The many layers of the Gaza-Israel conflict

This terrible conflict, which since October 7 has killed 1,400 Israelis and more than 5,000 Gaza Palestinians and in which the United States is very deeply entangled, has many different layers—from the anguish of individual families in Gaza as they continually see their loved ones killed or maimed, and their children terrified… right through to the stability of the global system itself.

At this point in history, these layers are all pancaked in on each other. Perhaps like those many high-rise apartment buildings in Gaza that have been pancaked by massive U.S.-made and Israeli-delivered bombs.

My aim in this essay is to start digging through the different layers of the broadening geopolitics of the Gaza-Israel crisis. Here goes.

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Perilous vortices of ‘deterrence’ in West Asia

When Pres. Biden announced he was sending first of all one aircraft carrier battle group, then a second one, then also a Marines expeditionary unit to West Asia (the Middle East), each time the rationale he gave was that this was to “deter” actions by hostile actors. These declarations were completely in line with the main rationale provided since the 1940s for the maintenance of a huge U.S. military presence all around the globe. And they’ve been more or less accepted at face value by a U.S. commentatoriat that generally sees no problem in these large displays of force and that in recent years has been thought to be strongly averse to the employment of any U.S. troops in actual warfighting.

So if the president claims that the deployment of large U.S. “deterrent” forces to war-zones will help to prevent the escalation of violence, what could possibly go wrong?

Actually, a lot—and all the more so, since these displays of U.S. force are not accompanied by any U.S. diplomatic moves that aim clearly for a ceasefire in the hostilities that have continued between Israel and Hamas in Gaza for 13 days now. In this context of the absence of de-escalatory U.S. diplomacy in West Asia, the deployments of large carrier battle groups and the Marines unit(s) have thus far served mainly to escalate regional tensions.

Let’s quickly back up a bit and look at (a) how deterrence is supposed to work and (b) how the catastrophic failure of the “deterrence” that Israeli leaders thought they were projecting towards Hamas in Gaza actually led to the current crisis.

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The future governance of Gaza

(This post was updated at 7:30 am ET on 10/18/2023.)

I was tempted to title this post “Abu Mazen is toast”, but then I thought that wouldn’t be very helpful. The real political challenge for Palestinians right now is not the old age and extreme political infirmity of one ageing leader but rather the need to reimagine and reinvigorate the leadership of their entire national-liberation and national-independence movement.

It was in 1968-69 that, in the aftermath of the Arab states’ defeat at the hands of Israel in 1967, the collection of mostly small, mostly secular Palestinian guerrilla groups that grown up within the Palestinians’ far-flung diasporic communities came together to take over the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO), a body that had been created by the Arab League in 1964. (Read all about it in my 1984 book on the PLO.) The largest of those guerrilla groups was Fateh. Fateh’s collective leadership body decided that Yasser Arafat should be the person to head the PLO. The Arab states agreed with that. (In 1970-71, Jordan’s King Hussein launched a harsh crackdown on Palestinian guerrilla activity and organizing that was occurring among the Palestinian refugee populations that then, as now, formed a majority of Jordan’s population. But his crackdown did little to dent the general Arab-state consensus that the PLO was the “sole legitimate representative” of the Palestinians.)

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Biden, ‘occupying’ Gaza, and the ‘Strategic Madman’ theory

Last Thursday, Pres. Biden said in an interview with the TV news show “60 minutes” that while he fully supported Israel in its ongoing war with Gaza, he thought that Israel should not return to “occupying” Gaza. The interview did not air till Sunday, when it was seen as showing the one instance in which Biden has dared add a note of caution or demurral to the crass belligerency being continually voiced by Israel’s leaders.

With Biden now poised to leave for a visit to Israel that’s slated for tomorrow, his stance towards the actions Israel takes in Gaza gains even more relevance. Meantime, he has notably not called for Israel to halt any of the gross violations of international law that Israel continues to commit against Gaza’s 2.3 million people; and there have been well-authenticated reports that his State Department officials are not even allowed to utter the words “ceasefire” or “de-escalation” with respect to the Israel-Gaza conflict.

So his call on Israel not to “occupy” Gaza has some importance. What does it mean? Neither he nor anyone in his administration has spelled out whether it means he is urging Israel, which has sent massive ground armies to the edge of the Gaza Strip poised for a ground invasion, not to launch such an operation—or whether he’d be okay with them undertaking a ground invasion of limited extent and duration; or whether he’d be okay with them launching a total invasion of either the whole of the Gaza Strip or “just” its northern half, provided only that they don’t stay there too long.

Which is it?

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Two addenda on Gaza-Israel

Since I posted this piece yesterday, I’ve had a couple of further thoughts, as follows:

1.

The first is that I think we should all call on Hamas to release all the Israeli noncombatants it is holding, immediately or as soon as as is physically possible. International law, religion, and basic morals would all indicate they should do this.

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So, about Hamas

Pres. George H.W. Bush opens the 1991 Madrid Middle East Peace Conference

Last Thursday, Israel’s former ambassador to Washington Itamar Rabinovitch told a Council on Foreign Relations audience that he judged the then-current U.S.-Israeli focus on winning a Saudi-Israeli accord was badly conceived, inasmuch as it tried to bypass or paper over the Palestinian question. He likened the attitudes of Israeli and U.S. leaders to those of passengers on the Titanic, as they blithely sailed toward the large iceberg of the Palestinian issue that still lay very close to them…

36 hours later Hamas launched its Operation “Al-Aqsa Flood.”

That far-reaching and technically complex breakout took nearly all Israelis by surprise, and revealed the deep strategic complacency and tactical chaos into which Israel’s long-famed security system had fallen.

In most of Western discourse, the early reactions to what happened October 7 followed these tracks:

  • Stunned surprise and horror at images of the suffering of Israeli civilians
  • Weirdly racist claims that “Hamas could never have been as smart as to organize something like this… So it must have been organized by Iran
  • Horror at and excoriation of Hamas’s actions, portrayed as so frequently as “targeting” Israeli civilians
  • Urgent calls for Israel to respond very forcefully indeed to Hamas, with little or no recognition that any such response would involve inflicting great suffering on Palestinian civilians—and also, potentially, on some of the dozens of Israelis now held captive within Gaza
  • Repeated avowals that Hamas “must be punished”, accompanied by some unsubstantiated claims that the violence it showed during the October 7 breakout was “akin to that of the Islamic State.” (It wasn’t.)
  • A general reluctance or refusal to link the October 7 breakout to the great suffering that Israelis have inflicted on Palestinians in Gaza, the West Bank (including East Jerusalem), Lebanon, and elsewhere for many decades now.

Who are Hamas?

In those Western media accounts, Hamas has nearly always been portrayed as intrinsically violent, deeply anti-Semitic, and unalterably opposed to the existence of Israel. But most of these descriptions are written by people who have never met, interviewed, or interacted with Hamas leaders. I have—periodically throughout the years between 1989 and roughly 2012. (You can find accounts of some of these interviews in The Nation, Boston Review, and elsewhere. E.g., here.)

Here is my current assessment of their positions and capabilities.

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The 1973 Arab-Israeli war and the Palestinians

PLO leader Yasser Arafat taking part in the November 1974 Arab League summit

Most of the current commentary in the Western media on the 1973 Arab-Israeli war has focused on the “shock” effect the war had on Israel’s society and politics, or on the role the war played in jump-starting the Egyptian-Israeli negotiations that in 1978 led to the Camp David Accords, and a year later to the conclusion of a complete Egyptian-Israeli peace. (The recent release of a new Hollywood movie about Israel’s then-premier Golda Meir has helped keep the focus on the Israeli dimension of the war, though the historical accuracy of the movie has come under much serious questioning, e.g. here, here, or here.)

However, the Israelis and Egyptians were far from the only peoples in West Asia (the “Middle East”) whose fate was greatly impacted by the war. Indeed, given that Egypt was at that time far and away the weightiest of the Arab states, the fact that the war led to the launching of a diplomatic process that removed Egypt from the coalition of Arab parties that since 1948 had been in a state of unresolved war with Israel transformed the balance of power throughout the whole region.

The parties most direly affected by Egypt’s removal from the former Arab-rights coalition were firstly the always vulnerable Palestinians, and also the states of Syria (which had been a party to the war of 1973) and Lebanon, which had not.

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