by Miceál O’Hurley
JERUSALEM — In the week since Hamas inflicted horrific damage on Israelis, communities and foreigners working, living and visiting Israel the scale of its crimes continues to be catalogued. While shocking headlines such as “40 babies beheaded” have failed to be verified and social media posts are filled with hyperbole abounds from both Israel and the so-called ‘friends of Hamas’ (Russia, Iran and their pet Hezbollah included). And still none of this misinformation and disinformation can in any way diminish the utter criminality of Hamas in their conduct in Israel replete with rape, murder and the kidnapping of civilians. There can be no “but what about…” in any responsible response to the attack. It was unadulterated evil.
The tendency of the neo-liberal leftist throughout Europe to deflect condemnation of Hamas by attacking Israel is wrong. The failure to delineate between Hamas and the Palestinian people shows an abject lack of understanding of the situation. It is not only possible, but wholly responsible to condemn Hamas and their murderous, terrorist activities while still strongly voicing support for the Palestinian people.
The moral comparativists of such statements, such as Ireland’s People Before Profit party’s statement, “… this was not some murderous, unprovoked assault on innocent civilians,” is misguided and disingenuous. Sinn Fein leader Mary Lou McDonald’s choice to use the Palestinian flag as the background on her social media posts in the direct aftermath of the bloodshed inflicted by Hamas, and before any Israeli retaliatory response, reeks of pandering to a population that too often borders on anti-Semitism if not plunges across the line with predictable regularity. The timing of McDonald’s selection of the background when at that time Israel’s only response was defensive seemingly aligns her and Sinn Fein with Hamas (deemed to be a “terrorist organisation” by the European Union). Such irresponsibility of supposed political leaders acting as apologists for Hamas, Hezbollah, Iran, Qatar, Sudan, Afghanistan and Russia in this supposedly enlightened age where the rule of law and human rights should prevail lays bare the corrupt nature of modern politics and its penchant towards populism. It will accomplish little and give political cover for the scurrilous anti-Semites and anti-Zionists to encourage more violence in the Middle East whose history and issues are far more complex than are usually admitted or understood in Europe.
And yet in all this complexity there is an indelible truth – Israel bares the incredible weight of responsibility for how it responds to Hamas’ terrorism. Some would argue that given Israel’s lack of engagement with the Palestinian Authority for the past decade and continued acquiescence to settler settlement expansion and unbridled violence against Palestinians Israel should not be surprised at the violence unleashed against them.
Putting aside how Israel should well have anticipated such violence after enduring policies of expanding Israeli settlements in occupied territories, using an iron-fist to suppress Palestinian self-determination and the ugly fact that now several generations of Palestinians have never known the opportunities of freedom of movement, access to education, right of self-determination and fundamental rights to embrace, as the American’s say, “Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness”, Israel as a Western democracy which touts the rule of law has failed to achieve a model of mutuality with the Palestinians that would diminish the animosity engendered over decades that gives fuel to villains like Hamas, Hezbollah and neighbouring States long weary of Israel’s conflicted history with Palestine.
To be sure, both sides will hurl recriminations upon the other seeking to deflect blame for their own deficiencies and escape their inherent responsibility to forge a political solution to the two States that remain in utter conflict. Each will claim the two-State solution to which each was once committed failed because of the conduct of the other. And yet each fails to come to the glaring conclusion that perpetual violence will never create the conditions for peaceful co-existence. In this context is not surprising that ultra-conservatives on both sides have reduced their view of the other to mere caricatures and in so doing diminish the inherent humanity of the other in their quest to both justify their egregious conduct while ameliorating any moral responsibility they carry for their personal conduct. The model employed for resolution since 1948, especially the more hardened position of the last 15-years is unsustainable and relies upon the other simply ceasing to exist.
Hamas’ assault upon Israelis, typified by directing limited resources such as paragliders in a murderous spree against young, un-armed people attending an all-night concert, demonstrates the absence of strategic thinking and exposes a blood-thirst at the core of its conduct. The Hamas attack upon Israel was bound to fail to achieve any supposed liberation of the Palestinian people or the vanquishing of Israel. To this end its goals would only have every been to inflict pain upon Israel knowing Israel could be relied upon for a retaliatory response that would inevitably kill scores of Palestinians and in so doing hope to engender a new generation of martyrs and disrupt Israel’s recent diplomatic advances with countries throughout the region, most notably Saudi Arabia. Knowing their attack was doomed to fail to achieve any discernable goals beyond shedding Israeli blood Hamas has been the author of the bloodshed visited upon Palestinians in Gaza even if Israel is the tool by which the deaths are delivered.
The issue that now confronts Israel is balancing how to achieve its national security goals with its long-term interest in maintaining its national security. It is a Sisyphusian pursuit.
Both Ehud Barak and Ehud Olmert actively tried during their respective tenures as Prime Minister of Israel to engage with the Palestinians to implement a workable two-State solution. Each was rebuffed ceding the issue to the right-wing Benjamin Netanyahu and his Likud party. Since then Netanyahu has been dismissive of any solution that did not maintain the status quo which relegated the Palestinian people to a degrading state of existence barren of the attributes of life as we understand it. Such conditions are the type that breed intergenerational contempt for Israel and engenders support for Hamas. While neighbouring Arab countries might wish to normalise relations with Israel and enjoy the prosperity and dividends such relations would bring each must now carefully consider if the “Arab Street” which feels a kindred affinity with the Palestinian people and cause might not end-up challenging governments throughout the region if the conflict widens or Palestinian deaths continue to soar.
The contempt by which Netanyahu treated the Palestinian Authority throughout his tenure and his allowance for Hamas to thrive divided Palestinian allegiances. While Netanyahu believed this internal competition amongst Palestinians was of benefit to Israel it has been laid bare as a defective and non-durable approach. Last week’s attack by Hamas marks at least the fifth major conflict between Hamas and Israel since Netanyahu resumed office as Prime Minister in 2009. Now, in the aftermath of that stunning assault Israel has nothing but bad choices before them in attempting to eradicate Hamas.
Writing for the Times of Israel, Tal Schneider explained why Netanyahu’s approach towards the Palestinians has “blown up in our face” in her 8 October essay:
“…Additionally, since 2014, Netanyahu-led governments have practically turned a blind eye to the incendiary balloons and rocket fire from Gaza. Meanwhile, Israel has allowed suitcases holding millions in Qatari cash to enter Gaza through its crossings since 2018, in order to maintain its fragile ceasefire with the Hamas rulers of the Strip. Most of the time, Israeli policy was to treat the Palestinian Authority as a burden and Hamas as an asset. Far-right MK Bezalel Smotrich, now the finance minister in the hardline government and leader of the Religious Zionism party, said so himself in 2015. According to various reports, Netanyahu made a similar point at a Likud faction meeting in early 2019, when he was quoted as saying that those who oppose a Palestinian state should support the transfer of funds to Gaza, because maintaining the separation between the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank and Hamas in Gaza would prevent the establishment of a Palestinian state. While Netanyahu does not make these kind of statements publicly or officially, his words are in line with the policy that he implemented”.
By allowing Hamas to thrive in Gaza while simultaneously eroding the ability of the Palestinian Authority to effectively represent the interests of the Palestinian people Netanyahu created a vacuum of authority. While he believed this allowed him to redirect his attention to reshaping Israeli domestic politics he took he did so at the neglect of State security. Netanyahu’s coalition’s latest foray into reimagining Israel democracy by removing judicial review of legislative affairs would have resulted in Israel becoming a near-theocratic semi-democracy. The military reservists upon which Israel relied for its security were determined not to report for duty in protest. It may prove-out that Hamas understood the true consequences of Israel’s domestic political chaos and exploited the timing of their attack based on a correct assumption that Israel’s weaknesses are Hamas’ opportunities. The results were catastrophic. In this disarray it seemingly emerges that Netanyahu was so consumed with domestic affairs that he rebuffed meetings with intelligence officials and warnings by at least the United States and Egypt about the imminent threat posed by Hamas went unheeded. Although he has formed a national coalition government to create the necessary solidarity to confront Hamas in the aftermath of the attacks Netanyahu’s leadership and judgment will be squarely called into question during any sober review of these most recent events that will eventually take place.
But beyond the issues of why and how this startling attack occurred Israel is now confronted with the immediate question of how to respond and achieve proportionality. Its options are few and all carry significant risks for widening the conflict beyond its borders. While Arab countries have been so far demure in criticising Israel in the aftermath of the Hamas attack each day the rhetoric grows in warning Israel against overreacting. Such august warnings should be heeded that recent advances in bilateral relations with neighbouring Arab countries, most notably through the Abraham Accords, might dissipate. With every action Israel risks losing the wellspring of sympathy and solidarity that arose in the immediate aftermath of Hamas’ gruesome and despicable assault.
While Israel has made prior-warning of military operations an artform, from telephoning individual homes to notify residents it will be bombed, to dropping leaflets directing Palestinians to flee from certain areas designated as hosting Hamas militants and assets, the inevitability of mass casualties of civilians has been, and continues to be, unavoidable in such operations. Given the constant expansion of Israeli occupation including encroachment of the ever growing illegal Israeli settlements upon Palestinian territory there are some 590,481 Palestinians squeezed in to the every shrinking 363 square kilometers that comprises Gaza. Despite Israel warning civilians to “head south” to avoid military operations directed against Hamas the reality is that there is nowhere to flee. Borders remain shut and attacks upon Hamas inevitably result in assaults upon civilians left with nowhere to flee.
Despite Israel’s failure to guarantee safe corridors for “evacuation” (more properly “displacement”) for Palestinians fleeing attacks has already resulted in numerous deaths. Yesterday a convoy taking Israeli advice fled south to Khan Younis only to be attacked by Israeli forces. At least 12 Palestinian civilians including children as young as 5 years of age died in the aftermath. The Rafah border crossing between Gaza and Egypt has been hit by Israel at least twice despite thousands of Palestinians massing there. Unsurprisingly, it remains closed. All this on top of Israel blockading Gaza depriving it of energy, food and water resulting in widespread misery. Hospitals throughout Gaza are running dangerously low of supplies and are engaged in a constant re-triage of patients as the growing numbers of newly arrived injured grows by the hour. As the threat of impending ground operations looms the spectre of civilian death rises. Hope is dissipating. Humanity evaporates and misery reins.
Israel’s reaction is naturally the biproduct of heightened emotions. Given the heinous nature of the Hamas attack last week Israel inevitably feels a need to reassert its military competence and dominance. The United States reacted the same way after 9/11. The question remains however, “… did Israel learn anything from the Bush Administration’s headlong foray into wars in Iraq and Afghanistan”?
Whatever tactical superiority Israel may posses with their highly trained and equipped Army and reserve forces the real problem remains how to root-out and destroy Hamas. These terrorist have proven adept at blending into the civilian population when necessary and accessing closed borders at a whim. The “Gaza Express” tunnels created over many years given Hamas significant escape routes. Many in Gaza actively support Hamas and give it cover amongst the populace, compounding Israel’s difficulty in responding to Hamas within the confines of International Humanitarian Law.
Israel is more than aware that conventional armies attempting to eviscerate insurgent militias generally pay a extraordinarily high price during ground operations. This is especially true in urban environments. Should the pledged ground operation take place in Gaza Israel will find their technical superiority quickly leveled by the advantages urban terrain provides to Hamas. Operating advantages for Hamas snipers, booby-traps and first-hand knowledge of the urban terrain would deprive Israel of the effective use of tanks and armoured personnel carriers. Consequently, with over a half-million Palestinians present, having been trapped within Gaza, the civilian death toll would be anticipated to surpass the horrific and Israeli casualties could be equally devastating.
The conflict is pregnant with possibilities for carnage. The hundreds of Israeli hostages thought to be separated into cells and disbursed throughout Gaza complicates matters enormously. Ground operations are notoriously fluid and the type of battlefield intelligence that generally requires identifying a static location where hostages are kept to create optimum hostage rescue conditions have little chance of emerging. Given Hamas’ displayed lack of humanity there is every reason to believe that absent a mass hostage exchange the Israeli hostages will be used as human shields and few would be expected to survive such ground assaults. Hamas’ current demand to trade some 100 plus Israeli hostages for 6,000 Hamas fighters and prisoners is a non-starter. Any rescue attempts are bound to result in high casualty rates with few captives being rescued unscathed.
In the final analysis, while Israel can contain the Palestinians in Gaza and unleash devastating military resources to reduce Hamas to a pittance of their former strength the belief Israel can destroy Hamas now, when they have failed to do so in the past, or otherwise achieve their security goals without untold human carnage of the Palestinian people, is absurd. Israel has no good options at this juncture if military operations and the occupation of Gaza remain the only tools in their box for which they are willing to reach. There is a real danger that Israel will overreact with emotion, ‘Cry ‘Havoc!’ And Let Slip The Dogs Of War’, and create yet another generation of Palestinians that will embrace Hamas’ belief that a blood sacrifice is the only path towards Palestinian self-determination and human dignity. Any occupation of Gaza would be a dreadful mistake, and yet, having failed to nurture a working relationship with the Palestinian Authority the question of how Gaza would be governed should Hamas be destroyed remains in question.
Time will tell if Israel is capable of pivoting from justified military operations directed at eliminating Hamas and create the conditions for an authentic two-State solution. Perpetual confrontation that provides Israel with durable security and the Palestinians with the inalienable right and ability to enjoy self-governance, determination and some measure of dignity after decades of enduring a misery the likes that shames humanity must be the overriding goal. For now, restoring humanity to suffering Israelis and Palestinians must be the priority of diplomats everywhere.