Israel and Gaza: the Desperate Ballet

Photograph by Nathaniel St. Clair

We have been here before. The situation in Gaza has not changed—well, it has gotten worse. And, many do not seem to be aware of what the people of Gaza have suffered day in and day out—for many years—because the major news outlets are simply not that interested. So, when Hamas takes hostages from within Israel, the reflex is disproportionate, one-sided outrage; people are irate over Hamas’s politically asinine and morally reprehensible tactics, but many were silent before this happened. They were silent about Gaza, its people, and the brutality to which the coastal strip has been subjected. Where was the outrage before Hamas’s actions?

Numerous celebrities—Madonna, Natalie Portman, Gal Gadot, Jamie Lee Curtis, et al.—have announced their myopia and ignorance to the world. All were rather quiet on the subject of the torture of Gaza’s people before Hamas’s attacks. All of a sudden, they have developed deep moral sensitivity along with a familiarity with geopolitics. Bono, the lead singer of the band U2, recently changed lyrics at a show in Las Vegas, singing about the “stars of David” while talking about the “beautiful kids” of Israel’s Supernova music festival. I do not recall Bono talking or singing about the beautiful kids in Gaza prior to all this. The moral heroism is breathtaking.

We cannot be surprised at Hamas’s actions though they are unequivocally barbarous. Yet, desperate people act desperately.

Israel occupies Palestine. It has done so since 1967. This means that Israel maintains military dominance of Palestine, conducts searches and seizures, maintains checkpoints, and keeps Palestine in a chokehold. By “Palestine,” what is meant is the West Bank, Gaza, and East Jerusalem.

However, Israel “withdrew” from the Gaza Strip in 2005. Nevertheless, it maintains its occupation of the Strip from the exterior; it controls the flow of goods and imports, the electrical grid, the cell grid, and how far fishermen can fish off the coast. There is an airport, but it is not allowed to function. Life in Gaza is dire. Electricity is unreliable and Gazans spend much of their time in the dark due to rolling blackouts; cooking gas is scarce as is drinking water; raw sewage has been known to run in the streets; and children suffer trauma from the sonic booms produced by Israeli fighter jets. Roughly half of Gaza’s 2.3 million inhabitants are unemployed, many malnourished, and nearly all are dependent on some form of international aid. US President Joe Biden referred to Hamas’s tactics as “evil,” but what is being done to Gaza seems to make the grade—though I do not use such imagery.

Shortly after “disengagement” (withdrawal) from Gaza, Israel in 2006 conducted an incursion and treated Gazans to collective punishment because of indiscriminate rocket fire from militant groups from within the Strip. The people of Gaza were now in prison—occupied by a different means—and throwing things out the windows and through the bars has been a punishable offense. The incursion of 2006 would be followed in 2008, 2012, 2014, and 2021 with similar, if not worse, attacks on the Strip. Much of Gaza is rubble.

Hamas emerged on the scene in 1988. They were an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood and were largely involved in social work such as building schools and clinics. Hamas did have an Islamist political agenda and used militant language, but it should be kept in mind that Israel was among the first to support and fund the fledgling organization. The thinking was that Hamas could serve as a counterweight to the secular leadership in Palestine, the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) under Yassir Arafat. One cannot help but wonder what Israel thinks now of its investment.

Iran comes up in the press coverage a lot, as Tehran does sponsor and support Hamas. But, despite a piece in the Wall Street Journal reporting Iranian involvement, officials in Israel and Washington are disclosing intelligence that the Iranians were surprised by the attack.

Iran is viewed as a regional monster and if anything bad happens in the world, suspicion of Iran is automatic; given Iran’s historic refusal to cooperate with US regional ambitions, intellectuals can be counted on to convey misgivings.

On the American domestic front, members of the Republican Party are trying their best to hang the attacks on Biden; the assumption is that Biden’s deal with Iran exchanging $6 billion in frozen oil assets for American prisoners makes no sense. The money did not fall into Tehran’s hands, and why would the Iranians take their windfall and all of a sudden attack Israel with it? Furthermore, the planning for Hamas’s operation likely took months, according to Reuters, and this would antedate Biden’s deal. That said, according to an Oct. 9 piece in the Independent, “Every penny is still in the [Qatari] bank.” The funds appear to have recently been refrozen with Qatar’s involvement, according to a National Security Council official (CNN). Suffice it to say, Washington did not deliver to Tehran cartoon sacks of cash with a dollar sign stenciled on them.

For international considerations, this leaves Saudi Arabia. The Biden administration continues to seek a bilateral agreement between Israel and Saudi Arabia, hitherto adversarial, to normalize relations between them. The trajectory of this diplomacy seems to be a continuation of former president Donald Trump’s approach to regional diplomacy, to ignore the Palestine issue and the Palestinians. One recalls the Abraham Accords in 2020, which saw a trilateral agreement between Israel, the UAE, and Bahrain. The Palestinians? Who are they? This was the so-called thinking of the president’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner.

There is some speculation that Hamas’s attack was aimed at scuttling US-Saudi talks. This remains speculative. It might be a factor, but it is doubtful that this was the principal reason Hamas conducted the raid.

A Georgetown historian quoted in the New York Times (Oct. 8) observed that among those in the US foreign policy establishment, “the question of Palestine no longer matters in the Middle East.” According to the Times, “He [the historian] added that he believed Arab leaders have relayed that same message in private because they dislike how their citizens mobilize around Palestinian issues.”

Biden envisions consolidating US supremacy in the Middle East with Egypt, Israel, and Saudi Arabia functioning as three pillars in such an arrangement. The Biden White House desires concessions from the Kingdom regarding China. Riyadh is to hold China at arm’s distance: restrict oil flow to Beijing, disallow Chinese military presence in Saudi Arabia, conduct oil transactions in US dollars, and limit its use of Huawei technology.

Despite its savagery, Hamas has put Palestine back on the diplomatic map. The United States and regional actors are now having a difficult time ignoring Palestine—would that they could. When the carnage is done, one can hope that some kind of movement toward a two-state solution—Israel and Palestine—will take place. And regardless of the constant mourning from the critical, progressive end of the spectrum, the two-state solution is the realistic diplomatic framework—it is not dead. Every time a nail gets hammered into a board at a settlement, a commentator from the “left” provides an elegy lamenting the death of the two-state solution. They have done this for over twenty years.

Had Palestine been allowed to develop with sufficient latitude, the attacks likely would not have happened. Hamas would likely not be in charge of Gaza. There would probably not be a Hamas at all. The number of rockets fired to date into southern Israel would in all probability be zero. Gaza could be an international tourist destination. I have been from one end to the other of the territory (which did not take long), and despite the devastation and damage, it is beautiful. So are its people. It could be a paradise.

If Israel wants peace, it knows what it has to do: end the occupation and work toward a Palestinian state along the lines of the Clinton Plan, the Geneva Accord, and the People’s Voice initiative. But, defending Israel and adopting a “pro-Israel” position is precisely anti-Israeli; its current policies and behavior do Israel great harm, as many retired Israeli military and intelligence elites have maintained over and over again. The solution to Israel’s problems is the solution to Palestine’s problems.