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Gaza Without Pretenses

Mahmud Hams/AFP/Getty Images

Smoke billowing in the aftermath of an Israeli airstrike on Gaza’s port, October 10, 2023

In the hours after Hamas launched a surprise offensive against Israel, several commentators—Israeli and Palestinian—invoked another unexpected attack from the last century: the Tet Offensive launched by North Vietnamese and Vietcong troops against American and South Vietnamese forces in 1968. While vastly different, the two offensives bear comparison not only in their scale and coordination but also in the speed with which they upended the assumptions under which their opponents thought they were fighting. In the case of Vietnam, the offensive awakened an American public to the fallacy of believing a victory could be secured. In that of Palestine, for decades Israel has operated on the pretense that it can provide security for its citizens while subjecting the Palestinian people to an apartheid regime. Now that pretense has been shattered.

For the first time since 1948, Israel found itself fighting a sustained Palestinian incursion on its own territory. Early Saturday morning, at the end of Sukkot and a day after the fiftieth anniversary of the start of the 1973 October War/Yom Kippur War, Hamas fighters converged on that territory by sea, air, and ground under the cover of rockets fired from the tiny sliver of land that comprises the Gaza Strip, breaking through and flying over the fence that Israel has constructed around Gaza. Within hours they had besieged and entered Israeli towns, where they broke into homes, killed at least 1,200 Israelis, and kidnapped at least 150 others to use for negotiating the release of thousands of imprisoned Palestinians (of whom hundreds are held without charge or trial).

It is the highest Israeli death toll from a single offensive since 1948, and no doubt the most gruesome. Israeli media outlets have yet to release a breakdown of the civilian and military casualties, but news quickly emerged that Palestinian militants had massacred Israeli partygoers at a rave just outside Gaza, with hundreds killed and others captured. More than forty-eight hours into the offensive, as I started drafting this essay, Israeli forces were still battling in towns surrounding Gaza, where Hamas fighters continued to roam between houses, taking some people captive and killing others. At the same time, Israel’s air force was starting to bombard the Gaza Strip, targeting the Shati refugee camp, marketplaces, and mosques, and leveling apartment towers. More than a thousand Palestinians have already been killed, adding to what was already one of the deadliest years for Palestinians in decades, and the deadliest for children: prior to this past weekend 227 Palestinians, including 44 children, had been killed in 2023 by Israeli soldiers or settlers.

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Since 1948 Israel has used bombardment, invasion, arrests, collaboration networks, and economic strangulation to control the Gaza Strip and suppress the demand of Palestinians there to return to the homes from which they had been expelled from 1947 on, many merely a few miles away. When Hamas—the Islamist party originally founded in 1987 from the Palestinian branch of the Muslim Brotherhood—rose to power in 2006 and took control of Gaza in 2007, Israel used the group’s commitment to armed resistance against occupation as an excuse to hermetically seal off Gaza for sixteen years, in what the UN and human rights groups have condemned as an illegal form of collective punishment of the 2.3 million Palestinians who live there, the vast majority of them refugees.

Israel has long portrayed Hamas as a nothing more than a terrorist organization, and yet since 2007 it has enabled its role as a governing authority in Gaza, facilitating a dynamic that can best be described as a violent equilibrium. Israel adopted a policy of bombarding the Gaza Strip periodically to trim Hamas’s military capabilities by destroying its military sites and assassinating its leaders—what Israel’s military refers to as “mowing the lawn”—even as it relied on Hamas to stabilize the enclave. Hamas, for its part, acted as a governing authority while simultaneously developing its military arsenal and capabilities.

Whenever the Israeli government sought to deflect public attention from a domestic issue, or whenever the blockade became particularly stifling for the residents of Gaza, the equilibrium would rupture into a violent confrontation. Hamas would rely primarily on rockets and missiles, as well as tactics such as attacking Israeli military targets via a network of cross-border tunnels and flying flaming kites into Israeli fields. Israel would carry out disproportionate aerial bombardment of the Gaza Strip, routinely killing civilians in an effort to reinstate deterrence. The conflagrations would end in a cease-fire, under the terms of which Israel would ease restrictions on movements of goods and people into the beleaguered territory until the next iteration.

This equilibrium was always known to be unsustainable, primarily because it erased the political demands that are at the heart of Hamas’s project and Gaza’s reality. But while it lasted it fulfilled strategic goals for both sides. For Israel, retaining Hamas as the governing entity of the Gaza Strip—instead of attempting to destroy it and having to contend with the Palestinians in Gaza directly—was a way of justifying its efforts to blockade the enclave and sever it from the rest of Palestine. Engineering a situation whereby two million Palestinians were supposedly no longer its problem also helped the state maintain a nominal Jewish majority even once there were more Palestinians than Jews under its sovereign control. Hamas, for its part, has long chafed against its governance responsibilities, preferring to be an armed resistance movement focused on military operations, but controlling a piece of land allowed it to develop its training camps, military colleges, and underground arsenal and work with relative autonomy.

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Israel’s occupation of the Gaza Strip looks fundamentally different from its occupation of the West Bank. Control over Gaza is maintained from the outside; there are no nightly raids or settler invasions. Palestinians inside can operate with some freedom, whereas in the West Bank all forms of Palestinian organizing are heavily suppressed. Israeli officials have often wished that Gaza would just disappear, and in some ways it had indeed been erased from the Israeli psyche. Gaza’s inhabitants would acquiesce silently to being starved to death in a pen, Israel believed, while life for its citizens would continue calmly and indefinitely even in the areas immediately surrounding the enclave.

One effect of this arrangement was to contain Hamas within the Gaza Strip.1 Yet this was always likely to be temporary. Unlike the PLO before it—which gave up on its commitment to armed struggle and recognized the State of Israel on 78 percent of the land of Palestine in the hope that it would secure self-determination on the remaining 22 percent—Hamas always opposed the notion of partitioning Palestine and stressed that it had not given up armed resistance. Instead, it asserted that it was playing the long game for liberation. The events of recent days suggest, if anything, that it was precisely Hamas’s containment that allowed it to prepare an offensive on such a scale.

In his statement on Saturday, Mohammad Deif, the head of Hamas’s armed brigade, urged all Palestinians to set aside the fragmentation imposed on them by Israel’s colonial rule and rally as a single people, setting himself up to be a national leader. The Palestinian Authority, in contrast, is not only perceived as speaking on behalf of just the Palestinians in the West Bank but is also inextricably implicated in Israel’s apartheid regime, with which it tightly coordinates its security management. Many Palestinians do not subscribe to Hamas’s ideology, but the movement has nonetheless positioned its army as the front line of defense for Palestinians against Israeli aggression beyond Gaza, often by firing rockets and missiles at Israel whenever the latter threatens the holy sites in Jerusalem or pursues particularly aggressive settler violence in the West Bank.

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Since the start of the offensive, Western leaders have rallied uncritically to the Israeli government’s side. It has been hard to miss the hypocrisy of statements condemning Hamas’s bloodletting from politicians who declined to criticize months of brazen and bloody attacks by Israel’s occupying army and its settlers against Palestinians. Under the most right-wing government in its history, Israel has carried out large-scale invasions of Palestinian refugee camps and towns in the West Bank, killing and wounding scores of people. Armed Israeli fighters have burst into Palestinian streets and homes on an almost nightly basis, often picking children out of their beds in the middle of the night to be taken into administrative detention—acts of terror that have gone largely unreported in the Western press.

The state has accelerated its expulsions of Palestinians from their homes in Jerusalem and the West Bank and expanded the construction of illegal settlements. Settlers have waged weekly assaults on Palestinian villages, attacking and in some cases killing Palestinians, setting fire to their homes, and destroying their property, often under the protection of Israeli soldiers. The domestic secret police has facilitated and fomented violence against Palestinian citizens. Senior members of Israel’s government and messianic Jewish extremists have been increasingly aggressive in their provocations in and around the Noble Sanctuary Mosque complex in occupied East Jerusalem. In the weeks leading to Hamas’s offensive, the state tightened the blockade on Gaza by still further restricting movement in and out.

The Biden administration’s response to this escalating violence was to reiterate unwavering support for Israel. Recently it added Israel to its coveted Visa Waiver Program without ensuring meaningful reciprocity, and it has been trying to ingratiate Israel with regional countries like Saudi Arabia by pursuing normalization agreements initiated by the Trump administration. Gestures like these can only mean that the administration assumes that Palestinian lives are expendable, that Israeli violence against Palestinians is not a crisis to condemn but a routine to normalize.

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In response to the violence of the past four days, there will be every effort to renew a commitment to partition: to put Palestinians back in their box. On Monday Yoav Gallant, Israel’s minister of defense, declared that Gaza was under a “complete siege,” cutting off water, food, and electricity. “We are fighting against human animals,” he said. Unleashing devastating violence on Gaza might suggest that there is some way to return to the equilibrium of the past few years in the short term, but Hamas’s offensive has already proved that ethnic partition in Palestine can never be a substitute for real equality and justice. The physical destruction of the border fence with a bulldozer will no doubt remain indelibly inscribed in the Palestinian imagination: within minutes, what had looked to be a formidable structure undergirded by advanced surveillance technology and manned by Israeli snipers collapsed like a flimsy piece of metal. Now that the violence of Gaza has spilled into Israeli-controlled territory, the fantasy that Israel could ever maintain its security by keeping Palestinians siloed interminably has come undone.

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