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The Palestinian Cause Cannot Justify Hamas's Depravity
Despite its trauma, Israel should use appropriate, not overwhelming, force
Israel has been in shock since Saturday when news of Hamas's brutal attacks jolted the country out of its Simchat Torah celebrations with one horror story after another. Each new instance attested to the unspeakable brutality and the utter lack of humanity of this godless group. As of now, Hamas has murdered at least 1,200 people and injured 2,700—and the brutal counting continues. At least 100 people have reportedly been kidnapped and taken hostage, including children and the elderly. Young women were raped next to the corpses of their friends. One woman’s naked dead body was paraded around in a truck while Hamas militants yelled and jeered. Over 200 attendees at a music festival in Israel’s south were gunned down in cold blood. Entire families in a kibbutz were slaughtered and beheaded, including babies.*
Akiva’s family lives in Katamon, Jerusalem, some 47 miles north of the towns near the Gaza border that have borne the brunt of these crimes against humanity. But his neighborhood has hardly remained unaffected. Hamas’s rockets have reached very close to Katamon causing sirens to go off constantly. Area residents get a 90-second allowance to take cover—a luxury compared to the 15 seconds that those near Gaza get. Although the rockets aimed at Jerusalem and its vicinity have largely—though not always—been intercepted by Israel’s Iron Dome before they hit ground, the sheer terror induced by the prospect of being killed or wounded by a rocket—or of terrorists infiltrating cities, or of the war spreading closer to home at the northern border—- has caused his mother’s clinical psychology practice—and that of hundreds of other mental health practitioners in the country—to be flooded with people seeking help for anxiety and trauma.
But of course they are the lucky ones. Not so lucky are those whose dead bodies his family and neighbors have volunteered help to purify before burial because there is suddenly an acute shortage of people who normally perform these rituals, as there is of grave diggers.
The kind of savagery Hamas has harbored and now unleashed stems not from any legitimate political aspiration but a simple hatred of Jews. The outfit has been on America’s terrorist list since 1997 and terrorists, by definition, target innocent civilians. But Hamas’s macabre delight in its heinous deeds puts it in the league of a death cult like ISIS. Worse, perhaps, because even ISIS didn’t behead babies.*
History and Causes
Unlike other Palestinian organizations like the Palestinian Liberation Organization and its member Fatah that governs the West Bank, Hamas has never acknowledged Israel’s right to exist—although the organization’s 2017 charter purged the unhinged anti-Semitic conspiracy theories and calls to destroy Israel and everyone who lives there that were part of its 1988 charter. But the latest episode shows that Hamas never gave up on the goals of its original charter.
Hamas was explicitly founded not simply to gain sovereignty for Palestinians (a worthy goal that we both wholeheartedly support) but eliminate Israel and establish an Islamist regime. It has neither any interest in making peace with Israel nor even extending basic freedoms to the Palestinians (more on this later).
But if Hamas emerged and, what is more, flourished, it cannot be denied that this is at least partly because of Israel’s cruel 16-year-long blockade of Gaza and the brutal occupation of the West Bank. Since the collapse of the 1993 Oslo Peace Accords (following the murder of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, the architect of the Accords, by a Jewish extremist) and the peace deal that President Bill Clinton tried to forge subsequently, Israel has gone about building a country as if a legitimate Palestinian cause did not exist. It has literally and metaphorically built a containment wall around the Palestinian regions—and enforced it with state violence—while trying to go on with business as usual. But hopes of building a normal life for one people—while offering no such possibility to its neighbors with whom its life is intertwined— is simply not realistic. No one expected Hamas’s macabre stunt but many have been fearing another intifada—and another.
Israel formally withdrew from Gaza in 2005 because it wanted neither the military burden of governing it or the prospect of having its Jewish character diluted by absorbing the Arab population. In practice this meant that Gaza could choose its government to manage its internal affairs while Israel would control its borders and economy in the name of national security. To prevent Gaza from militarizing after Hamas came into power, Israel sharply constrained the flow of people and goods between Gaza, territorial Israel and the West Bank, turning the spigot of free movement on and off at its discretion. Since 2007, the two million Palestinians in the 365 square kilometer Gaza strip have been subjected to an air, land, and sea embargo with only the minimum entry of goods allowed. Exports have nearly stopped. Meanwhile, Israel supervises all the international aid to Gaza.
Hamas’s meticulously planned attack has exposed the spectacular failure of this approach to national security. But this approach has succeeded in turning Gaza, which many have appropriately compared to an open air prison, into one of the poorest societies on earth where some 53% of Gazans live under the poverty line; 77% of households receive some form of aid; and 62% require food assistance. A whopping 46.6% of Palestinians in Gaza are unemployed and the youth unemployment rate is at a heart-breaking 62.5%. Electricity is available only sporadically and is under the control of the Israeli government, as is water and telecommunications. Almost 78% of piped water in Gaza is undrinkable. Gazans can’t exit or enter Israel or the West Bank for work without permission from Israel, which, despite some recent easing, remains hard to get.
This has made Gazans more sympathetic to Hamas and its militancy than it otherwise might have been. But Israel has also contributed more directly to Hamas’s existence by giving it funding in its early years to be a “counterweight” to the secularists and leftists of the Palestine Liberation Organization and Fatah, which now controls the West Bank.
The Dynamic of Radicalization
That was an epic mistake. Hamas thrives on radicalizing Palestinians against Israel and Israel’s draconian measures have only handed it more ammunition. What’s more, Israeli policies have also helped Hamas escape accountability for its kleptocratic and repressive ways. Its leaders have grown wealthy even as ordinary Gazans starve. They have imposed punishing taxes and tariffs while lining their own pockets. This March, Hamas faced a veritable revolt when it attempted to increase duties on fruits and vegetables coming from Israel from 120% to 230%. It routinely raids aid packages and donations by the international community. In effect, ordinary Palestinians are victimized twice, first by Israel and then by Hamas.
Hamas came to power in 2006 on a plurality in a fiercely contested election. It hasn’t permitted another election since and has ruled with an iron fist. In 2022, Hamas authorities executed five Palestinians who had been accused of collaborating with Israel, marking an end to a five-year hiatus of executions. About 62% of Gazans believe that they cannot speak freely and are afraid to express what they really think. Freedom House gives Gaza a score of 11 out of 100 on its protection of political and civil rights. It is unsurprising that some 48% of Gazans want to leave. Hundreds have died in desperate journeys for Europe or nearby countries in the Mediterranean.
It is hard to accurately gauge Gazan sentiment toward Hamas given the fear it has instilled in those it is supposed to represent, but there is reason to believe that were it not for Israel’s blockade, military incursions, and rule-of-law violations, the Hamas government would be still more unpopular with Palestinians. A 2022 poll found that 53% of Gazans at least somewhat agree that Hamas should stop calling for Israel’s destruction while 73% of Palestinians believe that Hamas is corrupt.
Unsurprisingly, the West Bank—not Gaza— is where Hamas had been gaining popularity because the Fatah government has come to be seen as too weak and feckless to deal with Israel’s illegal—and increasingly violent—occupation. Israel has never ceased to change the “facts of the ground” and expand Jewish settlements in disputed areas that Palestinians wanted to be part of their homeland under the now defunct two-state solution. In 2018, The Atlantic noted that when the settlement zones, the illegal outposts, and the other areas off limits to Palestinian development were consolidated, they covered almost 60% of the West Bank.
And things have only gotten worse under Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s hard-right government. His National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir, head of the Jewish Power movement, has incensed Palestinians by visiting the Temple Mount/Al Aqsa mosque in violation of a standing agreement. He has called for the shooting of Palestinian protestors in the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood of East Jerusalem, among numerous other equally terrible things. Meanwhile, Bezalel Smotrich of the Religious Zionist Party, who is the Finance Minister and holds a post in the Defense Ministry dealing with West Bank affairs, is a convicted terrorist who has called for the annihilation of Palestinian villages.
Just as Hamas refuses to acknowledge the right of Israel to exist, Smotrich denies the very existence of a Palestinian people. Settler extremists in the West Bank feel emboldened with the duo in charge and on several occasions have gone on a rampage against Palestinians—much to the dismay of the broader settler community and Israelis in general. But the trouble is that Israel—and Israelis—haven’t cared enough to get a grip on the settlement issue. Even before the Netanyahu government came to power in February, successive Israeli governments have turned a blind eye to settlement expansion.
Crossing Boundaries, Wiping Out Lines
Israel’s subjugation of the Palestinian population is real but nothing justifies the medieval brutality of Hamas and the slaughter and kidnapping of innocents. Hamas has crossed literally every line of civilized behavior—not to mention international law or the laws of war.
Terrorism and suicide bombings are a weapon of the weak who have no other means to stand up to the military power at the disposal of strong, centralized states. Such tactics are never justified but they are explicable. Hamas’s depravity, on the other hand, is neither justified nor explicable.
It has contempt for Jewish lives but it’s not like it cares for those of Palestinians either given that it has taken Jewish hostages and likely embedded themselves and its forces in Palestinian civilian areas—in effect using both Jews and ordinary Palestinians as human shields.
Winning the Peace
This will infinitely complicate Israel’s military operation to purge Hamas and rescue the hostages without jeopardizing Palestinian civilians. However, just as Palestinian statehood does not justify Hamas’s shocking actions, Israel’s security needs don’t justify an “overwhelming” response —only what’s necessary to protect itself. Hamas’s nihilism does not give Israel license to abandon basic morality.
Hence Israel’s Defense Minister Yoav Gallant’s command to lay a “complete siege” on Gaza and cut off electricity, food, water or medicine to the civilian population is hard to justify. Visiting mass starvation and misery on Palestinian civilians who were as clueless about Hamas’s nefarious designs as Mossad will only set the stage for yet another round in this long and ever-more-dreadful cycle of violence.
Right now, Hamas’s savagery has generated a wave of sympathy for Israel. But an eye-for-an-eye approach that green lights gratuitous cruelty and causes an unnecessary loss of Palestinian lives will discredit Israel. President Joe Biden and others who have risen to its defense will be put on the defensive.
Israel’s counter-offensive needs to be guided by what would be effective, not a desire for revenge or inflicting collective punishment.
And as elusive as the goal might seem right now, once it has regained security, it needs to rededicate itself to making peace with the Palestinians on just terms.
If there is anything good to come out of this atrocity, let it be that. The Palestinian cause does not deserve Hamas. And the Israeli cause deserves a sober response to this outfit’s depravity.
Update: This claim went viral after Nicole Zedek, a reporter with Tel Aviv-based news channel i24, said during a live broadcast that she had spoken to Israeli soldiers who had witnessed decapitated babies. We were initially dubious about this claim but few very questioning it and many world leaders, including President Biden, were repeating it. So we included it here. But the Israeli Defense Forces have since failed to verify the story and, as of now, there is no evidence of it. That Hamas killed babies was horrific enough. Why an already horrific event needed to be embellished raises interesting questions of the role of propaganda in warfare.
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