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It’s International Human Rights Day. Try Telling That to the People of Gaza.

Joe Biden and other Western leaders will say all the right words. But what they’re allowing Israel to do in Gaza just makes human rights work harder in the Middle East.

Palestinians alive and dead were brought to Nasser Hospital
Belal Khaled/Anadolu/Getty Images
Palestinians alive and dead were brought to Nasser Hospital following Israeli attacks in Khan Yunis, Gaza, on December 8.

Today, December 10, is International Human Rights Day, marking the seventy-fifth anniversary of the landmark Universal Declaration of Human Rights. I am sure that President Biden and other world leaders will all deliver grave speeches paying tribute to the declaration and proclaiming their commitment to it.

I wonder how all this will look to the people of Gaza. The refusal by the Biden administration and most European countries to condemn the killing of Palestinian children and civilians by the thousands constitutes a horrific blow to those working in the field of human rights. This apathy toward civilian Palestinian lives has been a devastating earthquake that has destroyed people’s faith in human rights conventions and international norms.

Over the years, major Western development agencies have spent hundreds of millions of dollars and euros in the Middle East and North Africa to help raise awareness and strengthen human rights, peace, good governance, and transparency. But since the start of the Israeli war on Gaza, those resources and efforts have gone to waste as concepts and principles that have long formed the core focus of these international organizations have been ignored by their governments.

Civil society organizations in Palestine, Jordan, and other countries in the region have canceled activities and events related to human rights, including events for International Human Rights Day. Organizations have also rescheduled the activities to include references to the rights of Gazans because they are embarrassed to talk about human rights conventions.

Talking about human rights has become disconnected from reality, according to many. The mere appearance of the logo of the U.S. Agency for International Cooperation, the European Union, GIZ (the German development agency), and so forth, on platforms or publications has become toxic as perceived by the majority of human rights activists and civil society representatives. It threatens the reputation of anyone who receives funding or participates in activities supported by these entities.

Many human rights defenders in the region feel let down, disappointed, and even guilty about their belief in and cooperation with these agencies during past periods. They cannot find a convincing explanation regarding the hypocritical scenes that prevailed at the Security Council sessions and other forums. The very same people who are angry because Arab leaders, including the Palestinian leadership, refuse to condemn the Hamas attack on October 7 in clear terms refrain from condemning the massacres committed against civilians in Gaza.

Adding insult to injury have been some who find justification for the massive Israeli killing machine by the use of insulting justifications, such as “collateral damage” and “the price of Hamas’s terrorism.”

Against difficult odds and personal sacrifice, human rights defenders in the Arab region have for decades waged a long struggle and are still fighting to establish a culture of justice, democracy, coexistence, and tolerance. The governments of countries in our region consider such efforts to be a disturbing opposition, and human rights defenders are accused of various insults. Fighters for democracy, opponents of torture, and those who struggle for governmental transparency or women’s rights are regularly accused of “having foreign agendas” or “deliberately corrupting society and tampering with its religious and cultural values” and even “carrying out conspiracies.”

Now the very countries that we thought were the bastion of freedom, democracy, and peace have let these human rights defenders down and have left them facing waves of gloating and accusations from ordinary people as well as officials. In our countries, we are faced with the grim reality that the very same officials who violate the rights of their people are now settling scores with human rights activists and human rights organizations that have been critical of the rights of their citizens.

In a meeting with a group of students, a tenth grader asked me: “Why did the war start in Gaza?” I gave them a direct answer without ambiguity and told them that the war broke out after the Hamas attack on October 7. They asked me: “Are the 16,000 Palestinians who have died killed by Hamas?” “Do the destroyed homes that we see on the news belong to Hamas?”

My answer was no, so the natural, automatic rebuttal came: “So for what crime are these people dying?”

I do not think that anyone has an answer to this question except the president of Israel, who said this, early in the war on Gaza: “The civilians in Gaza are not innocent.” And this: “They are completely responsible because they did not revolt against Hamas.”

How can we convince young people like the students I spoke with of the usefulness of human rights conventions—that they are protected from politicization, that the rule of law applies to individuals and states without distinction, and that human rights are universal and indivisible? In such a contradictory and hypocritical context, this seems like an impossible mission.

Israel has something to tell its children about justifications for killing so many civilians, whether through its interpretation of the right to self-defense or by recalling some religious texts, part of which Benjamin Netanyahu read as he declared war on Gaza, when he invoked the Amalekites, ancient Israel’s sworn enemy, by saying: “You must remember what Amalek has done to you, says our Holy Bible. And we do remember.” He repeated stories from the Old Testament supporting the killing of infants, and even their donkeys.

Similarly, extremists in the Arab and Islamic countries, who are the majority, will find a religious justification for the killing of civilians in Israel.

The Quran and Sunnah are full of texts that incite hatred for those who differ in religion, especially the Jews. And in the heritage, there are stories that religious students study about Muslims killing unarmed Jews in Medina. This theological heritage of hatred unfortunately supersedes the human rights principles and values in the collective consciousness of the societies on both sides.

A real massacre has been committed against human rights during this war, and the confidence of the strongest believers in the Arab and Muslim worlds has been shaken. The sad result is that many leftists and liberals have given up on human rights and have drifted toward extremism.

Experiences prove that these people become more extreme because they are disappointed, and they feel that they have been deceived for years by countries and parties that carried the torch of justice, equality, and nondiscrimination. These principles were quickly extinguished with the first real moral test that revealed their hypocrisy and double standards.

Despite all that, and after the war on Gaza ends, some of us human rights defenders in the Middle East will still be in the field confronting regimes that have continued to harness their resources and security and media apparatuses to demonize us and distort our image. The attack of these regimes against human rights activists after the war on Gaza will be stronger and more severe because they will be fully supported by the majority of the people, who are angry and dissatisfied with human rights and everyone who works for them, due to the procrastination, duplication, and politicization these masses have witnessed.

Human rights defenders in this region will need a long rehabilitation process to restore their collapsed relationship with the concepts and values that they defended for decades because they endured a lot of harassment and persecution.  They also need to restore their relationship with the partners that were supposedly dedicated to bringing about a value change in society. They must think of true and more honest alternative allies that genuinely believe in the principles of justice, anti-discrimination, tolerance, and acceptance of others in their societies.

This year, the human rights activists in the Middle East exchange condolences on International Human Rights Day, which seems a funeral rather than a celebration as Democrats and Republicans in the United States intentionally jeopardize their reputation.