After the Oct. 7th attack on Israel by Hamas, Israel had not only the right, but the duty to respond. But its current strategy leads to a bloody dead end. A deal between Israel and Saudi Arabia promised to redefine what was possible in the Middle East, and struck a serious blow to the interests of the Islamic Republic of Iran and Russia.1 The day details were published Hamas struck. A few days later, as the scope of Palestinian deaths became clear, Arab leaders pulled out of a meeting with President Biden, and Saudi Arabia has put any accord with Israel on ice.
Hamas was seeking to put the Israeli-Palestinian conflict back at the heart the world’s larger allegiances: “Arab” vs Israel, Muslim vs “Judeo-Christian”, Western vs “developing”. The Israeli response ensures that, for the immediate future, at least, Hamas has succeeded. Israel has accepted Hamas’ invitation to take up, again, a deadly game, based on a fiction on both sides that the enemy is less than human. To play the game is to commit to an unending spiral of violence. If Israel doesn’t want to play the devil’s game, what are its options?
For eighty years, Israel and the Muslim countries of MENA (the Middle East and North Africa) have built their identities on Palestinian misery. One Israeli founder, Ben Gurion, was quite clear in his promotion of ethnic cleansing of Palestinians, in order to claim the whole of Palestine for Israel.2 Other Israelis have had many different opinions. But the de facto policy of the state has been to deny Palestinians the opportunity to participate in a sovereign civic society.
Palestinians, and other neighbors of Israel, have also had many different opinions about Israel. But the governments of MENA countries, and many quasi-governmental organizations that have claimed to represent Palestinians, have taken up the polar opposite position: Israel has no right to exist. Surrounding countries linked the Palestinian cause with the destruction of Israel.
To be crystal clear: the position of both sides has been the genocide of the other. Israelis presented Palestinians as terrorists with whom it was impossible to live, despite actually living with a significant Muslim minority. MENA countries portrayed Israel as another instance of Western colonization, exporting European Jews to solve Holocaust guilt, despite the fact that a majority of Jews in Israel come from non-European countries. The bulk of these come from other MENA countries; they can as little return to where they came as Palestinians can return to homes confiscated from them by Israelis.
Setting aside morality, if you face an opponent that wants to kill you, renouncing all intention to kill them is sometimes not a practical option. On a more Machiavellian note, keeping available the option to kill your enemy is often a good way to secure an advantageous peace. But in the end there remain the two options: kill your enemy, or make peace.
Killing your enemy, in this case, for either side, means genocide – involving millions of people: either killing them outright, or at least obliterating their culture and their ties to the land whose possession is at the heart of the conflict. For at least a generation, Israel has enjoyed military superiority in the Middle East. It has been reluctant to actually kill millions of Palestinians. But neither has it sought any agreement with them, allowing its citizens to progressively dispossess more and more on the West Bank.
Crucially, in Gaza, the strategy under Netanyahu’s leadership has been to encourage “suicide by cop.” Hamas has never won a majority, and for 18 years has refused to hold an election in Gaza; given the demographics, at most 20% of Palestinians could have voted for it. Hamas would most likely not be in power now in Gaza, but for the Israeli policy of supporting it.3 Netanyahu has directly funded Hamas, and justified it frankly, by explaining that Hamas as the face of the Palestinians was the best way of ensuring that no one would consider Palestinians to be reasonable people with whom one could negotiate. Unfortunately, supported by the Islamic Republic of Iran 4and Russia 5, whose interests lie in conflict, Hamas has proven all-to-adept at playing the role of criminal.
In response, Israel has stated its intention “to destroy Hamas” – apparently by physically capturing Gaza. But where does this lead? Satellite images of graveyards suggest that the Russian sack of Mariupol, a city of 430,000, may have killed as many as 75,000 civilians.6 How many will die in the capture of Gaza, home to 2.2 million people?
Hamas grew during the 90s, during Israeli occupation of Gaza. Israel’s invasion of Lebanon cemented Hezbollah’s power there. Killing tens of thousands of civilians will fill the reservoirs of hatred. Even if the Israeli government has hardened its heart toward Palestinians – though half of them are children – the re-occupation of Gaza on its own will only ensure an endless supply of willing foot-soldiers to the terrorists of the future, whether they fight under the banner of Hamas or under some new one.
What other options does Israel have? To destroy Hamas – and its successors – Israel must break the identification between the Palestinian cause and the destruction of Israel. This is exactly opposite of the policy Hamas has masterfully provoked Israel into following. The fact that Iran’s proxy Hezbollah does not attack is not – or at least not only – because of Iranian fear of Israeli reprisal. It follows Napoleon’s maxim: “Never interrupt your enemy when he is making a mistake.” By ruthlessly killing civilians, Israel gives Palestinians themselves little choice but to make this identification. Externally, even given the horrific attacks of Oct 7, the disproportion of deaths, and the improbability of bringing peace to Gaza simply by killing its inhabitants, make Israel’s allies look like hypocrites and strengthens the hand of those that oppose it.
Indeed, Hamas’ attack could hardly have been left without a military response. A much more surgical response in Gaza might even have got the support of other regional powers, who were prepared to meet with Biden until Israel’s indiscriminate bombing started. But the link between the Palestinian cause and Israel’s destruction must be fought both internally, among Palestinians, and externally, among those who use this link to hold onto their own power. Looking abroad, Israel should direct the focus of its ire on Hamas’ backers.
I have mentioned Russia and Iran. Russia rules by dehumanizing its enemies; Putin is a master of divide and conquer, making up for weakness at home, by dividing his enemies abroad. It is a scandal that Israel hasn’t supported Ukraine against Russia’s attack, and it should do so immediately. But for all that, Russia is to far and too large for Israel to attack directly, and the connection with Hamas is not essential enough to justify direct action in any case.
It is another matter with Iran. The Islamic Republic (IR) has built its identity opposing “the great Satan” America. Enmity to Israel as a symbol of western colonialism is a core part of its ideology. Iranian proxies in Yemen fire missiles at Israel. Shaken by internal revolt over its cruel treatment of women, it has become an advertisement for the inhumanity of the sort of theocratic rule that Hamas, also imposes on the people of Gaza. Arab countries, and Turkey, have to varying degrees reason to view it as an enemy.
Iran should be at the center of Israeli rhetoric as it explains the narrative of its actions in response to the attack of Oct 7. But for all that, Iran is too far, and Israel too small in comparison, for an invasion of Iran to be possible. The Iranian people does not hate its regime so much that they would greet Israelis as liberators.
Assad, the dictator of Syria, is another matter. Assad has killed almost half a million of his citizens in the bloody civil war. Assad has killed thousands of Palestinians, including almost 500 by torture.7 Assad is hated by his neighbors. Among his supporters there are few obvious replacements. He is propped up by Russia and the Islamic Republic of Iran; the Islamic Republic directly controls Hezbollah who are a much larger military threat than Hamas is to Israel.
By overthrowing Assad, Israel would strike a painful, conceivably even fatal blow at the Islamic Republic, as disastrous rule at home would be complemented by disaster abroad. It would provide an opportunity to align other Arab nations with Israel and against the Islamic Republic. With good diplomacy, Palestine would cease to be the unavoidable focus of MENA countries. If they could be co-opted into supporting a campaign against Assad, other Arab nations would find it harder to univocally oppose Israeli action against Hamas.8
European protestants and catholics once treated each other as Israelis and Palestinians do in the middle east. This bloody conflict was only overcome when others – nationalism and class warfare – took its place. But the cumulative effect of competing dimensions with claims to absolute loyalty has been to open a road between the currents of different passions. Equally so in the middle east: if individuals must balance competing claims of loyalty, they can shake themselves free of any one strand that commands hatred. By relieving the misery of suffering Syrians, Israel can undermine the narrative of those who paint it as the devil, and show the hypocrisy of those who cause this misery while trying to keep the focus on Israel.
The other strategic goal must be to weaken the link between the Palestinian cause among Palestinians themselves. If Israel is not irrevocably committed to the genocide of the Palestinian people, it must perforce eventually make peace with them. Many Palestinians hate Israel, but treating them as human beings with a right to participate in civil society would go a long way to disrupt this homogeneity. Israel should give Palestinians willing to live in a state which is constitutionally tied to Jewish identity a path to Israeli citizenship.9 Israel should grant those willing to take up arms against Hamas citizenship immediately.
Families of civilians killed should be compensated for their losses. Palestinians who don’t want to participate in a civil society with Israelis can be barred from citizenship. But they should be compensated for land their families have lost. Neighboring countries have not naturalized Palestinians for ideological reasons, as their misery has served to draw attention away from domestic failure. This must end. Syria has always been a multi-ethnic land – perhaps it could become a polity for those who prefer a civic society other than Israel’s.
“But Palestinians are terrorists.” Israelis also, have included terrorists, like Ben Gurion and supporters of terrorism such as Netanyahu a Hamas and settler terrorist supporter10, who leads Israel to this day. “The burden is on Arabs to recognize Israel’s right to exist first, as they denied it ever since 1947.” Palestine has been ruled by Romans, Byzantines, Arabs, Crusaders, Turks, British and French, and now Israelis. Palestinians are now majority Muslim and speak Arabic, but they have never been predominantly ethnically Arabs. Why should Arabs leaders, concerned in any case more with personal aspirations to hegemony than the will of the people, be allowed to seal their fate?
To sever the link between the Palestinian cause and Israeli defeat, action against those who use the Palestinian cause abroad, and action at home to recognize Palestinians as individuals with rights should themselves be joined. Keep in mind that Palestinians do not have their own sovereign civil society. Their passions and suffering can always be leveraged by those whose own power depends on the demonization of Israel. A vision of coexistence will take root in the minds of both Israelis and Palestinians only if it seems better than a vision of dominance, dehumanization and revenge. The latter view must loose; it must be seen to be unworthy of hope. This is the way to destroy Hamas.
- https://www.wsj.com/world/middle-east/saudi-arabia-israel-talks-riyadh-oil-increase-a25d6106 ↩︎
- https://www.progressiveisrael.org/ben-gurions-notorious-quotes-their-polemical-uses-abuses/ ↩︎
- https://www.haaretz.com/israel-news/2023-10-20/ty-article-opinion/.premium/a-brief-history-of-the-netanyahu-hamas-alliance/0000018b-47d9-d242-abef-57ff1be90000 ↩︎
- I write “the Islamic Republic” because Iranians themselves – much more than Russians, it would seem, can imagine a different government, not based on misogyny and hate of others. ↩︎
- https://carnegieendowment.org/politika/90841#:~:text=While%20allegations%20that%20Russia%20transferred,consistent%20with%20a%20historical%20pattern. ↩︎
- https://tvpworld.com/65244263/up-to-75000-ukrainian-civilians-killed-in-mariupol-report ↩︎
- https://snhr.org/blog/2020/07/29/55316/ ↩︎
- Is overthrowing Assad simply too big a task for Israel? He depends essentially on Hezbollah and Russian support. As I wrote above, in my opinion, Hezbollah waits for now, as Israel is in the process of making a strategic mistake. But already intelligence shows Hezbollah may get air defense from Russia. I fully expect this not to be a battle Israel can avoid. The question is, who chooses the timing and controls the narrative, and who fights on which side. ↩︎
- https://shauncutts.me/2021/06/04/israel-and-palestinians/ ↩︎
- https://www.nytimes.com/2023/11/02/world/middleeast/west-bank-palestinians-israel-settlers.html ↩︎