeted 12,380 times and has become emblematic of Israeli indifference to Palestinian suffering. Antagonism towards citizens of Sderot popped up again this week when CNN’s Diana Magnay was pulled from covering the conflict. After citizens of Sderot threatened to destroy her car if she issued a biased report, she referred to them as “scum” in a tweet that has now been removed.

Any case of some people dehumanizing other people is disturbing. But the discourse of the conflict has had little interest in contextualizing the dehumanization of the "Sderot Cinema." The completely divergent narratives which have emerged between Israelis and Palestinians are a result of this broader hesitance to contextualize. But contextualizing doesn't mean approval or agreement. Rather it means taking seriously the full story rather than jumping to the worst possible conclusion.

The 24,000 citizens of Sderot so freely lambasted over the past few weeks are on the periphery, and not just in the geographic sense. They have lived under constant rocket fire from Hamas, Islamic Jihad, and other groups in the Gaza Strip since 2001. 11 citizens of Sderot, including three children under the age of 4, have been killed in rocket attacks. In 2008, 30% of residents suffered from PTSD, and a 2013 study linked rocket fire to increased miscarriages in women living in Sderot. 

Sderot is also not an affluent area. The municipality was on the verge of bankruptcy in 2010, and many Sderotis face serious financial trouble. In particular, some citizens have moved to apartments outside the city but are still paying mortgages on their house, leading to financial distress. Throughout the thirteen years that Sderot has been under rocket fire, the Israeli government has taken steps only occasionally in Gaza. Citizens of Sderot have protested at the Knesset and at major intersections on Israeli highways to try to build pressure on the government to protect them. While rockets over Tel Aviv and other central areas of Israel generate big headlines, 90% of Sderotis live on a street, or next to a street, that has been hit by a rocket. 

Understandably, these citizens feel as if they are not being protected by their government. Thus, they understand Operation Protective Edge as a set of strikes targeting the Hamas infrastructure responsible for the constant attacks on their town. That this relief comes at the high price of Palestinian lives, including almost 100 in the past 24 hours, remains very concerning. At the same time, that Israelis under constant attack want to watch the IAF bomb Hamas targets should not prompt accusations that Sderotis are psychopaths or savages. Rather, it should prompt both sides to question which victims their narrative picks at the expense of others.

In the fever pitch of rhetoric in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, it is easy to paint the other as savage, evil, or inhuman by nature. It is harder to try to understand the point of view of the other as a basis for progress. The "Sderot Cinema" is not the only example of dehumanization. However, it is a strong example of how easy it can be to jump to conclusions rather than take the time to understand that at the end of the day, all civilians who suffer are victims.