With Israel at war with Hamas after a sweeping attack on civilian life, and Iran and the US and other local power brokers involved, we brace for further dehumanizing scenes of global conflict.
On October 7, while Afghanistan was still counting its dead from an earthquake, and international groups struggled not to escalate Azerbaijan’s exodus of Armenians from Nagorno-Karabakh, and Ukraine tackled a rise in Russian drone attacks, a fringe group that has worn the title of jihadist, terrorist, and political representative launched sweeping aerial and ground attacks on civilians and military within Israel, in locations around the Gaza Strip and moving toward Tel Aviv.
In the early hours on Saturday, an Israeli security apparatus caught unawares rushed to reclaim dozens of locations secured by Hamas’s Al-Qassad Brigades (IQB), a known terrorist organization in the EU, Britain, and Australia. (Canada and the US list Hamas, in general, as the terrorist group instead.) Israeli Defence Forces (IDF) launched counterattacks into Gaza, destroying infrastructure and killing civilians and fighters in turn, while Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu promised an extreme reprisal, advising a trapped civilian populace in Gaza to get out while they still can.
All of the places which Hamas is deployed, hiding and operating in, that wicked city, we will turn them into rubble.
I say to the residents of Gaza: Leave now because we will operate forcefully everywhere.“Statement by PM Netanyahu”, October 7, 2023
Around a hundred people are presumed kidnapped by the IQB, including elderly, children, and women, in part with a stated intention by Hamas to trade for the release of Palestinian fighters in Israeli detention. In retaliatory bombing operations by the IDF, it is possible that some of these hostages have died with their captors. Videos showing defilement of the dead has already circulated, along with the frightened final moments of civilians seeking shelter from assailants. Among the dead are international citizens who were attending a peace-oriented music festival in Southern Israel, when Hamas fighters airdropped into the region and started shooting indiscriminately, before parading around some of the dead.
Israel declared war on Saturday. Condemnation of Hamas’s actions came swiftly from Western quarters, with the US, France, and Britain in strong support for Israeli self-defence, and the US committing to an increase in munitions, Navy warships, and aircraft in the area. This is on top of a ten-year military aid package developed under Former President Barack Obama, of $38 billion USD between 2017-2028, which has centrally been spent on buying combat aircraft from the US, investing in the Iron Dome missile defence system, and developing better border-infiltration detection systems.
(Early assessments suggest that, while the IDF plainly lacked the intel to prevent this invasion, in a knowledge gap that will haunt the organization for years, the use of drones to drop explosives into watch towers, bulldozers to break through fencing and other ground barriers, and intense rocket fire to cover for powered parachutists help to explain the swift entry of some 1,000 enemy combatants into Israeli territory.)
Meanwhile, Syria and Lebanon’s Hezbollah expressed support for Hamas, and Iran figured highly as a key supporter of Saturday’s events. In Alexandria, a police officer killed two Israeli tourists, along with an Egyptian, raising tensions for other Israelis in the region. Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Qatar attribute Hamas hostilities to Israel’s actions in the Palestinian territories, and at Islamic holy sites. This is predictable, but Saudi Arabia was at a critical crossroads for international relations prior to the attack. During the quadruply indicted former president’s time in office, Donald Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner advanced private dealings with Saudi Arabia that paved the way for President Joe Biden to broker the beginnings of a Saudi-Israel normalization accord.
This is also why a lot of initial news leapt straight to the political dimension: how the attack will “play out” for the 2024 US Presidential Election, what it means for politics within Israel (where Netanyahu has lately been shielding himself from citizen protests), the implications for regional politics, and even the potential impact of this event on the war in Ukraine, as Western allies find their energy and resources stretched thin.
But this is also all knee-jerk gamification of a humanitarian nightmare.
The human equation
Days into this new war, the death tolls sits at over 1,100, with well over 3,000 wounded.
And the more responsible journalism you come across will highlight the cumulative death toll, which includes over 700 in Israeli and around 400 in Gaza.
Other journalism and social media hubs will leap triumphantly into vindicated opinion: whether about Israel “reaping what it had sown”, or Hamas doing the same, by bringing the full wrath of the state upon the region going forward. Now is the time for armchair analysts to wax poetic about military strategy, speculate about the full network of “players”, and make grand statements about “Palestinians”, “the Jews”, “Israelis”, and “the Arabs”. Similarly, this situation reduces the capacity for Palestinians and Israelis to disagree as openly with their regional representatives. The first casualty of war isn’t just truth: it’s history, and nuance, and democratic exercise, too.
But with over a year and a half of another major global war in operation, we can also choose to do better. We can choose not to rush to dehumanizing narrative. We can learn about the complexity of this situation, both locally and internationally, without getting so caught up in grand political theories that we “lose the plot” on the ground.
We can grieve the loss of human lives, and from that grief shape our approach to advocating for better outcomes than all the ones this brutalized region has won and lost before.
There will be no winners here. Only those who survive, and the world they choose to build out of their trauma over what is now transpiring.
The Gaza Strip, and Palestinian representation
According to the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), the Gaza Strip is a 141-square-mile home to around 2.2 million human beings, including 1.7 million registered Palestinian refugees, as of September 2023. This high-density “kettled” situation is at the heart of a great deal of mixed media coverage, because it can be simultaneously true that Palestinians who attack Israel are operating around civilians, making their homes, schools, and medical facilities a common target for IDF retaliation, and that jihadists aren’t creating these mixed-use spaces, so much as operating within the confines of existing terrain.
It’s also true that Western media struggles to cover Palestinian frustration with their situation effectively. Many want a simple black-and-white portrait of who’s “right”, but the world rarely abides by the rules of Hollywood. It’s much easier to imagine that all Palestinians hate Israel and hold antisemitic loathing for its Jewish citizens, or that all Israelis are authoritarian nationalists keen to slaughter another ethnoreligious group.
But this portrait of the world does the work of the hateful for them.
Here’s a more complex depiction:
After a recent IDF raid of Palestinians amassing weapons in a decades-old refugee camp called Jenin, civilians marched their dead through the streets not only in defiance of the Israeli soldiers who had killed their family members, but also of the Palestinian Authority that, for failure to develop a stable state, had sentenced their loved ones to die in the pursuit of desperate causes. A long political struggle between Hamas and Fatah, the two major regional parties, has scuttled any hope of building a democratic society under current leadership, and left a whole generation of youth with no trust in local or international government, ripe for indoctrination into paramilitaries preparing for the next “intifada”, or major uprising. Around half the population in the Gaza Strip is under 19 years old.
Western media failure extends in the other direction, too. Much that is pinned on everyday Palestinians is the action of external agents using Gaza and the West Bank, among other surrounding nations, as staging grounds for attacks on Israel. When Israeli leadership discusses the need to remain vigilant because the country faces threats from many quarters, there is no hyperbole to the claim. Iran alone has cultivated 19 armed groups along Israeli borders over the past four decades, including Hamas, Hezbollah, Islamic Jihad, and the Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades. The ongoing instability in Syria, along with factionalization in Lebanon, add to the West Bank and Gaza in creating perfect feeder populations of disaffected youth for jihad.
Hamas emerged in the First Intifada: an extension of the Muslim Brotherhood, and an expressly jihadist group with a stated goal of eradicating Jewish dominance in Palestine. Its 1988 covenant pays lip service to a fraternity between faiths, so long as Jews submit to Islamic rule of the region, but the vast majority reads more as follows:
The Islamic Resistance Movement is one of the links in the chain of the struggle against the Zionist invaders. It goes back to 1939, to the emergence of the martyr Izz al-Din al Kissam and his brethren the fighters, members of Moslem Brotherhood. It goes on to reach out and become one with another chain that includes the struggle of the Palestinians and Moslem Brotherhood in the 1948 war and the Jihad operations of the Moslem Brotherhood in 1968 and after.
Moreover, if the links have been distant from each other and if obstacles, placed by those who are the lackeys of Zionism in the way of the fighters obstructed the continuation of the struggle, the Islamic Resistance Movement aspires to the realisation of Allah’s promise, no matter how long that should take. The Prophet, Allah bless him and grant him salvation, has said:
“The Day of Judgement will not come about until Moslems fight the Jews (killing the Jews), when the Jew will hide behind stones and trees. The stones and trees will say O Moslems, O Abdulla, there is a Jew behind me, come and kill him. Only the Gharkad tree, (evidently a certain kind of tree) would not do that because it is one of the trees of the Jews.” (related by al-Bukhari and Moslem).Hamas Covenant of the Islamic Resistance Movement, 1988
What’s striking in the document, though, is that even Hamas acknowledges three distinct spheres of concern: Palestinian, Arab, and Islamic. These demographics overlap, but they are not the same. It’s no wonder, then, that when the Palestinian Liberation Organization reached an agreement for mutual recognition in 1993, Hamas knew that it had to take over the politics of Palestine to keep its jihadist plans on track.
Religious tyranny and an impossible peace
After the Oslo Accords, which promised some level of stability in Israel and Palestinian territories after 1993, the Palestinian National Authority (PA) was gradually established on a path to full democracy that proved challenging to carry out, considering the local players jockeying for power. In a fateful 2006 election, a year after Israeli PM Ariel Sharon started to withdraw internal security operations in Gaza, Hamas took over the PA under Ismail Haniyeh. A year later, intense in-fighting saw Hamas seize control of the strip, essentially dissolving a unified government: Fatah had the West Bank, and Hamas had Gaza.
Over the next few years, efforts were made to unify Hamas and Fatah under the umbrella of a shared Palestinian Authority, but the two groups hold very different objectives, and diametrically opposed views on coexistence with Israel. At present, Hamas and Hezbollah both attack Fatah officials, in an effort to destabilize the PA’s control over the West Bank.
Meanwhile, the Islamic sphere referenced in Hamas’s 1988 covenant has been intersecting with other Arab interests, especially through Iranian action elsewhere. Iran and Hamas even had a falling out over Syrian activity, so although both groups want to see jihad sweep across the region, Iran is perfectly content to foment violence through other factions. At present, Hezbollah has de facto control over Lebanon, and there are smaller resistance forces that Iran is happy to leverage in the West Bank to secure its central aims.
On October 8, The Wall Street Journal published an article that suggested a much more direct relationship between Iran and Hamas in the lead-up to Saturday’s attacks, in which Iran expressly laid out and sanctioned all major facets of the operation. That breaking story comes from a few unnamed sources, with the only named ones disagreeing with the account. It also buries the fact that further corroboration is still pending from key officials.
Why would this story of Iranian centrality be presented so decisively, so soon? In part, because in the US a major spin-cycle this weekend was the question of whether Biden had been “soft on Iran” and thus paved the way for the attack in Israel. The Democratic Party is already home to dissenting views on the US relationship with Israel, meaning that members of “the Squad”, which has a history of advocating more openly for Palestinian rights, along with pro-Palestinian protesters this weekend in New York, were held sharply to account for actions and language that some view as sanctioning antisemitism at home and abroad.
Right wing forums also returned to criticism from earlier this summer, when the US waived financial sanctions in exchange for the safe return of five citizens detained for years in Iran. Biden’s government had permitted $6 billion in frozen Iranian assets, owed to the country by South Korea, to be transferred to Qatar solely for humanitarian aid. This was seen, in the wake of Saturday’s attacks, as US complicity, but not with any serious end in improving the situation for Israel here and now. Rather, the more that Iran can be held responsible for Hamas’s actions, the more some political groups hope to leverage Biden’s negotiations with Iran and Saudi Arabia for electoral advantage in 2024.
But although these cynical political dimensions call for caution around trending global theories, one element of WSJ‘s story is easily corroborated: the fact that, in August, representatives of a few Iran-backed militant groups met in Beirut with officers from Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). Such meetings have been a common occurrence in recent years, and are logical for a network of religious extremists trying to retain overall fraternity even while dissenting over the geopolitical specifics of jihad.
Such a conference also attests to the idea that, even if Hamas wants to consider itself an independent operator in these latest attacks (as some of its representatives do), the group nevertheless belongs to a whole network of emboldened regional jihadists. Iran does not need to be the centrally guiding force in this latest volley of attacks to see the opportunity it presents, for other terrorist operations against Israel and elsewhere.
In short, what started with Hamas stands a very good chance of not being finished with whatever immediate retaliation the Israeli government, backed by Western powers, now has in mind. The fighting is fierce on the ground, and a difficult season looms ahead.
A civilian nightmare
News media, rooting around for metaphors, has compared this event to 9/11 and the start of World War I. It has also, more obviously, picked up on the significance of this weekend for the Jewish calendar. The October 7 attacks took place 50 years almost to the day since the start of the Yom Kippur War, giving rise to the designation “Second Yom Kippur War” in many media outlets, even though the conflicts are quite different.
In 1973, an Egyptian- and Syrian-led coalition of Arab fighters attacked Israel on one of its highest holy days, a day of atonement and repentance near the beginning of the Jewish New Year. In 2023, Hamas launched what it called Operation Al-Aqsa Flood: an attack that saw fighters under Muhammad Deif move through the streets shooting civilians in their vehicles and homes, and dragging elderly and children alike into trucks as hostages. They came for military targets, like the coastal Zikim Base, Erez (a border crossing), and division headquarters at Reim. They came for towns and settlements, like Sderot, Be’eri, and Ofakim.
Hamas’s stated justification relates to IDF hostilities at the Al-Aqsa compound, a holy site for all Abrahamic faiths and home to the Dome of the Rock, on the Temple Mount in the Old City of Jerusalem. This is a justification that goes right back to the 1988 covenant, which even then considered the protection and reclamation of the Al-Aqsa Mosque as a primary aim.
In recent years, Palestinians in general have contended that Israeli authorities are breaching the interfaith truce, both by allowing non-Muslims to occupy the mosque outside set hours (a way to intimidate and crowd out Muslim worshippers), and by openly attacking Muslims at worship. Conversely, Israeli authorities contend that extremists are using the mosque and surrounding spaces for terrorist activities. IDF has argued that its incursions are to keep the mosque from being used to store weapons.
As with most facets of a decades-long conflict, there is room for both truths, and more. Israel’s population is not a monolith. There are nationalists who loathe and terrorize immigrants and other minorities within this state, just as there are in every other. IDF members have been videotaped in their own acts of cruelty against Palestinian elders and children: not a statement of equivalence, so much as an observation about human nature. Behind every uniform, every banner, lies a range.
Meanwhile, back in Gaza, the ability of average Palestinians to enter and leave is tightly controlled via air, land, and sea by Israeli authorities. Travel to and from the West Bank is also strictly limited by Israel. The Gazan population currently has a 60% poverty rate and a 46.4% unemployment rate: the latter slightly improving, after Israel lifted of a 14-year ban on work permits in 2021. There is a black market for more permits, though, and Palestinian laborers in Israel remain highly vulnerable to exploitation.
These mobility and work restrictions, along with different civil rights and coded forms of residential segregation, are why Amnesty International released a report in 2022 identifying the situation in the region as apartheid: a verdict shared by Israeli human rights group B’Tselem and some Israeli politicians. The fact that the Supreme Court pushes back on right wing legislation deemed discriminatory also played a key role in this year’s internal turmoil. Netanyahu wanted to strip the court of what the reigning government considers to be judicial overreach. Other members of the legislative branch disagree. Initial attempts at structural overhaul met with massive protests early this year from Israeli citizens.
Now, though, the trauma of a brutal assault by Hamas compels solidarity among Israelis, just as US citizens rallied under George W. Bush in September 2001. The range in some 9.4 million people’s political beliefs, and the desire among many to build better with their neighbors, will be lost for a while to the horror of this weekend’s attacks.
Likewise, thanks to Hamas’s latest acts of terror, which their leader watched from the comfort of a Hamas office in Qatar, those everyday workers in Gaza are not only cut off from current employment, but also any hope of continuing the improve their livelihoods going forward. As of Monday, Israeli Defence Minister Yoav Gallant has declared a “complete siege” on Gaza: “There is no electricity, there is no food, there is no water, there is no fuel.”
What remains, on both sides of this divide, are frightened and grieving families, and disrupted civilian lives, and anger and despair for what the future (if anything) holds.
The promise of inhumanity
In his Saturday speech, around calling for the ruin of every place in that “wicked city” where Hamas might hope to hide, Netanyahu invoked one of the great national poets of Israel. Hayyim Nahman Bialik was a Russian-born Jew who drifted from spiritual studies into work as a very poor writer developing a cultural canon for a new age of Jewish life. In 1903 he was sent to interview survivors of the Kishinev pogroms, a series of antisemitic slaughters and related crimes against humanity, and from that experience wrote poetry that stirred Jewish youth out of “passivity” toward violence against their people.
Netanyahu cited a striking line from “On The Slaughter”, which depicts a speaker not only driven mad by the trauma he’s seen, but also by the impossibility of justice in its wake:
And cursed be the man who says: Avenge! No such revenge—revenge for the blood of a little child—has yet been devised by Satan. Let the blood pierce through the abyss! Let the blood seep down into the depths of darkness, and eat away there, in the dark, and breach all the rotting foundations of the earth.
What haunts me about this reference is the twinned understanding that there can be no retaliation that will ever make up for all the atrocity already done… and also, a commitment to letting the world fall to ruin, if it cannot offer the justice that we seek.
Cruelty upon cruelty has been set upon this part of our hurting world for generations.
Time alone will tell how long this latest dehumanizing run will last.