Genocide on Holy Lands

There is an ongoing massacre being committed by Israel on the Palestinians across its borders. The event is fast moving and rapidly changing. The entry here, last updated on October 15th, charts some of the beats in this ongoing conflict. It doesn’t and cannot introduce the longer and storied history of this conflict, or perfectly capture events and new developments. If reading from the future, understand that this is a time dated summary, meant to capture the events that unfolded between October 7th to the 16th.

ON October 7th of 2023, Palestinian rebels launched an audacious offensive out of the Gaza Strip. The rebels, who attacked Israel by land, sea and hang-gliders, were led by the militant group and political party known as Hamas. They dubbed the operation the Al-Aqsa Flood — so named as vengeance for a recent desecration of the Al-Aqsa Mosque, a prominent Islamic holy site, just a few days prior — but tensions were high even before that event. Diplomats had been warning about escalating violence — particularly faced by Palestinians — in the lead up to this surprising assault.

The Israel-Palestine conflict is often waived as a “complex” one – though the root of this conflict is simple. The nation of Israel is a developed member state of the United Nations that enjoys strong and continuous support from the United States and most of Europe. The Israeli government exerts this diplomatic, military, and economic pressure to control the unincorporated Palestinian territories: the Gaza Strip (~ 2 million people) and the West Bank (~3 million), though Israel’s government had been controversially expanding settlements beyond its legal borders for sometime. (Further context, Israel's population was estimated in 2022 to be over 9.6 million, with the Jewish segment of this population about 7 million.)

The Israeli government, paranoid that Palestinian freedom and autonomy may threaten its long-term existence, has wielded its economic, military, and political advantages to control and punish political affairs of the Palestinian territories. This has resulted in decades of human rights abuses, long hidden in the mainstream western press and politics. Humanitarian organizations, such as Human Rights Watch, have long classified the situation in the Gaza Strip as apartheid: the city is blockaded and embargoed by Israel and is physically separated from Israel by a physical border wall. The West Bank, though more autonomous, also faces oppression from the Israeli Defense Forces, denials of civil rights, and often faces provocation and aggressive retaliation by Israeli settlers. (For those interested in a contemporary history of Palestine, you will find none better and more succinct than Abby Martin's Gaza Fights for Freedom).

Map of Israel and the Palestinian territories, circa 2011.

It’s from this context that Hamas launched their incursion. Carried out on a Jewish holiday, the assault caught the Israeli military completely off-guard and resulted in early success for the rebels and a staggering Israeli death toll: over 1,000 Israelis were killed and IDF army bases were sacked and raided for weapons and supplies. The militants’ attacks were not limited to Israeli soldiers or government institutions: hundreds of civilians were killed, which included children and a massacre at a music festival. Hostages were also seized by Hamas — over one hundred abducted to be used as bargaining chips to negotiate with the Israeli government.

In the week that followed, bombs and scattered battles unfolded across Israel and Palestine. Although the bulk of fighting occurred in and around the Gaza strip, partisans in the West Bank clashed with the IDF as skirmishes with Hezbollah, a Lebanon-based militia group, were reported in the north. Israel immediately began a shelling of the Gaza Strip as retribution for Hamas’ attacks, which have been said to be the worst ever unleased on the city. At time of writing, Israel is preparing to initiate a full ground assault on Gaza.

A map created by War Mapper demonstrating the extent of the rebels gains as of October 9th. Rebels had broken out of the armistice lines. By Tuesday, October 10, it has been reported that the IDF had retaken territory seized by Hamas.

As news of Hamas’ attack began to spread, a global audience acted as a third party to the horrors of war playing out in real time through phone screens and computer monitors — a new ritual in the social media age. The world had on-demand access to shocking media portraying gore and carnage, though veracity of reported battles and travesties have been frequently unreliable. While geo-spatial social media apps such as Snapchat and Periscope allowed remote audiences to occupy the perspective of those on the ground in unfiltered detail, other social media applications — particularly  X (formerly Twitter) and TikTok — became giant vectors for misinformation. 

Public reaction to this disturbing news varied. Some saw Hamas’ offensive as an inevitable outcome of Israeli apartheid — a gruesome arrangement that has been occurring in Israel’s shadow for decade. Some fixated on the indiscriminate killings and brutality perpetrated by Hamas’ forces: foreign nationals, women and children are said to have been killed in their assaults or taken as hostages. Others began to worry about the expanded human cost of Israeli retaliation on the Gazan population as collective punishment. Many had no idea what to believe.

The wisdom of the Hamas operation has been called to question, particularly its indiscriminate attacks on children and civilian infrastructure, rather than focused attack on military or governmental targets. Beyond questions of morality, the attack created justification for a  massive Israeli counterattack (which is well underway), enabled the foreign press to frame the operation as cut-and-dry terrorism rather than indignant rebellion,  and afforded a pivot away from the sympathy being expanded to Palestinian among foreign audiences. Regardless, Hamas’ ability to launch such a successful attack arises out of the latent rage and frustration produced by decades of apartheid and oppression carried out by the Israeli government.

Map produced by The Institute for the Study of War and Critical Threats identify an outbreak of fighting between the IDF and rebels in the West Bank and Hezbollah in the north. As of writing, it’s unclear if these skirmishes will amount to a larger conflict.

For Palestinians, opinions on Hamas are wide-ranging. The organization enjoys much higher support in Gaza and is technically in control of the city’s limited government, though it does not hold elections. Though they hardly represent the majority of citizens even in Gaza, they are an incumbent and dominant force in Palestine and are generally understood to encumber the right-wing of the Palestinian resistance movement. They are also the force that the Israeli government helped bring to power in an attempt to counteract the then emergent Palestine Liberation Organization, which was secular and less militant (and which represented a bigger-threat to Israel's right-wing). Over the years, moderate forces have lost sway as they became sidelined, humiliated, and boxed out by successive Israeli governments. This political vacuum left a void for reactionary forces such as Hamas to fill, and, as a result, have enabled them to act as lead negotiators for the Palestinian territories.

What were Hamas’ motives for this attack? There are nonviolent strategies being pursued by the Palestinian liberation movement (such as BDS, a civil society push by expatriates in the US and Europe, and diplomatic attempts employed by Fatah, the Palestinian government in control of the West Bank). But again, suppression of these strategies by Israel and its western backers have made nonviolent strategies fruitless. This pushed many to pursue the confrontational tactics engineered by Hamas. An article published by the Council on Middle East Affairs summarized Hamas’ strategy concisely: 

“Israel has stamped out even the dimmest hope of ending its half-century occupation through diplomatic means. Successive Israeli governments have not only ditched the pretense of negotiating over a Palestinian state but have openly declared their intention to rule over Palestinians indefinitely, while denying them their basic rights and freedoms…As the deteriorating situation has made people increasingly desperate, Israel has responded with little beyond force, ramping up violence against Palestinians to a level not seen since the Second Intifada two decades ago.”

By investing in little beyond guns and bombs, Israel’s government was nurturing a status quo aimed to slowly erode the Palestinian will and population. Desperate to interrupt this, Hamas sought to shift the costs (human, economic, political) of this status quo onto Israel’s state and society. Khaled Elgindy, a fellow for a Brookings affiliated think-tank, summarized this situation in a blunt tweet thread:

“US & European diplomats like to say the ‘status quo is unsustainable’—but in reality it was sustainable as long as the costs were born exclusively or mostly by Palestinians. The Hamas operation was designed to dramatically and irrevocably alter that calculation.”

All this to say, there is a method to Hamas’ madness, though in writing this I have been urged to note that Hamas’ gambit may not have been conducted as an act of commitment to the broader liberation movement. Instead, the attack may have been engineered to compel a response from Israel which would allow Hamas to cement their status as chief negotiators on behalf of the Palestinian territories. It is certainly right to say that a majority of Palestinians are not affiliated with Hamas, and there are even internal divides within the organization. An article published on October 12th in The New Yorker details the secrecy and political decision making involved in Hamas’ operation. Though Hamas political leaders approved the overall plan, they had not approved actual details and were surprised by the Israeli military’s retreat and lack of confrontation.

The fog of war frustrates a deeper assessment of these allegations, but regardless of intent the status quo has, indeed, been altered. The IDF has been humiliated. Israeli society has been upended. Tel Aviv stocks have plummeted. Hamas has demonstrated the frailty of the Israeli war machine. And the wallets of settlers and tourists are egressing from Israel to escape protracted guerilla war, starving the colonial state of much-needed capital.

Photographs of Gazan blocks following shelling by the Israel. The Israeli Air Force posted these photos a post to X, boasting and acknowledging their destruction of Gaza. The photographer of two of the photos, Anas Al-Sharif, was uncredited by the IAF. 

The Israeli government’s response has been brutal. On October 7th, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced the government’s intent to retaliate against the people of Gaza, heedless of the effect an assault would have on the majority of Gazans who are unaffiliated with Hamas. In a message to the residents of the Gaza Strip, Netanyahu warned: “leave now because we will operate forcefully everywhere.” Gazans cannot leave the territory without approval from Israel, unless they are escaping through the Egyptian desert. (To be clear, this intentional displacement strategy is considered ethnic cleansing, a war crime.)

Two days later, Israel’s Defense Minister Yoav Gallant announced a genocidal threat: “I have ordered a complete siege on the Gaza Strip. There will be no electricity, no food, no fuel, everything is closed. We are fighting human animals and we will act accordingly.The median age of the so called animals that live in Gaza is 18. More than half are under the age of 24.

Israel’s retaliation escalated to an intensity unseen in prior sieges of the city. By October 12th, the United Nations reported that more than 1,400 Palestinians  have been killed, including 447 children. By October 15th, that number nearly doubled to 2,670. The Gaza Strip has run out of potable water and fuel, and healthcare facilities are at their breaking point. Eleven United Nations staffers have been killed, along with journalists covering the conflict. The UN reported that over one million Palestinians had been displaced after the first week. Human Rights Watch confirmed Israeli use of white phosphorus, a chemical agent that is banned outside of highly specific uses (which Israel is violating). The Israeli military has not bothered to justify their wide shelling or justify their breach of collective punishment, a war crime. On October 12th, Israel requested 1.1 million Gazans to be relocated out of the city with 24 hours notice; as some Gazans headed this call,  reports confirmed by major news outlets confirmed that the IDF is alleged to have struck at least three caravans of people trying to escape from Northern Gaza, killing 70 (the IDF claims Hamas carried out this strike). Given the scale and systemization of these missile-guided massacres, and taken in context of Palestinian deaths recorded over the last few decades, it's appropriate to call what we are seeing genocide

Death and casualty statistics as of October 11th, 2023. Based on information reported by the United Nations.

Defenders of Israel’s slaughter have noted that this aggressive, indiscriminate response is the result of the Gazans’ harboring of wider extremist sympathies. Israel’s President, Isaac Herzog, made this point publicly, stating:

“It is [all of Gaza] out there that is responsible. It is not true this rhetoric about civilians not being aware, not involved. It’s absolutely not true. They could have risen up. They could have fought against that evil regime which took over Gaza in a coup d’etat”

However, this same accusation is levied more convincingly at the people of Israel who, over the past decade, have allowed an increasingly far-right regime to take control of the Israeli state. An editorial published by Haaretz, a liberal daily in Israel, placed the cause of the attack squarely on Netanyahu and his political allies:

“The prime minister, who has prided himself on his vast political experience and irreplaceable wisdom in security matters, completely failed to identify the dangers he was consciously leading Israel into when establishing a government of annexation and dispossession, when appointing Bezalel Smotrich and Itamar Ben-Gvir to key positions, while embracing a foreign policy that openly ignored the existence and rights of Palestinians…”

Supplemental reporting on the conflict have described Israel’s rulers as a paranoid bunch, dominated by an absolute fear of Palestinian autonomy. Reporting on Israel’s domestic politics published in the Australian Financial Review is illustrative of the Israeli right’s evolving delusions:

“When the head of Shin Bet, the Israeli domestic intelligence service, warned Netanyahu earlier this year that deadly attacks by settlers on Palestinians would increase the security threat to Israel, he was roundly denounced by members of Netanyahu’s Likud party…[complaining] ‘the ideology of the left has reached the top echelons of the Shin Bet. The deep state has infiltrated the leadership of the Shin Bet and the IDF.’”

Prior Israeli administrations have conducted criminal and audacious assaults on the Palestinian people. But the fascistic bent of the current regime is uniquely brazen. It is an outgrowth of a radical, irredentist zionism that has ambitions to fully annex Palestine under the Israeli state. Erasing the will and numbers of the Palestinian people is seen as a way to move towards this goal. The boosters of this ideology have been so bent on this project  that they have, over the years, fostered an unofficial alliance with Hamas as a way to subvert the possibility of a two-state solution. Another article in Hareetz reported on Netanyahu’s long plot to bolster Palestinian hardliners:

“[Netanyahu’s] life work was to turn the ship of state from the course steered by his predecessors, from Yitzhak Rabin to Ehud Olmert, and make the two-state solution impossible. En route to this goal, he found a partner in Hamas.
‘Anyone who wants to thwart the establishment of a Palestinian state has to support bolstering Hamas and transferring money to Hamas,’ [Netanyahu] told a meeting of his Likud party’s Knesset members in March 2019. ‘This is part of our strategy – to isolate the Palestinians in Gaza from the Palestinians in the West Bank.’”

Despite boosterism for the government in the US media, the Israeli population seems to acknowledge the role this extremist faction has played in provoking this tragedy. A poll of 620 Jewish Israelis released by the Dialog Center reported that 86% of respondents found the attack a failure of government leadership. The existence of oppositional editorials in some of Israel's most widely circulated press suggests there is certainly opposition to the regime, though it remains to be seen if these currents can halt Israel’s depraved vengeance. 

Photo displayed destruction of Gaza. From AP Photo/Hatem Ali

International ambivalence to Israel’s rising extremism allowed for tensions to fester. Even as the country drifted further and further to the right, Israel’s neighboring Arab states moved to normalize diplomatic relations with Israel while turning a blind eye to Palestine's fate. A narrowing lack of care for the Palestinian’s fate across the Arab world likely drove some part of this attack. Israeli journalist Haggai Matar described the geopolitical components at play in an essay published in +972 Magazine:

“For years, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been making the case that peace can be achieved without talking to Palestinians or making any concessions. The Abraham Accords have stripped Palestinians of one of their last bargaining chips and support bases: the solidarity of Arab governments, despite that solidarity having long been questionable. The high likelihood of losing perhaps the most important of those Arab states may well have helped push Hamas to the edge.”

The United States, of course, has played a dominant role in enabling expansionist delusions in Israel’s government. Aside from the routine and unending financial and technological support provided to the Israeli state — over $3 billion a year — Republicans and Democrats have only enabled Israel’s facilitation of Palestinian suffering. President Trump inflamed tensions during his brief reign in the United States (the Arab Center of DC has put out a strong list charting Trump's affronts). However, the Biden Administration has also been unwilling to challenge or question the Israeli state’s escalating oppression; and Biden's team has, shockingly, done nothing to challenge or constrain Israel as it initiated its war crimes against Gaza. Biden's doubling-down in support for Israel despite its transparent ethnic cleansing campaign contains an electoral calculation: Biden's unwillingness to challenge or confront Israel's erratic response had received high praise from domestic right-wing critics in the wake of the attacks.

A distressingly small number of US politicians have been willing to acknowledge the deeper context explained by diplomats, journalists, analysts and researchers in the international press. In the wake of Hamas’ attack, elected representatives of the Democratic Party tripped over themselves to broadcast their support for Israel’s right to “defend” itself from the people being oppressed on the lands it is illegally occupying. These hollow statements do not diagnose the cause of the incursion nor propose relevant solutions to ending the cycle of bloodshed. But they do hide the mass death and war crimes being waged by the Israeli war machine in pursuit of their “defense”.

The wider danger here, aside from covering-up a genocide, is perpetuating the political and diplomatic decisions that caused this in the first place. There was a strange collective mania powering the initial response to the Israeli siege of Gaza identified by David Klion in an article written for n+1. His words describe this familiar sensation:

“I [can’t] remember a time since 9/11 when emotion and bloodlust overwhelmed reason as thoroughly as they do now, including among liberal elites in media and politics. The lasting impact of the 9/11 attacks was a kind of collective psychosis that overcame most Americans…These were the conditions in which it was possible to sell the public, including leading liberal outlets, on a destructive imperial adventure in Iraq that virtually everyone now acknowledges was premised on false intelligence and wildly hubristic ambitions.”

We are seeing that very real post-9/11 mania play out again. And so part of the national conversation has involved an attempt to wedge a growing divide between the left and silence those who support Palestinian liberation. New York Governor Kathy Hochul called a rally which was endorsed by the NYC chapter of the Democratic Socialists that centered the plight of Palestinians over those of Israelis “abhorrent and morally repugnant.” A spokesperson from Rep. Hakeem Jefferies, leader of the House Democratic Caucus, condemned the same rally and called out NYC DSA directly, as did New York Democratic Party Chairman Jay Jacobs. On college campuses, students sympathetic to the Palestinians were being doxxed and blamed for the massacres committed by Hamas. And protests calling for an end to Palestinian apartheid were consistently framed as "pro-hamas" by cynical critics in the media and in politics.

The news media also repeated unverified lies about Hamas’ attack, taking the notoriously untrustworthy Israeli government at its word, as a way to justify the atrocities committed on the Gazans. On MSNBC — a mass media station that operates in close-coordination with the Democratic Party — Muslim broadcasters critical of Israel’s siege were quietly taken off the air. And politicians who called for even a modicum of restraint in Israel’s retaliation — such as Senator Bernie Sanders and Congresswoman Rashida Talib — received explosive denunciation from across Republicans and Democrats, with some alleging them anti-semites and surrogates of terrorism. 

The White House also joined the fight against the party’s grassroots, which has been growing more and more sympathetic to Palestine’s plight over the years. The Biden Administration had been nakedly justifying the Netanyahu regime’s genocidal aims, going so far as instructing State Department staff to downplay talk of de-escalation. When asked for the Administration’s response to calls from the left for a cease fire, White House Press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre fired:

“I’ve seen some of those statements [which called for cease-fire] this weekend, and we’re going to continue to be very clear. We believe they’re wrong, we believe they’re repugnant, and we believe they’re disgraceful.”

Meanwhile, Marco Rubio, a sitting Republican Senator, openly pondered complete extermination of the Gazans. Senator Lindsay Graham made calls to “level” Gaza unquestioned on live television. Stu Loeser, adviser to New York Democrats on Jewish issues, baldly told the New York Times that “This is not a time for nuance… It is an important which-side-are-you-on moment.” 

In the face of this ostracization, the American left deliberated on its response to the attack. A fast-moving debate transpired about how an anti-war, anti-racist strategy should be pursued without abandoning commitments to anti-colonialism (and the shocking violence implied by resistance). Two articles published in Dissent epitomized the debate that transpired across the left: Joshua Leifer’s “Toward a Humane Left” and Gabriel Winant’s “On Mourning and Statehood”

Debates around how to put an end to Israel’s occupation have in fact been contentious across the broader left. In the DSA, support for Palestinian freedom is uniform across the organization's subfactions and chapters, but tactical deliberations have often left the membership divided. Debates over how democratic socialists should apply pressure to its surrogates in the Congress have been persistent, but the issue is also relevant at the local level: legislation to suppress free speech and coordinate domestic police forces with the Israeli military threaten the safety and civil rights of domestic activists and cut off channels for peaceful dissent to Israeli apartheid. (Opposition to these local provisions have become un-officially mandatory for politicians seeking DSA endorsements, but some have questioned candidates’ resolve in standing up to these laws once they are elected to office.)

Vocal criticism of the Israeli government, just as vocal criticism of the United States government, does not always mean unmasking the underlying conditions that create harm — to make this visible in defiance of a global panoply of vested interests is historically proven to be difficult. However, supporters for Palestinian freedom are not in the “business” of solidarity because it is popular. Denouncing violence in vague, non prescriptive monotone is popular and easy: A nonviolent world is undoubtedly the one most of us would want to live in. But it is irresponsible not to recognize the asymmetry in what we’ve been conditioned to think of as violence. It is equally important not to undermine the deeper empathy that decolonization requires of all of us. 

In a New Yorker interview conducted in the week after the attack, Tareq Baconi, president of the Palestinian Policy Network (a think-tank), explained this idea:

“Part of the issue here is that it’s really important for us to go back to centering the primary cause in any anti-colonial struggle, which is colonial violence. It’s crucial to ground the discussion in that context because Hamas’s violence isn’t coming out of the blue…This is the first time I have been interviewed by The New Yorker, and it’s happening because Israelis were killed. What happened when Palestinians were killed in the thousands, just in the fifteen years that I’ve been covering Hamas? And so, when we really want to think about what this driver of violence is—and the pictures that have been coming out are sickening—we need to understand that colonial violence instills dehumanization both in the oppressor and in the oppressed.”

For many who call themselves allies of Israel, their support is actually quite limited, going no further than providing subsidy for weapons manufacturers and surveillance attaches while reflexively denying the reality of apartheid and oppression. This zombie strategy of unqualified boosterism for state repression has done little more than prop up an Israeli regime which has only eroded paths to peaceful resolution. If this form of hollow allyship continues, there will be more blood and tragedy on all sides, to say nothing of the potential for explosion into a wider regional conflict.  

Image produced by the Financial Times mapping Palestinian and Israeli deaths between September 2000 and October 2023. Palestinian deaths have overwhelmingly outnumbered deaths of Israelis, though these consistent and recurrent deaths go hardly reported, remarked or denounced. Educating this context became the mission of the left following outbreak of violence in Israel and Palestine.

By the end of the week the left had largely settled its debates and regrouped to mount a wider resistance against Israel's ongoing war crimes and apartheid regime. Calls against Israel deranged response grew as deeper education about this conflict's context began to breach through mainstream media. De-centralized activist networks, left-wing organizations and independent press outlets were at the vanguard of this information war.

Meanwhile, Muslim and Jewish religious networks began to mobilize opposition to the US Government’s support for Israel’s genocide and apartheid regime. Muslims and arabs across the United States organized protests and shows of support for the Palestinian cause, as large Jewish organizations – such as Jewish Voice for Peace and If Not Now — organized protests and announced a pressure campaigns to call for ceasefire and an end to apartheid in Israel. 

On October 14th, large protests erupted in cities across the United States urging an end to Israel’s atrocities and occupation. The DSA, which was denounced by many cynical politicians earlier in the week, held their position, called for protests against military aggression, and initiated a public pressure campaign to urge a ceasefire and to end the siege of Gaza. Labor organizations also began to release statement speaking out against unchecked war-aide to Israel.

Yet, at time of writing it’s unclear if the lethal injustice occurring in Gaza will come to an end. And there is a wider risk of domestic blowback for the center-left. Failure of US leadership to reign in Israel’s genocide have inflicted a deep scar on the Biden Administration and permanently damaged support for the Democrats from its crucial left-flank. Though Biden began to walk back some of the Israeli boosterism by the end of the week, it remains to be seen if any action will really be taken to reign in the apartheid state’s behavior. And Israel’s atrocities against the Gazans have already been conducted — will crimes be charged?

There are certainly no easy answers to the decades of conflict and tension that sparked these massacres. It remains to be seen how, or if, the deep divides between Israel and Palestine are healed, and how the American government can ever regain credibility as a moral force after failing to intervene in a genocide committed by a close ally. No resolution can begin until the root cause of this war is understood and undenied: an apartheid regime that had flirted with the slow eradication of a captive native population provoked a violent revolt. The gore will continue until Palestine is freed.

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