Conflict in the Gulag Archipelago

The Open Air Prison. Image: JSC and AI Art Generator.

Israel-Palestine is one of those issues that looks like it has a simple solution, but the more you read about it the more complex you realize the situation is – but then if you read even more about it you conclude that it does have a simple solution after all.

Iran-backed Hamas is resisting the illegal occupation of Palestinian land (famously under U.N. Resolution 242) after Israel “withdrew” in 2005 (their settlers pulled out but they retained control). Recently, Israel was due to undergo normalization of relations with Saudi Arabia, with the US a key factor in an emerging triad. Iran wishes to prevent this, and the Saudis arguably don’t want interactions with Israel if it’s a war zone, and some have predicted that they won’t wish to be part of a peacekeeping force with Egypt inside Palestine if it’s going to be constant guerilla fighting after a few years of relative peace.

Nevertheless, it may be too reductive to explain the recent attacks on civilians and kidnappings from Hamas on this goal of disrupting Israel-Saudi peace agreements. This process would lead to US commitments that are unlikely to pass through Congress, but it would also lead to Israeli concessions to the Palestinians that are just as unlikely to pass through Israel’s current coalition government. In addition, no other Arab state has been stopped from reaching agreements with Israel due to tensions with Palestinians, and the Saudis may be no different.

Instead, Hamas may be motivated by disrupting Arab governments who have recently normalized relations with Israel, and who were historically more supportive of the Palestinians. The goal may of course purely have been to massacre civilians, but other objectives likely lie in the background.

A gradual loss of support

Over the years, Palestine has faded against more severe outbreaks of violence and poverty: e.g., the situations in Yemen, Iraq and Syria are generally worse than Palestine, at least over the past 5 or so years. It has become increasingly difficult to galvanize support for the Palestinian liberation struggle. Even Norman Finkelstein claims to have effectively given up in 2020.

The situation isn’t helped with philosophies like effective altruism, propagated by billionaires like Elon Musk: this says that we should donate money to those who are suffering the absolute worst poverty and where donations are likely to have the most positive “effect”, no matter the source (human-created, environmental, religious, political). Palestine has over the years moved down the list of priorities, despite the brutal nature of the military occupation.

Much of the contemporary left in the West defines itself via its opposition not just to the right, but more specifically to the religious right. As a consequence of this, it’s hard to rally support for Palestine when the religious component of the conflict is centered.

Under international law, Palestinians have a right to resist military occupation, through “any available means”, including military engagement. This is the same reason why Namibia was able to resist occupation from South Africa in the 1980s. Recent history has shown that Western public opinion is less likely to be shocked by a “disproportionate response” by Israel, or even “indiscriminate attacks” by Israel. The only thing public opinion will not tolerate is seeing media reports like “Israel targets civilians”. Media coverage is mostly responsible for the downplaying of this kind of violence.

For example, in 2014 a group of children were playing on the beach Gaza. They were hit by an Israeli drone strike and killed, right next to where major Western media reporters were staying in hotels. A clear example of a targeted strike. And in 2002, during Operation Defensive Shield, a 17-year-old paraplegic man in a wheelchair was run over by an Israeli tank, despite his waving a flag.

Describing Israel as an “occupying power” in Gaza and the West Bank is slightly misleading; Israel has instead established a “Gulag archipelago” within itself, to quote Finkelstein (borrowing Solzhenitsyn’s language).

Domestic picture

In Israel, the Deputy PM and Justice Minister Yariv Levin recently took over powers from the Supreme Court and fractured much of Israeli society, including the air force and military, giving the Knesset powers to override all court decisions. Israelis came out on the streets to protest for weeks on end last year, with Levin moving Israel towards authoritarianism. He is aggressively promoting the illegal settlement construction program, with 700,000 settlers currently across the West Bank and East Jerusalem.

Itamar Ben-Gvir, Israel’s security minister, was not even allowed to serve in the IDF when he was 18 years old because he was too right-wing and extreme. He has not even been allowed in some security meetings, and can no longer advise police officers, due to his fanaticism.

Israel’s finance minister, Bezalel Smotrich, is pushing the prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, much further to the right, promoting uncompromising settlement plans for Israeli developers, and bulldozing Palestinian land.

Netanyahu has been a key enabler of all of these figures. The ruling Likud party is calling for a Nakba that will overshadow 1948. 70 percent of Gazans are comprised of people expelled from their homeland in 1948, and their descendants, legally refugees under international law.

Palestinian efforts to embrace nonviolent resistance, such as strikes and demonstrations, have been met with violence from Israel. The millions of Palestinians who live in the West Bank have been subjected to house demolitions, lynchings, shootings, mass arrests, evictions, curfews and “disappearances”.

Current campaign

October 7th, 1973 was the beginning of the Yom Kippur War. There was even some indication that Israel might use nuclear weapons. Exactly 50 years later, Hamas strikes into southern Israel and brutally murders over 260 young people at a peace/music festival.

In response, Israel has bombed Palestine Tower, mosques, Rabat University College, hospitals, apartment blocks and major civilian centers. The Jabalia refugee camp in north Gaza has been bombed. Hundreds of Gazans have been killed or suffered amputations and second/third-degree burns.

The common justification is that these buildings are “Hamas strongholds”, which is difficult to verify since Hamas is so closely intertwined with the fabric of ordinary businesses and residential buildings. It is, needless to say, illegal under international law to bomb civilian targets. Israel’s excuse, again, is that they send SMS messages to Gazan residents, warning them 2 minutes prior to the bombing.

White phosphorous has seemingly been used on Sunday in Gaza by Israel. Members of the Likud government have called for blocking fuel, electricity and food to Gaza – an explicit violation of international law (e.g., a violation of Hague Regulations and the Third and Fourth Geneva Conventions). Nelson Mandela and Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who both declared the situation comparable to South Africa, would not be surprised.

Alongside Hamas, more recent resistance groups have emerged. Lion’s Den is a group in the West Bank who have engaged in mostly defensive strikes whenever Israel attacks Jenin or Nablus. Earlier this year in June, the Jenin refugee camp in the West Bank was targeted by the IDF, precipitating further violence.

Israel aims to do to the West Bank what they have done to Gaza: turn it into an open-air prison (a term that even British PM David Cameron used to describe Gaza). The annexation and ethnic cleansing of the Jordan Valley is almost complete. Hamas relies on Qatari aid that Israel occasionally permits, and the Egyptian black market for supplies and arms.

A history of violence

All of the Israeli operations (Autumn Clouds in 2006, Cast Lead in 2008/9, Pillar of Defence in 2012, Protective Edge in 2014, Breaking Dawn in 2022) have, infamously, poetic names. They seem to have inherited this propaganda technique from the US: Operation Iraqi Liberation was the original name for the 2003 invasion of Iraq, but it was changed after it became apparent that the shorthand was too on the nose (‘OIL’).

The Goldstone Report, written by South African Zionist Richard Goldstone, after the end of Cast Lead, concluded that the purpose was to humiliate and destroy the civilian population. On the Palestinian side, human rights organizations like Amnesty International have claimed that Hamas should only engage in military actions in clear open spaces. Yet, there are no clear open spaces far away from civilian buildings in Gaza where this would even be possible.

Immediate solutions

As has been stated repeatedly, some immediate designs toward peace include lifting the sea blockade on Gaza. Implementing the right of return for 6 million Palestinian refugees, in accordance with international law, is also required under international law. Israelis should support more progressive Knesset members, like Ofer Cassif and other left-wing figures, who are in favor of a peaceful settlement with joint Israeli-Arab cohabitation.

For the US, easy solutions include cutting funding to bodies and charities that give money to settlements in the occupied territories and implementing existing laws according to which using US weapons for non-defensive means is illegal. Another solution is to stop the flow of arms and aid and stop supporting Israel at UN Security Council and International Criminal Court forums.

It is likely that Jake Sullivan, Biden’s national security advisor, is trying to get an Israel-Hamas settlement. Because Hamas is labeled a terrorist organization, the US cannot negotiate directly with them (they have to work through third parties like the Egyptians and Jordanians), so even the most liberal and progressive Democrats don’t have a clear sense of reality for Hamas, perpetuating the disconnect and resentment.

Israel knows it prefers to negotiate with Hamas than some of the more extreme groups like PIJ (Palestine Islamic Jihad), and Hamas has announced that its “goals” have been achieved and they are now willing to enter peace talks with Israel – if Israel is willing.

Jordan has recently closed the border crossing with the West Bank but has kept the crossings with Israel open, which will likely stop Palestinians from fleeing the West Bank as Israel continues to conduct strikes in the region.

An Israeli army spokesperson, commenting on the strikes on Gaza, said that “our focus is on damage, not on precision”. The need for precision is clearly superfluous if the international community has your full support.

Responses to the conflict

In the US, Democrats have condemned the violent revolt by Hamas, but they have also condemned forms of non-violent, peaceful demonstrations from New Yorkers over the weekend. There is no “right” way to resist illegal colonial occupation, for mainstream Democrats and Republicans.

Meanwhile, celebrities continue to do their bit.

Jamie Lee Curtis posted a statement in support of Israel on Instagram, but with a photo of Gazan children rather than Israeli children. She later deleted the post. Mark Hamill tweeted his support for Israel, forgetting his commitment to the Rebels against the Empire. Bono dedicated a song to “non-violence” – exclusively concerning the violence against the music festival.

Republican presidential candidate Nikki Haley tweeted over the weekend that Israel should “finish them”. It’s hard to find a more explicit call for war crimes – except if we listen to Israeli politician Tally Gotliv, who called for the use of a nuclear bomb against Gaza, or Lt Col. Jonathan Conricus, an IDF international spokesperson, who is ensuring that Hamas “doesn’t have any military capabilities” by the end of the war, or if we listen to government security officials on Israeli television claiming that “Gaza will become a city of tents” with “no buildings”.

Not to be outdone, Suella “de Vil” Braverman claimed that waving a Palestinian flag may be a criminal offence (although not according to the 2000 Terrorism Act, that radical lefty document).

Ukraine’s president, Volodymr Zelensky, condemned Palestinians as “terrorists” and offered Israel his unwavering support. “Israel’s right to self-defense is unquestionable”, he said – as unquestionable as the nature of the ongoing illegal occupation and control of Palestinian territory. Zelensky and western politicians understand that it is a war crime when Russia bombs Ukraine’s power stations – Gazan hospitals, banks and residential buildings are a notable exception to this rule.

At the same time, many on the far left have responded by equating virtually any form of military response from Hamas as purely part of a liberation struggle. At the left-wing UK media group Novara Media, one of its editors, Rivkah Brown, tweeted after the music festival was attacked: “Today should be a day of celebration for supporters of democracy and human rights worldwide, as Gazans break out of their open-air prison and Hamas fighters cross into their colonizers’ territory. The struggle for freedom is rarely bloodless and we shouldn’t apologize for it.”

No apology was issued. The Palestinians have a legal right to fight colonization, but directly equating murdering civilians and taking civilians hostage as part of “democracy and human rights” does nothing to advance the Palestinian cause.

On the other side of the spectrum, Kay Burley at Sky News fabricated a quote from Husam Zomlot, Palestinian Ambassador to the UK, claiming that Zomlot had said: “that Israel had it coming”. No apology or correction has been forthcoming.

Turning to even more esteemed corners, the world’s leading moral philosopher, Peter Singer, ruminated that “[t]he elimination of Hamas as a military force will take many lives on both sides, but it is necessary if the spiral of increasing violence is to end”. Richard Dawkins was also quick to highlight the “barbaric attacks on innocent civilians” by Hamas – with no comment about the strikes on civilian targets in Gaza.

Western media coverage has been shown through a number of systematic studies from leading media studies experts to be biased. Active voice is used when reporting Palestinian violence against Israelis (e.g., “Hamas kills IDF soldiers”), but passive voice is often used for the reverse. A recent Guardian headline from October 4th reported that Gazans “received bullet wounds to ankles” during clashes with IDF; similar to how Gaza “receives” missiles.

Likewise, UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and others use carefully gendered language to describe Israel (pronouns: she/her). We read that Israel is under attack and “she will defend herself” against the hordes of Hamas fighters.

The Middle East continues to face greater political, economic and environmental crises. Around 100,000 people have been displaced (out of a population of 120,000) from the Nagorno-Karabakh region in Azerbaijan. Israel gives Azerbaijan 70% of its weapons. 400 people have been killed recently by the army, economically supported by Israel.

As the region begins to enflame, the chance of history recycling old themes increases.

Elliot Murphy is a writer based in Houston, Texas, and the author of Arms in Academia: The Political Economy of the Modern UK Defence Industry (Routledge, 2020) and Unmaking Merlin: Anarchist Tendencies in English Literature (Zer0 Books, 2014).