Notes on Israel/Hamas Conflict

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I want to make some remarks about the recent attack Hamas orchestrated on Israel and the subsequent Israeli declaration of war. I do so with extreme trepidation because it seems almost callous, insensitive, even un-human to treat instances of human suffering with a detached, analytical lens. I offer these thoughts as my own analysis as a political science professor who thinks that no moment—from the small and mundane to the dramatic and profound has an inherent meaning, but rather that we are called to make meaning of human events (both tragic and hopeful). I also do it as one who believes that just as the awesome possibility to do good rests in everyone, so too does the terrible capacity to be complicit in evil. 

Foremost, a quick comment on the Hamas attack: By definition much of the Hamas attack on Israel represents a violation of international law regulating human rights and warfare. This includes violations of direct prohibitions on attacks targeting civilians; prohibitions on torture; prohibitions on summary executions; and prohibitions on the unlawful detention of civilians. In short, whether or not you think Palestinians have a right to resist colonialism, the attacks that took place in Israel involved forms of violence defined as war crimes and not protected under international law—not even under the most recent Geneva Conventions that extended protections to non-state actors engaged an anti-colonial struggles. While Israel is afforded a right to self-defense by international law, collective punishment is proscribed by the international treaties governing the rules of war. What Israel will inevitably struggle with is how to defend itself without engaging in its own forms of war criminality. 

But, it’s tricky to think about Hamas in relation to international law for several reasons. Foremost, Hamas is both a state-like and a non-state-like actor. It involves social welfare elements that are involved in education, provision of medical care, and distribution of aid, yet it also seeks to govern, to control state security, and militarily, to operate internationally.  It holds official leadership positions within the Palestinian government, and yet it also continues to operate clandestine, paramilitary elements. Hamas isn’t the only actor within Palestinian politics. It must compete with other militant organizations and with other groups that would like to compete for the ability to both govern and define Palestinian national identity. 

In addition, the rightward turn in Israeli politics coupled with recent high profile violence on Palestinians carried out by Israeli citizens without much interference of Israeli military or security forces has been escalating tensions. For years political scientists like Amaney Jamal (who gave a talk arguing as much at Muhlenberg not too long ago) have warned that this escalation in tensions, the collapse of international negotiations, and the inability of non-violent protest or legal cases to curb this tide pointed ominously toward the possibility of renewed violence. Hamas, like many radical Islamist organizations, views itself as engaged in a legitimate anti-colonial struggle, and the aforementioned developments have, perhaps, heightened pressure to do something. Israel, for its part, views itself as engaged in a legitimate struggle for sovereignty and security. In both cases national identity has made conflict more likely and more difficult to resolve. 

I also want to suggest that Hamas’s violence can be made legible or understandable (though not justifiable or legitimate), despite the ways it has been cast either as seeming to be an irrational strategic miscalculation, or the work of fanatical forces of evil. Here are some ways we might do this: The logic of an act of savagery is developed in an Islamist text influential to the thinking of ISIS, The Management of Savagery. In this text, Abu Bakr al Naji argues that creating conditions of savagery will provoke western states to engage in full-scale military invasions in Muslim countries. The lack of restraint exercised by superior military powers; the inevitable destruction of civilian infrastructure; and the death of civilians, he argued, will expose the hypocrisy of western rhetoric on human rights and convince Muslims to see these actors as illegitimate colonial powers, thereby gaining more popular support for the Islamist cause. When people say Hamas is laying a trap for Israel, what they typically mean is that it will draw Israel into a long and costly war with more Israeli deaths and captives, but what they should also have in mind is the way such an invasion might help shore up flagging support for the ideological positions of Hamas. 

In addition, Hamas has become convinced by past Israeli actions (like the withdrawal from Gaza in 2005) that goals and objectives can be achieved (vis-à-vis Palestinian territorial ambitions) as Israel recognizes there is no way to fully defeat their adversary. From a realist perspective, this might be defined as an asymmetrical effort to achieve a greater balance of power in Hamas’s favor. There are additional potential international dimensions that point to the rationale for this violence, which include potential connections between Russian interests in distracting western and US support for Ukraine at a critical stalling point in Russia’s war to gain control over much of Ukrainian territory, and Iranian interests in creating images of Israeli violence on Palestinian civilians as a way to undermine popular support for the potential diplomatic relations being worked on between Israel and its key Sunni Arab neighbors. In other words, in certain other geopolitical dynamics this attack might make more rational sense. 

Another possible way to understand the violations committed by Hamas is to think about how the tactics of Hamas reflect the logic of new wars outlined by Mary Kaldor. New wars, Kaldor argues, are fought by non-state actors to advance a politics of identity, and they have been characterized by the transcending of ethical boundaries, by the direct targeting of civilian populations, by sexual violence as a tactic, and by greater levels of barbarism and intimate brutality. The brutality of ISIS presents one paradigmatic example of new war. The Islamic State’s public executions, its sexual enslavement of Yazidi women, its destruction of churches, etc. was designed as much to intimidate external enemies as it was to clear land of anyone who didn’t share ISIS’s fundamentalist Sunni Islamist identity. As Kaldor demonstrates, the refugees that result from such brutality is not an externality of new wars, but rather the main point of them. Brutal violence clears the land and allows for an identity group to assert its claims. 

 While this might be possible in the areas of Syria and Iraq in which ISIS was operating, or in the areas of Bosnia where Serbian ethnic cleansing first inspired Kaldor’s insights, it just doesn’t make sense in Israel. New war tactics were used in a space where they were never going to succeed. I think it’s likely that in the midst of the fighting Hamas fighters carried out atrocities that were more gruesome than Hamas’ leadership may have intended. Demonstrating military capabilities, killing civilians, using terrorism as a weapon of the weak to achieve some stated goal might explain this Hamas attack, but I can’t see how the types of brutality used would ever have succeeded in causing Israelis to abandon these cities and towns and kibbutzim, and I think this is why the Hamas leadership quickly denied the killing or beheading of children and babies. Apparent (and I don’t need to see it to believe it) photographic evidence has undercut these denials. 

In the end, the pathway forward hardly seems clear to me. At first, I thought that the horrible truth of this massacre and response was that it benefited the status quo, politically, in both Israel and Gaza. I thought that it would benefit the far right that has been on the rise in Israel, which has included calls for the full expulsion of all non-Jews. I thought it would benefit the Islamists of Hamas because it would distract from their inability to govern and remind the Palestinian public of the brutality of Israeli military rule. So far, at least the former isn’t panning out as there appears in polling to be some loss of support for Netanyahu and his governing coalition, and increasing support around the centrist Benny Gantz, who entered a unity government after the Hamas attack. What I don’t know is how Israel can resist a wider military incursion into Gaza. The kind of political will it would take to avoid this is almost unimaginable. What I don’t know is how political leadership, let alone individual militants can be held accountable. What I don’t know is how this attack will do anything to change the underlying dynamics that have essentially isolated Gaza from the world since 2006, or the underlying dynamics that have contributed to an ever-escalating set of West Bank settlements that have effectively achieved the goal of the post-Oslo settler movement and ended any talk of a two state solution, a vision as old as the Peel Commission Report from 1939. What I don’t know is how this conflict is contained so that it doesn’t spill over into new fronts, undermining an already fragile region that has seen more than its share of war, state-failure, insecurity, and refugees.

It’s a perilous moment. It would be understandable to meet the moment with the search for clarity and simplicity; to define good v. evil, right v. wrong, just v. unjust. But like most things, politics more often requires in us the embrace of complexity and ambiguity. 

Brian Mello, Ph.D., chair and professor of political science

1 COMMENT

  1. So just to get this straight, you think it was an accident when Hamas slaughtered entire families, beheaded babies, raped innocent women? I can’t believe you are a political science professor that would suggest such things.

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