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FOCUS: Israel-Palestine War

Why Taiwan Backs Israel Even If Its Own Struggle Mirrors Palestine's

Taiwanese, though under the weight of a far more powerful neighbor, have the tendency to idealize Israel and fail to create a self-definition beyond the island nation's anti-China image.

Photo of police forces in Taipei, Taiwan, ahead of clashes during anti-government protests in Nov. 2020

Police forces in Taipei, Taiwan, ahead of clashes during anti-government protests in Nov. 2020


TAIPEI — After the October 7 attacks on Israel by Hamas, who killed around 1,200 people and took 200 hostages, Israel imposed a complete blockade on Gaza and began a large-scale counteroffensive. Originally, most Western countries fully supported Israel's right of self-defense. However, sentiments have shifted in a section of the west over the past month, with Israel's counterattacks having caused up to 10,000 deaths in Gaza and pushing the Gazan population into a humanitarian crisis, marked by a dire shortage of water, electricity, food, and medicine. With the opening of a new front by Israel on the Lebanese-Syrian border, there are fears that the fighting could expand even further, resulting in an even greater humanitarian catastrophe.

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After the Hamas raid shocked the world, public opinion in the Chinese-speaking world, like in western society, split into two. One side firmly supported Israel's determination to defend its homeland and national sovereignty, while the other side invoked the region's history and sympathized with the Palestinians.

However, unlike in the west, most Chinese people did not choose a side based on well-considered national interests or humanitarian concern for the disadvantaged, but rather based on their attitudes toward the United States and China. Being anti-American or anti-China has become a fundamental factor determining whether you support Palestine or Israel.

The curious case of Taiwan and Palestine

The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) sides with Palestine to preserve the garb of righteousness afforded by its policy of anti-Americanism, even though it does not really sympathize or identify with the struggles of the Palestinians. In polar opposition are the "traitors" who won't stand with the CCP no matter what.

Over the years, the Chinese community in the United States has either turned conservative due to cultural conditioning or aligned itself with right-wing Republicans in order to be anti-communist (anti-leftist). This politics has also been exported to Taiwan via people-to-people exchange, leaving a particularly deep imprint on those Taiwanese citizens who have a stable Taiwanese identity and do not want to reunite with China.

What gets glossed over in this discourse is the similarity in Taiwan and Palestine's historical trajectories. Ceded and colonized during the Sino-Japanese War, Taiwan was long unable to pursue true independence because of the Nationalist-Communist civil war in China as well as the U.S.-led camp's demand for post-war international ordering. With the west's growing economic and trade dependence on China, Taiwan has been treated like an international orphan, reduced to a silent supporting role in geopolitics, and labelled a "troublemaker" for any unwillingness to follow the script and strive for autonomy.

In contrast to Palestine, which rejected the UN General Assembly's Resolution 181 (partition from Israel) in 1947 and then embarked on a long and bloody struggle, Taiwan has successfully emerged from authoritarian politics to become one of the top Asian countries on the Democracy Index. However, like Palestine, Taiwan continues to suffer from the international community's indifference and has been unable to make its own voice heard. This is starkly visible in the standard disclaimer contained in much of the international media's reporting on Taiwan: "Beijing regards Taiwan a renegade province".

It would make sense, then, for Taiwan to be one of the few countries in the world that can categorically support Palestine's fight for autonomy. And yet, the Taiwanese have lacked clear empathy for the Palestinians. Why is that?

The world through America's eyes

Taiwan has been tossed around by different colonial regimes over the centuries, and it has never had the opportunity to properly answer the question, "Who are We?”.

Since the dawn of the Cold War, when Taiwan was drawn into "Team U.S.", the Taiwanese people have been looking at the world through the eyes of the U.S. and have inevitably inherited the American mainstream's framework of "stoic Israel" vs. "Arab terrorists" – a dichotomy between good and evil that invisibilizes the history and suffering of the Palestinians.

The Taiwanese people have also identified with tropes commonly associated with Jewish culture in the media and popular literature, including the importance of education, strong family ties, the pursuit of success and wealth, and the preservation of traditional culture and its influence. Although none of these may represent what Jews really think, Israel has become a country with a perfect persona in the minds of Taiwanese: resolute, intelligent, disciplined, and with a clear sense of the self and the enemy that helps it push on with its nation-building project undaunted by the powerful adversaries surrounding it.

The average Taiwanese has also become involved in this conspiracy theory of "the global left corrupting democracy and morality".

The Taiwanese community is also full of Zionist believers and people with a Christian background, or who have grafted the history of Israel onto Taiwan. A prominent exemplar of this was Taiwan's late former President Lee Teng-hui, who once compared himself to Moses, “the man who led Taiwan out of the shadow of China".

Thanks to their seemingly innate affinity for one side shaped by mass media and the total lack of familiarity with the other, it is not difficult to understand the frameworks the Taiwanese public have used to understand "external matters" in the Afghan war after 9/11 or in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. If it were not for the fact that in recent years the threat from China has become too great to ignore, the majority of the public would probably still consider the situation in Palestine as an ordinary tragedy that they hear about on the evening news.

Notable among the few people who did speak out on behalf of the Palestinians were leftist intellectuals in European and American academia dedicated to anti-imperialist and anti-colonial studies. It was the same group that was also the most critical of the Donald Trump's brand of white supremacy and populism.

However, in the wave of support for Trump, the average Taiwanese has also become involved in this conspiracy theory of "the global left corrupting democracy and morality".

A Taiwanese soldier during a military drill.

A Taiwanese soldier takes part in a military drill amid tensions between Taipei and Beijing

Daniel Ceng Shou-Yi/ZUMA

The PLO's fraught relations with other Middle-Eastern countries

The average Taiwanese also lacks an understanding of the difficulties the Palestinians have had to endure in building a successful resistance movement, including fractious relations with other Middle Eastern countries. For instance, even as Jordan mediated the conflict between the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) and Israel as the representative of Britain, it also wanted to take advantage of this tussle to recover its "national land" in the West Bank. In addition, at that time, the prestige of the PLO in civil society even exceeded that of the Jordanian royal family, and the two sides had accumulated deep mutual resentment.

In the eyes of Iraq and other countries that resented the withdrawal of Western forces from the Middle East, Jordan's problems were self-inflicted. There was no such thing as a great Arab alliance. Rather, each side had its own calculations, and each side wanted to use the PLO as leverage to strengthen its own position and voice in the Arab world.

The Lebanese civil war followed a similar template. Lebanon is a pluralistic and heterogeneous country with frequent civil wars among various factions, and in addition to Sunnis and Shias, the Maronites, who accounted for 40% of the population, were in power at that time. It was the Sunnis in Lebanon who saw in the PLO's military power a way to break this fragile balance by allying with it, which eventually led to the resurgence of the civil war and its spillover into Syria. It was not the PLO that brought Syria down but the Maronite government, and later, Israel invaded Lebanon under the guise of clearing out armed PLO members in Beirut.

It's not that the PLO hasn't made efforts at reconciliation — the Oslo Accords of 1993 once offered hope for peace. The history of how Israel's far-right assassinated its own prime minister, Yitzhak Rabin, who had pushed for a peace deal, and a series of equally horrific attacks during the period of the struggle for statehood, naturally, never figure in anti-PLO stories.

Caricaturing Palestinians

In tandem with the rise of of Israel's righteous image among the Taiwanese, Palestine has come to be seen as the "land of the dead" and "enemy on the land". Afraid of being abandoned, afraid of being seen as not strong enough, and even more afraid of any posture that might undermine their internal confidence in resisting China, Taiwan's masses have been motivated to act in ways that will make them "more like Israel". They have come to believe that those sympathizing with the Palestinians are potential traitors of the Taiwanese national cause.

Several reputed media outlets in Taiwan, such as The Reporter, Corner International, and PBS, have attracted angry backlash at the mere mention of the history and experiences of Palestinians in their reports. Any attempt to explain why Gaza is called an "open-air prison" has been denounced as "cold-blooded, ignoring facts, and speaking in favor of terrorists".

The crude caricature that Palestinians "don't work hard but only sit on the ground and cry for the world's sympathy" teaches a harmful lesson to delusional Taiwanese people about negotiating peace with China.

There are members of the independent media or academia who have shown concern for the Palestinian situation in the past, and who are reluctant to condemn China's human rights problems, and who even joined Taiwan’s "anti-war coalition" a few months ago. But there are others in the same camp who have long been concerned about international human rights and justice, and who have always been at the forefront of the fight against China, who are unwilling to fall into this simplified dichotomy.

The limits of simplistic solutions 

As a country perennially facing the specter of war, where fear is easily triggered, Taiwan's need for easy answers isn't difficult to understand. The worse the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) intentions and attitude, the more confrontational Taiwan becomes. The more simplified the framework for confronting the conflict gets, and the shorter it takes to arrive at a formula for "what should be done" in order to settle down anxiety.

However, once a real war occurs, the test of psychological defense will overwhelm any comfort that such a simplified worldview can offer. The will to resist for a long time calls for mental strength that comes from deep thought. When people are trapped in a simplistic and binary mindset, they value nothing more than survival, and there is nothing they will not to do in order to survive. Therefore, every time this binary framework is activated, there are too many "not me” people filtered out, and the morale of any non-combatant is easily depleted because they are people who can be abandoned at any time. This self-proclaimed "mature adult choice" can be the last straw in the collapse of social trust.

If one day we have to face a war, we have to be very clear about what actions can be considered legitimate self-defense.

The binary framework also ignores the fact that even in the midst of war, international law is still binding, and it is unacceptable to advocate for or commit acts of indiscriminate violence against a group of people even in the name of self-defense.

Taiwanese people only see in the media how the U.S. and others "firmly support Israel's defense of the homeland". They do not see the tug-of-war at United Nations meetings, and they do not hear the calls issued by the UN, the EU, and the leaders of many countries for Israel to exercise restraint and abide by the relevant humanitarian agreements. In just over a month, dozens of international journalists and members of humanitarian organizations have died under Israeli air strikes, and question have begun to ring out whether Israel's actions are analogous to war crimes.

If one day we have to face a war, we have to be very clear about what actions can be considered legitimate self-defense under international law. Not all counterattacks by weaker and smaller countries in order to survive will be accepted by the international community. Even if we face a PLA onslaught, we can't just do whatever we want to – such as advocating for blowing up nuclear plants and dams – or run the risk of losing international support and sympathy.

A tank deployed during the National Army Lunar New Year's Military Drill, in Taiwan.A tank deployed during the National Army Lunar New Year's Military Drill, in Taiwan.

Ceng Shou Yi/NurPhoto/ZUMA

Unrealistic Expectations

The western media is no longer as lopsided as it was in the 1990s. More and more people realize that the Israeli government has done a lot of things wrong, and the voices of solidarity with the Palestinians have continued to expand over the past 20 years.

What the Taiwanese community shouldn't overlook is that public opinion not only leaves a footprint domestically but also flows across borders. If one collects popular, pro-Zionist comments from the Taiwanese community and throws them onto western social media, Taiwan could quickly acquire the image of another small, bigoted country that doesn't deserve any sympathy.

At a time of deep global turbulence, what reason do the people of other countries have to speak up for a faraway country?

When the Taiwanese use the law of the jungle to accuse the Palestinians of lack of progress, how can they demand and believe that all democratic countries should, for the sake of justice, put aside all their interests and stand together with the United States and Taiwan to fight China?

The human desire for independence and autonomy may not be pragmatic in the byzantine world of international politics, but this desire cannot be eliminated, be it by the Israelis, the Palestinians, or the Taiwanese.

"Who we are"

As the U.S.-China rivalry has heated up in the past five years, Taiwan, at the focal point of the two empires, was suddenly pulled to the centerstage from an obscure corner.

Especially after the shock of the Russia-Ukraine war, the world began to pay attention to this distant island with unprecedented fervor, and Taiwan has gone from being flattered at the beginning, and reciting the script in a somewhat stilted and stiff manner, to becoming intoxicated with its role today.

Despite the unprecedented depth of international media coverage of Taiwan today, the script was given to us by others, not written by us. The Taiwan in the script is the Taiwan that the international community wants us to be. It does not necessarily answer the fundamental question of who we are.

Add to this the fact that the Chinese threat has infiltrated nearly every aspect of life in Taiwan, and many Taiwanese are constrained to think in a simplified binary framework almost like the Israeli-Palestinian issue, whether it is in their understanding of international affairs, how Taiwan should be aligned, or even their own perceptions of themselves.

As for who we are, if we just look at the most pervasive themes in community forums in Taiwan in the past few years, it seems that we only see ourselves as the mirror image of China. As long as we are antithetical to everything Chinese, we’re good. Standing before this mirror breeds a strange kind of narcissism. If China supports Russia, we should support Ukraine. If China supports Palestine, we should support Israel then?

What we should in fact do is break that mirror, step out of the frame, walk towards ourselves, and return to the truth, even if it is not palatable, even if it cannot immediately appease our fear and vanity. It is by settling ourselves from within that we can grow truly strong.

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