Whiteness and witnesses in Palestine: the dark side of innocence


Despite recent calls for sanctions on Israel by 127 British MP’s, the government’s lack of clear opposition to the US-Israeli plan to begin annexation of up to 30% of the West Bank reinforces a belief in the disposability of Palestinian life and land. There is a racialised logic to this thinking which has long guided Britain’s actions in regard to Palestine, a logic going back as far as the Balfour Declaration of 1917 which in giving the go-ahead for a Jewish homeland to be established on Palestinian land, would not name Palestinians: they were described simply as ‘the non-Jewish population’. Zionist settler-colonialism in Palestine works according to this same racialised logic: non-white Palestinian bodies are seen as disposable and less than human therefore their lands and livelihoods are up for grabs.

Here, I reflect on the ethics of British activists going to ‘witness the occupation’ and consider what it has to do with whiteness.

One of the reasons human rights monitors are sent to stay in Palestinian communities is to offer their presence. Organisations use what is called the accompaniment model which is based on the assumption that internationals’ presence makes the costs of human rights abuses more apparent to the perpetrators and persuades them to act less violently. In this context the perpetrators being referred to are the Israeli military and Israeli settlers. Internationals can be seen monitoring checkpoints, accompanying Palestinian children to their schools, and walking with shepherds and farmers trying to work their land in the face of threats of violence from Israeli settlers who live nearby.

Human rights monitor; Israel
Human rights monitor at checkpoint. Palestinian workers travelling to work in Israel.

Whether or not we agree that this strategy is effective, internationals doing this kind of work talk about using their passport privilege, putting their privilege to work believing that their presence has the power to deescalate tensions and reduce the likelihood of Palestinians being arrested, harassed, attacked or worse. Yet, internationals’ privilege lies not only in passports that provide them with a mobility that Palestinians lack. When activists place themselves at the checkpoints—regardless of the actual colour of their skin or how complex the racial and migratory histories they embody—their privilege lies in their complicity with whiteness. In the logic of racial hierarchies, the lives of white people are more valuable than those racialised others who live under occupation, so the presence of white activists, and not the presence of other Palestinians, has the power to shame the perpetrators and help the victims.

Whiteness— and white privilege—is therefore an essential strategy in this type of accompaniment-activism, which relies on racialized hierarchies of bodies that count and those that do not. Even though human rights organisations might work for an end to the occupation of Palestine they do not engage in the struggle to undo such racial hierarchies. In playing with this system which values some bodies more than others, whether they realise it or not, activists cannot detach themselves from white power. One of the effects of this is that whiteness creates and shapes our dispositions: it forms one’s positioning in the world and the way that people look out at the world from that position. One of these dispositions is owning a “conviction in regard to one’s moral innocence or goodness” (Applebaum, 2010: 19) or white innocence (Wekker 2016).

In this anti-occupation work in Palestine, activists’ bodies are positioned to provide a challenge to the occupying power, a metaphorical international eye representing something akin to a moral police force, supposedly able to shame Israeli soldiers and settlers into acting more humanely towards Palestinians.

One human rights monitor said this of an occasion when he stood watching a house in the West Bank being demolished: 

I mean obviously your presence isn’t going to stop a demolition. I think a number of people the next day thanked us for coming, thanked us for our interest was one thing, but also actually looking at the soldiers…. it wouldn’t have been in that context appropriate to talk much to them, but just going and staring at them, and saying with body language, ‘here I am I am watching this’. Actually, several of them were looking quite embarrassed, and wouldn’t meet my eyes, so those were two impacts, I think.

Palestine; Checkpoint; Guman rights monitor Israel
Human rights monitors standing with Palestinian colleague. The checkpoint is used by children whose school lies on the other side of the wall.

There seems to be an unspoken assumption about the power he ascribes to this white gaze. The stance of non-violence and support for international human rights law is assumed to set witnesses on unquestionably firm moral ground, a place from which they do not need to take sides as a partisan supporter of either an Israeli or Palestinian cause. Confidence in the moral goodness of this position, which does not see itself in any way complicit with violence, is paramount; without it, it is hard to explain why activists think their witnessing presents a challenge to the soldiers and settlers. I’d argue this disposition is an example of white innocence; an assumption of morality, impartiality and an ability to do good in the world. But can any British subject really claim freedom from complicity with violence in this part of the world? The fact that Britain continues to sell arms to Israel suggests just one reason why not.

Unpicking some of these white dispositions is an essential part of understanding white power. The past month has become a moment of particular heightened awareness of systemic racism and the legacy of the British Empire for many. It has inspired me to challenge myself, as a white British woman who benefits from British imperial violence in many ways, to reconsider my presumptions about moral innocence: I recognise them in my actions and my attitudes in so many ways. But that is merely a first step along the path: the main work is surely to dismantle racist hierarchies in the world. Those who choose to offer solidarity to the struggle against settler-colonialism in Palestine need also to engage with the racial dynamics of their place within the struggle.

Bethany Elce is a PhD candidate in Gender Studies at SOAS.

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