To all intents, Hamas suddenly sprang out from behind the Oort Cloud on October 7 as a force of incomprehensible evil… Just when some important items on Israel’s agenda had been proceeding more or less according to plan. With strong backing from the Biden administration, Israel was about to conclude negotiations with Saudi Arabia on a deal to normalise diplomatic relations.
It also seemed that Israel might get that prized deal across the line without having to make major concessions to the Palestinians, such as, say, Israel withdrawing from the West Bank and the Golan Heights. The West could be relied on to greet the Saudi deal as a major step towards “peace” in the Middle East, even though once again, this “peace” would have come largely at the expense of the Palestinians.
The bloody, murderous Hamas attacks on Israeli civilians on October 7 and the bloody murderous Israeli reprisal attacks on Palestinian civilians have taken the Saudi deal off the table, perhaps for good. It has also destroyed the illusion that Israel can continue to subject Palestinians to an apartheid-like system indefinitely, and at only a minimal cost in Israeli lives.
As UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres had the temerity to point out, the Hamas attacks on Israel – while totally reprehensible- had not occurred in a vacuum. Guterres was at pains to be even handed. In this view, no injustices can condone the targeting of civilians by either side.
“The Laws of War establish clear rules to protect human life and respect humanitarian concerns. Those laws cannot be contorted for the sake of expedience.” Mr. Guterres said that in Gaza more than two million people with nowhere safe to go, are being denied the essentials for life – food, water, shelter and medical care – while being subjected to relentless bombardment. The Secretary- General reiterated his appeal for an immediate humanitarian ceasefire, the unconditional release of all hostages, and the delivery of a sustained humanitarian relief at a scale that meets the needs of the people of Gaza.
In response, Israel called on Guterres to resign.
Sharon and Bush
How did the rise of Hamas in Gaza come about? Thank the Americans. In the early 2000s, Israeli premier Ariel Sharon chose to bring Israel’s direct occupation of Gaza to an end – partly for Israel’s own demographic reasons, and partly because the US was urging it to do so. In this significant speech in June 2002, US President George W. Bush endorsed the holding of Palestinian elections, as a step towards implementing the fabled two-state solution envisaged a decade before by the Oslo Accords – even though by then, the rate of Israeli settlement expansion on the West Bank had already sunk the Oslo peace process.
On Gaza, Bush’s reasoning was just as mistaken as his optimism that the US-led forces invading Iraq in 2003 would be met by cheering crowds tossing roses. In Gaza, the American assumption was that the election (eventually held in Gaza in January 2006) would be won by the Fatah party that belonged to the relatively docile and pliable Palestine Liberation Organisation. While Israel expressed doubts about allowing Hamas to participate in the Gaza elections at all, Bush was utterly certain that Fatah would win.
To that end, and at this White House meeting with Palestinian Authority president Mahmoud Abbas in October 2005, Bush gifted Abbas with $50 million in housing and reconstruction work to sweeten Fatah’s chances. As it turned out, internal division and vote-splitting among the PLO/Fatah candidates helped Hamas to win 74 of the 132 seats.
It is not as if the US wasn’t warned. With hindsight, this article written nearly 20 years ago for the Brookings Institute makes for grimly prophetic reading today:
One wonders whether Bush really appreciates what he is getting himself and the United States into. Having trumpeted his support for an independent Palestinian state, he is now taking on responsibility for ensuring that the Gaza mini-state created by Israel’s withdrawal does not turn into a failed terrorist state. The Palestinian institutions that Bush mentions in his letter of assurance do not now exist in Gaza. What does exist there is a collapsing Palestinian Authority and a mess of competing security organizations, warlords and terrorist organizations.
As a consequence:
And if Israeli forces then re-enter Gaza to stop a terrorist threat emanating from there, Bush could be held responsible for that, too.
Even so, and right up until the October 7 attacks, Israel and Hamas had settled into a violent form of co-existence. As Tareq Baconi of the Palestinian think tank Al-Shabaka, explained in this recent New Yorker interview, Hamas had become a useful figleaf to justify Israel maintaining its illegal air, sea and land blockade of Gaza. Sporadic Hamas-led uprisings by Gazans against their oppression would be bloodily suppressed by Israel’s military might, and always with lopsided casualties on the Palestinian side.
After these regular spasms of extreme violence and repeated destruction of Gaza’s vital infrastructure, the normalised abnormality of life in Gaza would then resume. For its part, the West quietly accepted that the price for the uneasy “peace” in Gaza would be paid almost entirely in Palestinian lives and aspirations.
Internally, Hamas has always found it difficult to reconcile its dual role of (a) governing Gaza, and (b) leading the armed resistance to the Israeli control of almost every dimension of life within Gaza. While many Gazans had mixed feelings about Hamas’ Islamist ideology, its tactical decisions and methods, it was also true that Hamas was widely seen to embody the Palestinian resistance to its oppressors. Hamas was seen as such not only by Palestinians living within Gaza and on the West Bank, but across the Palestinian diaspora in Jordan, Syria and beyond.
The unresolved tensions between the Hamas military wing and its political wing – which had the thankless task of running the impoverished enclave as best it could – helps to explain why the plans for the October 7 attacks were kept secret within only a very small circle of Hamas military operatives. The political wing of Hamas was probably as surprised as everyone else by the scale of the attacks and by the ease with which Israel’s defences were penetrated.
After October 7
In the light of the Hamas military wing attacks, Tareq Baconi made a useful distinction to the New Yorker between the old and new paradigms of Palestinian resistance.
Under the old paradigm, there were several factors that might have precipitated this attack, such as the increasing violence that the Israelis are using in the West Bank, through their settlers and through annexation; the provocation around the Temple Mount and, of course, around the Gaza Strip; and the growing restrictions that are part of Israel’s blockade of Gaza. Any of these in the past would have compelled Hamas to initiate some kind of missile launch or offensive that would demonstrate that it’s acting on behalf of the Palestinian people and looking to protect Palestinians, or change the reality in Gaza.
The scale of the October 7 Hamas attacks, Bacomi says, mean that a new paradigm for the Hamas /Israel conflict now exists:
Hamas’s attacks [are] not restricted to re-negotiating a new reality in the Gaza Strip, but, rather, are capable of fundamentally undermining Israel’s belief that it can maintain a regime of apartheid against Palestinians, interminably, with no cost to its population… What’s shifted is [Hamas] ability to demonstrate the myth of invincibility that Israel holds onto, and to really shatter the illusion that policymakers have that they can maintain this [Israeli] regime indefinitely, and that there will be Palestinian acquiescence to that.
In the course of that paradigm shift, Israel has paid a huge cost, with an estimated 1,400 dead. The fact so many Israelis have died so brutally is a significant reason why the Gaza conflict has dominated the news bulletins for weeks. During the period from 2007 to 2022, the brutal deaths of thousands of Palestinians – and the evictions in East Jerusalem this year and settler attacks on dozens of Palestinian villages on the West Bank – had not resulted in similarly widespread expressions of shock and outrage.
Quite the contrary. The anger at atrocities and empathy for the civilian victims of violence has never been evenly allocated. The killing of the Israeli kibbutz members and of the attendees at a nearby music festival were truly horrific and unjustified. So has been the nature of the Israeli response. Even before Israel began its ground offensive into Gaza, its air strikes and shelling had killed an estimated 8,000 Palestinians. The term “blown to bits” has been one aspect of the horror rained down on Gaza. So have been the slow deaths of the men, women and children trapped under the rubble.
The ultimate goal of the massive Israeli retaliation remains unclear. The stated, immediate aim is to destroy Hamas. But then what? The saturation bombing of densely populated civilian neighbourhoods, the related denials of fuel, adequate food, drinkable water and vital medical supplies and the forced evacuation of north Gaza must cease at some point.
The risk is… In order to restore a semblance of its own prior sense of invincibility, Israel may be willing to obliterate Gaza and terrorise its 2 million inhabitants into fleeing into permanent exile – in Egypt, Jordan, or over onto a West Bank where Israeli settlers have spent all year attacking villages, evicting Palestinians from their homes and/or killing them with relative impunity.
For its part, the US, Europe and other countries in the West have always seemed complacent about the subjugation of the Palestinian population within an apartheid system. On the West Bank, as Baconi, says, the Palestine Authority has also accepted its role in policing a bantustan. Token expressions of concern aside, the world has been just as comfortable with the sporadic resistance to that system being met (a) with disproportionate force and (b) with forms of collective punishment forbidden by international law… Provided that this system could be enforced with only negligible Israeli casualties.
However, and as mentioned, the West is now watching a different paradigm at work – one where Hamas killed well over a thousand Israelis, and where the cover of “self defence” has been stretched to rationalise levels of civilian slaughter and displacement that the word “genocide” seems the only appropriate term to describe it.
If Israel does not propose to rule Gaza directly in future – with all of the perils of occupation that this would entail – what end point to the current carnage does it have in mind? At present, the IDF is well on the way to turning north Gaza (in particular) into a moonscape where nothing living can survive. There is a related possibility that the rest of the world – starting with Jordan and Egypt – are about to be confronted with a refugee exodus from Gaza comparable to what occurred in Palestine in 1948 and 1949.
Only its American sponsors can stop Israel from turning that prospect into a reality. Yet the likes of New Zealand – which warned the world about the looming genocide in Rwanda nearly 30 years ago – should be calling more forcefully for an immediate halt to the indiscriminate violence – and to the forms of collective punishment – that are being directed at civilians.
At this point, simply calling on Israel to respect civilian life as required under international law rings entirely hollow, now that over 8,000 Palestinians (the vast majority of them civilians, and about half of them being children) have been killed. One has to wonder: What would it take for New Zealand to denounce a government that dropped more bombs in a week on densely packed civilian centres than the US dropped in a year in Afghanistan– and that is still bombing 600 targets a day in those same neighbourhoods? New Zealand has no trouble in calling out Russia when it does much the same sort of thing in Ukraine – so, why the double standard?
At this late point, asking Israel to be careful of civilian life and mindful of its obligations under international law looks more like a nod and a wink to proceed, than a meaningful rebuke.
Footnote One: BTW someone needs to tell PM-elect Christopher Luxon that the “two state solution” he was touting as National Party policy on television in the wake of the October 7 attacks, actually ceased to be a viable proposition about 25 years ago.