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[Note: Prometheus Speaks tries to focus on under-explored topics.  Although the war against Hamas is hardly under-explored, I nevertheless thought it important enough to post a piece and share my thoughts on it.]

October 7, 2023 was a deeply sad day for civilization, as Hamas militants conducted vicious attacks on southern Israel resulting in the deaths of some 1,200 people, mostly civilian, and the abduction of over 200 others.  The barbarism of the terrorists was beyond comprehension, as they tortured and executed victims in front of loved ones, decapitated children, and celebrated the slaughter.  Predictably, Israel has responded with massive attacks on Gaza, already resulting in the deaths of thousands of Palestinian civilians and turning the territory into a humanitarian disaster.

The stunning failure of Israeli intelligence and the IDF to detect and prevent the attacks will certainly be the subject of investigations and analyses to come that will undoubtedly end some careers and usher in reforms of these agencies.  But as horrible as these attacks were, we must remain mindful of the conditions that gave rise to the violence, not as any sort of justification or defense of the terrorist attacks, but rather as an explanation of the situation that hopefully can help Israelis and Palestinians choose a smarter path for resolving the Israel-Palestine conflict than we have seen since Hamas took over 2007.  We cannot hope to end the cycles of violence that have convulsed the territory unless we understand what fuels it.  Of course, at the moment, emotions are far too high and the trauma and shock are much too deep to give rise to expectations of any actions by the parties other than violence.

No understanding of the situation can be had without reckoning with the conditions under which both the Palestinians of Gaza and Israelis live.  Most of Gaza is a large and extremely crowded slum, unemployment is very high, and Israel controls who and what enters and leaves the territory, as well as who can work in Israel.  (Of course, it must be kept in mind that, internally, Gaza has been run by Hamas for many years now and that Israel is not responsible for all of the problems that exist there.)  In other words, conditions are harsh and the residents undoubtedly feel that they have little control over much of their lives and have had little hope that things would get better anytime soon given that the political situation has remained stagnant for a very long time.  It must be recalled that the Palestinians of Gaza also carry deep grievances from their families having left or been forced from their homes in what is now Israel during the 1948 Israeli War of Independence.  And on top of all this, the specter of expanding diplomatic ties between Israel and Arab countries in the region creates a very genuine fear among Palestinians that their struggle is becoming increasingly irrelevant.

Now, the harsh treatment of Gaza was not without justification.  Hamas is an implacable foe of Israel, is committed to Israel’s destruction, and would periodically lob rockets into Israel.  The Israeli government evidently concluded that the status quo, with Hamas in power and the territory largely sealed off, was manageable and gave conditions in Gaza very little attention, preferring to try to limit the threat with defensive measures and punishing retaliatory strikes as needed.  But Israel, for its own good, needs to minimize the humanitarian fallout of its siege of Gaza that is now taking place.  To do otherwise will play right into the hands of Hamas, who use photos and videos of destroyed mosques, schools, and hospitals and of wounded children to mold the narrative of the conflict to suit its own interests.  However, the fighting is and will, for some time, continue to be so ferocious, and the risks of a widening war are so dangerous, that it is entirely possible to imagine a diplomatic resolution of the war at some point, provided of course that Israel can be confident that Hamas will never again pose a security threat to it.  Fortunately, relief supplies have been making their way into Gaza for a while now; but the situation there remains dire.  (There have been many calls for a pause in the fighting, though I acknowledge that I am not a military expert and am not in a position to assess whether a ceasefire would unduly hinder Israel’s goal of ending the threat from Hamas.)

Some years ago, at a time of high tension in the occupied territories and before Israel’s 2005 unilateral withdrawal from Gaza, I made a visit to Israel.  I was staying with a friend who was working for the UN agency that performs relief work for Palestinians and who lived in East Jerusalem (the mostly Arab part of the city).  On account of the violence that was then taking place, the occupied territories were under 23-hour a day curfew.  As my friend drove a UN vehicle, we were permitted to drive around the territories as we wished, and in the evenings, we would go visit Palestinian families living under the curfew.  The families, who knew that I was Jewish, were always very kind, respectful, and hospitable to me.  Their anguish was palpable, as they expressed their frustration at being virtual prisoners in their own homes as a result of acts carried out by people who did not represent them.  Like most Palestinians, these were not bomb-throwing militants.  To the contrary, they all yearned not for jihad, but for what they called “normal” lives in their own state alongside Israel.

Another image from that experience has also colored my perception of the occupation.  As we were driving in the territories, we would periodically have to drive through Israeli army checkpoints.  In many cases, the checkpoints were manned by gun-toting Israeli soldiers who looked like teenagers.  It was sad to see young people, who should have been out enjoying themselves in the cafes of Tel Aviv or at the movies with their friends, instead sitting in checkpoint guardhouses clutching their uzis.  I am not saying that the security situation at the time did not justify such a presence, only that the occupation takes a toll on the Israeli spirit as well.  In this regard, we need to keep in mind that the Torah’s central narrative is the exodus from bondage in Egypt to freedom and that that story has always fueled a passion for social justice among Jews.  How sadly ironic, it seemed to me, that the occupation, no matter how justified by the security situation, requires Jews to take on the role of oppressor of another people.

The Palestinians I met on that trip, I felt, were people who deserved their own state.  Unfortunately, the peace process that was born of the Oslo Accords has been frozen for quite some time, in part because extremist settlers and other right-wing elements in Israel, who are politically powerful, prefer it that way.  Israel blames the leadership of the Palestinian Authority, which they say is dysfunctional.  While that may be true to a large extent, if Israel really wanted the peace process to move forward, the international community would gladly support that, and I believe this problem could be addressed.  Meanwhile, Palestinians see the contours of their future state progressively chipped away at by Israeli settlements, leaving their dreams of statehood ever more distant, if not completely eclipsed.

So, there you have it — a historically aggrieved people living under miserable conditions and a humiliating occupation, with little control over their destiny, and their hopes for the future dashed by a peace process that has been going nowhere for a very long time.  People who do not feel that they have control over their lives because that control has been seized by another group will seek to change the situation any way they can, including sadly with violence.  Of course, the barbarous Hamas must be dealt with decisively so that it can never pose a serious threat to Israelis again.  But unless something is done to relieve conditions in Gaza and to restore hope in a just future, some morally-challenged people will continue to gravitate to extremism, violence, and a cult of martyrdom that give them a sense of purpose and control over their lives.  In this regard, just as Palestinians need to accept that Israel is not going anywhere, so Israelis must reckon with the fact that Palestinian nationalism is not going away, no matter how tight the grip of the occupation and how many delusional Israeli politicians maintain that the Palestinians do not exist as a people.  Israel and friends of Israel ignore this reality at their peril.

While Israel will be able to seriously degrade Hamas as a threat, for several reasons I doubt very much that it will be able to eliminate Hamas completely under current circumstances.   Hamas has proven itself wily and resourceful, and there will always be places for its members to hide.  Going after a paramilitary organization like Hamas can be a bit like a game of whack-a-mole, where it is eradicated in one place, only to pop up somewhere else.  Permanently destroying Hamas would likely require a permanent occupation of Gaza by Israel, something which is untenable and which even Israel does not want.  Moreover, as one particularly insightful comment I read pointed out, Hamas is not just a paramilitary organization, it is an idea — one of murderous anti-Zionism and antisemitism.  Armies may be able to kill militants, but only a genuine effort at peace can destroy that idea.  In this regard, we should all bear in mind that it was not Israeli tanks and jets that did away with the terrorism of the PLO.  It was the Oslo Accords and a peace process in which people once had faith that accomplished that feat.

Thus, while the near term (and possibly longer) can be expected to be a period characterized mostly by violence, we need to be looking down the road to a rejuvenated peace process, once the initial trauma of the Hamas attacks hopefully gives way to cooler and more pragmatic heads.  And the notion that anything other than an eventual two-state solution could be a stable outcome of that process is shear fantasy.  Unfortunately, while Gazans are captives of the iniquity of Hamas, Israelis are captives of the radicalism of settlers and certain right-wing elements, making the path to peace a fraught one.  (At the same time, we must acknowledge that any efforts towards a two-state solution at this point in time, with the trauma of October 7 still so fresh and the war continuing, would be shear fantasy.)

Israeli and Palestinian leaders with foresight will need to have the political courage to acknowledge each other’s suffering and the legitimacy of their aspirations – for Israel, security and for the Palestinians, a state.  On this point, we should be mindful of Anwar Sadat’s momentous 1977 trip to Jerusalem — a single, powerful gesture that completely transformed the political and security landscape of the conflict and brought a peace between the bitterest of foes that had theretofore been considered impossible and that still endures. The suffering in Gaza will hopefully awaken Palestinians to the imperative of “spitting out” Hamas, which has brought little to Palestinians other than misery and that will never be able to deliver a state to them.  In this regard, I have been heartened to see reports of polls from before the war that indicate that a large percentage of Gazans favor a peaceful settlement of their conflict with Israel, as well as footage of Palestinians challenging Hamas militants.  However, I do worry that the level of Gazans’ suffering brought on by the Israeli siege may have increased support among them for Hamas, further pushing off the day when peace will be possible.

Likewise, the tragedy that has befallen Israel should awaken Israelis to the realization that the extremist settlers and right-wing elements are delivering both Israelis and Palestinians to a future of perpetual war and suffering, though again the trauma of October 7 may deprive Israelis of the psychological discipline needed to make that happen.  A great democratic nation founded by a people whose most important narrative is about freedom and social justice, and a people who have suffered under a painful occupation for over five decades, are worthy of a different sort of future.