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Eyeless in Gaza

Fintan O’Toole
What lessons do people actually learn from the cruelties they applaud and the ones they suffer in return?

Ilia Yefimovich/Picture Alliance/Getty Images

An Israeli residential building struck by rockets fired by Hamas, Ashkelon, October 7, 2023

In the Jewish legend, the great warrior Samson ends up, as John Milton famously puts it, “eyeless in Gaza.” He is blinded by the Philistines and harnessed to a huge millstone, forced to drag himself around and around in circles, always moving but unable to go anywhere. Eventually, in the most spectacular of suicides, he gets his revenge by pulling down their temple on top of the Philistines, killing both them and himself. The story is apparently supposed to be heroic, but it feels more like a fable of vicious futility. Cruelty begets cruelty until there is nothing left but mutual destruction.

In the Book of Judges, where we find the Samson story, God has delivered the children of Israel into subjugation by their enemies as punishment because they “did that which was evil in the sight of the Lord.” As it happens, Hamas’s forebears, the Muslim Brotherhood, held the same belief. The Harvard scholar of the Middle East Sara Roy tells us that, after Israel’s victory in the war of 1967, “the Brethren in Gaza especially remained convinced that the loss of Palestine was God’s punishment for neglecting Islam.” It seems that God has a peculiar way of chastising his various chosen peoples in Israel and Palestine: by inflicting them on each other. With millenarian religious believers in power on both sides of the Gaza wall, it seems that this blood-dimmed vision is again being played out as reality.

The Hamas incursion, in which more people died violently in Israel in a single day than ever before in the turbulent history of the state, is frightful. Even in the present state of the world, the murder, wounding, and kidnapping of so many defenseless civilians is shocking in its depravity. Hamas’s knowing provocation of Israel’s wrath against a Gazan population it cannot then defend shows that it cares as little for its own civilians as it does for the enemy’s. The dehumanization of the whole population of Gaza by Israel’s defense minister, Yoav Gallant, who said that “we are fighting against human animals,” and his explicit threat to deprive civilians of food and electricity are also profoundly disturbing. Retaliation against noncombatants has been established as Israel’s equal and opposite reaction to Hamas’s crimes and it foreshadows horrors even greater than the many hundreds of Gazans already killed by Israeli air strikes. Yet none of this is truly surprising. Nothing justifies these assaults, but when violence has become the only means of communication, everyone knows that its language will be spoken—and not in whispers but in screams.

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It is hard, from the outside, to understand how Israel could have become so complacent about this inevitability. The country has historically had a strange naiveté about Islamism. In 1986, a year before Hamas was formed, Israel’s military governor of Gaza, General Yitzhak Segev, acknowledged that “We extend some financial aid to Islamic groups via mosques and religious schools in order to help create a force that would stand against the leftist forces which support the PLO.” Radical Islamism seemed a safer alternative to the more secular Fatah movement. But any notion that jihadism was somehow going to be nicer or more malleable than leftist Palestinian nationalism was surely vaporized a long time ago. Even if global events this century had not revealed the inherent murderousness of this strain of religious zealotry, Israel should have known from the start that Hamas’s rejection of the two-state solution supported by Fatah is rooted in the conviction that Palestine itself is a god-given Islamic endowment. The persistence in Israeli policy of the notion that Hamas is a useful force because it divides Palestinians has always seemed a form of willful blindness.

It might have made some sense had there been a consistent strategy of encouraging Hamas to move away from militarism. But democratic politics in Gaza and the West Bank collapsed after January 2006, when Hamas won what international observers judged to be fair and well-run elections for the Palestinian Legislative Council. Exit polls suggested that the main concern of voters was to end the flagrant corruption of Fatah’s rule. Yet both the US and Israel rejected those election results and imposed financial and other sanctions against the Palestinian National Authority. The message was clear: Palestinians would be punished for voting for the wrong people. Hamas would not be allowed to function as a democratic political party.

In Northern Ireland, a successful peace process was built by drawing Sinn Féin, the political wing of the extremely violent IRA, into democratic politics. The US, having strongly encouraged this process in Ireland, adopted the opposite strategy with Hamas. It was to be kept out of politics and its voters in Gaza were to be similarly isolated by being confined to the strip and kept in limbo. We will never know whether a different strategy might have allowed Hamas to shed its jihadist skin, but this brutal demonstration of the futility of electoral politics surely closed off that possibility.

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Instead of a political process, Israel implicitly assumed that there can be such a thing as an acceptable level of violence: sporadic rocket attacks from Gaza on Israeli civilians followed by retaliatory incursions by Israel to inflict a greater retribution, often also on Palestinian civilians. The blockade became permanent as a fully institutionalized form of containment. Israel came to believe that the problem of Hamas could be literally walled off, penned behind concrete, and deflected by a forcefield of human intelligence gathering and electronic surveillance. Hence the stunned incredulity at the scale and effectiveness of Saturday’s assault.  

Yet was it ever likely that keeping 2.3 million people in a state of suspended animation would make Israel safe? The idea seemed to be that the Gazans would learn from bitter experience that every suffering they inflicted on Israelis would be returned to them tenfold, and they would, as a result, be pacified. But that calculation depended on the notion that the ordinary inhabitants of Gaza have political agency, that they can in effect tell Hamas what to do or not to do. The problem is that it makes little sense to rely on the agency of people who have been rendered politically powerless. It’s impossible to tell people that their votes don’t count, force them to live in a state of humiliation and impotence, and then expect them to assert themselves collectively against a well-funded and deeply rooted jihadist movement that promises them both patriotic pride and religious redemption.

To understand why many Gazans could cheer on hideous atrocities against Israeli civilians, we have to remember what so many other asymmetric conflicts have taught us: absolute powerlessness corrupts absolutely. Strip away the capacity to make decisions and you also disable the faculty of moral responsibility. What Israelis experienced on October 7 was the terror of statelessness. Their extremist government, convinced that Israel was so safe that it could afford to turn its violence inward, against its own liberal infidels, had effectively abandoned them. They were back, for a terrible moment, in the world of European pogroms, where there was no state to defend them against the depredations of the mobs. It is easy to understand how sickeningly disorienting that would be for anyone, let alone for Jews for whom that dread is lodged in the very marrow of their bones. It is less easy for those who are still reeling from this nausea to reflect that this is what statelessness feels like for Palestinians too.

There is no doubt that Israel can, if it chooses, level Gaza city, kill many thousands of its inhabitants, and hunt down Hamas militants. It can, and presumably will, enact a biblical revenge. It may even believe that this time, if the punishment is sufficiently severe, the Gazans will learn a lesson they will never forget. But what lessons do people actually learn from the cruelties they applaud and the ones they suffer in return? Almost always, only that violence is the way of the world. For some, the wars become holy; for most they become just grimly unavoidable. Until there is a political settlement, atrocity will have its dominion. Samson will still be there, eyeless in Gaza, turning the terrible millstone that grinds lives to dust.

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