In Gaza, the Fate of the Middle East Is at Stake

How the hope and folly of the region could hinge on the outcome of the present war

In Gaza, the Fate of the Middle East Is at Stake
U.S. President Joe Biden on Oct. 7 at the White House preparing to speak about the Hamas attack in southern Israel. (Samuel Corum/Getty Images)

A bird used to visit this shore:
It isn’t going to come anymore.
I’ve come a long way to prove
No land, no water, and no love.

— W. H. Auden

They came at dawn with hearts as hard as railroad steel. And when the ugly deed was done, a long trail of blood and fresh corpses lay twisted in time and space as silent witnesses to a new dawn of Israeli and Palestinian lamentations. The young men of Hamas exacted death like lightning, swiftly and mercilessly. Scores of young women and men perished while enjoying music. To be young and to be killed while listening to music, one of our few sublime activities as humans, is as sacrilegious as to be killed while engaged in blissful contemplation, or while seeing “a heaven in a wild flower.”

They came from the other side of the divide, from Planet Gaza, where souls are condemned to roam in infinite thirst never to be satisfied. A desolate colony for those Palestinians uprooted twice in a lifetime, for the downtrodden living in a house with no roof, later designated the world’s largest “open-air prison.” Many of them are descendants of the refugees driven by Israelis in 1948 from villages and hamlets in southern Palestine, the ruins upon which the new Israeli villages and kibbutzim that Hamas raided and briefly occupied were built.

After the 1948 Arab-Israeli War, Gaza was controlled by Egypt, which treated it with benign neglect. After the 1967 war, Gaza became, along with the West Bank, the last swaths of historic Palestine to be conquered and harshly occupied by Israel. After the 1993 Oslo Accords, the Palestinian Authority controlled and mismanaged the strip, until it fell in the clutch of the militant Islamist movement Hamas, which later “legitimized” its control by winning an impressive victory in the 2006 Palestinian legislative elections. That was a classic instance of one man, one vote, one time. For the past 16 years, only birds and other desert animals could get in and out of Gaza unencumbered. The people of Gaza do not have this luxury; they cannot leave without special authorization from Israel. They cannot even attend a music fest just 3 miles out, not far enough to ensure the music won’t carry through the arid silence in between.

Israel’s suffocating land, air and sea blockade, as well as Hamas’ callous control against the background of debilitating impoverishment, as seen in the 53% of the population living below the poverty line, became the norm. The severe degradation of the environment in recent years has caused a serious lack of clean drinkable water and hygiene, resulting in a high rate of waterborne diseases. In September 2015, a United Nations report warned that Gaza “could become uninhabitable by 2020 due to ongoing de-development,” economic blockade and the long-term effect of large-scale Israeli attacks, which left Gaza’s already rickety infrastructures in tatters. Gaza was already on the edge of the precipice before Hamas’ recent nihilistic outburst. No wonder life in Gaza is harsh and brutish, often short and violent.

Israel withdrew from Gaza in 2005, hoping Israelis would live in prosperous towns located just outside the high and presumably impregnable ramparts. Israel believed it could keep the proverbial barbarians at the gates by controlling access to water, food supplies and electricity, a misery punctured by the occasional punishing raids to keep them in check. One of the brutal ironies of the Oct. 7 attacks is that Israeli governments, particularly those led by Benjamin Netanyahu, supported Hamas’ continued control of Gaza, including by facilitating deliveries of cash subsidies from Qatar to the Hamas leadership. This was done as a cynical ploy to deepen the political divisions between the Palestinians in Gaza and those in the West Bank, so that Israel could keep its eyes on the real Palestinian prize: the West Bank. Netanyahu gloated about this publicly in a Likud Party meeting in 2019, saying that “anyone who wants to thwart the establishment of a Palestinian state has to support bolstering Hamas and transferring money to Hamas.” For as far as most Israelis seem to care, Planet Gaza could be engulfed in oblivion or swallowed by sand dunes.

Israel looked formidable, a modern Sparta, a nation that, in Netanyahu’s own words, “will forever live by the sword.” Or, maybe, in the minds of some of its other leaders, a Middle Eastern Rome with influence well beyond its borders. Its original enemies appeared to have been vanquished to Gaza. As for the West Bank, it has been governed by an aging satrap, overseen by Israel with America’s blessings. Its inhabitants are restive Palestinians whose lands have been systematically pulled from under their feet as they continue to be terrorized by settler violence, often encouraged openly by members of the Israeli cabinet. Netanyahu’s extremist coalition government’s program last year made settlement expansion a top priority “in all parts of the land of Israel,” including “Judea and Samaria,” the biblical names for the West Bank. This year, before the Gaza war, Israeli soldiers and settlers had already killed an estimated 250 Palestinians, including 47 children, in the West Bank. Already, this year was the deadliest for Palestinian civilians in the West Bank since the U.N. began recording fatalities in 2005 — an act in and of itself political and, to the culprits, even provocative. The recent quickening pace of Israel’s colonization of the West Bank, the systematic settler attacks against Palestinian villages backed and blessed by the military and encouraged by Israeli cabinet members who call publicly for “transferring” Palestinians (a euphemism for expulsion) to Jordan, might have convinced Hamas that the time was right to try to upend the old rules.

Much has been said and written about Iran’s potential role in the attack, given the Islamic Republic’s well-known financing and arming of Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ). But it would be radical reductionism to blame Iran — in the absence of clear evidence — for the attack and to ignore the profound effect of the overall policies of the Netanyahu era and the worsening conditions of Palestinians under occupation.

In recent years, after relegating Palestinians to its harsh version of an apartheid system (loudly pronounced and denounced by Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International), Israel has been busy making deals with its rich, small and weaker Gulf Arab neighbors who exist in the shadow of an increasingly assertive Iran. These states have become thriving markets for Israel’s bloated defense industry. For years, Israeli corporations have been supplying some Gulf Arab states with the wherewithal and technologies necessary to intimidate, control and spy on their own populations.

The rulers of this emerging confederacy of rich states thought they could prosper and flirt with fate, oblivious to the large swaths of desolation that surround them — much of it of their own making — as in the West Bank and Gaza, Yemen and Libya.

The hundreds of armed young Hamas men who, at the break of day on Oct. 7, breached the fortified ramparts were no doubt driven by unadulterated rage and vengeance, a fury that must have blinded them to everything but the urge to break the occupied-occupier dialectic that has bound them since birth to their tormentors on the other side. Indeed, it is a nihilistic outburst to revel even for a few hours in the illusion that they will destroy the dystopia built on their own hopes and dreams. To their mind, no ramparts shall withstand such vengeance; no Israeli shall be spared their wrath.

Just as Israelis will be searching for answers as to who should pay for the security blunders and political hubris, as they ponder what is to be done next, in the foreseeable future and beyond, so too will the Palestinians — though not necessarily Hamas officials. But the Palestinians will wonder why Hamas did what it did at a time when it was bound to give Israel’s right-wing government the higher moral ground. How could the price of bringing down the house paid for in the blood of so many civilians in Gaza be worth it? Surely, Hamas knew that Israel’s reaction would come in a fury of disproportionate retaliation. So, really, what were they thinking?

The calamitous attack did not bring the Palestinian people one inch closer to liberation, and Hamas knew that. What Hamas really wanted to accomplish was simply to destroy, with a big bang, the suffocating status quo and shatter the “normalcy” of a 56-year-long occupation. Most of all, it wanted to undermine the unseemly American-sponsored rush to normalize relations between Israel and Saudi Arabia and the rest of the recalcitrant Arab states, a process that promised a new dawn in the Middle East. The normalization would legitimize the occupation and keep the Palestinians wandering endlessly in the wilderness, living in part off of the kindness of non-governmental organizations and providing occasional cheap labor to those enjoying life behind the walls of the forbidden city. Meet the new Middle East, same as the old Middle East.

The Biden administration’s obsession in recent months in pushing for a deal between Saudi Arabia and Israel that could change “the face of the Middle East” in the estimation of (overoptimistic and out-of-touch) U.S. officials shows how blindsided they were to the realities of the region. To think that the most extreme and expansionist government in the history of Israel would be willing to give the Palestinians even a fragment of their demands in order to provide the Saudis the cover they would have needed to mint the deal was truly the height of naivete. And even if a deal had been reached, it would not have changed the fundamental reality of the occupied/occupier dichotomy between the Israelis and Palestinians and all that ails their unhealthy relationship. Normalizing relations with Saudi Arabia would have freed Netanyahu from any constraints on his annexationist plans in the West Bank, which was not lost on Hamas and the rest of the Palestinians. Such a deal would also have strengthened the authoritarianism of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and the deepening autocracy of Netanyahu.

In the aftermath of Hamas’ attack, both Israeli and American analysts relied heavily and uncritically on the legacy of the 9/11 attacks on the United States. They continue to believe that the breach in Israel’s security was, like that of America’s, due to a colossal failure of intelligence. While true, one must also wonder whether the failure is that of imagination, of an inability to see either that Palestinians are human beings worthy of empathy and commonplace decency or that no population held captive like that could accept its own subjugation, stoically and with no hope of reprieve.

During hard times like these, Palestinians are expected not only by their tormentors but, shockingly, by some of those who claim to support them to exercise self-restraint, to remain “moderate” in the face of punishing blows and even to propose some “vision of peace” while they suffer in bondage. In other words, the occupied, like the enslaved before him, should behave like a good forgiving victim. Not even in fiction is one able to find such “civilized” and magnanimous characters. In Arab tradition, we are told that those capable of forgiving transgressions are those who wield the power to punish but choose not to exercise it. In other words, only those who are free and in control of their lives are able to bestow forgiveness in any meaningful way. Those in bondage simply have nothing to bestow, and so we will never find the “perfect” Palestinian victim.

The Israeli military reaction was swift, furious and absolutist in its declared goal: the elimination of Hamas. Israel has vowed to decapitate the group and “remake” Gaza, even if that means erecting pyramids of rubble that rival what the Russians have erected in Grozny or what the Syrian regime left behind in Aleppo. Ironically, all this rhetoric of “crushing” and “uprooting” and “destroying” echoes words that were used in 1982 against the PLO in Beirut, when Israel invaded Lebanon, before the emergence of Hamas and Hezbollah.

Along with the artillery and aerial bombardment to soften up the targets and prepare them for the ground assault, Israeli civilian and military leaders have waged a cruel and bigoted psychological campaign of intimidation against all Gazans. Israeli President Isaac Herzog claimed there were no innocent civilians in Gaza. “It is an entire nation out there that is responsible” for the Hamas attack, Herzog intoned. His comments came in the context of a cascade of dehumanizing statements from senior Israeli leaders. “We are fighting human animals and we act accordingly,” Defense Minister Yoav Gallant said two days after the attack. Gallant’s imposition of a Draconian siege — “There will be no electricity, no food, no fuel” — was worthy of the Roman historian Tacitus’ description of the wrath of the Roman Empire as seen through the eyes of one of its victims: “They create a desolation and call it peace.”

The dehumanization of Palestinians has deep roots in Zionist and Israeli thought and politics. Leading Zionist theoreticians saw the future Jewish state in Palestine as an enlightened Western fort amid a hostile environment. “We should form there a portion of the rampart of Europe against Asia,” wrote Theodor Herzl in “The Jewish State,” to serve as “an outpost of civilization as opposed to barbarism.” In his essay “The Iron Wall,” published originally in Russian in 1923, Ze’ev Jabotinsky writes that “Zionist colonisation must either stop, or else proceed regardless of the native population. Which means that it can proceed and develop only under the protection of a power that is independent of the native population — behind an iron wall, which the native population cannot breach.” (sic)

That concept notwithstanding, its colonial overtones are still alive and well. In 1996, Ehud Barak, then Israel’s foreign minister, told a Jewish audience in the U.S.: “The dreams and aspirations of many in the Arab world have not changed. We still live in a modern and prosperous villa in the middle of the jungle, a place where different laws prevail. No hope for those who cannot defend themselves and no mercy for the weak.” In 2016, Netanyahu called for Israel to surround itself with fences and obstacles. “They’ll say to me, ‘That’s what you want to do, to defend the villa?’ The answer is yes. In the environment we live in, we must defend ourselves from the predators.”

The current fighting has proven what any casual reader of Roman history would have known: Barbarians occasionally breach the ramparts and storm the city and what they leave behind is a landscape of epic pain. Israel’s “Iron Dome” provides wide protection, but the dome is not a cathedral of peace, and rockets occasionally penetrate it in contempt of walls. By now, it should be clear to the architects of the villa that jungles have a way of stealthily encroaching and slowly gnawing at the glitz and structure of the adage that might makes right. Israel might have banished the PLO from Lebanon in 1982 and believed that it allowed a more tame version to go to the West Bank and Gaza after the Oslo agreement. But in reality, what Israel’s actions have harvested from the attempts at pacifying Palestinians and Lebanese has been an assortment of implacable radical Islamist groups — Hezbollah, Hamas, Islamic Jihad and others — who are more lethal, unforgiving and uncompromising than any preceding them — and meaner and leaner too.

How does this end?

Analysts at times search for opportunity in calamity, for resolutions after conflicts and compromise after absolutistism fails. But given the quality of political leadership in Israel, among Palestinian and Arab leaders and in the U.S. nowadays, one is hard pressed to see anything but the bleak past presenting itself in our future. By embracing Netanyahu, President Biden, consciously or not, appeared to the world as if he were unequivocally condoning Israel’s calamitous and vengeful attack on an open-air prison with 2 million civilians who have nowhere to hide, trapped in a hell loop of watching American-made Israeli hardware eviscerate their homes and kill their loved ones, including babies in diapers, with nothing on the horizon but an impending ground invasion that promises to “eliminate” Hamas. Already, the harvest of death in Gaza is leaving behind long shallow scars on earth, crevices for the mass graves to bury the dead, who already include families in their entirety, complete with grandparents. If Dante’s inferno had streets and neighborhoods, they would probably look like that, made courtesy of Israeli bombings.

The blockade imposed by the Israelis has deprived the captive population of basic necessities such as food, drinking water and medical supplies. The number of casualties in two weeks of the most intensive bombing Gaza has endured in its history has surged beyond 3,500, among them hundreds of children. Against the background of intimidation and threats of impending doom, Israel ordered more than 1 million Gazans to evacuate the northern part of the strip in advance of its expected ground attack. The U.N. described the Draconian move unfolding amidst nonstop artillery and air strikes as potentially “calamitous.” Thousands of families were forced to endure a trail of tears to nowhere.

It was astonishing that many in the U.S. and the West in general, including officials, analysts and elected representatives, began to discuss the forced march as one way to avoid many civilian casualties and provide them with essential relief, and began to urge the Egyptian government to open the Rafah crossing to allow the Gazans to seek shelter in tent cities administered by the U.N. in the Sinai desert. It was lost on those advocating such options how forced evacuation and what it means to be a refugee are seen in the collective memory of the Palestinians. All Palestinians know that if they leave any place in historic Palestine, they will never be allowed to return home again. There was loose talk in the West about the need for Arab states to assume their moral responsibility and open their borders and their arms to fellow Palestinians. There was no serious discussion in the West about Israel’s moral, legal and political responsibility toward the civilians caught in the jaws of its military juggernaut.

Political and economic conditions in countries like Egypt, Jordan and Lebanon are very precarious, not to mention that more than 25% of the populations of Lebanon and Jordan are made up of refugees. After the angry demonstrations that swept the Middle East following the reported bombing of the Al-Ahli Hospital in Gaza (even before many third-country intelligence agencies and experts said the strike was more likely caused by an errant rocket fired from within Gaza), King Abdullah of Jordan, President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi of Egypt and the president of the Palestinian Authority, Mahmoud Abbas, abruptly canceled their scheduled summit in Amman with President Biden, in an attempt to absorb the growing popular anger.

After two weeks of blind Israeli fury in Gaza, neither Biden nor any of his senior advisers have uttered a single word cautioning Israel publicly to exercise self-restraint or setting clear red lines that should not be crossed. In fact, in a surreal revelation, it was reported that the State Department has advised its staff working on the Middle East not to use, in their press materials, specific phrases including “de-escalation/ceasefire,” “end to violence/bloodshed” and “restoring calm.”

Biden’s political shortsightedness and his mostly emotional reaction to Hamas’ bloody rampage have already given license to Netanyahu’s worst impulses against the Palestinians, which he is acting upon with impunity. Biden has spoken as if the Palestine-Israel conflict began on Oct. 7, or maybe since Hamas took control of Gaza in 2006 — as if the U.S. had not always played a role, often unhelpfully. By doing so, the U.S., in the eyes of millions around the world, has lost the struggle to maintain the moral high ground in the epic confrontation with Russia’s aggression against Ukraine. The Biden administration has supported, praised, even glorified Ukraine’s heroic resistance against Russian occupation, yet it has treated the Palestinians with benign neglect for almost three years, after the Palestinians had already endured four years of open hostility by the Donald Trump administration.

One can, and should, denounce Hamas and its “vision” of peace and what it did, and in the same breath proclaim loudly that the Palestinians have been wronged and denied their national and historical rights by Israel, with crucial support from the U.S., for 75 years. The Palestinians have the moral right and duty to resist the violent, degrading Israeli occupation, preferably by nonviolent means.

As for the impending Israeli invasion of the Gaza Strip, all signs point to it being fraught with disaster both for Palestinians and Israel — and the region beyond — both politically and militarily. It will cause long-term damage to America’s reputation and standing in the Global South, something the U.S. cannot afford at a time when it is trying to shore up political and military support for Ukraine and keep China’s global influence in check, especially in Asia and the Middle East. Instead of the seemingly blind and unqualified support for Israel’s war in Gaza, the Biden administration should harness its political will to secure the release of the hostages, denounce the killing of all civilians and show some leadership in ushering Israelis and Palestinians toward a political solution, no matter how small, if only to undermine the radicals.

The only useful cautionary tale offered by Biden to the Israelis was when he reminded them gently how America’s unrestrained rage in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks led it to wage its two longest wars, with little to show. Afghanistan has been left a shambles and Iraq became divided and heavily influenced by Iran. Israel, too, failed in its attempt at installing a collaborative regime in Beirut after its invasion of Lebanon. It will likely face a similar situation in Gaza, assuming that it even succeeds at uprooting the movement from the strip or that, even in the unlikely scenario that it will, the cost will be bearable. The Israelis may think they can occupy Gaza but not necessarily own it, that they could lean on the U.S. to push for a U.N. trusteeship while playing the familiar riff of asking the rich Arab Gulf states to rebuild what Israel flattens. But despite the loud virtue signaling toward Israel by many world leaders today, it is difficult to envision the international community rushing to extricate Israel from its trap.

A protracted invasion will be costly not only for the civilians and the fighters of Hamas but also for the invading Israelis, fighting in the narrow streets of Gaza and its intricate tunnel system. Prolonged conflicts bring in their wakes a variety of surprising variables that are impossible to predict or maybe contain. The conflict could easily move to the West Bank, Jerusalem and even to the streets of Israeli cities. It was only a few years ago that Israeli cities witnessed ugly and violent communal clashes between Palestinian and Jewish citizens of Israel.

Finally, a prolonged war could drag other regional players, mostly nonstate actors like Lebanon’s Hezbollah, into the fray. Hezbollah is the strongest nonstate actor in the world. It has a huge arsenal of missiles and, in recent years, it has honed its military skill in Syria fighting alongside the praetorian guards of Syria’s dictator Bashar al-Assad. So far, Hezbollah and its patron Iran have been carefully calibrating their military and political moves to show support for Hamas and Gaza while making clear to Israel that they are not interested in opening up the northern front. But Hezbollah, Iran and their regional allies will be subjected to tremendous pressure from their supporters to force Israel to fight on two fronts if the Israelis start a massive ground attack to occupy Gaza.

This time, a war between Hezbollah and Israel could lead to the collapse of the Lebanese state, an extremely brittle country, without a president and with barely a functioning caretaker prime minister. For all intents and purposes, Lebanon is financially bankrupt, and its currency has lost 90% of its value in the past four years, as a result of the depredations of the political and financial class. The country is still reeling from the economic and psychological effects of the 2020 Beirut port explosion, one of the most powerful nonnuclear explosions ever recorded, which destroyed large swaths of the city, killing more than 200 and wounding thousands. If Hezbollah joins the fighting, it will be blamed, correctly, by the majority of Lebanese for destroying what was left of their country. One would hope that Hezbollah’s leadership knows that, just as it should know that the Party of God has lost a great deal of its stature in Lebanon and the region since its last fight with Israel in 2006, including within the Shiite community in Lebanon.

The fighting in Gaza will eventually stop, but the political conflict will not. Politicians and analysts will search for temporary remedies and avoid facing the hard choices that could lead to a historic resolution to the Palestine-Israel conflict. There are three ways the two peoples living in the land between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River could envision their future: maintaining the status quo, with its political, legal and social inequalities, which would guarantee an entrenched gloomy apartheid future, with regular spasms of communal fights; an attempt to revive the two-state solution, after guaranteeing a contiguous Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza, a major undertaking requiring dramatic changes in the status of Israeli settlers in the West Bank, which many analysts believe is too late to accomplish; and finally, and most difficult to achieve, although the most humane outcome, for two peoples who have suffered immeasurably in the last hundred years, would be to extend equal rights and full citizenship to all the roughly 14 million Palestinians and Israelis currently dwelling in the land they call their historic home.

If the parties to the conflict and their supporters don’t transcend the status quo and embark on a radical change, reviving the two-state solution or developing the facts on the ground into one state with equal citizenship, the Middle East will continue its gradual descent deeper and deeper into the heart of darkness.

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