Eyeless in Gaza

Lovis Corinth – Der geblendete Simson – Google Art Project – Public Domain

Watching the debacle of the war between Israel and Hamas, I was suddenly reminded of a memorable phrase from John Milton’s dramatic poem, Samson Agonistes:

Promise was that I
Should Israel from Philistian yoke deliver;
Ask for this great Deliverer now, and find him
Eyeless in Gaza at the Mill with slaves,
Himself in bonds under Philistian yoke;

Samson was the war machine of ancient Israel, a mighty warrior invulnerable to attack, and capable of destroying Israel’s enemies armed only with the jawbone of an ass.  But Samson became complacent:

I walk’d about admir’d of all and dreaded
On hostile ground, none daring my affront.
Then swoll’n with pride into the snare I fell.

The snare, of course, is Samson’s love affair with a Philistine woman named Delilah, who cuts his hair (the secret of his strength), whence he is blinded, and enslaved by the Philistines as a mill worker.

What could this possibly have to do with Israel’s current invasion of Gaza?  Could it be that Israel has lost its commitment to pure Jewish ethno-nationalism?  Twenty percent of its citizens are Palestinians, and many of its Jewish citizens are quite secular.  Or it is simply the arrogant confidence in its military superiority that lulled it into dropping its guard at the Gaza border, allowing Hamas militias to swarm into Israel, murder 1400 Israelis and take over 200 others hostage?

I don’t wish to press the analogy any further, except to dwell on the common theme of blindness that links ancient and modern Israel.  The question is, how many kinds of blindness, with what sorts of effects?  Here is my inventory of the six types of blindness, or refusals to see coupled with refusals to hear:

1. Blindness to the existence of the Palestinians; deafness to their claims. On my many visits to Israel/Palestine, it has struck me how little Israelis know about the Palestinians who live among them or under their military occupation in Gaza and the West Bank.  When one asks about “those people,” roughly a quarter of the population of Greater Israel, a frequent response is that they do not see them, and they wish they would just be quiet and leave us alone.  We just want peace.  Why do they have to make trouble?

2. Blindness to their occlusion of the consequences of their policies on the Palestinians. Palestinian scholar Saree Makdisi has documented the way Israel’s policies toward the Palestinians constitute a kind of “double blinding,” in two stages: first the erasure of Palestinian towns and villages and the expulsion of their inhabitants; second the erasure of the traces of erasure, and their replacement by forms of reassuring camouflage.  The most conspicuous example of this practice has been the “Trees for Israel” program, which conceals the ruins of destroyed Palestinian villages with the veil of “ecological improvement.”  The myth of “a land without people for a people without land” is the verbal counterpoint to this visual occlusion. Some Israeli officials, decrying the way that Hamas mingles with the civilian population of Gaza, using them as human shields, are now portraying the unfortunate murder of over 8,000 Gazans by Israeli violence as “collateral damage” in a just war.  The next step has been to portray the mass murder of Gazans as a war of liberation from the rule of Hamas.  Perhaps to be followed by a parade through Gaza City?

3. Blindness about the failure of their own surveillance technologies. Israel’s confidence in its invulnerability to attack from Gaza was based in its extensive network of cameras along the security fences and watchtowers that surround Gaza’s border with Israel. Israel’s state of the art intelligence services had supposedly created a system of surveillance so complete that there could be no possibility of a surprise attack.  Hamas “put out the eyes” of this system in the early hours of October 7, using drones and snipers to destroy all the cameras simultaneously, while the supposedly impregnable wall was breached on scores of places with bulldozers.  The spies who were supposed to see everything failed completely, asleep at the monitors.

4. Blindness constituted by the waging of war on an invisible enemy. Hamas is an underground army, operating from hundreds of miles of tunnels under a densely populated urban landscape.  It only emerges to launch rockets or (rarely) sorties into Israel.  Hamas fighters do not wear uniforms to distinguish themselves from the civilian population.  When Israel bombs an apartment building, hundreds of young men gather to dig out the victims.  Are any of those young men Hamas fighters?  Impossible to tell.  As in any asymmetrical war between a regular, uniformed army and guerilla fighters merged with a population, the soldiers without uniforms are denounced as terrorists for refusing to obey the laws of war.  Israel admits that it is “difficult” to distinguish Hamas fighters from civilians.  A better word would be impossible.

5. Blindness of rage and the lust for revenge. Perhaps the most important blindness in Israel’s current attack on Gaza is the understandable rage that was provoked by the Hamas atrocities on October 7.  Hamas deliberately staged scenes of mutilation, rape, and child-murder designed to appall anyone who saw or even heard them described.  Israel’s leader, his eyes and ears already shut to the ominous threats from Gaza, promptly became the blind leader of a blind population motivated by instant revenge.  The possibility of negotiating for the release of hostages was consigned to the back burner, to be replaced by fantasies of retribution.  Gaza, its over two million people already under siege for the last seventeen years, its border controlled by Israel, is subjected to collective punishment (a war crime), mass expulsions of people who are already refugees with no place to go (a war crime), and mass deprivation of the basic necessities of human life (a war crime).  The bombing and destruction of entire urban neighborhoods and next, the house-to-house fighting that will take numerous Israeli and Palestinian lives, make it clear that the vengeful policy of “an eye for an eye” leaves everyone blinded.

6. The refusal of foresight. Finally, there is blindness involved in the refusal to foresee the consequences of one’s own actions.  Even the U.S., a thoroughly complicit partner in Israel’s apartheid policies against the Palestinians under its control, tried to suggest gently that Israel think carefully about what it would do next, after it had destroyed Hamas “once and for all.”  Would it try to set up a replacement government for the devastated millions of survivors?  Would it try to recruit the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank?  Would it pay reparations and try to rebuild the cities it has destroyed?  Or would it wash its hands of the entire disaster, rebuild its security walls, reconnect its surveillance cameras, and ask to be left alone?  And what if its actions produced the foreseeable result of setting off a wider war that would bring Hezbollah and other military organizations into the battle?  Israel’s blind leader of the blind tells his followers that it is too early to ponder these questions.  Vengeance comes first; then we will see what follows.

Although I cannot help but be horrified by the actions of Hamas on October 7, I am struck by how perfectly it diagnosed the weaknesses of its enemy.  They capitalized on its blind arrogance, and then put out its eyes with a spectacle of violence designed to produce blind rage.  This leads us to ask how things then turned out for Samson.  The answer is: suicide.  Samson, taken to the Temple of Dagon for a spectacle of humiliation, pulls down the temple, killing himself and the triumphant Philistines. I am reminded here of a visit some thirty years ago to the ancient fortress of Masada overlooking the Dead Sea. The guide informed us that Masada is an allegory of Fortress Israel in its refusal to surrender to the Romans, insisting instead on collective suicide rather than defeat.  The modern meaning, the guide assured us, is embodied in Israel’s nuclear arsenal, which guarantees that if Israel faces defeat, it will not merely commit suicide, but take the rest of the world along with it.  Perhaps it is time for Israel to open its eyes and its ears.

A recent article in The Grayzone by its editor, Max Blumenthal, has led me revise my account of the “Hamas atrocities” (beheading of children, babies in cages, mutilation, and rape).  It seems now that most of these claims have been fabricated by Israeli propagandists, and that much of the destruction of the kibbutzim along the Gaza perimeter was inflicted by Israeli hellfire missiles and artillery.  The objective of the propaganda, according to Blumenthal, is to portray Hamas as “worse than Isis,” and to perpetuate the myth of Israel’s observance of the laws of war. 

W. J. T. Mitchell is Professor of English and Art History at the University of Chicago and Senior Editor of Critical Inquiry. He is the author of numerous books on media, culture, and politics.