Speaking to a Knesset committee on 20 October, Israel’s defence minister, Yoav Gallant, described the ‘three phases’ of the current military operation in the Gaza Strip. The first phase, Gallant said, was to destroy Hamas through ‘a military campaign by fire and later by tactical manoeuvres’. The second, to be waged at a ‘lower intensity’, would ‘eliminate pockets of resistance’. The third would see ‘the creation of a new security regime in the Gaza Strip, the removal of Israel’s responsibility for life in the strip and the creation of a new security reality for the citizens of Israel’.
This radical agenda for ‘regime change’ has its antecedents. Four decades ago, another defence minister, Ariel Sharon, outlined a similarly grandiose strategy to eradicate the Palestine Liberation Organisation, directing an invasion of Lebanon in 1982 that eventually resulted in the expulsion of the PLO leadership. He would have been pleased with recent events. On 9 October, Gallant described the Palestinians in the blockaded strip as ‘human animals’ before cutting off all water, food and fuel. The images emerging from Gaza of entire neighbourhoods reduced to rubble recall the devastation that earned Sharon his nickname ‘the Bulldozer’.
But Operation Iron Swords, as the IDF calls it, is also an attempt to rectify what Israel’s far-right leaders believe was Sharon’s most disastrous mistake. Since Israel’s withdrawal from Gaza in 2005, misleadingly labelled a ‘disengagement’, right-wing ideologues have vigorously advocated for the total recapture of the strip; one think tank recently published a detailed paper suggesting how this might be done. Israeli generals and intelligence officials, humiliated by Hamas’s attack and facing a disillusioned Israeli public, have lined up in support, eager to demonstrate the state’s strategic might. ‘At the end of this war,’ announced Eli Cohen, the foreign minister, ‘not only will Hamas no longer be in Gaza, the territory of Gaza will also decrease.’ Gideon Sa’ar, who recently joined Israel’s national emergency government, echoed the sentiment: ‘Gaza must be smaller at the end of the war … it must lose territory.’
Until now, this dream was tempered by realpolitik. Despite repeated military confrontations, Hamas, which saw off a Fatah-led, Western-backed coup in 2007, has essentially served Israel’s interests. Its rivalry with Fatah undermines any prospect of a united leadership that might replace the defunct PLO; and Hamas’s commitment to armed struggle has given successive Israeli administrations a pretext for isolating Gaza from the West Bank. It is now a Bantustan, completely surrounded by Israeli forces. By assuming governmental duties, Hamas also offloaded any need for Israel to see to the daily needs of Gaza’s citizens. This dynamic, which Tareq Baconi has described as a ‘violent equilibrium’, has been as useful in sustaining the occupation as the concessions made by the Palestinian Authority under the Oslo Accords, signed thirty years ago. As Bezalel Smotrich, the leader of the Religious Zionist Party and Netanyahu’s finance minister, put it in 2015, ‘the Palestinian Authority is a burden. Hamas is an asset.’
This de facto arrangement was torn apart by Hamas’s assault on 7 October. Palestinians watched in astonishment as the first phase of Operation Al-Aqsa Flood unfolded on social media. Videos of gunmen breaking through the Gaza barrier and drones dropping explosives on IDF bases offered a brief vision of the dismantling of Israel’s military machine. The sight of Gazans paragliding over the separation barrier, along with hundreds of civilians sprinting to the lands from which their ancestors were expelled in 1948, reanimated a long dormant sense of political possibility. Other images have since gone viral: a Palestinian bulldozer tearing down a section of the barbed-wire fence; civilians dancing on the roof of a captured Israeli tank; the Erez Crossing in flames.
What many didn’t see, or chose not to see, were the horrors that came next, as Hamas militants went on a murderous rampage, breaking into homes in kibbutzim, fighting with security forces and attacking a music festival. Accounts of indiscriminate violence are still emerging. At least 1400 Israelis were killed, thousands injured and some two hundred civilians, including children, are still being held hostage in Gaza. In terms of non-combatant casualties, it was one of the deadliest massacres in Israeli-Palestinian history.
Al-Aqsa Flood was years in the planning, but it comes after months of increasing pressure on Hamas from within Gaza. A lack of fuel and electricity has for years limited the provision of drinking water, sanitation, medical care and other basic needs. Repeated wars, feuds with the PA, internal corruption and the unequal distribution of supplies and essential services have compounded the effects of the Israeli blockade. Events beyond Gaza have also made its residents restless. Netanyahu’s far-right coalition has galvanised the settler movement to assert its ‘sovereignty’ over the West Bank by launching pogroms, building more outposts and upsetting the delicate balance governing Jerusalem’s holy sites. Just this year, settlers have attacked Palestinians and their property in Burqa, Turmus Aya, Huwara and scores of other towns and villages. A Saudi-Israel normalisation deal, something strongly encouraged by the Biden administration, would have meant the loss of significant regional leverage, further undermining the Palestinian cause, especially coming after the Abraham Accords of 2020. Some will have felt that a spectacle of shock and awe was needed to shake up this new political dispensation, and Hamas realised it to terrifying effect.
Israeli leaders, spurred by a furious public, have taken the massacres of 7 October as licence to unleash havoc on the Palestinians. ‘The emphasis is on damage, not precision,’ explained one IDF official. At the time of writing, more than four thousand civilians in Gaza have been reported killed, including entire families wiped out by indiscriminate Israeli air strikes. On 13 October, the Israeli army ordered almost half the population, around 1.1 million people, to evacuate northern Gaza. Most have fled to southern cities such as Khan Younis and Rafah, but these are also under bombardment. Tents have been erected wherever space can be found, evoking memories of the first refugee camps built after the Nakba. The fear is that Israel intends not only to seize large portions of Gaza, but that it will try to force Palestinians into the Sinai desert. Gallant’s promise of a ‘new security reality’ only seemed to confirm this. Egypt has said publicly that it will not accept refugees from Gaza, but the proposal continues to circulate in diplomatic discussions under the pretext of providing a ‘humanitarian corridor’ for Palestinians – as though it were preferable to facilitate population transfer than to ask Israel for a ceasefire.
The violence is not limited to Gaza. In the West Bank, which is under an IDF-imposed lockdown, Israeli settlers and soldiers have killed more than eighty Palestinians in the last fortnight. Families have fled their homes. Moeen Dmeidi, the mayor of Huwara, which was the target of a massive settler attack in February, has spoken of ‘an unbelievable situation of collective punishment’. Palestinian citizens of Israel have been arrested and threatened for expressing their political views, even for ‘liking’ social media posts of verses from the Quran. On 20 October, Israel’s police commissioner, Yaakov Shabtai, ordered a sweeping ban on protests against Operation Iron Swords, saying: ‘Anyone who wants to identify with Gaza is welcome. I will put them on buses that will send them there.’ Politicians and pundits, already emboldened, make genocidal comments with impunity.
A parallel war is taking place online. On the night of 17 October, Al-Ahli Hospital in Gaza City was struck by a projectile, killing patients, medical staff and residents seeking shelter. A group of doctors held a press conference surrounded by corpses and described the scene after the blast, with dismembered bodies sprawled across the corridors. The Israeli army went on a media offensive, collating videos, aerial photos and what it claimed was a recording of two Hamas militants to prove that the blast was the result of an Islamic Jihad rocket. Palestinians and others disputed the claim, pointing to flaws in the evidence as well as the IDF’s track record of disinformation. Various media outlets, open source intelligence outfits and governments are investigating the incident, with no clear conclusion so far.
The heated speculation over the cause of the Al-Ahli blast has served to distract attention from the devastation Israel has inflicted in the rest of Gaza, indulged by its international allies. President Joe Biden, who visited Tel Aviv on 18 October, has asked Congress to supply billions of dollars’ worth of military and humanitarian aid to Israel; but only an initial $100 million in aid for Gaza. The head of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, travelled to Israel without waiting for a mandate from EU leaders and failed to call for Israel to follow international law in its reprisals. Referring to the hospital attack, Rishi Sunak, who also made a publicity visit to Israel, told Parliament: ‘If we don’t treat what comes out of the Kremlin as the gospel truth, we should not do the same with Hamas.’ The West’s distorted notion of the powerful and the powerless in Israel-Palestine has never been clearer.
It is in part because of that response that many Palestinians, to the frustration of some of their supporters, have been unable to contend, at least publicly, with the moral travesty of Hamas’s massacres. As they see it, Hamas inverted the violence of the occupation, inflicting on the oppressor a taste of the suffering it metes out routinely. On the streets and online, many Palestinian activists have dropped the language of diplomacy and stopped appealing to international laws that have failed them. They are no longer willing to accept the amnesiac narrative that says their grievances date to 1967 rather than 1948, and that their future lies in a quasi-state on only a fifth of their former homeland. Many are tired of apologising for violent resistance, as if violence were not inherent to all anti-colonial struggles. They are tired of Western governments and media that treat their resistance as more egregious than the Israeli occupation, while non-violent acts are deemed antisemitic or decried as ‘terrorism’. For Palestinians, the enemy is and has always been a settler colonial project intent on their erasure. And they fear that Gaza is at this moment on the verge of annihilation.
Hamas’s brutal attack demolished a psychological barrier more surely than it could any physical one. Since the end of the Second Intifada, Israeli society has tried to insulate itself from the military occupation it has imposed for more than half a century, maintaining a bubble punctured only occasionally by rocket barrages from Gaza or shootings in Israeli cities. It is telling that the mass protest movement which has been agitating since January against the government’s plans to overhaul the judiciary has kept the Palestinian question off its agenda. Apart from a small bloc of anti-occupation protesters, most Israelis have seemed to believe that the current system could bring them lasting safety.
That bubble has now burst. But the Palestinians are now the objects of the wrath of an Israeli government prepared to destroy Gaza and, if possible, expel its population. The recent – and unprecedented – pro-Palestine demonstrations in Cairo, Baghdad, Beirut, London, Paris, Washington and elsewhere make clear that millions recognise this moment for what it is and are ready to challenge their governments’ complicity in apartheid and its gruesome logic. But it will take much more than flags waved many miles away to help Palestinians fend off the ghost of Sharon in Gaza.
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