The Hamas attack and Israel’s War on Gaza: ‘a place where no human being can exist’

By Omer Bartov

24 Nov

Like many other people in Israel and across the world, my first reaction to the attack on 7 Oct was of shock and horror. But that initial reaction was accompanied by rage, not only at the massacre perpetrated by Hamas, but also at those who could have prevented this act of violence, many that preceded it and the brutal retaliation that has come in its wake.

Two months before the attack, several colleagues and I launched a petition titled “The Elephant in the Room.” Signed by close to 3,000 people, many of them distinguished scholars, religious leaders, and public figures, the petition came in response to the protests in Israel against the attempted legal “overhaul” – a governmental coup intended to weaken the judiciary and strengthen the executive branch.  The “elephant in the room,” we warned, was the occupation of millions of Palestinians, and the alleged legal reform was being pushed by an extreme right-wing settler faction whose goal was to annex the West Bank. Yet the impressive protest movement that had sprung up in Israel against the judicial coup had almost entirely refused to confront this question.

On 7 Oct, the repressed reality of Palestinians under direct or indirect Israeli rule literally exploded in the country’s face. From this perspective, while I was shocked and horrified by the brutality of the Hamas attack, I was not surprised at all that it occurred. This was an event waiting to happen. If you keep over 2m people under siege for 16 years, cramped in a narrow strip of land, without enough work, proper sanitation, food, water, energy and education, with no hope or future prospects, you cannot but expect outbreaks of ever more desperate and brutal violence.

There were those who called the events of 7 Oct a pogrom. This is a false, misleading, and ideologically overdetermined use of the term. The term pogrom was initially applied to attacks on Jewish communities, especially in southern Russia and Ukraine, by incited mobs, sometimes with the support of the authorities. It has since been also used to denote mob attacks on other minorities in other places. One reason for the birth of Zionism, alongside the rise of ethno-nationalism, was precisely these pogroms, which began in the early 1880s and heralded the first secular settlements in Ottoman Palestine.

Zionism was intended to create a majority Jewish state where pogroms would by definition no longer be possible, since the political, military and police authorities would all be Jewish. Hence using this term for the terrorist attack by Hamas is entirely anachronistic. But the reason it is being employed now has to do with the intentional or subconscious evocation of anti-Jewish violence and specifically of the Holocaust, the very event which led most directly to the establishment of the state of Israel. By saying “pogrom,” one attributes to Hamas, and by extension to all other Palestinian organisations, or even Palestinians in general, an unrelenting antisemitism characterised by a vicious, irrational and murderous predilection to violence, whose only goal is to kill Jews. In other words, according to this logic, there is no room for negotiations with Palestinians. Either they kill us, or we kill them, or at least fence them off behind walls and barbed wire.

Another analogy has been made between the Hamas attack  and the one 50 years earlier by the Egyptian and Syrian armies on 6 Oct 1973, in which I served as a soldier. There are similarities and differences between these two events. In both cases Israel was caught unprepared because of a strategic “conception,” according to which it could easily handle military threats without the need for any political and territorial concessions. President Anwar Sadat of Egypt had been trying to persuade Israel to hand back the Sinai Peninsula, captured in 1967, in return for peace. But Israel’s policy, as Defence Minister Moshe Dayan infamously put it at the time, was that “it’s better to keep Sharm el-Sheikh [the southern tip of the peninsula] without peace, than to have peace without Sharm el-Sheikh.” This euphoria of power, born of the stunning victory in the Six Days War, cost the lives of 3,000 Israeli soldiers, some of whom were my classmates.

No settlement with the Palestinians was possible

Similarly, before the Hamas attack, Israeli politicians and generals believed that they could “manage the conflict” with the Palestinians rather than try to resolve it. In Gaza, this would be accomplished by occasionally “mowing the grass,” that is, raining destruction from the air to keep Hamas in its place. Indeed, Netanyahu’s many administrations chose to maintain Hamas just strong enough, and keep the Palestinian authority in the West Bank weak and unpopular enough, so as to be able to argue that no political settlement with the Palestinians was possible; meanwhile settlements kept proliferating in the occupied territories, making any territorial compromise increasingly unfeasible.

In other words, in both cases, violence was the result of a political stalemate chosen by Israel in the belief of having overwhelming military superiority. The main difference between these two events is that in 1973 Israel was attacked by two major armies, complete with armour, artillery and fighter planes, whereas this time it was attacked by insurgents armed only with light weapons and rockets. Unlike in 1973, Israel faces no existential threat from Hamas. But because of its inability to envision a political resolution to the conflict of the sort that it was forced to accept after 1973, it is dragging itself into a regional conflict that may have major ramifications both for its security and for its internal stability.

Israel’s current incursion into Gaza, and the heavy fighting, destruction and population displacement that operation has entailed, may at any point bring about an even greater involvement of Hesbollah in the north than we have seen up to now. This Iran-supported Lebanese Shiite militia is a far more potent military force than Hamas, and is armed with some 150,000 rockets and missiles. Iranian militias in Syria may also get involved, and as we have seen recently, the Yemenite Shiite Houthis, also supported by Iran, have similarly begun engaging Israel with long-range missiles and seizure of a cargo ship.

Meanwhile, in the occupied West Bank, growing settler violence, often backed up by local military units, may ignite another Intifada, thereby accelerating Jewish settler attempts to ethnically cleanse those territories. This, in turn, may lead to growing violence in Israel’s “mixed” cities, where Jewish and Palestinian citizens live side by side, as already happened in May 2021. Israel will thus experience and employ long term violence and destruction on a scale not experienced since 1948, with unpredictable but surely profound regional and internal consequences.

American President Joe Biden has recently made yet another analogy, which Israel was happy to embrace, between the war in Ukraine and the events following 7 Oct. Allegedly, as he suggested, Israel and Ukraine are two democracies that the United States is obliged to support against dark, authoritarian or religiously fanatic forces. In fact, the two situations are reversed. Ukraine, an independent, sovereign, and democratic country, was invaded by its neighbour Russia, an autocratic state with an imperial history and expansionist goals. Conversely, while Israel is a democracy as far as its 7m Jewish citizens are concerned, on the eve of the Hamas attack it was undergoing an attempted judicial coup by its own government, intended to transform it into at best an illiberal democracy on the model of Hungary. Moreover, the country’s 2m Palestinian citizens have never enjoyed full democratic rights. As for the 3m Palestinians living under a 56-year-long Israeli occupation in the West Bank, they have almost no rights at all. And the 2m Palestinians in Gaza have lived under an Israeli siege for more than a decade and a half.

In other words, while parts of Ukraine have been occupied by Russia, Israel has been occupying the West Bank and Gaza since 1967 and has been a full democracy only for Jews since its foundation in 1948 (Palestinian citizens of Israel lived under military rule until 1966, facilitating the takeover by the Israeli authorities of much of their lands). Hence the analogy between the two situations is false. The attack by Hamas, horrifying and barbarous as it was, must be seen as a response to Israel’s policies of occupation and siege, and to the utter refusal for the last couple of decades by Netanyahu’s governments to find a political solution to the conflict. We should be able to condemn Hamas terrorism and to condemn Israeli intransigence and violence vis-à-vis Palestinians at the same time, and to grasp that the former is a response to the latter, even if Hamas, specifically, is an organisation dedicated to the violent replacement of Israel by an Islamic Palestinian regime.

Israel on a precipice of regional conflict

For me, as a historian, it is important to put the current events in the correct historical context and to diagnose as best we can their deeper causes. A misdiagnosis of such causes, or a denial of them altogether, will only make things worse. It would appear that precisely because of this misdiagnosis or denial, Israel is currently balanced on a precipice. The potential for a regional, if not worldwide conflict, is growing. Making things worse is Israel’s forced displacement of over a million civilians—the majority of whom are Palestinian refugees of the 1948 Nakba and their descendants—from their homes in the northern part of Gaza to the southern part, even as the IDF is now reducing much of that northern part to rubble. By most accounts it has already killed 10 times as many Palestinians, including numerous children (who make up 50 per cent of the overall population there), as those killed by Hamas. Most recently, displaced Gazans in the eastern part of the southern Strip have been ordered to move to its western part, adding even more to the congestion. This military policy is creating an untenable humanitarian crisis, which will only worsen over time. The population of Gaza has nowhere to go, and its infrastructure is being demolished.

In justifying these actions, Israeli leaders and generals have made terrifying pronouncements. On 7 Oct, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said that Gazans would pay a “huge price” for the attack by Hamas, and that the IDF would turn parts of Gaza’s densely populated urban centres “into rubble.” On 28 Oct, he added, citing Deuteronomy, “You must remember what Amalek did to you.” As many Israelis know, in revenge for the attack by Amalek, the Bible calls to “kill alike men and women, babes and sucklings.” Israeli President Yitzhak Herzog condemned all Palestinians in Gaza: “It is an entire nation out there that is responsible. It is not true this rhetoric about civilians not being aware, not involved. It’s absolutely not true.”

Israeli Minister of Energy and Infrastructure Israel Katz similarly stated: “No electrical switch will be turned on, no water hydrant will be opened and no fuel truck will enter, until the abductees return home.” Member of Knesset Ariel Kallner wrote on social media on 7 Oct: “Right now, one goal: Nakba! A Nakba that will overshadow the Nakba of ‘48. Nakba in Gaza and Nakba to anyone who dares to join!” No one in the government denounced that statement. Instead, on 11 Nov, security cabinet member and Agriculture Minister Avi Dichter reiterated: “We are now rolling out the Gaza Nakba.”

Israel’s defence minister, Yoav Gallant, stated on 9 Oct: “we are fighting human animals and we will act accordingly,” a statement indicating a dehumanisation of people that has genocidal echoes. He later announced that he had “removed every restriction” on Israeli forces, and that “Gaza won’t return to what it was before. We will eliminate everything.” On 10 Oct, the head of the Israeli army’s Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories (COGAT), Major General Ghassan Alian, addressed the population of Gaza in Arabic, stating: “Human animals must be treated as such. There will be no electricity and no water, there will only be destruction. You wanted hell, you will get hell.” The same day, Israeli army spokesperson Daniel Hagari announced that in the bombing campaign in Gaza, “the emphasis is on damage and not on accuracy.” Also on 10 Oct, Major General Giora Eiland wrote in the mass circulation daily Yedioth Ahronoth: “The State of Israel has no choice but to turn Gaza into a place that is temporarily or permanently impossible to live in,” adding that “creating a severe humanitarian crisis in Gaza is a necessary means to achieving the goal,” and that “Gaza will become a place where no human being can exist.”

In another article in the same newspaper, on November 19, Eiland wrote: “Israel is not fighting against a terrorist organisation but against the state of Gaza.” Hamas, he argued, “managed to mobilise… the support of most of its state’s inhabitants… with full support of its ideology. In this sense, Gaza is very similar to Nazi Germany.” This led him to conclude that “the fighting should be conducted accordingly.”

To his mind, “the way to win this war faster and at a lower cost to us necessitates the collapse of the systems on the other side, not the killing of more Hamas fighters. The international community warns us of a humanitarian disaster in Gaza and of severe epidemics. We must not be deterred by that.” Indeed, “severe epidemics in the southern Strip will bring victory closer and diminish the number of IDF casualties.” Eiland insisted that “when senior Israeli officials say to the media ‘it’s either us or them,’ we should clarify who ‘they’ are. ‘They’ are not only the armed Hamas fighters but… all the Gazan population that enthusiastically supported Hamas and cheered the atrocities that occurred on 7 Oct.”

The ground is prepared for what may become genocide

Again, no army spokesperson or politician has denounced these genocidal statements. I could quote many more. When asked by Sky News “What about those Palestinians in hospital who are on life support and babies in incubators whose life support and incubator will have to be turned off because the Israelis have cut the power to Gaza?” former Israeli prime minister Naftali Bennett shouted back: “Are you seriously… asking me about Palestinian civilians? What’s wrong with you? Have you not seen what happened? We’re fighting Nazis.”

In brief, Israeli rhetoric and actions are preparing the ground for what may well become mass killing, ethnic cleansing, and genocide, followed by annexation and settlement of the territory. In that spirit, the Kohelet Policy Forum, an arch-conservative think-tank with deep roots in the United States, which was closely engaged in the judicial overhaul plans launched by Netanyahu’s government in February 2023, is now refashioning itself as part of a supposedly humanitarian effort to “relocate” Palestinian refugees from Gaza to other countries around the world where they will, it suggests, live much better lives, thereby leaving the Gaza Strip to Jewish settlers. In the same spirit, one IDF Captain was filmed on 9 Nov on a beach in Gaza proclaiming to young officers: “We returned, we were expelled from here almost 20 years ago [when Israel unilaterally evacuated its settlements in the Gaza Strip]. We started this battle divided and ended it united. We are fighting for the Land of Israel. This is our land! And that is the victory, to return to our lands.”

There are many other members of the government, the Knesset and the military who would like to see the Palestinian people, as such, disappear from the map and from consciousness. This has not happened yet and can be prevented. The United States is still pushing for a two-state solution. But under the circumstances, it is crucial to keep warning against the potential for genocide before it happens, rather than belatedly condemning it after it has already taken place.

Since the full-scale invasion of Gaza by the IDF, losses among the civilian population have constantly risen. And while the military has initially made faster progress than anticipated, the likelihood of it becoming bogged down in Gaza remains considerable. Hesbollah is using this as an opportunity to intensify its attacks in the north. This may mean that Israel will face not only a military but also a growing economic crisis with hundreds of thousands of men and women in reserve service rather than at their work places, and international support rapidly eroding.

While it is desirable to remove Hamas from Gaza as the political and military hegemon, it is far from certain that Israel will be able to entirely “root it out,” described as the main goal of the war. Hamas is both a militant organisation that uses terror against civilians for political ends, and a social organisation that runs the entire infrastructure of Gaza, from schools to health services to sanitation to law enforcement. But even if Hamas is removed from Gaza as the PLO was removed from Beirut, there is no known plan by the Israeli government as to what would happen next. Who would take over? The Israelis do not want to take care of the territory and even if they try, as they did in the past, they will not be able to do so for long. Egypt does not want to have direct responsibility for the Strip. And the Palestinian Authority has been greatly weakened by Israel and will be seen as its agent if it is brought to Gaza. In brief, Israel seems to have no political plan and a very hazardous military one. It can only blame itself – not least Netanyahu, but also the military leadership – for having arrived at this point.

As the great Prussian military theorist Carl von Clausewitz wrote almost 200 years ago, war is the extension of politics by other means. War without clearly defined political goals will devolve into absolute war, which means a war of destruction and annihilation. In the case of Israel’s invasion of Gaza, a strict adherence by the IDF to the laws and customs of war as defined in the 1949 Geneva Conventions and subsequent protocols would have probably made military progress very difficult. That was not the chosen course, and available evidence indicates that the IDF is in serious breach of these agreements, of which Israel is a signatory. No wonder that it is encountering growing international censure and is rapidly losing support in the United States, a circumstance that is bound to be reflected eventually also in responses and actions by the American administration.

The only way out of this conundrum is for Israel to clearly declare that it has a political end in mind: a peaceful resolution of the conflict with an appropriate and willing Palestinian leadership. Making such a statement would instantaneously transform the situation and open up the way for intermediate steps to be taken on the ground, the first of which would be a halt to the killing and a return of all surviving hostages.

Yet such a policy course by Israel appears highly unlikely now, especially under the current political leadership, which is just as extreme as it is incompetent. At this point, not least because of the heated rhetoric in Israel, even from quite a few left-wing commentators appalled by the massacre of 7 Oct, it is crucial for moral pressure to be brought to bear on Israeli policymakers and the public to desist from ever more actions that are bound to result in war crimes, crimes against humanity, ethnic cleansing, and even genocide.

In the decades after World War II and the defeat of Nazism and fascism, historians and other intellectuals often berated their predecessors for having lacked the courage to stand up to their governments and popular sentiments and to have failed to warn against what they clearly saw was about to happen. As a historian of the Holocaust, I have called upon the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, DC, and Yad Vashem in Jerusalem, to stand in the forefront of those warning against Israeli breaches of human rights and international law, currently being legitimised by Israeli political and military leaders, talking heads on television and social media. I have urged those who dedicate themselves to researching and commemorating the Holocaust to warn against the dehumanising rhetoric in Israel directed at the population of Gaza that literally calls for its extinction. I have also called upon them to condemn the escalating violence on the West Bank, perpetrated by incited settlers and IDF troops, which is similarly inclining toward ethnic cleansing under the cover of the war in Gaza. But for now, all we hear from these scholars is silence.

It must also be said that the current atmosphere on American campuses regarding the Palestinian question and Israel is another cause for concern. Some self-styled leftists and supporters of Palestine have praised the killings carried out by Hamas and have entirely rejected Israel’s right to defend its citizens by attacking Hamas, which is sheltering among civilians in the densely populated Gaza Strip. Others have shown a remarkable lack of empathy with the hundreds of Jewish victims and hostages. Indeed, condemnations of the Israeli bombing of Gaza often do not even mention the attack of 7 Oct.

Conversely, supporters of Israel, mostly Jews, while they feel deeply betrayed by liberal colleagues who show no sympathy for the victims of 7 Oct and may be ambivalent about the immense destruction being visited by Israeli forces on Gaza, generally refuse to recognise the deeper political causes of this state of affairs. Indeed, they often slip into familiar clichés, all too common in Israel, of Palestinian, Arab and Muslim barbarity, and of eternal and universal antisemitism, which they also detect among some of their own liberal colleagues.

What appears to be lacking is a conversation between these two groups, neither of which are, after all, directly impacted by the violence; instead, they appear to mirror the same inability to communicate that characterizes the region itself. Indeed, the general academic predilection to strike postures of supporting a just cause while paying a minimal price for it, a lamentable type of self-righteousness on the cheap, has reached new heights since the current breakout of violence. Rather than educating their students about the complex realities of the region, some professors appear to incite anger and rage, while the equivocations of university presidents, including my own, afraid to displease their donors or to enrage one side or another among faculty and students, have satisfied no one. It is a sad spectacle.

The beginning of the end of this conflict and the return of politics may actually start with negotiations to free the hostages, as seems to be happening at the moment. The argument that linking military strategy to the hostages would only encourage Hamas and others to keep them, or even to take others, is false on a number of counts. First, it is clear that Hamas wants to exchange hostages for its own prisoners, many of whom are elderly and have been kept in Israeli jails for decades, while others are very young. Second, it is unthinkable that Israel will simply ignore the fate of the hostages, who include elderly and ill people, children and even babies; the delay in negotiations to this point demonstrates a certain callousness in the Israeli government that has characterised it in other spheres as well.

Statements made by some military figures and other observers, that the hostage issue should be addressed only at the end of the war, by which point, of course, most of the hostages would almost certainly be dead, have already had a tremendously demoralising effect on the families of the hostages and the Israeli population as a whole, not least the many families whose sons and daughters would be sent to fight and might be captured. Even for this uniquely heartless and inept government, choosing such a policy can only be described as both inhuman and stupid. Every effort must be made to free the hostages right now. Moreover, such efforts may signal the beginning of negotiations on other aspects of the conflict, rather than a sign of defeat.

Despite the terrifying violence and the destructive intransigence of both sides and their supporters, the objective must be a peace settlement. There are equal numbers of Jews and Palestinians in the territory between the Jordan and the sea. Neither group is going away. They can either keep killing each other or find a way to live together. That must be the goal. All dreams of making the other side disappear or submit to being oppressed from one generation to another will only produce more violence and growing brutalisation of both groups. The very assertion of a will to reach an agreement has the potential to transform the paradigm. The ongoing killing will only make it worse. No internal governmental coup, and no external political deal – such as relations with the Gulf states or peace with Saudi Arabia – will succeed in pushing the need for a political settlement between Palestinians and Israelis under the rug.

For now, all we can do it to plead with our own governments to use this moment of deep crisis and horrifying bloodshed as a lever to compel Israel to end its policy of occupation and oppression of another people and to seek creative solutions for coexistence, be it in two states, one state or a federative structure, that will ensure human dignity, equality and liberty for all.

OMER BARTOV is Co-Chair, Genocide, Holocaust and Disaster Studies, CGC; and author of Genocide, the Holocaust and Israel-Palestine: First-Person History in Times of Crisis.

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