Anyone paying attention to the global media knows that Mahmoud al-Mabhouh, a senior Hamas military commander, was murdered in his hotel room in Dubai last month.
The method of murder remains unclear and Israel’s national intelligence and assassination outfit Mossad neither confirms nor denies involvement.
What we can be sure of, though, is that at least 11 — and possibly 26 — suspected killers checked in at al-Mabhouh’s hotel using foreign passports, claiming identities from England, Ireland, France, Germany — and Australia.
In fact, if you’ve heard of al-Mabhouh’s assassination, it’s unlikely that you won’t also have heard about the passports as the media have given inordinately heavy coverage to them. Who can blame them, with European politicians — who would otherwise wash their hands of Israel and Palestine — deciding to weigh in so vociferously? Kevin Rudd and Foreign Minister Stephen Smith have joined the fray today.
The foreign ministers of the European Union issued a joint statement that almost condemns the murder. "The killing of Mahmoud al-Mabhouh in Dubai raises issues which are profoundly disturbing," they said. The EU’s protest, however, isn’t so much a response to assassination as it is the result of their principal and shared interest in the expropriation of European identities.
British Foreign Secretary David Miliband describes a meeting with his Israeli counterpart, Avigdor Lieberman, and makes Europe’s priorities very clear: "We spent most of the time talking about the issue of the fraudulent use of British passports," Miliband revealed, "and the profound concern that exists not just in Britain but all over Europe about this incident".
Stephen Smith has also called in the Israeli ambassador to explain the abuse of Australian passports.
While assassination is condemnable, it seems the requisition of a European or an Australian identity is utterly unforgivable. These fissures in the reactions of world leaders run deeper than a concern for national or systemic integrity.
The media’s emphasis on passports speaks to something at the very core of Israel’s war with Palestine — and of today’s global politics. What it speaks to is the role of identity and, more precisely, the significance of names.
If Mossad are behind al-Mabhouh’s assassination, which would render his murder just one more in Israel and Palestine’s bloody conflict, then the event itself is comparatively insignificant. Although al-Mabhouh held rank in Palestine, the assassins might very well be part of the military complex responsible for raining fire and phosphorus on Gazan civilians with alarming recidivism and without reproach.
Yet there is consensus in the criticism that is usually conspicuous by its absence. The condemnations of this event have sounded far louder and resounded for much longer than with any of the numerous massacres and murders on the Gaza Strip.
I believe the difference between this event and those is a difference in names. The names adopted by al-Mabhouh’s assassins are part of a language whose speakers wish to keep their distance from the violence that has devoured far too many of the men, women, and children who have tried to inhabit a tiny strip of land on the eastern coastline of the Mediterranean.
Consider the following question a geopolitical thought experiment: If those individuals comprising al-Mabhouh’s hit squad had never assumed European labels, would the assassination still seem so important? Perhaps it would — but perhaps it wouldn’t.
Given that al-Mabhouh’s own name has begun to vanish from reports altogether, I can’t help but think that, if this were just an instance of Israelis murdering another Palestinian, then it would barely rate a mention.
This thought solidifies when we reflect on the global media’s sustained apathy toward abstractly conceived "Israeli forces" waging war on the equally abstract "Palestinians". The only way for this kind of slaughter to register in the mainstream media is for the bodies to stack so high they become impossible to see around as occurred in January 2009.
If al-Mabhouh’s assassination suggests the existence of a currency in labels — if European names are worth more than Israeli and Palestinian names — then one of the most insidious undercurrents of today’s political climate stands exposed. That is, the reconfiguration of international relations as market relations — and its most chilling and enduring corollary, that human lives are subject to the same exchange rate as capital.
If the killing of al-Mabhouh raises a "profoundly disturbing" issue, then this reconfiguration is it.
While life that coheres behind names printed on European passports is to be valued highly, what is the worth of life that only exists under collective labels, such as "Israel" or "Palestine"? How do we think about the essentially anonymous?
Writing as a researcher whose academic work has centered on the Shoah, I see a crucial, searing lesson to be drawn from the history books. The lesson is, simply, that to strip a human of her name is to invalidate her life. In other words, the anonymous are the walking dead.
Let us recall the un-naming that has on more than one occasion prefaced the dehumanisation and then extermination of human life. First individual members of a Jewish community became "the Jews," then the Jews became "vermin," and then came Auschwitz. Cambodia, Rwanda and Bosnia weren’t much different. It begins with the erasure of names.
This is an idea we really ought to have internalised by now and this history, which occupies a significant place in both Europe and Israel’s collective memories, should be kept in mind when thinking about the Middle East today.
To engage seriously with this geopolitical struggle should be to accept an ethical responsibility. That responsibility is to avoid either an all-too-tempting and unalloyed sympathy or damnation. These reductive sentiments, whether victimising or demonising, and the rapacity with which they consume identities, are complicit with the unflinching persistence of the very conflict to which they respond. Rather, the observer’s responsibility is to engage with a culture, in that culture’s language and to learn the identity of its participants.
A good place to start is with Israel and Palestine’s own written output. To begin here is to enter one of the most vibrant literary scenes in the world today, made up of innumerable writers with their own distinct names, identities, and points of view.
To cite one example, no one is more sensitive to the significance of names than Taha Muhammad Ali, a Palestinian poet whose experience, living in Israel, furnishes his poetry with a striking yet nuanced political perspective.
"In an ancient Gypsy dictionary of dreams are explanations of my name," writes Ali in a poem about his escape to Lebanon during the war of 1948. "But there I am: a camel fleeing the slaughterhouses, galloping towards the East."
Far too many Palestinians are perfectly familiar with such a flight, and so are a large number of Israel’s enormous Jewish population. With these resonances still echoing, it is now time to act on their critical lessons before another holocaust burns its mark into our shared history.
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