The Israeli / Hamas War: Understanding the Larger "Larger Context" -- Part 2

larger context graphic


Newsletter 198 — January 19, 2024

by Guy Burgess and Heidi Burgess

This is the second half of a long essay in which we try to look at the larger, "larger context," of the 2023-24 Israel/Hamas war in ways that come closer to addressing the full complexity of this conflict. The first half is available here. As we said there, we invite comments, but please use our contact form to submit them.


Global Public Opinion 

As we suggested in our initial essay on this war, we believe that this war is being waged in the context of a global battle for legitimacy and the moral high ground and the public support that comes with it. It is being fought out in an environment where large numbers of people (including, especially, those on the global, social justice left) are deeply committed to addressing the many gross inequities that have always existed between every society's oppressors and those that they have oppressed.

When applied at the global level, this concern for the oppressed has focused on addressing the inequities that exist between colonial powers and their former (and sometimes current) colonies.  Here, the almost exclusive focus has been on the great colonial empires that came out of Western Europe and conquered much of the world. Added to that is the United States with its more recent brand of neocolonialism.

Those voicing concerns about colonial exploitation have, however, been slow to recognize that we currently live in an era in which colonial empires that do not come out of the Western European tradition are aggressively expanding. These include, most notably, Russia (with its invasion of Ukraine) and China (with its suppression of the Uighurs, the people of Hong Kong, threats against Taiwan and efforts to assert control of the waters off Southeast Asia). There is also the Iranian expansionism mentioned in Part 1 of this essay with its efforts to use ruthless proxy militias to exert control on neighboring countries.

In this context, it is worth noting that a major reason why Jews, throughout history, have always been so vulnerable, is that they have always been a small religion. They have never aggressively tried to convert others to their faith nor have they engaged in kind of colonial empire building that is now so widely condemned. In Israel, the Jews are simply trying to find a corner of the world in which refugees who have been driven from most of the world's other countries (including, especially, the Arab world) can live in peace and security. With their over 3000 year history of having lived continuously in the area, they have a credible claim to be the most indigenous of all indigenous peoples. Jews lived there long before Islam we founded. The fact that Palestinians and the larger Muslim world are contesting this claim is, of course, a big part of what makes this conflict so intractable. 

Also critical to understanding the context of the current conflict is an understanding of the degree to which global public opinion is shaping events.  In the United States, public opinion about Israel Is driving political decisions regarding conditions to be placed on the critically important flow of US military aid. In addition to general condemnations of Israel, global opinion is determining the volume of aid a flowing to the Palestinians and the conditions placed on that aid. In the Muslim world, public opinion places limits on the ability of governments to like Saudi Arabia to normalize relations with Israel and create strategic partnerships that oppose Iranian expansionism.  

While shock over the brutality of the October 7 attack initially shifted global opinion toward Israel, growing concerns over the humanitarian impact of the ensuing war on the people of Gaza have since shifted the preponderance of that opinion back toward support for the Palestinians. This, especially on the social justice left, is consistent with longer-term concerns about the many humanitarian crises that have afflicted Palestinians in recent decades, and the widespread belief that Israeli actions were the proximate cause of that suffering. This view has been carefully cultivated by Hamas as part of its long-term, and very successful, campaign to build public support for its cause while undermining the legitimacy of Israel.

It is important to recognize that the successfulness of this approach stems from Hamas' ability to exploit a relatively simple formula — the greater the humanitarian hardships faced by the people of Gaza, the greater the level of global public sympathy and support. Hamas has also been able to cultivate and exploit the corollary principal that since the Palestinians face such incredible hardship, and since Israelis are so prosperous, Israelis must be responsible for those hardships. This is consistent with the view that all inequality is attributable to exploitation and theft, and not differing goals and willingness to work to achieve those goals. It is, of course, easy to find many. stories that support this view. Israeli security measures do have harsh ramifications for the people of Gaza and the West Bank. And, there many cases in which Israeli settlements on the West Bank are claiming ownership of land that would, under any reasonable two state solution formula, would be part of Palestine. There are also deeply disturbing number of instances in which Israeli West Bank settlers have done terrible things to their Palestinian neighbors. 

The questions that is are not being asked with sufficient frequency include:  Why is Israel doing those things? Is Hamas (or the Palestinians, more broadly, or Iran, or the rest of the Islamic world doing something that is compelling Israel to do those things? Insisting that Israel has no right to exist and that it is a God-fearing Muslim's duty to kill all Jews in order to defend Islam? (This would seem to be a reason that Israel would feel insecure and would try to protect itself as best it could.)  Also not being asked is how much Palestinian deprivation is attributable to factors other than Israeli security measures and settlement activity. There are many  factors are contributing to Palestinian deprivation and misery, including: 

Grotesque levels of corruption pervade Hamas' leadership which has launched this ruinous war while much of the top leadership lives in relatively secure places like Lebanon or in luxurious places like Qatar. They have stolen billions of dollars of aid money that was supposed to have been spent ameliorating the terrible conditions under which Gaza residents live, and used that money to support their own lavish lifestyles, plus to build armaments and the huge underground tunnel system in which Hamas fighters hide, train, and launch their attacks on Israel. Articles highlighting the magnitude of this corruption include this, this, and this. Similar or more extreme levels of corruption plague the Palestinian Authority on the West Bank.

Diversion of Aid for Offensive Military Purposes 
Also contributing to the humanitarian crisis facing the people of Gaza has been Hamas' long-term practice of diverting aid money and the imported building materials needed to build its famous tunnel network, rocket arsenal, and other military capabilities. This has enabled a seemingly endless series of attacks that have forced Israel to sharply restrict imports of many of the materials critical to rebuilding and maintaining Gaza's civilian infrastructure.  While these import restrictions have helped limit Hamas military capabilities, they have also heavily impacted the lives of every day Gazans who are forced Gazans to pay usurious black-market prices for the things that are smuggled past Israeli security. 

Human Shields 
Another major contributor to Palestinian suffering is Hamas' strategy of using human shields to protect its facilities from Israeli attack or, when that fails, enjoying the propaganda windfall that comes when those attacks result in civilian casualties or damage to civilian infrastructure. The cornerstone of this strategy is Hamas' long-standing practice of attacking Israeli civilians from positions within civilian areas of Gaza — positions that are manned and supplied from military facilities hidden in tunnels under schools, hospitals, and in residential areas (with access points, firing positions, and booby-traps often hidden within civilian structures). This strategy makes it difficult, dangerous, and sometimes impossible for Israel to defend itself without destroying those structures and inflicting civilian casualties.

What makes this strategy so effective is that Hamas frequently attacks Israel in ways that are so provocative that Israel concludes that it has no alternative but to respond with force. In an effort to limit casualties, Israel typically drops leaflets and issues cell phone alerts warning civilians of impending attacks and urging them to evacuate an area. Still, this is often not enough to avert civilian casualties (especially when Hamas fighters do not wear uniforms and and do all they can to present themselves as civilians). Even more outrageously, there are reports of Hamas preventing civilians from leaving these areas. In the latest war, there are also cases in which Hamas launches rocket attacks from places where civilians have been directed to flee.

The Israeli Defense Forces maintain a website with vastly more extensive examples of this kind of behavior. Coming from the Israeli government, this is, of course, the kind of resource that many people will refuse to even consider — assuming that it is nothing more than dishonest propaganda. Still, before dismissing all of this information as as an elaborate falsification, consider an alternative explanation — that Israel is simply trying to explain to the world the true nature of the threat that it faces. The second explanation, which seems to us to be most credible, requires us all to abandon simple comforting narratives and come to terms with the a very dark reality.

The bottom line is that Hamas' strategy of the using civilian shields has been quite successful in in producing the kind of suffering that has made many more people more sympathetic to the Palestinian cause. And, the October 7 attack and the Israeli response that followed has obviously taken this strategy to a whole new and vastly more tragic level. 

Jihadist Ideology 
A further way in which Hamas' actions contribute directly to the suffering of the Palestinian people is through its promulgation of a murderous, sadistic, and suicidal version of Islam which encourages its young people to aspire to the killing of their Jewish enemies, martyrdom, and glory in the next life — a vision of Islam that was on conspicuous display on October 7.  

This is also a vision that is supported by the ruthless suppression of anyone who advocates a more positive vision of Islam.  It is hard to see of how anyone who cares about the Palestinian people could possibly support a regime that demands adherence to such an ISIS-like philosophy.

Information Warfare
There is one last area in which Hamas has been quite successful in cultivating global sympathy — manipulation of the flow of information coming out of Gaza regarding the nature, magnitude, and causes of Palestinian suffering. While Gaza has doubtless suffered horrific levels of very real violence and destruction, it is also true that Hamas is doing all that it can to amplify public perceptions of this suffering and portray it in the most strategically advantageous light possible. 

For example, casualty statistics reported by Hamas inflate civilian casualties by failing to make a distinction between military and civilian casualties or casualties caused by Israeli action or friendly fire incidents (like rockets that go off course and land in civilian areas). Young adult Hamas fighters may also be counted as children and children may sometimes be intentionally placed in harm's way (see this, this, this, and this, for example). More general information about the war is also certainly being influenced by pressures placed on journalists who know that they have to be very careful to report what Hamas wants them to say (regardless of whether it's true) or they place themselves and their sources at great risk.  There are also disturbing reasons to believe that many recent and often disruptive pro-Palestinian demonstrations may not be the product of grassroots opinion, but rather deliberately engineered as part of a well-funded, global propaganda campaign. 

The bottom line is that outside observers should be aware of many factors that make war time information unreliable. 

A Pathway to a More Positive Future

All of this raises two big questions. What can realistically be done to minimize Palestinian suffering over the near and the longer-term? And, how can this be done in ways that meet the legitimate security interests of both sides (and provide some measure of justice for the many people who have been victimized by what are clearly war crimes)?

The first step toward answering these questions is to recognize that the interests of Hamas and the interests of the Palestinian people are contradictory. We believe that by unconditionally supporting Hamas and not holding it accountable for the many ways in which it is contributing to the plight of the Palestinian people, the international community (including the pro-Hamas groups on the social justice left and some peacebuilders) has been a major contributor to the ongoing tragedy. By refusing to insist that effective steps be taken to address the problems of corruption, the diversion of Palestinian aid, the use of human shields, and Hamas' murderous and suicidal ideology, the international community that claims to care about the welfare of the Palestinian people has allowed Hamas' rule to metastasize into the ongoing tragedy. In the current context, it is unconscionable to continue to allow Hamas to strengthen its political and strategic positions through policies that intensify Palestinian suffering and then exploit that suffering 

The ongoing tragedy likely could have been averted had the Palestinian community's many supporters done a few simple things. First, they could have done much more to prevent Palestinian aid from being diverted by corrupt officials and from being used to build a terror infrastructure shielded by Gaza's civilian population — an infrastructure that has transformed Gaza's civilian structures into legitimate military targets. Second, it could have gone further and loudly condemned and severely sanctioned the use of terrorist tactics and the use of civilians to shield terrorists. Third, it could also have condemned (and refused to fund) programs that promote the idea that Jews must be exterminated and Israel erased from the map. Fourth, it could also have done much more to protect and enable the many Palestinians who would eagerly work to build a more positive future, if only given the chance. Finally, the international community could have done a better job of protecting journalists, so that they could do a better job of accurately informing Palestinians, and the outside world, about what is happening. (Many Palestinians, for example, apparently had no idea of the brutality of the October 7 attacks, and likely would have opposed them, had they known the truth as this poll from the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research suggests.) Similarly, this MEMRI story explains how terrorists are portrayed as innocent athletes killed by Israelis, again misleading the Palestinian people — and the world — about the true nature of what is going on.) 

Changes like this would have also made it vastly easier to persuade (and, when necessary, pressure) Israelis to start reversing the many things that they have been doing to undermine the viability of a future Palestinian state (such as the continually expanding settlements on the West Bank).

Possible Peace Initiatives

At this point there are a number of areas of possible agreement that, with diplomatic skill and a good bit of luck, could be stitched into a larger framework for limiting the risks of a wider war and starting a rebuilding process that would avoid many of the mistakes of the past. David Ignatius of the Washington Post and Tovah Lazaroff of the Jerusalem Post have been reporting on US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken's travels around the Middle East and his efforts to put together the rough outline of a potentially viable peace agreement.  According to Ignatius, Blinken has obtained a pledge from Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman "and other key leaders" to support the postwar reconstruction of Gaza, and normalize relations with Israel provided that Israel ends its war in Gaza and commits to a process for creating a future Palestinian state in Gaza and the West Bank. Apparently several Arab leaders say they would agree to such a deal, but Netanyahu has not, in its current form, found it acceptable. 

Though Ignatius did not explain why, it seems clear that Netanyahu and most Israelis won't cede Israeli security control over Gaza or the West Bank until effective steps are taken to sharply limit the problems outlined above. They are afraid that the unrestricted access to imports that statehood implies, plus the lack of any Israeli security presence, would allow Palestinians to prepare for another, even more devastating war.

Ignatius does, however, point out that "knowledgeable U.S. and Israeli sources say the diplomatic situation could be more promising than it might appear." Perhaps, he suggests "the opportunity for Saudi normalization — and the united front against Iran that it would encourage in the region — [might be] the proverbial “offer you can’t refuse.” 

Ignatius goes on to say that "speculating about positive outcomes in the Middle East is often a mistake. Still, if we don't, if we just assume that nothing can be done to escape the seemingly endless cycle of violence, then we are dooming both people to a continued miserable existence.  So the time has come for a lot of creative thinking and delicate diplomacy. We need to come up with better new ideas for providing both peoples with the security and the resources they need to build a peaceful and prosperous coexistence-based future. 

As we do this, we need to recognize that none of this will come quickly or easily. The level of trauma and distrust is, at this point, simply too great. Extraordinary patience and persistence is going to be required. Still, the dream of a better future is not an impossible dream.  As this war draws to a close, we are likely to see a "ripe" moment when large numbers of people agree that such a tragedy should never again be allowed to happen. This will be a moment when the power of those who want to build a peaceful future will be at its strongest and and the power of those who want nothing more than more war will be at its weakest.

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