|Reflecting on the Hamas-Israel War
This issue of Phalanx, coming after several years because of the COVID pandemic, has AI as its focus and the intention was to have an editorial on the subject. But the horrific recent happenings in Israel have reduced AI to a relatively minor issue. The violence unleashed in Israel and Gaza is horrific but there is little point in decrying the violence and it may be better to speculate on what Hamas hoped to gain, and the consequences - in the medium and long term. Hamas may be a ‘terrorist’ group but ‘terrorist’ is perhaps only the designation given to a non-state player engaging in war against a country - when war can be legitimately waged only by sovereign states. Killing ‘innocent people’ is also the conduct of all national militaries at war though media rhetoric could single out the opposite side as exclusively culpable. As an instance of western media perfidy, it is telling heartrending stories of selected individuals or families without acknowledging that individuals or families could equally have been chosen from the other side for equally heartrending stories but with an entirely different purport. Humanist rhetoric has lost its moral value and it is best to study the developments dispassionately.
Lastly, the war between Israel and Hamas has split liberal opinion in the West and pro-Palestine supporters are being castigated for being ‘anti-Semitic’. People are losing job offers and haloed institutions like Harvard University are having their funding stopped. To my mind ‘anti-Semitic’ is even a laughable accusation here since the Palestinians are Semitic but it is an effort to introduce ‘racism’ – which is a moral issue instead of mere ‘anti-Israel’, which is not immoral. One can be penalized on moral grounds in ‘democratic’ society but not on political ones. If anything, the political happenings in the Middle-East and the international responses to it demonstrate the hypocrisy that liberal opinion has gradually become synonymous with.
To begin with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is a hardliner who has been pushing prospects of peace far back. He has held the post intermittently but, all-together, longer than any other leader before him; and he has been controversial. Netanyahu has faced international criticism over his decades-long policy as prime minister of expanding Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank, deemed illegal under international law. In 2019, Netanyahu was indicted on charges of breach of trust, bribery and fraud, following a three-year investigation, due to which he relinquished all his ministry posts other than the prime minister position but he has gradually strengthened his position and influence thereafter. His most recent move is the 2023 Israeli judicial reform, which is a set of laws proposed in January 2023. Their intent is to curb the judiciary's influence over law-making and public policy by limiting the Supreme Court's power to exercise judicial review, granting the government control over judicial appointments and limiting the authority of its legal advisors. The Supreme Court had assumed the right to declare Knesset (the Parliament) legislation unconstitutional. The reform would permit the Knesset to override such a ruling by reintroducing the legislation and approving it with a majority of its members. The reform would diminish the ability of courts to conduct judicial review of the basic laws. Control over the appointment of judges would be effectively given to the government. There have been widespread protests against the reforms and Israel was politically divided when Hamas struck on 7th October 2023.
Netanyahu has been trying to stabilize Israel politically by normalizing relationships with the Islamic countries around it, notably Saudi Arabia. Israel’s greatest enemy in the region is Iran, which also has a strained relationship with Saudi Arabia. Perhaps sensing an opportunity here, Israel made the attempt at rapprochement, since the most of the Muslim countries in the Middle-East would rather have good relations with Israel – given its power and the support it has in the West – than make common cause with the Palestinians. The militant group Hamas could have seen the support for its cause as gradually dwindling. It should be noted here that Hamas has faced opposition within its own territory but Netanyahu has tacitly supported it against the more moderate Fatah to break up Palestinian solidarity, a strategy used by Mrs Indira Gandhi when she propped up JS Bindranwale to weaken the Akalis or the US aiding militant Islam in Afghanistan to counter the Soviet Union. Netanyahu’s ultimate aim was to separate the West Bank – governed by the Palestinian Authority, and Gaza where Fatah and Hamas fight for control. This would split the Palestinians between Gaza and the West Bank (headquarters at Ramallah) and a single Palestine could never be negotiated for. It is only with Netanyahu’s help that Hamas became as lethal as it is.
If one considers the war in progress between Israel and the Hamas, the inequality between the two is glaring. There is no way in which Hamas can seriously threaten Israel’s existence or even defend its own territory in Gaza in a conventional war fought between the two sides. There is little doubt that Hamas anticipated the violent Israeli response to its strike. If this was anticipated and there was no possibility of Hamas winning the war, why did it then undertake the strike?
Netanyahu has been declaring that Israel will wipe Hamas out and kill every one of its members but, instead, it could gain in strength. The more violent Israel’s response against Palestinians, the more support Hamas could acquire among the Palestinian public. Palestinians are mixed in religious terms and there was once a radical group PFLP led by a Christian George Habash. Postcolonial theorist Edward Said was Palestinian. Hamas is Islamic but the Islamic group has arguably gained strength because Israel is also aligned with a single religion- Judaism. What was once not religious conflict is now being represented as such. The support for Israel in India has also arisen because of this and the propaganda likening Hamas to ISIS. Hamas is fighting for a Palestinian homeland while ISIS was striving for Islamic supremacy.
Israel, for all its rhetoric of hurt, has lost ground after the bombing of the Gaza hospital (that it blamed on Hamas). Even the public in the West is now beginning to see Israel’s military conduct as criminal and no amount of posturing in the western media - highlighting the killing of innocent Israelis - will hide the fact that ordering a million people to evacuate their homes in 24 hours reeks of ethnic cleansing. Hamas has declared that it is not attacking civilians but settlers since they are armed. The distinction is important since Israel is welcoming the immigration of Jews from elsewhere to settle in Palestinian-claimed lands (in the West Bank) under various pretexts and Hamas’s declaration is likening settlers to armed invaders.
The important issue that will gain prominence soon is the failure of the Israeli leadership, military and intelligence. If various military personnel are accepting responsibility, the liberal Israeli newspaper Haaretz has supposed Netanyahu’s hand in it- essentially deflecting blame from his own person. Netanyahu’s violence against Palestinians is an attempt to compensate for his own failure as a leader. But given the fact that he has subsisted on a belligerent image, the military debacle will be difficult to counter. He cannot negotiate with the enemy even if negotiation is the only way forward. Hamas may have planned to create a situation by which a return to ‘normalcy’ would be impossible for Israel: the country would be permanently at war. Netanyahu has not agreed to Palestinian refugees returning to the West Bank and has also refused to stop further settling of Jews from outside in it to restrict the growth in the Jewish population. But being virtually without recourse has also left Palestinians with very little to lose. When a negotiator yields so little he could push his adversary into extreme responses.
Hamas’s brutality could hence have been the strategy to make negotiation impossible since Israel would also be tied to its rhetoric of revenge. At the same time it has not carried out its ISIS-like threats against the hostages that might justify Israeli violence on the ground. Israel will not want permanent war but normalcy would be possible only if Netanyahu is made to resign and the man who replaces him attempts a more conciliatory approach. Reconciliation should include a stop to further Jewish settlements and a separate homeland for Palestinians. But that will evidently take a very long time. Meanwhile, Hamas may expect anti-Israeli sentiment to grow among Palestinians and their sympathizers. This will naturally jeopardize Israel’s domestic security when that is its primary concern. A nation needs to be secure and at peace to remain viable. But one could also say that with the kind of firepower Israel commands Palestinians will be in very dire straits although the western-dominated media will do its best to play it down.
This brings us to whether Hamas can be equated with the Palestinian people: there is discourse in the media space suggesting that the Palestinian people are also its victims since they will suffer huge collateral damage as Israel pounds Gaza in its bid to wipe out Hamas. Hamas enjoyed widespread support in Gaza and was elected democratically which could imply - to Israel - that the Palestinian people are not ‘innocent’ but complicit in Hamas’s attack. This could be the covert justification in the military attack on Gaza although it would be difficult to spell it out. If it were spelled out, ‘innocent’ American people would be similarly culpable for the doings of their elected governments and it might justify the 9/11 attack on the World Trade Centre.