Hamas launches unprecedented attack on Israel. Israel responds with very precedented attack on Gaza.

(From Current Events)

Israel’s government formally declared war on the Gaza Strip this [past] weekend after Hamas launched a surprise incursion into Israeli territory. Beginning Saturday morning, members of the Islamic militant group that controls Gaza bombarded Israel with anywhere from 2,500 to 5,000 rockets and sent fighters across the separation wall and into Israeli territory by land, air, and sea to launch attacks on an estimated 22 military installations and Israeli towns. Hamas posted videos online of their fighters butchering soldiers and civilians alike. In one of the deadliest attacks, Hamas militants arrived at a music festival in rural Southern Israel, just three miles from the wall separating Israel and Gaza, and began to indiscriminately shoot young concertgoers at point-blank range, leaving at least 260 dead. 

At the time of writing, estimates from the Israeli government place the number of dead over 900 and the number of wounded over 2,500, making it the most deadly attack on Israel since the 1973 Yom Kippur War almost exactly fifty years ago (In an eerie echo, Hamas’ attack this weekend took place during the Jewish Thanksgiving holiday of Simchat Torah). Meanwhile, Hamas claims to have taken more than 100 hostages—both military and civilian—whom it hopes to trade for some of the more than 4,500 Palestinians held in Israeli jails.

The response from Israel has been to launch a “complete siege” of the Gaza Strip, in the words of Defense Minister Yoav Gallant, who added, “We are fighting against human animals, and we are acting accordingly.” Israel has cut off electricity and food from the blockaded 141-square-mile Gaza Strip which has more than 2 million people—around half of whom are younger than 19. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu issued a televised “warning,” telling Gazans, “All the places in which Hamas is based, in this city of evil, all the places Hamas is hiding in, acting from—we’ll turn them into rubble. I’m telling the people of Gaza: get out of there now because we’re about to act everywhere with all our force.” 

This is, of course, a sick joke—Gaza has been under an Israeli blockade since 2006, and its people are not allowed to leave. And given that Gaza is one of the most densely packed places in the world, this was a promise to obliterate the entire territory and its captive population. 

Israel then launched a torrent of airstrikes that have pounded Gaza with more than 2,000 munitions. No territory, civilian or otherwise, was off-limits. According to Middle East Eye, the military has “shelled 20 high-rise residential buildings, mosques, hospitals, banks and other civilian infrastructure.” One of the buildings, which Israel has claimed credit for bombing, was an 11-story apartment, which had at least 150 people living in it. As of writing, more than 800 Gazans have been killed and 4,100 injured, according to its Health Ministry. Netanyahu says that Israel is “just getting started.” And one member of his Likud Party, Revital ‘Tally’ Gotliv has urged the military to use “doomsday weapons.” She continued:

     “Only an explosion that shakes the Middle East will restore this country’s dignity, strength, and security! It’s time to kiss doomsday. Shooting powerful missiles without limit. Not flattening a neighborhood. Crushing and flattening Gaza. … without mercy! without mercy!”

President Biden has issued a statement of full-throated support for Israel, while his National Security Council issued a condemnation of the “unprovoked attacks by Hamas terrorists against Israeli civilians.” We share in mourning every innocent life snuffed out in this violence, Israeli or Palestinian. But to act as if it came from nowhere is simply absurd. 

This violence cannot be described accurately without first understanding the conditions Israel has inflicted upon Gaza. More than 60 percent of the people living in the Gaza Strip are refugees following their families’ expulsion during the 1948 war establishing Israel during an event known as the “Nakba,” meaning “catastrophe” in Arabic.  Along with the West Bank, the Golan Heights, and the Sinai Peninsula, Gaza was occupied by the Israeli military in 1967. After four decades of direct illegal occupation, Israeli settlers were forced out of the territory in 2007. For the next sixteen years, up until the present, Israel has imposed a blockade upon the territory that has crippled all aspects of life for its people and turned it into what numerous observers—including everyone from the United Nations to Noam Chomsky to Israeli Human Rights organization B’Tselem to Conservative former-UK Prime Minister David Cameron have called an “open-air prison.” 

With few exceptions, everyone in the strip is trapped there and the Israeli government controls everything that comes in and goes out. This gives them the ability to inflict torment upon the captive population at will. As Rashid Khalidi, author of The Hundred Years’ War on Palestine, said in an interview with Democracy Now! the blockade of Gaza is “a pressure cooker. It had to explode.”

Here are some statistics from the Norwegian Refugee Council about the daily conditions faced by Gaza’s more than 2 million residents as a result of Israel’s blockade: 

  •     Gaza has the world’s largest unemployment rate of 42 percent.
  •     41 percent of Gazans have too little food.
  •     7 percent of children suffer from stunted growth
  •     98 percent of groundwater is undrinkable.
  •     The Gazan population only has access to 2-4 hours of electricity per day.
  •     45 percent are refused medical treatment outside of Gaza. 

Israel inflicts these conditions intentionally. According to cables between the Israeli government and the U.S. embassy in Tel Aviv obtained by Wikileaks, the goal of the blockade is “to keep the Gazan economy on the brink of collapse without quite pushing it over the edge.” 

The Israeli government makes no secret about the fact that its ultimate goal is to annex all of Palestine. It has already begun the annexation of the West Bank which has been colonized by more than 700,000 Israeli settlers, who often push Palestinian families from their homes to build Jewish-only communities. Prime Minister Netanyahu made the goal of total annexation abundantly clear last month when he displayed a map of “Greater Israel” before the UN General Assembly, which contained the whole of Gaza, the West Bank, and the Golan Heights. 

When Gaza has tried to fight the occupation, usually by firing rockets into Israeli territory that are easily repelled by Israel’s U.S.-funded Iron Dome defense system, all the people living in the strip are met with collective punishment, through devastating airstrikes. Some 2,789 civilians in Gaza have been killed between January 2008 and September 2023, according to the U.N. (almost three times the number of actual militants killed). Prior to this weekend’s invasion by Hamas, the number of civilian casualties in Israel since 2008 was 78.

And though he calls them “evil,” Netanyahu’s own explicit policy has been to fund Hamas in order to drive a wedge between Gaza and the West Bank’s more moderate Palestinian Authority. “Anyone who wants to thwart the establishment of a Palestinian state has to support bolstering Hamas and transferring money to Hamas,” Netanyahu told a meeting of his Likud party’s Knesset members in March 2019. “This is part of our strategy – to isolate the Palestinians in Gaza from the Palestinians in the West Bank.”

To describe this weekend’s violence as the direct result of Israel’s conduct is not some fringe Hamas-apologist position, as many pro-Israel commentators and politicians in America would suggest. As Current Affairs editor-in-chief Nathan Robinson pointed out on Twitter, one of Israel’s most widely read newspapers, Ha’aretz, has been willing, in multiple columns, to state the reality of the occupation much more plainly than most American outlets. In an article titled “Israel Can’t Imprison Two Million Gazans Without Paying a Cruel Price,” Israeli columnist Gordon Levy put it perhaps most frankly:

   “Behind all this lies Israeli arrogance; the idea that we can do whatever we like, that we’ll never pay the price and be punished for it. We’ll carry on undisturbed. We’ll arrest, kill, harass, dispossess, and protect the settlers busy with their pogroms…We’ll fire at innocent people, take out people’s eyes and smash their faces, expel, confiscate, rob, grab people from their beds, carry out ethnic cleansing and of course continue with the unbelievable siege of the Gaza Strip, and everything will be all right… We’ll tell them that only by force will their prisoners see freedom. We thought we would arrogantly keep rejecting any attempt at a diplomatic solution, only because we don’t want to deal with all that, and everything would continue that way forever…

    “Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu bears very great responsibility for what happened, and he must pay the price, but it didn’t start with him, and it won’t end after he goes. We now have to cry bitterly for the Israeli victims, but we should also cry for Gaza. Gaza, most of whose residents are refugees created by Israel. Gaza, which has never known a single day of freedom.”

But instead of recognizing this cycle of violent reprisals, the Biden administration has responded by pledging to give Israel “rock solid” support, which likely means more military aid (assuming Congress begins to function again at some point) that will make the onslaught against Gaza even more brutal.

Virtually every American politician this [past] weekend has expressed unqualified horror at the attacks on Israeli civilians. And they are right to. The stories of concertgoers kidnapped and massacred, families shot in their homes, and parents fearing for the lives of their captive children are completely harrowing to read, and the senseless slaughter of innocents is an unforgivable atrocity. Of course, we all naturally understand that ordinary Israelis are victims of circumstance and bear no responsibility for what their government has done. 

But when Palestinian civilians have been killed in much greater numbers at the hands of Israel during the last decade, only a few courageous people who hold positions of power in America have even dared to condemn it. Most either remain silent or accuse Israel’s critics—including those who are Jewish—of harboring “anti-Semitism” or questioning Israel’s “right to exist” (which translates to “Israel’s right to do whatever it wants”). 

But the status quo of permanent occupation is clearly not something that can ever result in peace, and the violence that began this weekend has proven it. We need to start asking, for real, can this end? As Nathan J. Robinson wrote today in Current Affairs:

    …What we have is an occupying power brutalizing an occupied/besieged population, and then a militant wing of that population reacting with terror of its own. That, in turn, is causing the occupying power to unleash hell. The cycle of violence looks like it will never end.

    Can it end? Perhaps, but only with a just peace. Israel’s current campaign of violent reprisal will create more victims. Those victims will have families. Those family members will want vengeance of their own. They will seek it. More victims. More rage. More people who see only their own suffering and not the suffering they inflict on others.

    The responsibility of the international community is clear: we must push for a final negotiated end to the conflict, through the end of Israel’s apartheid and the granting of full rights of self-determination to Palestine. Ultimately, as Chomsky and Cassif point out, the subjugation of Palestine is not in the interests of ordinary Israelis, who themselves deserve to live in peace. It guarantees Israel’s perpetual insecurity. So long as there are Palestinians, there will be resistance, some of which will be violent, and it will become more violent when other avenues for expressing dissent are closed off. To predict what will happen is in no way to justify it, and while we can and should condemn Hamas’ counterproductive and hideous atrocities, we need to understand why they occurred and how to prevent more from happening in the future. One way, favored by some, is to simply “destroy everything”—there is peace, by definition, if everyone is dead. But if we care about trying to avert the worst disaster, then we must think rationally and carefully about what is actually likely to end the conflict. Eliminating the source of Palestinian grievances by granting them their basic rights under international law is the best way to minimize the likelihood of future violence. The job of the U.S. is not to “support Israel” by aiding Israel’s vengeance, but by facilitating a just settlement. That involves pressuring Israel to end the occupation that serves as Hamas’ greatest recruitment tool.