Blog post

In Gaza, “This Isn’t Legitimate Self-Defence. It’s a Genocide”

In France, Jean-Luc Mélenchon has been accused of antisemitism for his opposition to Israel's relentless siege on Gaza. In this interview, Mélenchon explains why the Left must assert a universalist antiracism in the face of Europe's accelerating slide to the far right.

Jean-Luc Mélenchon 8 February 2024

In Gaza, “This Isn’t Legitimate Self-Defence. It’s a Genocide”

This interview was originally published in French by Orient XXI on 7 December 2023.

 

Third placed in last year’s French presidential elections, in recent weeks Jean-Luc Mélenchon has repeatedly been the target of attacks over his stance on the war in Gaza. In an interview with Orient XXI, he explains why there is a growing gulf between the West and the rest of the world over its “double standards” in supporting Israel. Continuing the discussion, Mélenchon criticises the uproar over one of his tweets, and refutes the accusations of antisemitism he has faced. Finally, he makes the case for non-alignment as a “moral guide to political action”.

Orient XXI  One of your favourite lines is the idea of tenir bon — “standing firm” or “keeping going.” But what does that mean for a Gazan today, given the scale of the destruction that has been going on for several weeks now, and considering that the international community abandoned Gazans decades ago?

Jean-Luc Mélenchon — For a long time now, I have been deeply affected by the appalling situation in Gaza. In moral terms, it is an absolute disgrace. More than two million people have been locked up in a kind of open-air prison. If we think of the history of Jews being persecuted around the world, or the reasons given for Israel’s own creation, how can Israel be doing something like this? Gaza is also a terrifying symptom of the death-agony of the “West.” The inability to put an immediate stop to such an appalling state of affairs tells us about the moral degeneration of all those who think this is normal and are letting it go ahead. To stand firm is simply to never forget our common humanity.

Orient XXI  For at least twenty years, since the failure of the Oslo Accords, Gaza has also symbolised the reality that Israel can continue following the same policy without paying any price for it…

JLM  That’s true — this is nothing new. Across the world, we can see there are clear double standards, depending on whether this or that force is aligned with the United States. We have seen the United States and its allies actively opposing Russia’s unjustifiable invasion of Ukraine. But there is an almost blanket silence over Netanyahu’s outrageous actions. In 2008–2009 there was Operation Cast Lead — and for me, it was an intellectual watershed. Not only were the Gazans in a prison, but they were also being bombed to punish them, as if they were bound by collective responsibility. Even moderates say so. The chairman of the Assemblée Nationale’s Foreign Affairs Committee, Jean-Louis Bourlanges, had this to say after 7 October: “Hamas’s violence is without excuse, but not without cause”. In this case, Netanyahu’s action against the Gazans is not somehow legitimate. It is not self-defence, but genocide. There are mass demonstrations in many countries, including the United States, involving large sections of local Jewish communities. This diversity [of opposition to the war] proves the hollowness of Samuel Huntington’s “clash of civilisations” theory. In no country in the world, except perhaps in much of the French media class, is an anti-Arab, anti-Muslim divide taking hold, as many had been counting on. The mass of demonstrators are talking about justice, about international law, about the right to live in dignity, about human rights applying universally.

Orient XXI  Where does this peculiar French reaction come from? Is the Algerian war still shaping divides in France?

JLM  In France, there is still a lot of resentment under the surface. The Algerian war was especially painful for the French because their leaders had gone back on the values and principles in whose name they claimed to be acting. Even as France was coming out of the German occupation, [the Algerian town] Sétif was bombed in May 1945! And then we had to wait until 1999 for this to be recognised as a war and not a “police operation”. What did we do? Who did it? What should we have done? Under what conditions? It has never been possible to rub out the atrocities committed in Algeria and in mainland France itself. The Maghreb and Algeria have continued to be a focus of French resentment, lingering under the surface. Yet today, 35 percent of our country’s young people still have emotional ties with Algeria, whether through their parents, their grandparents, their own present situation, dual nationality or their partner. But a lot of their older peers are still licking their wounds…!

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Orient XXI  You and a large part of the international community are talking about the current Israeli offensive in Gaza in terms of war crimes under international law…

JLM — And that hasn’t always been easy!

Orient XXI — Yes, and this is seen as a step forward for the Palestinians. But first there was what happened on 7 October, the 1,200 Israelis killed by Hamas commandos. Do you consider that to be a war crime, too?

JLM  The International Criminal Court (ICC) needs to get a handle on all the facts! I called for a ceasefire on 7 October. I have called for all war crimes to be tried. Beyond my personal opinion, and what uses that might be put to, the essential thing is the nature of the events, and how we can take forward a political battle on the basis of concrete, recognised facts. At the end of Operation Cast Lead, a UN report accused both sides of war crimes. Absolutely nothing followed from that. But in a stable and well-ordered world, the law cannot be a mere accessory. The only bearings the world has are international law, as embodied by the United Nations, even if we admit that these could each be improved. If not them, then what else can we rely on? The law of the strongest? Today we are paying for the lack of action after Cast Lead.

The way the current conflict goes will change the course of the century. We have to rise to the occasion. The previously existing Left suffered a rout in the ten or fifteen years after the collapse of the USSR. One of the unforeseen consequences was the scale of the reactionary wave. It swept just about everyone away! Finally, there was the formation of a resistance front that won real victories in the Americas — not only against US imperialism, but especially against the neoliberal economic regime. But, apart from that, there were almost no such victories. As we continue the fight for a new world order, for a different kind of society, we need to find stable points of support to base ourselves on. Given the current balance of power, that means international law. Without the UN, whatever its limitations, what prospects would there be for the planet?

The aim is not to establish a “multipolar” world. That would mean war. We need a world “ordered” around international law as a shared reference point. The situation is urgent: 75 percent of nations have border disputes! And 28 percent of these are armed conflicts. What’s happening between Palestine and Israel is a colonial conflict, a fight over territory and borders, not a religious conflict. From 7 October to today, it’s a single sequence. In both cases, we are shocked by what we have seen. But our refusal to align ourselves with any party to the conflict does not mean that we are neutral or equidistant between them. We do not share the “unconditional support for Israel” which the president of the Assemblée Nationale, Yaël Braun-Pivet, offered Netanyahu’s government. Was this meant to be in the name of the Assemblée Nationale? Despite what she claims, no one gave her a mandate for that!

Orient XXI So, the unconditional support for Israel that she expressed was not in your name?

JLM — She said this to the Assemblée Nationale and she was applauded — but not by us. We don’t generally agree with “unconditional support” for anyone. There are countries I have sympathies for, such as Colombia and its president Gustavo Petro, but I have never said I “unconditionally support” them. “Unconditional support for Israel” can only mean unconditional support for Netanyahu’s policies. We absolutely oppose the composition of his government, the political principles it defends, and its settlement policy. There can be no question of giving any impression of contributing to this in any way. Some people who’ve become fanatics may call this position antisemitism. They wield that term indiscriminately and without restraint, as if it was a special ray to paralyse whoever thinks differently than they do. It’s grotesque! This slur is now thrown at anyone who does not follow in lockstep with Benyamin Netanyahu’s line, down to the last millimetre. Including Dominique de Villepin, including President Emmanuel Macron. Any deviation from this line is immediately drowned in this slur. What’s so unbearable is the debate that this stops us having, and the fanaticism that it cultivates.

Orient XXI — Given the climate you describe, wasn’t it an error to use the word “camp” in connection with Yaël Braun-Pivet’s trip to Israel [claiming that she had “set up camp” in Tel-Aviv, a phrase that earned Mélenchon accusations of antisemitism given that Braun-Pivet is Jewish]?

JLM  Do you have another word you’d suggest?

Orient XXI  Yes... you could have said she set up shop, came charging in, raced there, came running, hurried in….

JLM — I wanted to emphasise my protest against her military approach. In my generation, “campism” was a widely used concept, which referred to unwavering alignment with either the Eastern or Western bloc. OK, I promise: I’ll consult you on it next time.

That the word “camp” could be an antisemitic term… well, that never even entered my head. Since when? How could the “Camp David” agreements use an antisemitic word, when they were signed by the prime minister of Israel alongside Yasser Arafat? All this is wildly over the top. Ms Braun-Pivet travelled to Israel dressed as a soldier, accompanied by [right-wing politicians] Meyer Habib and Éric Ciotti dressed in the same way: with fatigues and bullet-proof vests. So, there was most certainly a desire to project an image of military involvement. And this was surely not in our name, when we’re campaigning for an immediate ceasefire. Why do we have to be the ones who justify ourselves, and not these people who usurp the right to forcibly “represent” us?

The previous day in France there had been a huge, strong demonstration — a symbolically powerful one given the current mood and the reactions to the images from Gaza. Many people feared there would be incidents, or rhetorical excesses — and with a demonstration, that’s always hard to predict. But there was nothing of the sort. This was an expression of solidarity, restraint, and dignity, making a mockery of the bellicose attitude adopted by the president of the Assemblée Nationale and her sidekicks.

So, the morning after the night before it was necessary to work up some controversy so that people would forget how little support there is for Netanyahu. It seriously damages public debate when all Braun-Pivet has to do is say that “camping” is an antisemitic term and it immediately becomes a major news item. But just because you want to offend someone doesn’t mean you’re able to. This is part of an ideological war in France, and its aim is to silence critics.

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Orient XXI — Part of the Jewish community feels abandoned by the Left, which it thinks has taken a backward step on the issue of antisemitism. What would you say to them?

JLM — They are wrong. We are, and we always will be, the first to unfailingly resist the spread of racism. And that is because it inherently undermines the unity of the people. Historically, the Jewish community judiciously opted for the Left. It was Robespierre’s revolutionary Left that gave citizenship to the Jews of the Ancien Régime. Many of our most glorious leaders come from this community. I encourage everyone to return to this fraternity of struggle.

But we must not lose sight of the essential thing. Unity of action implies community of purpose, and mutual respect between the parties involved. But for the first time, official representatives of the community, or those deemed to be such, took us to task during a commemoration of the Vel d’Hiv’ roundup [the July 1942 mass arrest of Jews by the Vichy-French police, under the German occupation]. Never before had national unity been violated in this way at this type of ceremony. Who in the community protested? And when our parliamentary group was attacked and then expelled from the Mireille Knoll march [in response to the 2018 murder of this 89-year-old Holocaust survivor] by the Jewish Defence League (LDJ), the Representative Council of Jewish Institutions in France (CRIF) refused to protect us, while taking up the protection of Marine Le Pen. The Jewish community I knew and worked with when I was an elected representative in Massy was open to debate and open about its differences. There were Jews by religious devotion [the cultuels] and by culture [the culturels]…. The Left were the culturels... I feel abandoned by people I’ve stood up for all my life. We have never failed in our duty, nor let down the principles on which this duty is based. Those principles apply to all racialised people.

Orient XXI — On the subject of the Jewish Defence League, it’s true that a sizeable part of the Jewish community has radicalised around support for Israel, and as a result has perhaps felt alienated from the national community. And then, all over Europe, there are far-right forces, sometimes in power and often on the brink of power, which are at the forefront of defending Israel, and often at the forefront of Islamophobia.

JLM — Why should affection for Israel alienate people from the national community? Why confuse Israel’s right to exist with unconditional support for all its governments? Really, there are other ways of thinking about things. I’m in favour of the two-state solution — and that is also the UN’s position. I am open to other ideas if they are put forward by the different sides on the ground. Today, what I am denouncing is a government policy and the consequences which that policy is having. I can understand people feeling mistreated if they are insulted and threatened. That’s the situation that I’m in, too. We mustn’t accept the assumptions that some people are pushing, especially those who would be glad to see all populations of the Jewish faith heading to Israel, in the name of their religion. I don’t agree with that idea. The Ancien Régime expelled Jews eleven times, including “Saint Louis”, whose enormous statue is enthroned in the hemicycle of the Senate. The Left, on the other hand, made it possible for the French people to be united, thanks to secularism.

Now, yes, the far right is on the road to power in every country in Europe. There is a downhill slope that every country in Europe is heading down, just like in Italy. Giorgia Meloni is an example for many. So, is this the moment for the community to make us into enemies? Faced with the extreme right-wing turn of the right and centre, the alternative is the radical left. Because the extreme right of Philippe Pétain and Charles Maurras is “genetically” antisemitic. It is shocking to observe how in today’s France the sentence that the extreme right was condemned to upon the Liberation — that it wasn’t worthy of our country — has been lifted. On 12 November 2023 [a march against antisemitism called by Braun-Pivet and attended by political leaders including Le Pen] some people found it normal to go and demonstrate with parties with their origins in antisemitism, while we were copiously insulted, as were the Muslims of this country.

You have to understand who we are. Our concern is not contemplative, aesthetic or metaphysical. The principle we follow is the unity of the people, in order to achieve the citizens’ revolution. If we want to achieve this popular unity, it is absolutely essential to prevent the poison of racism from spreading among the people. That means all forms of racism — anti-Jewish racism, anti-Arab racism, anti-Muslim racism, all of them. We absolutely have to get rid of these racisms, and make the mass of our people understand this, so that they will be on their guard and detect the poison in time. Racism is an ideological operation to divide us.

No one has tried to have me indicted for antisemitism, even though this is indeed a crime in France. So, even our accusers don’t believe what they are saying. How could they ever back up such claims? So, the people have to stand firm against racism and the extreme right. And so must we, even on days when we are being pounded by violence and injustice.

Orient XXI — The demand that we use the word “terrorism” [to refer to Hamas] has become a political weapon in France, albeit without anyone ever defining what it really means. If Hamas is an organisation that Palestinians have chosen, then to call it a terrorist organisation means that we can’t talk with them. Is Hamas a resistance organisation?

JLM  I'll say it again: there are of course terrorist acts, which aim to sow terror and shock in order to draw permanent dividing lines. These terrorist acts are punishable as war crimes, or crimes against humanity. They can be tried by the ICC.

The use of the label “terrorist organisation” is a quite different matter. The way it is used depends on who is powerful and who is not. Take Sinn Féin, which used to be considered a terrorist organisation. Today, it is in government in [Northern] Ireland and is the largest party both North and South. Should we then say that these are two terrorist countries? None of this makes any sense. I am all for discussing this question — that is useful. But it is not our priority faced with the test of the real war taking place in Gaza.

Our priority is international law. If we are fighting a battle against terrorism, then we are getting away from the framework of the law. For the theory of a “war on terror” draws an important dividing line, an ideological divide meant to impose political alignment. At the end of this road lie the torture centres at Guantanamo, the phosphorus bombs in Gaza, and so on. The law no longer exists. All means are legitimate in the “fight of good against evil.” All those who oppose the United States of America are considered terrorists. This is the doctrine propagated by Samuel Huntington. The idea is to substitute an ethnocentric vision for international law, which is necessarily universalist. The shift from the one to the other is not neutral. The word “terrorism” does not simply draw us into a battle over the choice of words, but into a political battle. That’s something which we have to tackle head-on.

Orient XXI — At one point, France classified the military wing of Hamas as “terrorist”, but not its political wing. And in Lebanon, it's difficult to do much if you refuse to talk to Hezbollah.

JLM — You see how misleading these concepts are. Because if you agree with a concept in one place, you have to agree with it in another. Will we also agree to armed intervention in Lebanon? Obviously, the game my opponents want to play is one that says that we support terrorism. We are dragged into a suffocating atmosphere, which might even make us afraid to speak out. Well, that’s not the case with me. I am not afraid, I denounced the situation as soon as Operation Cast Lead was launched. That brought me some sharp hostility, but that is not going to change my mind. There can be no compromise when it comes to a massacre like the one taking place in Gaza. We must defend a non-aligned world order.

Orient XXI — Is the two-state solution still possible, or can we imagine something else?

JLM — For the moment, I’d rather stick to the decisions of the United Nations. That provides a strong basis to work from. The United Nations has said that there must be two states. If the people who are discussing the borders of the two states end up proposing a single multinational state, or some other viable and mutually accepted solution, then we would also agree, if that means a just peace.

Orient XXI — Would it be a useful move for France to recognise the State of Palestine, like the Assemblée Nationale voted for under President François Hollande?

JLM — It would have to be done under the right conditions. Right now, the most urgent thing is to impose sanctions on the Netanyahu government. Israel is a privileged partner of the European Union (EU). Economic sanctions are a possibility, here, and we are in favour of them. That would change the balance of power immediately, given the ties between the Israeli and European economies. The double standards that are openly being applied here are a sign of the EU’s blind alignment with Netanyahu. If you have aligned yourself, you are forced to go along with everything, and sometimes even run ahead of it. Like Macron did, for instance, when he proposed an “international coalition against Hamas, similar to the one against Daesh”. Does this mean that France should get involved in the ongoing genocide in Gaza? Macron took 35 days to call for a ceasefire. That means 35 days of bombing, a bomb every 30 seconds, 60 percent of buildings destroyed, more than 15,000 dead, more dead in a month and a half than in the four years of the siege of Sarajevo. We are today witnesses to carnage. Many senior representatives of UN agencies have warned of the risk of genocide. Gaza is the Guernica of the 21st century. Today, given the organisation of human beings in huge — and thus uncontrollable, urban structures — the occupation of territories leads the aggressors to deport the resident populations. How is that achieved? By mass slaughter and forced displacement. This is now part of the ordinary strategies of war.

Orient XXI — Following in the footsteps of Palestinian and then Israeli NGOs, two major human rights organisations, i.e. Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, have used the term “apartheid” to describe the discrimination suffered by Palestinians. Yet the use of this word divides the Left. In France it is rejected by the Socialist Party (PS) and the Communist Party (PCF) and the Greens are not unanimously agreed over its use and scope, either. How would you explain such reticence?

JLM  What we [of France Insoumise] have all committed to is our shared programme. I do not think we have debated this issue. The general feeling among the leaders and organisers of our movement is that this is, indeed, an apartheid policy. There is a definition of what apartheid is, and it has been condemned in the past. Apartheid is a description of a certain situation. It obviously implies a totally negative moral judgement. But those who want to shake off this moral condemnation need only get rid of the practice that leads to such a judgement. Yes, I think [in Israel] there is a desire for “discriminatory and separate development”, and that is coupled with brutality, expropriation, colonial practices, and all manner of violence. These are proven facts, as also expressed by part of the Israeli population that is opposing all this and showing incredible courage in protesting against it. This is why I continue to support the idea of a universal humanity capable of forming a human people based on unifying principles. When it comes to human history, we have to bet on being optimistic, and always rely on the highest demand for justice. The word “justice” isn’t the craziest fantasy. But it brings us back to the concept of law. I am optimistic, because morally, we’ve won the people’s consciences to our view. We are the camp of peace.

Translated by David Broder

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