I have covered this conflict for almost 50 years, and I’ve seen Israelis and Palestinians do a lot of awful things to one another: Palestinian suicide bombers blowing up Israeli discos and buses; Israeli fighter jets hitting neighborhoods in Gaza that house Hamas fighters but also causing massive civilian casualties. But I’ve not seen something like what happened last weekend: individual Hamas fighters rounding up Israeli men, women and children, looking them in the eyes, gunning them down and, in one case, parading a naked woman around Gaza to shouts of “Allahu akbar.”
The last time I witnessed that level of face-to-face barbarism was the massacre of Palestinian men, women and children by Christian militiamen in the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps in Beirut in 1982, where the first victim I encountered was an older man with a white beard and a bullet hole in his temple.
While I have no illusions about Hamas’s long-established commitment to the destruction of the Jewish state, I am nonetheless asking myself today: Where did this ISIS-like impulse for mass murder as the primary goal come from? Not the seizing of territory, but plain murder? There is something new here that is important to understand.
Since I can’t interview the Hamas leadership, I’m drawing on my experience in the region, and here’s how I see it.
While this operation was surely planned by Hamas leaders months ago, I think its emotional origins can be explained in part by a photograph that appeared in the Israeli press on Oct. 3. A few Israeli government ministers had gone to Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, for their first official visit ever, to attend international conferences in late September and early October, and it got a lot of coverage in the Israeli press.
But having lived in both Beirut and Jerusalem, I was struck most by that unusual photo — an image that I knew would trigger completely different emotional reactions in both worlds.
It was taken by the team of Israel’s communications minister, Shlomo Karhi, who was attending a U.N. postal conference in Riyadh, as they were conducting a prayer service in their hotel room for the Jewish holiday of Sukkot. One of them took a picture of a colleague wearing a traditional Jewish prayer shawl and yarmulke while holding up a Torah scroll with the Riyadh skyline in the window beyond.
For Israeli Jews, that picture is a dream come true — the ultimate expression of finally being accepted in the Middle East, more than a century after the start of the Zionist movement to build a modern democratic state in the biblical homeland of the Jewish people. To be able to pray with a Torah in Saudi Arabia, the birthplace of Islam and the home of its two holiest cities, Mecca and Medina, is a level of acceptance that touches the soul of every Israeli Jew.
But that same photo ignites a powerful and emotional rage in many Palestinians, particularly those affiliated with the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood, including Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad. For them, that picture is the full expression of the Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s supreme goal: to prove to all naysayers, indeed to rub their noses in the fact, that he can make peace with all the Arab states — even Saudi Arabia — and not have to give the Palestinians a single inch.
As far as diplomacy goes, that has been Netanyahu’s life’s mission: to prove to everyone that Israel can have its cake — acceptance by all the surrounding Arab states — and eat the Palestinians’ territory, too.
I have no idea whether the Hamas leadership saw that particular picture, but they have been fully aware of the ongoing evolution it reflects. I believe one reason Hamas not only launched this assault now — but also seemingly ordered it to be as murderous as possible — was to trigger an Israeli overreaction, like an invasion of the Gaza Strip, that would lead to massive Palestinian civilian casualties and in that way force Saudi Arabia to back away from the U.S.-brokered deal now in discussion to promote normalization between Riyadh and the Jewish state. As well as to force the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Morocco, which were part of the Abraham Accords produced by the Trump administration, to take a step back from Israel.
The essence of Hamas’s message to Netanyahu and his far-right ruling coalition of Jewish supremacists and ultra-Orthodox is this: You will never be at home here — no matter how much of our land our gulf Arab brothers sell you. We will force you to lose your minds and do crazy things to Gaza that force the Arab states to shun you.
Pay attention: Hamas did not send operatives to the Israeli-occupied West Bank (and it has plenty there) to attack Jewish settlements. It focused its onslaught on Israeli villages and kibbutz farms that were not part of the Israeli-occupied West Bank.
“These were the homes of the people of pre-1967 Israel, democratic Israel, liberal Israel — living in peaceful kibbutzim or going to a life-loving disco party,” the Israeli writer Ari Shavit remarked to me. For Hamas, “Israel’s mere existence is a provocation,” he said. In one kibbutz alone, Be’eri, at least 108 people, including children, were just gunned down.
So how can America best help Israel now, besides standing behind its right to protect itself, as President Biden so forcefully did in his speech today? I think the U.S. needs to do three things.
First, I hope the president is asking Israel to ask itself this question as it considers what to do next in Gaza: What do my worst enemies want me to do — and how can I do just the opposite?
What Israel’s worst enemies — Hamas and Iran — want is for Israel to invade Gaza and get enmeshed in a strategic overreach there that would make America’s entanglement in Falluja look like a children’s birthday party. We are talking house-to-house fighting that would undermine whatever sympathy Israel has garnered on the world stage, deflect world attention from the murderous regime in Tehran and force Israel to stretch its forces to permanently occupy Gaza and the West Bank.
Hamas and Iran absolutely do not want Israel to refrain from going into Gaza very deep or long.
Nor does Hamas want the U.S. and Israel to proceed instead as fast as possible with negotiations to normalize relations with Saudi Arabia as part of a deal that would also require Israel to make real concessions to the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank, which has accepted Israel as part of the Oslo peace accords.
But for Israel to do what is most in its interests, not those of Hamas and Iran, will likely require some very tough love between Biden and Netanyahu. One must never forget that Netanyahu always seemed to prefer to deal with a Hamas that was unremittingly hostile to Israel than with its rival, the more moderate Palestinian Authority — which Netanyahu did everything he could to discredit, even though the Palestinian Authority has long worked closely with Israeli security services to keep the West Bank quiet, and Netanyahu knows it.
Netanyahu has never wanted the world to believe that there are “good Palestinians” ready to live side by side with Israel in peace and try to nurture them. For years now he’s always wanted to tell U.S. presidents: What do you want from me? I have no one to talk to on the Palestinian side.
That’s how Israel reached a stage where the increasingly costly — morally and financially — Israeli occupation of the West Bank has not even been an issue in the last five Israeli elections.
Or as Chuck Freilich, a former deputy Israeli national security adviser, wrote in an essay in Haaretz on Sunday: “For a decade and a half Prime Minister Netanyahu has sought to institutionalize the divide between the West Bank and Gaza, undermine the Palestinian Authority, the P.A., and conduct de facto cooperation with Hamas, all designed to demonstrate the absence of a Palestinian partner and to ensure that there could be no peace process that might have required territorial compromise in the West Bank.”
Lastly, I hope Biden is telling Netanyahu that America will do everything it can to help democratic Israel defend itself from the theocratic fascists of Hamas — and their soul brothers of Hezbollah in Lebanon, should they enter the fight.
But Netanyahu’s side of the bargain is that he has to reconnect himself with liberal democratic Israel, so the world and the region sees this not as a religious war but as a war between the frontline of democracy and the frontline of theocracy. That means Netanyahu has to change his cabinet, expel the religious zealots and create a national unity government with Benny Gantz and Yair Lapid.
Unfortunately, Netanyahu is still prioritizing his coalition of zealots, whom he needs to protect him from his corruption trial and to complete his judicial coup that would neuter the Supreme Court of Israel. That’s really messed up.
And it is a very important reason Israel was caught off guard in the first place. Netanyahu was so wedded to this personal agenda that he was ready to divide Israeli society like never before — and splinter his own army and air force in the process — to get control of the courts.
I promise you that if and when there’s an inquiry into how the Israeli Army could have so missed this Hamas buildup, investigators will discover that the Israeli Army leadership had to spend so much time just keeping its air force pilots and reserve officers from boycotting their service to protest Netanyahu’s judicial coup — not to mention the time, attention and resources they had to devote to preventing extremist settlers and religious zealots from doing crazy things in Jerusalem and the West Bank — that they took their eyes off the ball.
America cannot protect Israel in the long run from the very real threats it faces unless Israel has a government that reflects the best, not the worst, of its society, and unless that government is ready to try to forge compromises with the best, not the worst, of Palestinian society.
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