Reflections on the 2023 Gaza-Israel Conflict as a Filipino

Earl Carlo Mandi Guevarra

As I write this, I look out the window in sadness, feeling helpless at the terrible reality that tens of thousands of people are being systematically slaughtered in a place that’s just 41 kilometers long and 10 kilometers wide at its widest point. You can’t just make this up. Imagine cutting half of Metro Manila, placing it in an alternate dimension, and bombing it with all the kinds of ordnance you can think of, 24/7 nonstop – that’s what’s happening in the Gaza Strip right now.

On social media, it’s ironic that the majority of Filipinos support Israel’s actions, even when many around the world say otherwise. There are a couple of probable reasons why they might do so; they help with the defense requirements of the country, they equate it with the Holy Land, and the country is one of the rare people who would give Filipinos travel privileges (even in their security checks, Philippines is considered as one of those countries that will come right after their own citizens).

Ironically, a nation that is supposed to practice “makadiyos” (Godliness and excellence in service in the name of the Creator) and “makatao” (humanity and human excellence) as our core values are actively participating in dehumanizing people whose only fault was to be born on the wrong side of the planet.

I actually had an internal debate on whether I should reflect on the current conflict on paper or not. On one hand, I asked myself if there’s anything that has been written about the topic at hand that hasn’t already been written. On the other hand, it is pretty clear that many Filipinos, especially those outside of Mindanao, immediately demonize all Palestinians as terrorists – despite being completely innocent as far as the strictures of international law, war, and common human laws are concerned.

Sounds familiar? This was exactly the same situation that many people from this region had to face in the recent past. While there’s undeniably an actual and sustainable shot at lasting peace with the BARMM project (and yes, it’s way more peaceful now than before), it wasn’t that long ago when being from Mindanao (and being a Muslim) would raise eyebrows if you were walking in the streets of Manila – more so if you came from places like Maguindanao, Sulu, and the like.

I’ve even heard from one of my friends who lived in San Juan that there are rumors that other buyers wouldn’t buy a condominium unit if they found out that Muslims were living on the same floor. This isn’t the long-time-ago past of the early 2000s; I’m talking about something that happened just two or three years ago. This just shows that while the negative point of view towards Muslims may have been stifled over the past few years, it is still safe to say that many Filipinos still consider being a Muslim as a byword for being dangerous.

Now, on to the matter at hand: There are three things that we Filipinos should know about Gaza to understand the dynamics of the current and most destructive iteration of the conflict.

First, it’s ruled by a political entity called Hamas – yes, even its entry on the notorious Wikipedia lists it first as a political organization – who actually was elected democratically back in 2006 during the last Palestinian elections with 44.5% of the popular vote, and bagged 74 out of 132 seats. I can only think of a few big names here in the Philippine political landscape who have won by this margin fairly and squarely, and they had also to go up against a repressive and organized propaganda machine with virtually unlimited funding. With that being said, they also happen to be designated as a terrorist group by the United States and the European Union; but at the same time, they’re the de facto government of Gaza that provides for its 2.2 million people living within a completely blockaded area of 365 square kilometers. Make that of what you will.

Second, Palestine, is on paper, a state, though it’s divided into two entities: Fatah, who nominally sits as the Palestinian Authority, controls the West Bank, while Hamas controls Gaza. A state is supposed to have people, territory, government, and recognition by other states (even the Philippines officially recognizes Palestinian statehood) – this is what we’ve all learned in World History during high school. There’s a fifth element that’s generally implied – that’s the right to self-defense.

Given that Palestine is a state that’s recognized by 138 countries around the world and is being attacked by multiple means, doesn’t it have the right to defend its people, territory, and government through any means possible? This is what Palestinians have tried to do for many years against illegal settlers (no less than the UN condemned them), oppressive security forces (for those of you who don’t know, they’re going up against a full-scale surveillance apparatus that rivals the one placed in Xinjiang in China), and external parties who simply don’t want them to be a viable state for varying reasons.

Finally, in any conflict, there’s the concept of proportionality. To put it in terms that someone on the street would understand: You can only use force that is necessary to defend yourself and you can’t systematically target others who are not a part of your fight. One can argue that the invaders acted in “self-defense” (objectively, Hamas struck first), but that went out the window shortly after they decided to actively target medical facilities, schools, residential buildings, places of worship (including an Orthodox church), power facilities, you name it. Then, there is the fact that journalists were taunted and bombed (Wael Dahdouh, the Gaza bureau chief for Al Jazeera Arabic, had to go live 15 minutes after he had to bury his family – his wife, son, daughter, and grandson – that’s three generations killed in one strike!) Worst of all, nearly half of the deaths in Gaza are children; due to the conflict, an entire generation’s right to basic education and knowledge is denied and wiped out. You can’t think of a greater injustice than this.

Even if we throw all societal, rules-based, religious, and values-based considerations out of the window, anyone with basic human dignity should show at least some sympathy for those thousands who are forever unalive. It’s not just the people who are being erased from existence; traditions, cultures, and tales are being methodically and permanently devastated forever – that’s the extent of the horror that’s happening today in Palestine.

We may be apathetic and dismissive now, saying that it’s halfway around the world. However, this might be the reality that we Filipinos will be facing in a few years unless by some miracle we are spared from it. We can all rest assured that everyone and their dog is currently taking notes on this conflict, gauging how much they could get away with in terms of destroying human lives and dignity as well as the techniques and procedures that they could apply to maximize said destruction.

Going back, I realized I’d run out of tears. Every day, there’s a new catastrophe; every hour, there’s a novel calamity…and every hour, the population of an entire state is being decimated while many all over the world just watch on impassively as if it was nothing but a tragic movie.

There’s this poem entitled “Oh Rascal Children of Gaza” by Palestinian writer Khaled Juma, written in 2014, that encapsulates my feelings pretty well:

Oh rascal children of Gaza.
You who constantly disturbed me
with your screams under my window.
You who filled every morning
with rush and chaos.
You who broke my vase
and stole the lonely flower on my balcony.
Come back,
and scream as you want
and break all the vases.
Steal all the flowers.
Come back…
Just come back.

The bitter truth is that they’re not coming back to this world; they’ve been denied their right to exist and the right to try to shape the world around them for a better, brighter future. Yet, I believe that they’ll be reborn in another world, in a place where they’ll be happy, gilded, and dignified.

I can’t comprehend the fact that I’m living in an age where it’s possible to see entire generations dead in the blink of an eye. Still, I pray that the people of Palestine may resist and outlast this grim period – and that they may enjoy the chance to attain lasting and sustainable peace and progress, just like what’s currently built up in the Bangsamoro. I also hope to see them one day becoming free from the river to the sea and spreading into the ocean and leaving their stamp on all the coasts of the world.