Opinions published in The Markaz Review reflect the perspective of their authors and do not necessarily represent TMR.
Red lines, Western misapprehensions, racism and occupation.
On October 7, 2023, Hamas fighters broke through the fence which locks Palestinians in the besieged Gaza Strip. In doing so they revealed Israel to be a paper tiger. This supposed regional superpower, so skilled at containing and killing dispossessed Palestinian civilians, was unable to stop its enemies from attacking military bases and killing and abducting soldiers.
If Hamas had ended the operation there, they would have won an undoubted political as well as military victory. No doubt Israel would have responded with force, as disproportionately as it always does, but it would have been somewhat restrained by its western allies and sponsors. The Israeli peace camp (such as it is) might even have been revived. Even now we see Israeli fury directed at Netanyahu’s government that focused on guarding illegal settlers in the West Bank rather than the Gaza border fence. Just by breaking through the fence, Hamas changed the regional equation, showing that normalization between Israel and Arab dictators wouldn’t bring Israel security, that only a settlement with the Palestinians would do that.
But Hamas did more than break through the fence and strike military targets. It killed hundreds of civilians, including children and the elderly. A group of elderly people waiting at a bus stop was gunned down. Children were tied to their parents and set on fire. Whole families were murdered.
Hamas perpetrated an appalling and enormous war crime.
This was immoral, illegal, and stupid. First, it pushed the already hyper-violent Israeli society into a blind rage for revenge. That may have been part of the calculation — to provoke a response so massive that it would upend the power structures in the region, in the hope that the new structure would turn out to be better for Palestinians. This is the kind of gamble that only a blind-faith pyromaniac could make.
Maybe the orders were, go in and cause as much damage and pain as you possibly can. Maybe they expected they would have only a few minutes to spend killing before the IDF killed them. In fact, incredibly, they had 48 hours. I have no idea how this happened. If Israel were an Arab dictatorship, I’d say it was because key officers had been bribed or threatened to look the other way. But Israel is not an Arab dictatorship. No doubt in the years to come, books will be written to attempt to explain.
In the end, Hamas achieved what has been called “catastrophic success.” It probably hoped to grab a few dozen hostages with which to bargain for Palestinian prisoners (or hostages) held in Israeli prisons. But by taking so many hostages, and by killing so many civilians, it decreased the hostages’ value. Sections of the Israeli establishment seem to have already sacrificed the hostages. Their priority is to destroy the Palestinians, not negotiate.
What Hamas fighters did was behave like savages. In so doing they gave Israelis and Westerners the perfect reflection of an image that already existed in their minds: the Muslim barbarian, the savage other, the irrational absolute enemy against whom all measures are justified. Because Hamas calls itself an “Islamic Resistance Movement,” the stain spreads to cover Muslims everywhere. (It’s worth repeating that Islamic rules of warfare very specifically forbid the harming of non-combatants.)
When I called relatives and friends living in Arab countries, I realized that the story they were hearing from Arab media was very different to the story here in the West. There the focus was on Hamas’s assault on the military; here it was on Hamas’s terrorism against women and children. From the very start, the narratives spun in east and west were irreconcilable.
It didn’t help that Joe Biden said he’d personally seen and confirmed evidence of beheaded babies, and then a few hours later that the White House retracted his claim. It didn’t help that unverified claims of rape were spread far and wide. Some or all of these atrocities may actually have happened, but a lack of concern for accuracy on all sides has made it difficult to convince anybody of anything they don’t already believe.
Personally, I don’t see any moral difference between shooting a baby in the head, or beheading a baby, or incinerating a baby with a bomb (and Israel has killed far more Palestinian children in the last few days than the total number of Israelis killed on Oct. 7). What the image of the baby-beheading rapist does, however, is to provide a justification for further genocidal violence.
Hamas’s attacks against civilians cannot be justified, but they can and must be contextualized. Israel and the West choose to believe that Hamas started the war on Oct. 7. They tell us that when Hamas kills civilians it does so simply because it’s evil, and that when Israel kills civilians in greater numbers, and besieges and occupies them, it also does so simply because Hamas is evil.
Most of the young men who committed atrocities in southern Israel were children when in 2008/9, 2012 and 2014, Israel committed atrocities against civilians in Gaza. It’s really no surprise that men who grew up seeing babies dismembered by Israeli bombs fail to distinguish between Israeli soldiers and civilians. And this conflict goes back much further than Hamas taking control in Gaza and Israel’s siege of the Strip. It goes back at least to 1948, when Palestinians were driven off 78% of their land and into refugee camps. (In 1967, the remaining 22% was occupied by Israel). Two thirds of people in Gaza descend from refugees driven from their farms and villages in what’s now southern Israel. It’s really no surprise when the people in refugee camps don’t accept the “right to security” of those living on their grandparents’ stolen land. This requires a solution.
For at least a decade and a half, Israel and the world’s powers have believed the status quo was sustainable. The status quo involves the steady settlement and theft of the West Bank and east Jerusalem, the endless siege of Gaza, the constant murder of civilians in all these areas, and a regime of apartheid. This is the context, and it is not in the least sustainable.
When in 2018 Palestinians organized their Great March of Return, and unarmed men and women moved toward the fence between Gaza and Israel, Israel shot hundreds dead. When Palestinians and their supporters promote boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) against Israel — a non-violent means of protest — they are smeared as anti-semites. None of this excuses terrorism against civilians, but it makes it unsurprising.
The Western Response
In much of the west, liberal universal values immediately vanished on Oct. 7, showing very clearly the racism that lies below.
Even as top Israeli officials declared their focus in Gaza would be on “damage, not accuracy,” even as Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant described Palestinians as “human animals”; even as they handed out more weapons to settlers on the West Bank, the US, the UK, Canada, France, and Germany stated and reiterated that Israel — an occupying and apartheid state committing crimes against humanity — had an absolute right to “defend itself.” Not only did Britain’s extreme right government throw international law out of the window, but the opposition Labour Party did too. Keir Starmer, Emily Thornberry, and David Lammy stated that Israel “had the right” to cut off water and electricity to civilians in Gaza.
For those who remember Labour propagandizing for the Assad/Russian/Iranian genocide of Syrians, this level of racism is no surprise. Unfortunately, many British Muslims are discovering it only now.
In France and Germany, there have been efforts to criminalize expressions of support for Palestinian rights. Germany is a particularly bad case. Anti-genocide demonstrations have been violently suppressed, awards ceremonies for prize-winning Palestinian writers have been withdrawn, candles lit to remember the dead have been stamped on, intimidatory crowds of police have been deployed in areas with Arab populations, Chancellor Scholz has spoken of the need to deport refugees, and a woman was arrested for holding a sign which read, “As a Jew and an Israeli, I oppose genocide in Gaza.” Most German political parties and media as well as most of society appear to be affected by this hysteria. The most repulsive aspect is its presentation as anti-anti-semitism (my emphasis) — as if Germany could wipe away its guilt for the Holocaust by supporting the slaughter of Palestinians. Of course, the opposite is true. Germany’s Holocaust made the destruction of Palestine inevitable. Therefore, Germany owes enormous reparations to the Palestinian people.
In the US and the UK, sections of the media cast Palestinians as Nazis. This is another appalling decontextualization — the Jews of Europe didn’t keep the Germans in refugee camps for 75 years before the Holocaust. The Nazis were not dispossessed and oppressed by a “Jewish state.” The Nazis were not the powerless lashing out, they were the supremely powerful calmly and carefully channeling the powerless into death camps.
Next, these western states called to intensify sanctions on Iran for its indirect link to Hamas. In the current war, the US and the UK sent warships to the Mediterranean to deter Iran and its militias from escalation against Israel. As Iran and its militias poured into Syria after 2012 to save Assad from a popular revolution, and then destroyed Syrian cities, murdered tens of thousands of Syrians, and expelled millions more, the Obama administration negotiated a nuclear and sanctions relief deal with Iran. The EU, meanwhile, continued to lobby for better relations with Iran through the Trump years. We must presume that the discrepancy in responses to Iran is because Western leaders consider Israelis to be real actual people, while Syrians, like Palestinians, are not.
To say the west has double standards is to put it far too mildly. The west is so racist that it is unaware of it, and therefore it is unaware of how blatantly obvious its racism is to people in the Arab and Muslim worlds, and further afield. Westerners were surprised that half of the world didn’t join in the condemnation of Russia’s illegal invasion of Ukraine. They shouldn’t be. The world can see that the West appeased Russia while it was killing Syrians, then suddenly became concerned when Europeans became the target. And that the West is enraged when Israeli civilians are killed, but sends weapons and money to facilitate the slaughter of Palestinian civilians.
Russia and China — genocidal states both — are winning huge propaganda victories simply by not supporting genocide in Palestine.
One of many reasons why the Arabs become more riled over this issue than others is the strange chronological duality of the slaughter. On the one hand, Palestinians have been oppressed and murdered continuously over 75 years. On the other hand, when a massacre is underway, huge numbers are killed in very short spaces of time. Well over 4,000 Palestinians have been murdered in the last two weeks. The intensity of the killing matches even Assad’s modus operandi.
The only realistic Israeli war aim seems to be to annihilate thousands of Palestinians, and to drive hundreds of thousands into Egypt. There may also be an attempt to drive Palestinians from the West Bank into Jordan. Certainly dozens of Palestinians are currently being murdered in the West Bank, where Hamas has no military power. But a new mass expulsion of Palestinians will further undermine Israel’s security, and may also undermine Arab states which currently have peace deals with Israel. Israel can destroy and kill, but it can’t ultimately win — not this way.
Israelis and Palestinians are locked in a death spiral, unable to break out of it. In one important sense this isn’t their fault — both are victims of history stuck in this loop. This is why we need calm, grown-up leadership from the rest of the world to help sort it out. But there are no grown-ups. Those at a distance at no great risk of dying — the Americans, Germans and Iranians, for instance — are fanning the flames for their own cultural and political reasons. And so it spirals.
I don’t believe the Iranian regime wants to fight this war. Its priority is its own survival. I don’t believe Israel wants to fight a war on more than one front. And I don’t believe the US wants to escalate against Iran. Nevertheless, a new Nakba, or the complete destruction of Hamas, could be a red line for Iran’s militia system in the Arab world, which stretches from Lebanon to Yemen via Syria and Iraq. Standing by while thousands of Palestinians are killed will reveal the emptiness of Iran’s warlike propaganda. Stepping in, on the other hand, could improve Iran’s standing among Arabs deeply suspicious of its regional reach, not least for its role in the expulsion of millions of Sunni Arabs from Syria. So this could escalate much further at any moment, and with global ramifications. The US is already taking ammunition designated for those resisting occupation in Ukraine and giving it to those enforcing occupation in Palestine. If Iran becomes involved, Russia and China will use the opportunity.
The war is also escalating in communities globally. Instances of antisemitism and Islamophobia are spiking. A Palestinian child has been murdered in Chicago. Jewish schoolchildren have been spat on and insulted. And we’re just at the start of it. As the war develops, we are all responsible for ensuring that innocent Jews and Muslims in our communities are protected and respected. And we are all responsible for doing what we can to oppose and stop the killing.
Finally, I’d like to point to the only positive thing that’s happened in the last two weeks. Last Friday there were enormous demonstrations throughout the Arab world. Many millions of Arabs who’d forgotten Palestine, or who’d stopped caring much, have returned to the cause with passion. Some of them are chanting tired old nationalist or anti-Jewish slogans (and a mob burnt a synagogue in Tunisia, unforgivably). But as well as that, many are seeing the link between national liberation and political liberation. For the first time in a decade, the Sisi dictatorship granted Egyptians the opportunity to protest, but not in Tahrir Square. Egyptians broke into Tahrir Square nevertheless, and as they did so they chanted “Bread, Freedom, Social Justice.”
This is what the regimes fear most. And this is what we should hope for. If the Arabs had representative governments, they would be taken much more seriously. It would be much more difficult for genocidal states to slaughter them. Terrorist groups would have less appeal because there would be other ways to express strength. Arab weakness is caused by political underdevelopment, and it’s killing us as surely as the bombs.