The Israeli / Hamas War: Understanding the Larger "Larger Context" - Part 1

larger context graphic


Newsletter #197— January 17, 2024

 by Guy Burgess and Heidi Burgess


We are well aware that some of our readers have been sharply critical of our writings on the Israel/Hamas war.  Many have written asking us to explain more fully why we feel the way we do or to reconsider our views in light of the arguments they offer. ,A few have just attacked us. Before moving onto a series of posts directed at more general intractable conflict and hyperpolarization related topics and the upcoming US election, we want to share one more essay (which we have needed to break into two because of its length) that tries to explain our evolving views by focusing on what we see as the larger "larger context." We want to go beyond the now widespread calls for judging Hamas on the basis of context or using the concept of context to excuse students embracing genocidal, anti-Semitic rhetoric. 

We do agree, however, with the notion that "context" is important. Indeed, we have been writing for years that intractable conflicts are very complex, and that it is necessary to understand (as much as possible) the nature of that complexity in order to craft effective responses. As we see it, "context" is largely synonymous with complexity. So we have long been saying that it is necessary to explore the "context" before one takes action or even decides what to think about any complex situation. 

But that means one really needs to explore the full context.  It is not sufficient to stay in our silos, reading our "regular stuff" that tells us exactly what we expect and want to hear.  We have been reading a great deal of material from all sides of this conflict.  Some we find more credible than others, but we have been making a concerted effort to get as much accurate information about what is really going on — and why — as we possibly can.  And indeed, we have altered our views to some extent.  Before we leave this topic and start focusing primarily on the U.S. election (which begins tonight with the Iowa Caucuses), we want to explore this concept of "larger context" a little more, because to our surprise, despite all that we have read, not many people are doing that.

And as always, we invite responses. But we do not allow direct comments to this blog, because we don't want to deal with bots and other forms of destructive content. Please use our contact form which has a pretty good bot screening tool (which has blocked almost 200,000 bogus submissions) and we promise, as always, to publish all the comments we receive, including the ones that disagree with us, as long as they thoughtfully address the topics covered by this newsletter and are reasonably well (at least understandably) written.


It now seems clear that the raging conflict over how the world should think about the Israeli/Hamas War is going to have enormous implications — for Israelis and Palestinians, for the Jewish diaspora, for the global security environment, and for worldwide electoral politics. Here in the U.S., it is weakening the Democratic political coalition and increasing the chances that Donald Trump's will become the next President of the United States). The social justice left is playing a prominent role in this conflict by challenging the Biden Administration's strong support for Israel, by opposing what it sees as Israel's genocidal campaign in Gaza, and by embracing rhetoric that is openly anti-Zionist and anti-Semitic. These are, of course, views that are strongly supported globally (and within the conflict resolution and peacebuilding community). Since, as we will argue in Part II of this essay, global public opinion is having a significant impact on the course of this conflict, we believe everyone thinking and talking about this conflict ought to be continually asking themselves hard questions about whether their assessment of the situation is accurate and whether their decisions about assigning blame are warranted. (And yes, to our critics, we are doing this too. This essay reflects our evolving thinking and is based on your many helpful comments, and our continued reading.) 

For Israel's critics, we think that it's important to ask whether your defense (or at least acceptance) of Hamas' violent, corrupt, and authoritarian rule; it's blatant disregard for human rights (including the rights of women and the LBGTQ population); its genocidal intentions towards Israel; and its incomprehensible levels of brutality are contributing to (rather than detracting from) efforts to address the humanitarian crisis facing the people of Gaza and the Palestinians, more generally. For Israel's supporters, it's important to ask how can Israel can achieve its vital security objectives while also minimizing the death and suffering of Palestinian civilians.  Ultimately, everyone's security depends upon finding some way to build a more secure and prosperous future for both Israelis and Palestinians (including, most obviously, the re-building of Gaza).

The Larger "Larger Context"

In an effort to shed light on these questions, we want to start by acknowledging that those who are calling for a look at the "larger context" surrounding the October 7 attack make an important point. Having spent decades studying the complexities of large-scale, intractable conflict, we have long recognized the many pitfalls that accompany simplistic, good-guy vs. bad-guy interpretations of complex conflicts.

We have also argued, we still think rightly, that embedded in the many complexities of this conflict is a battle against unmitigated evil. This is not a matter of calling anyone who disagrees with us, or doesn't share our values, "evil."  Taken out of context, we believe that virtually everyone in the world would consider the acts perpetrated by Hamas on October 7 to be "evil." (While they may not use the word "evil," even Palestinians, according to the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research Poll poll taken in late November to early December 2023, said that "the vast majority [of Palestinians] believe that attacking or killing civilians in their homes is not permissible. The majority (except in the Gaza Strip) also believe that taking civilians as hostages or prisoners of war is also not permissible." It is also worth noting that, according to the same PCPSR poll, while most Palestinians said they supported the Hamas attack, they were largely unaware of its brutal nature and thought that it was in response an Israeli attack on the Al-Asqa Mosque. And, even put back into context, few people would argue that a legitimate response to being oppressed is burning the babies of the oppressors — even the oppressed have obligations. Nor would many suggest that such behavior is effective (although in this case, it has been surprisingly so.)  What a terrible lesson to teach! 

That said, like all complex intractable conflicts, this is more than a simple fight between good and evil. It is a fight about legitimate grievances too.  It is about fundamental human needs, high-stakes distributional issues, moral issues — all things that tend to make conflicts intractable, even in the absence of "evil." If we are going to find a positive path out of this tragedy (and find better ways of dealing with similarly horrific and intractable conflicts), we are going to have to recognize the complex array of dynamics that have led to the current crisis and find more effective ways of dealing with each of these dynamics.  As we have argued elsewhere in this newsletter and elsewhere in BI, this is the kind of problem that requires a "massively parallel" response led by an array of people with deep and specialized understanding in the many different aspects of this crisis. 

Critical to the success of such specialized efforts is a more sophisticated understanding among the larger population of politically active citizens about the nature of the Israeli/Hamas crisis and the need to support realistic, balanced, and morally defensible efforts to address it. We desperately need something more than political hobbyism in which people simply decide whether they want to cheer for "Team Israel" or "Team Palestine." 

The goal of this essay is respond to the now widespread calls to look at the "larger context" in ways that really do look at the larger context, and not just focus on the one aspect of that context — the Palestinian grievances against Israel — that have been the focus of so much attention. Our goal is to supplement this very important set of considerations with a look at the much larger, "larger context" that is shaping this particular crisis in so many tragic and dangerous ways. As a project based in a western, liberal democracy, we want to pay special attention to the ways in which the actions of our societies, and especially the actions of the social justice and the conflict and peacebuilding communities, may be playing an important (though perhaps unintended) role in determining the course of this conflict. As we do this, we want to focus special attention on ways in which we may be compounding the tragedy.

The Palestinian Grievances Against Israel 

Thus far, most efforts to look at the "larger context" have focused on understanding the deep grievances that Gazans (and Palestinians, more generally) have against Israel, with the implication that those grievances somehow pushed Hamas over the edge in ways that led them to launch such a unprecedented and vicious attack — an attack that is widely seen as either an understandable overreaction or a thoroughly justified response to Israeli brutality. While there is considerable disagreement over whether these grievances justified October 7, there is much more widespread agreement that Israel has done things in Gaza and on the West Bank that Palestinians find painful and humiliating enough to justify widespread anger and a desire to fight back.  

What's more, there is widespread acknowledgment that the all-out war against Hamas that Israel launched in the wake of October 7 is causing incredible suffering for the people of Gaza — including very large numbers of civilian casualties and destruction of Gazan infrastructure in ways that will take decades to repair.

This, unfortunately, is where the look at the larger context frequently stops. Before deciding what one thinks about this particular crisis and, more importantly, deciding what one might be able to do to help limit the suffering, it is important to look at the many other contextual factors that are shaping events. To be effective, strategies for limiting the suffering need to find a way to work within these larger contexts — they can't just pretend that particularly disagreeable contexts don't exist.

Hamas's Commitment to the Destruction of Israel

One critically important part of this larger "larger context" that does not get anywhere near as much attention as it deserves is the widespread belief among Palestinians that Israel has no right to exist and that Palestinians have a religious obligation to do all that they can to kill the Jews and drive "the infidels" from the land of Islam — the area between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea in which Israel is located. The recognition of this obligation by large numbers of politically powerful people is a big reason why Palestinians have been willing to make such extraordinary personal and material sacrifices to further their campaign against Israel — sacrifices that many believe will be rewarded in the next life. The depth of this commitment is reflected in the many ways in which Palestinians honor and encourage people to martyr themselves for the cause.  This commitment is also, despite a bit of sugarcoating in 2017 clearly enunciated in the Hamas Charter. 

What is unclear, at least from our perspective on the other side of the planet, is how much these views reflect the true and deeply held beliefs of the Palestinian citizenry and how much they are being imposed on an unwilling public by the fundamentalist clerics of Hamas who quickly and ruthlessly repress any dissent. It is also unclear how much of this antipathy toward Jews and Israel is attributable to decades of cynical hatemongering on the part of Hamas (and earlier Palestinian) leaders looking for a scapegoat to help deflect criticism of their corrupt rule, and hatemongering that is reflected in what young Palestinians are taught about Israel.

To the extent that it is the latter, the liberation of the Palestinian people from the influence of these leaders and fundamentalist clerics offers a pathway toward a viable, two-state solution and a much more promising, prosperous, and peaceful future for the Palestinians. To the extent that the former is true, we are left with a very dark future that is likely to be characterized by an all-out war to see who can push whom "into the sea." This is a war that likely to continue to fluctuate between periods of active conflict and periods of simmering tension, in which Israelis continually try to restrain Palestinians and Palestinians continually try to break those restraints — in a never-ending series of increasingly destructive standoffs  that produce a miserable future for everyone.

It seems to us that anyone interested in promoting long-term peace and justice has an interest in freeing Palestinians from the endless string of terrible tragedies caused by Hamas' total commitment to war against Israel and the inevitably destructive Israeli response. As we will argue below, we think that, with strong international support there are better ways to provide the fundamental needs of identity, security, and recognition for the Palestinians and the Israelis without continued bloodshed. Without that support, we are left with the kind of all-out war that we are now seeing.

Israel's Continuing Struggle for Peace and Security

Efforts to understand and account for Palestinian antipathy toward Israel need to be balanced with comparable efforts to understand Israeli antipathy toward Palestinians (and its supporters in the larger Muslim world). The Israeli actions to which Hamas is rebelling reflect the many ways in which Israelis have been pushed over a different kind of edge by the 75+ year sequence of efforts by the Arab world to push Israel into the sea. In addition to major wars in 1948, 1967, 1973, and, now, 2023, increasing Israeli skepticism about prospects for peace resulted from Palestinian rejection of two major efforts (2000 and 2008) to negotiate a two-state solution and the fact that those peace overtures were followed by a continuing stream of terrorist attacks on Israeli civilians. More recently, we have seen the launch, from civilian areas of Gaza, of wave after wave of rockets targeting Israeli civilians.  Not surprisingly, the result of all of this has been a dramatic decline in Israeli support for peace initiatives and the widespread conclusion among Israelis that the only possible way forward is through a strategy of containment — a strategy that Palestinian's see as occupation, but Israelis is the only way in which they can defend themselves.

The Hyper-Polarization of Israeli Democracy

Israel, like all democracies, is subject to a variety of pressures that lead it to make decisions that observers (and, especially, observers with the benefit of hindsight) see as ill-advised or, sometimes, downright stupid. All democratic leaders are constantly being pulled in competing directions by citizens with widely differing worldviews and priorities. Political leadership goes to those who, in a highly competitive environment, do the best job of assembling and sustaining a viable governing coalition — a process that often involves hardball politics that operates on the margins of democratic norms. This is, obviously, a messy and flawed process — one that leads to difficult compromises that leave many people believing that serious mistakes are being made. (This is, of course, is especially true for those who been the losers in recent elections.)

In recent years, Israel, like the United States, Great Britain, and so many other democracies, has fallen ever deeper into the morass of hyper-polarized political conflict. Political coalition building and escalation dynamics, combined with the deep tensions that exist within Israel's surprisingly diverse society, has led contending political factions to use increasingly harsh and dehumanizing rhetoric against one another. In Israel, before October 7, these tensions had reached the point where mass demonstrations against the government were routine and a constitutional crisis over "judicial reform" had brought the country to point where people were openly talking about the possibility of civil war. This is the context into which Hamas struck and the context that led the Israeli government to fail so miserably in its response to the initial attack. It is also a context which has led so many Israelis to, despite the move to a national unity government, continue to question Prime Minister Netanyahu's effectiveness as a wartime leader and his ability to negotiate a wise response that has deep public support.  (We should note that Israel's problems are very similar to the problems facing the United States and that, like Israel, the US is having serious difficulty responding effectively to this war and to the many other challenges it faces.)  

The Post October 7 Israeli Context

Finally, we should note that Israel's already difficult conflict context took a dramatic turn for the worse following Hamas' October 7 attack.  This new context now is perhaps best understood in reference to a simple question posed by Israel's Michael Oren, "Is it acceptable to slit babies’ throats, rape little girls, chop off of the hands and feet of teenagers, gouge out eyes, murder children in front of their parents, murder parents in front of their children then kidnap the children, bind entire families together then burn them alive, and livestream all the above—and worse—on a mass scale—in the pursuit of some political aim?"  To understand the contemporary Israeli context, consider how alone and vulnerable you would feel if your community had been the target of Hamas' attack, is continuing to be attacked daily from rockets aimed at civilian areas coming from both Gaza and from Hezbollah in Lebanon, and you lived in a world in where so many people were aligned against you and in support of Hamas and the much larger campaign against Israel  This, combined with the global embrace of vile and often violent anti-Semitic rhetoric, is enough to convince Israelis and much of the larger Jewish Diaspora that Israel must be defended at all costs.  There is simply no place else to go and no one else to help.

Regional and Global Context

While the complexities of the above Israeli and Palestinian contexts are obviously major factors determining the way in which this crisis is unfolding, it is important to recognize that this is not the whole story. Understanding the situation also requires looking at two other, even broader contexts — one focused on the larger competition between regional and global powers, and a second focus on the global battle for public legitimacy and support.

Greatly complicating the current situation (and the region's turbulent history) are the many ways in which regional, Middle Eastern conflicts have been deeply entangled with global tensions between major powers including, for example, the Cold War tensions that turned early Arab-Israeli conflicts into major US-Soviet proxy wars; continuing competition over access to the regions petroleum resources (including, especially, the "oil weapon" crises of the 1970s); the theocratic revolution which overthrew the US backed Shah of Iran; the US brokered peace agreement between Israel and Egypt; the subsequent push to implement the two-state solution envisioned in Oslo; Iraq's invasion of Kuwait and the West's "Desert Storm" response; 9/11; the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan; and the Arab Spring Revolutions and subsequent repressions.  

At the current moment, the focus of this turbulent history seems to be Iran's various efforts to expand its influence, push the "Great Satan" (the US) and other Westerners out of the region, and challenge Saudi Arabia and other Sunni Arab states for Mideast dominance. This effort has involved a long struggle over Iran's efforts to acquire nuclear weapons (a goal they seem close to achieving). At the core of all this, is Iran's clear and unwavering commitment to the destruction of Israel. In pursuit of these goals Iran has created, funded, and directs (with the veneer of deniability) three major proxy militias: the Houthi rebels in Yemen, Hezbollah in Lebanon and Syria, Hamas in Gaza, and other militias in Iraq, together known as the "Axis of Resistance." 

These forces have been involved in a series of wars that have been vastly more violent than the ongoing war between Israel and Hamas (and also vastly more deadly to civilians). According to Wikipedia, the civil war in Syria in which Hezbollah was deeply involved killed 580,000 people while producing roughly 6.5 million internally displaced persons and another 6.5 million refugees who had to flee the country (13 million total). This was over half of the population of Syria and over six times the population Gaza. Similarly, the Houthi war in Yemen has killed over 150,000 while leading to another 227,000 deaths associated with war-related famines.  Today, the Houthi's are on the verge of victory which would give them the ability to pose a serious ongoing threat to global shipping (given its strategic position at the mouth of the Red Sea). There is also reason to believe that, at least in recent decades, this part of the world is especially prone to large-scale violence. For comparison, an estimated 23,000 Palestinians and Israelis have been killed in the latest war as of January 7, 2024.

The bottom line is that there is good reason to believe that much of the current crises is not driven by Israelis and Palestinians. Rather, it is a proxy war initiated by Iran against Israel, a wide range of Western interests, and its Muslim rivals. This is something that is reflected by the large number of recent attacks and counterattacks that are occurring outside of Gaza — including many that have involved US forces and more general fears that we may be on the verge of a much wider war. It is also possible that the proxy militias created by Iran may, to some degree or another, be "going rogue" in ways that could draw Iran into a larger and undesired war. To some degree this may have been the case with the Hamas attack and there are now concerns that the Houthi rebels might spark a wider war.

It is also worth noting that as the Center for Strategic and International Studies reports, "Almost all of the human impact of extremist attacks is Muslims killing or injuring fellow Muslims." In other words, the kind of violence we saw on October 7 was not solely provoked by Israel and directed against Israel. It is the kind of violence that Muslims have been directing toward one another for years.

A final and especially worrying new dimension to all of this is the fact that the Russians and the Chinese are now seem to be backing the Iranians in ways that threaten to turn this conflict into another front in a larger, global struggle that includes Ukraine and, potentially, Taiwan. Right now, the Russians and Chinese have every incentive to inflame this crisis in hopes of drawing ammunition and other resources away from Ukraine and over-committing US forces in ways that give China much more latitude to expand its influence in Southeast Asia.

In short, there is much, much more to all of this than Israel's conflict with Hamas. Failure to recognize and respond to this fact puts us all at risk — especially given the degree to which Western democracies have been weakened by hyper-polarization, political dysfunction, and declining faith in their democracies.


It is also worth reiterating that this is an all-out war in which Hamas' survival and the survival of Israel and the larger Jewish Diaspora is at stake. This is not the kind of limited, proportional exchange of hostilities that typically characterizes international tensions and border disputes.  Those can reasonably be confined to some rule-of-law based script.   However, in cases where people feel that their very survival and the survival of the people that they care about is at stake, they can't be expected to simply succumb when the situation calls on them to do terrible things — things that they would normally view is as abhorrent.  Popular mythology is full of stories of people who wind up doing such things because they simply had no other choice. Make no mistake — both Hamas and Israelis know their very survival is now on the line (even though the cascade of events that could lead to the end of Israel is longer and more complex). This is why it is so important to avoid being placed in a situation where war is the dominant context and why Hamas' decision to provoke such a war is so reprehensible. In this case, all preventive efforts have failed and Israel and Palestinians have no alternative but to try to live with the consequences.


Photo Credit: Gaza Map – Source: By: Ecrusized; Permission: Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International; Date Acquired: Nov 9, 2023 


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