George Floyd was not the only victim to have his life unjustly taken by law enforcement in recent days.
Last Saturday in Jerusalem’s Old City, Iyad Halak was gunned down by Israeli police officers. A Palestinian resident of the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Wadi al Joz, Halak was on his way early in the morning to a special education institution where he passed the Israeli police officers on patrol near the Old City’s Lions’ Gate every day for several years. Moments later, Warda Abu Hadid, Halak’s caregiver at the special needs institution where he studied, attested that she suddenly heard gun shots and witnessed Iyad fall to the ground with serious injuries. She stated that she repeatedly shouted to the officers that he was disabled and begged not to shoot him. However, as Halak yelled, “I’m with her, I’m with her,” he stood up and ran to the garbage room just a few meters away where he took his final breath and was fatally shot.
Iyad Halak was autistic and found to be unarmed despite the initial suspicions of the police officers.
Just last week, the United States experienced a similar tragedy that ignited nation-wide protests against police brutality. An African American man named George Floyd was killed while in custody after a Minneapolis police officer kneeled on his neck for eight minutes. After the disturbing video went viral on social media, protests erupted in all fifty states leading to clashes with local police forces and, in several cases, the destruction of property and looting. Protestors and sympathizers alike shared the hashtag #icantbreathe, referring to the moment George Floyd pleaded that he could not breath as the knee of Derek Chauvin remained pressed upon his neck.
Both of these tragic incidents bear chilling similarities, although with strikingly different public reactions. Why?
First, I do not think that the social and historical contexts that blacks in the United States and Palestinians in Israel face are truly comparable. America’s near 400-year struggle with racism commencing with slavery, followed by institutionalized racism such as Jim Crow, and currently expressed through forms of police brutality and mass incarceration, hardly characterizes the nationalist conflict between Israelis and Palestinians.
Moreover, the fact that Israeli citizens are attacked from time to time by Palestinians in the Old City should not be overlooked. Israeli security forces patrolling the area must always be on high alert and ready to foil an attack within seconds in order to prevent the loss of life. There is a real threat at stake.
The problem is that Israelis fear being compared to historical injustices that occurred elsewhere. This is because the country often faces accusations of gross comparisons to behavior of racist governing systems of the past such as Jim Crow of the American South and South Africa’s Apartheid regime.
Thus, while race issues against blacks in America should not be compared with Palestinians in Israel, the deaths of George Floyd and Iyad Halak can. The conflict prevents us from being able to make the distinction between the highly over-generalized comparison and the incident. We should be able to recognize a case of police brutality without having to defend ourselves from comparing Palestinians to African Americans. However, the structure of the conflict blinds Israelis from being able to do so.
When a Palestinian is a victim of police brutality, Israelis are so entrenched in the conflict that the Arab individual can only be viewed through that lens. Automatically, questions are raised whether they were carrying out an attack or if they were rightfully suspected of being a potential terrorist. Instead of first thinking of the Palestinian as a fellow human being, we suspect them of being a threat. This flawed perception of Arabs blinds us from seeing acts of injustice that must be brought to light and condemned.
There is also fear from reacting against injustices committed against Palestinians. If we denounce the officer’s actions, we are bound to be accused of being for “them” and against “us,” instead of looking at the incident for what it is—an excessive use of force fueled by preconceived notions. This is because almost everything is viewed in light of the conflictual relations between Jewish Israelis and Palestinians.
Thus, while the death of George Floyd led millions to take America’s streets in protest, the shooting of Iyad Halak aroused a minimal response from Israelis. Until Palestinians and Israelis cease to view each other through the prism of conflict, responses will continue to remain as such in the future.