Gaza’s Catch-22s

14 July, 2021
gazas catch-22s graphic by jordan elgrably.jpg

Khaled Diab 

“Is Orr crazy?”
“He sure is,” Doc Danee­ka said.
“Can you ground him?”
“I sure can. But first he has to ask me to. That’s part of the rule.”
“Then why does­n’t he ask you to?”
“Because he’s crazy,” Doc Dan­neka said. “He has to be crazy to keep fly­ing com­bat mis­sions after all the close calls he’s had. Sure, I can ground Orr. But first he has to ask me to.”
“That’s all he has to do to be ground­ed?”
“That’s all. Let him ask me.”
“And then you can ground him?” Yos­sar­i­an asked.
“No, then I can’t ground him.”
“You mean there’s a catch?”
“Sure, there’s a catch,” Doc Danee­ka replied. “Catch-22. Any­one who wants to get out of com­bat duty isn’t real­ly crazy.”

The sit­u­a­tion in Gaza puts me in mind of Joseph Heller’s clas­sic nov­el Catch-22, in which Yos­sar­i­an, a World War II bom­bardier who does not wish to fly com­bat mis­sions, finds him­self trapped in an end­less stream of cir­cu­lar, inescapable para­dox­es of log­ic or illog­ic. Gaza is stuck in a sim­i­lar­ly para­dox­i­cal, closed-cir­cuit loop, nine parts tragedy to one part farce.

The ludi­crous sit­u­a­tion is not just the mak­ing of today’s play­ers but also of the far­ci­cal­ly trag­ic play­book they have inher­it­ed from their fore­bears. “Man makes his own his­to­ry, but he does not make it out of the whole cloth; he does not make it out of con­di­tions cho­sen by him­self, but out of such as he finds close at hand,” Karl Marx once observed. “The tra­di­tion of all past gen­er­a­tions weighs like an alp upon the brain of the living.”

Fishing boats docked at the port of Gaza City, June 13, 2019. (Hassan Jedi/Flash90).

Fish­ing boats docked at the port of Gaza City, June 13, 2019. (Has­san Jedi/Flash90).

In 2007, Israel, with the aid of Egypt, sealed off Gaza after Hamas seized con­trol of the coastal ter­ri­to­ry. Israel’s ratio­nale was to weak­en Hamas and dis­lodge it from pow­er. It is now 2021 and 14 years of siege and wars — with thou­sands of dead and wound­ed and mil­lions made des­ti­tute — have result­ed in strength­en­ing Hamas’s appar­ent grip on power.

The sad, iron­ic tragedy is that Hamas could have been “con­tained” with­out a sin­gle shot being fired now, or in 2014, 2012, 2008/9 and 2006. Hamas not only dropped its calls for the destruc­tion of Israel from its elec­tion man­i­festo, the par­ty con­sis­tent­ly indi­cat­ed its will­ing­ness to accept a two-state solu­tion along the pre-1967 borders.

By agree­ing to lim­it Pales­tine to the 1967 bor­ders, Hamas, with true Catch-22 log­ic, offered de fac­to recog­ni­tion of Israel with­out offi­cial­ly rec­og­niz­ing Israel. “We won’t rec­og­nize Israel, we’ll rec­og­nize an Israel-shaped state next to Pales­tine,” was effec­tive­ly Hamas’s new line.

Now you may won­der why Hamas did not just call a spade a spade, or a state a state. This was because of the polit­i­cal strait­jack­et it had imposed on itself with its found­ing doc­u­ment. It was also because meta­phys­i­cal rejec­tion of Israel is how it dis­tin­guished itself from its main polit­i­cal rival, Fatah. A sim­i­lar illog­ic applies to how Hamas fierce­ly con­demns the Pales­tin­ian Author­i­ty for its secu­ri­ty coop­er­a­tion with Israel while coor­di­nat­ing secu­ri­ty issues with Israel but not call­ing it that.

It was also because Hamas need­ed (im)plausible deni­a­bil­i­ty with rad­i­cals with­in the move­ment and its rivals even fur­ther to the Islamist right, as well as from the rejec­tion­ists on the (pan-)Arabist left, who would have denounced the move­ment as trai­tors if they had offi­cial­ly offered to rec­og­nize Israel.

That also explains why Hamas, with its back against the wall, offered peace with­out offer­ing peace, by rebrand­ing it as a long-term or per­ma­nent “hud­na” (“truce”). This rais­es the thorny ques­tion of whether, in a con­text where the word peace has been deval­ued to mean con­tin­ued occu­pa­tion (Oslo Accords) or author­i­tar­i­an oppor­tunism (Abra­ham Accords), peace by any oth­er name would smell any less sweet to those who pos­sess it than peace called peace or salam or shalom

Israel reject­ed Hamas’s will­ing­ness to accept the sol­id, phys­i­cal real­i­ty of Israel’s exis­tence because it reject­ed the sol­id, phys­i­cal real­i­ty of Hamas’s exis­tence. This is despite the fact that Israel played a piv­otal role in bring­ing Hamas into exis­tence as a coun­ter­bal­ance against the exis­tence of the PLO, which Israel reject­ed, until it accept­ed the PLO under Oslo. 

Even though Israel accepts the PLO’s exis­tence, in the form of the PA, the gov­ern­ment has worked tire­less­ly to under­mine the PA’s legit­i­ma­cy by accept­ing the hypo­thet­i­cal two-state solu­tion abroad while con­sis­tent­ly build­ing an actu­al sin­gle state at home, while oppos­ing the one-state solu­tion abroad. To con­fuse mat­ters fur­ther, Israel’s army is simul­ta­ne­ous­ly occu­py­ing the Pales­tin­ian ter­ri­to­ries while its judges and advo­cates claim there is no occu­pa­tion.

When it comes to Gaza, Israel con­trols the land, skies and sea, yet claims the Pales­tini­ans there have self rule. More­over, Israel will not lift its block­ade of Gaza until Hamas is removed from pow­er, but Hamas will not fall so long as there is a block­ade. Gaza­’s encir­clement has so cor­nered Hamas that it is fight­ing an exis­ten­tial bat­tle in which it has noth­ing left to lose. Even if Hamas falls, there is no guar­an­tee that Fatah would take over, and even if it did, many Gazans will view it as a trai­tor and collaborator. 

Israel’s block­ade, even though it was sup­posed to rid Israel of the spec­tre of Hamas and Islamism in Gaza, has result­ed in a pletho­ra of move­ments far more rad­i­cal than Hamas, includ­ing salafi jihadist groups. Nev­er­the­less, Israel will not end its siege of Gaza until Islamist extrem­ists derad­i­cal­ize but the siege rad­i­cal­izes Islamist extrem­ists and there is lit­tle prospect of them derad­i­cal­iz­ing as long as Gaza remains cut off from the out­side world. 

Blockade of Gaza (graphic courtesy of the  New Arab ).

Block­ade of Gaza (graph­ic cour­tesy of the New Arab).

After decades of on-and-off fight­ing, it is clear that vio­lence will not deliv­er vic­to­ry, let alone peace, yet shiny weapons still evoke an almost mys­ti­cal, phal­lic allure. This is nowhere more appar­ent than in Gaza. 

At the core of the Gaza quag­mire is a fun­da­men­tal mis­un­der­stand­ing of what war and polit­i­cal vio­lence can achieve in the Israeli-Pales­tin­ian con­text. When­ev­er vio­lence flares up or war unleash­es its ugly dev­as­ta­tion, Israeli and Pales­tin­ian hawks take wing to per­suade large por­tions of their pop­u­la­tions that there is no choice but to take up arms and that, this time, a deci­sive blow, which nev­er actu­al­ly mate­ri­al­izes, will be dealt to the ene­my and vic­to­ry assured. 

One almost unfal­ter­ing ele­ment of Israel’s approach to the Pales­tini­ans is that might will win the fight and pre­vail in the end. Yet no mat­ter how hard Israel hits the Pales­tini­ans with airstrikes, shelling or even ground inva­sions, they do not sur­ren­der. More­over, the greater the force Israel uses to sub­ju­gate them, the greater the resis­tance and sumud (stead­fast­ness) Pales­tini­ans exhibit. 

Although the PLO has large­ly aban­doned armed strug­gle in favor of a nego­ti­at­ed set­tle­ment, Hamas and oth­er more rad­i­cal Pales­tin­ian fac­tions are com­mit­ted to the way of the gun, despite the wealth of evi­dence that it does the Pales­tin­ian peo­ple and their cause absolute­ly no good.

Judg­ing by the long annals of the Arab-Israeli con­flict, armed strug­gle has been a dou­ble-edged sword, with the edge fac­ing the Pales­tini­ans dig­ging much deep­er and inflict­ing more pain and suf­fer­ing. In almost every mil­i­tary con­fronta­tion the Pales­tini­ans and Arabs have had with the Israelis, Israel has come out on top, with Pales­tini­ans pay­ing a heavy price for the loss.

This is on clear dis­play in Gaza. For two decades, since the sec­ond Intifa­da, Hamas and oth­er mil­i­tant groups in Gaza have been peri­od­i­cal­ly fir­ing their puny, inac­cu­rate arse­nals of rock­ets into Israel. 

Despite the dam­age and occa­sion­al death in the bor­der regions, the net effect of these rock­et attacks has been a nui­sance for Israel, but has unleashed a cat­a­stro­phe upon Gazans, as Israel has exploit­ed the rock­et attacks as a pre­text to con­tin­ue its block­ade and peri­od­i­cal­ly flat­ten Gaza. Yet Hamas some­how man­ages to snatch rhetor­i­cal vic­to­ry out of the jaws of mil­i­tary defeat. 

“We were vic­to­ri­ous when our peo­ple said ‘no’ to expul­sion from Sheikh Jar­rah,” Ismail Haniyeh, the chief of Hamas’s polit­i­cal bureau, said from far away Qatar. “Today there is a new bal­ance of pow­er,” he added, fail­ing to explain why it looked exact­ly the same as the old bal­ance. “The heroes and men of Gaza foiled the Israeli plot,” he said. 

One rea­son why vio­lence is so allur­ing is because, even though vio­lence is the road to great­est destruc­tion and dis­rup­tion, it is also too often the path of least resis­tance. For Israel, it is far eas­i­er to use an iron fist to deal with the symp­toms rather than treat the dis­ease itself: the decades-old occu­pa­tion and the atten­dant injus­tices it metes out on the Pales­tin­ian pop­u­la­tion. In addi­tion, the fog of esca­lat­ing con­flict is a good cov­er for ide­o­log­i­cal set­tlers to drag the rest of Israeli soci­ety reluc­tant­ly towards com­plet­ing the set­tle­ment enterprise.

On the Pales­tin­ian side, the resort to vio­lence seems to be fueled large­ly by despair at the wors­en­ing sit­u­a­tion, the accel­er­at­ing loss of their lands and liveli­hoods, the repres­sive restric­tions on their move­ments, the dra­con­ian mar­tial law under which mil­lions of them live. The more dire real­i­ty becomes for Pales­tini­ans, the more detached from real­i­ty the aspi­ra­tions of Pales­tin­ian rad­i­cals become and the greater rejec­tion­ism becomes. The more Pales­tine becomes shack­led in the chains of the present, the greater the almost mys­ti­cal allure of a future “free Pales­tine” becomes.

But there is also a pow­er­ful ele­ment of trau­ma, pride and redemp­tion asso­ci­at­ed with the pull of vio­lence. For Israelis, the mus­cu­lar Israeli Jew makes up for the per­ceived past weak­ness and humil­i­a­tion of dias­po­ra Jews who alleged­ly, accord­ing to pop­u­lar myth in Israel, went to their deaths like “sheep to the slaugh­ter.”

If peace were to reign between Israelis and Pales­tini­ans, there is the risk that Israeli-Israeli and Pales­tin­ian-Pales­tin­ian war will break out.

Pales­tin­ian mil­i­tants also seek redemp­tion by fire for the loss of Pales­tine and the decades of humil­i­at­ing defeat and occu­pa­tion which fol­lowed it. Rather than weak­en­ing their resolve, every mil­i­tary set­back enhances the deter­mi­na­tion of rad­i­cals to restore their hon­or, to hit back hard at their sense of impo­tence and powerlessness.

Vio­lence is also a pow­er­ful tool for main­tain­ing a sem­blance or illu­sion of uni­ty by pulling rank. Israeli and Pales­tin­ian soci­eties are deeply polar­ized and divid­ed, on inter­nal mat­ters but also on how to han­dle the oth­er side of the con­flict. If peace were to reign between Israelis and Pales­tini­ans, there is the risk that Israeli-Israeli and Pales­tin­ian-Pales­tin­ian war will break out. Direct war with the offi­cial ene­my helps defer direct con­flict with the unof­fi­cial enemy. 

But direct war with the exter­nal ene­my also acts as a proxy war with the inter­nal ene­my. Gaza has become a lit­er­al bloody bat­tle­ground for Israeli pol­i­tics, with Pales­tin­ian civil­ians pay­ing a hefty price for the intrigues in Israel’s cor­ri­dors of pow­er. When Israel’s rightwing coali­tions bomb Gaza, they plot the polit­i­cal blast radius to encom­pass their polit­i­cal ene­mies to the left of them, but some­times also to the right.

Israel’s fall­en king with­out a crown, Binyamin Netanyahu, was a mas­ter of using Gaza as a human shield against his mor­tal ene­mies in the Knes­set. He has exploit­ed the hostage pop­u­la­tion there for cyn­i­cal elec­tion­eer­ing and to try to stave off the net of cor­rup­tion charges clos­ing in around his cosy polit­i­cal fiefdom.

The Pales­tini­ans have already had their civ­il war, between Fatah and Hamas, the upshot of which was the fur­ther splin­ter­ing of Pales­tin­ian pol­i­tics. The Fatah-Hamas fault­line is the most vis­i­ble of the many frac­tures plagu­ing Pales­tin­ian soci­ety. Today, each of the two par­ties con­trols with author­i­tar­i­an zeal what tiny scraps of author­i­ty Israel’s author­i­tar­i­an occu­pa­tion has left them to fight over. While there is no more direct fight­ing between the two par­ties, the con­flict con­tin­ues to blaze on in oth­er forms, with Fatah using eco­nom­ic war­fare and Hamas using con­ven­tion­al arms. Hamas’s rock­ets may be phys­i­cal­ly tar­get­ed at Israel but ide­o­log­i­cal­ly their intend­ed recip­i­ent is arch-rival Fatah. 

As long as the under­ly­ing assump­tions are not chal­lenged and changed, the Catch-22s afflict­ing Gaza and the wider con­flict will con­tin­ue to grind on, claim­ing ever more vic­tims in the vicious grip of their inhu­mane and illog­i­cal log­ic. It’s high time for fun­da­men­tal change, but nation­al­is­tic fun­da­men­tal­ism stands in the way… and there­in lies the catch.