Seven Realities of Israel/Palestine

The realities of the conflict between Israel and Hamas are discomfiting and do not fit into a neat whole, nor do they fit easily into inherited slogans or moral formulas. 

Seven Realities of Israel/Palestine

It is hard to face the current realities. There are many uncertainties around what has happened and is happening. Moral certainty is attractive when reality is uncertain. It replaces the harder work of trying to understand what has happened and where we are. Moral certainty is also attractive because it looks like a guide to action. Nothing seems to concentrate the mind and call us to act more than violence itself. When there is blood in the air, choosing sides has far more weight and significance.

Reality 1: There is no political side worth choosing.

Which brings me to the first, uncomfortable reality: there is no side worth choosing—that is, there is no serious emancipatory organization with force and authority in Palestine or Israel with which to side. Hamas and the Israeli state are both political dead ends. Hamas offers religious war and empty militarization, Israel a semi-secular version of the same. Neither is interested in resolving the political question—how Palestinians and Israeli-Jews could live on equal terms in that territory. Both offer only a pointless violence—not because violence itself is pointless but because their political projects are. The main difference lies in Israel’s capacity to mete out vastly disproportionate violence. 

The absence of a popular, organized power with a credible claim to emancipate anyone is not special to Palestine/Israel. It is a generalized phenomenon of our politically incapacitated moment. The current violence in Israel puts the wider impasse on vivid display. 

We need to understand what kind of political order would generate so much pointless violence. Moral outrage at pointless violence is natural and appropriate. But it seems to me that the most urgent task is political, not moral, clarity. Which begins from the fact that we are not in control, nor even modestly organized to exercise power. Not in Palestine, not in Israel. And not in the US, where foreign policy has slipped well beyond popular control. This basic fact frames the rest of the realities we face.

Reality 2: It is unreasonable to expect Palestinians not to resist, but there is no force able to represent their interests. 

Israel controls the water, trade, electricity, communications, and movement in and out of Gaza and the West Bank. It controls Palestinian air and sea space and has blockaded Gaza for more than a decade. Israel has war planes and tanks, 500 lb. bombs and the backing of the US military. It lords this overwhelming military superiority over the Palestinians and now uses it to massacre 30,000, displace millions, induce mass starvation, and destroy whole cities worth of infrastructure. Gaza is an open-air prison, the West Bank a shattered archipelago surrounded by settlements and military installations, and Palestinians within Israel are second-class citizens in a state whose primary commitment is to maintaining the personal security and political majority for its Jewish population. 

Palestinians have a right to resist that domination. They would even be justified in using violence to win their self-determination, if violence were necessary for that. But Hamas’ indiscriminate killing does not represent a path to Palestinian liberation. Hamas is an anti-Semitic organization that regularly states it wants to get rid of the Jews and rejects the legitimacy of Israeli-Jewish claims to the land. It has given no solid account of how the targeting of civilians, especially in the horrific massacres of October 7, would advance the Palestinian cause. And the disproportionate reprisals were predictable—possibly even invited by Hamas, or parts of it.

If anything, Hamas’ willingness to target civilians reflects a degeneration of the freedom struggle in Palestine rather than anything justified by it. Hamas is less an anticolonial struggle than it is the backwash of the defeat of those liberation struggles—as they existed in their leftist and Arab Nationalist forms. Hamas exists and is able to claim to represent Palestinians in light of Israel’s systematic destruction, suppression, and cooptation of the previous liberation movements. It is not just that Netanyahu once found it useful to support Hamas against the PLO/PA and openly announced that support as a way of dividing Palestinians. Once successive Israeli governments succeeded in destroying the political independence of all other Palestinian organizations, successfully incorporating Fatah as a kind of corrupt extension of the Israeli security apparatus, Hamas was all that was left. 

The post-Oslo world only intensified the sense in which Hamas is the last remaining organization able to present itself as independently Palestinian. Post-Oslo Israeli governments attempted to defer all consideration of the Palestinian question by force. Their promise to the Jewish population of Israel was that they would enjoy absolute security by creating absolute insecurity for Palestinians, especially for those in the occupied territories. The inner tension within Israel, between a state that claims to be liberal democratic yet exists fundamentally for the protection of one ethnic group, became acute over the past two decades, especially after the 2006 Palestinian elections and the blockade of Gaza. Hamas reflects back to Israelis their own government’s politics: one of ethnic conflict maintained by force, rather than resolved by politics.

These developments have created a Hamas that can claim to represent Palestinians because Hamas is the only remaining, politically significant group that opposes Israeli domination. Even then, Hamas has never won the unambiguous support of the majority of Palestinians. During the last quasi-democratic elections for Palestinians, in 2006, Hamas’ popularity rested as much on its anti-corruption campaign against Fatah as anything else. Subsequent Israeli policy has forced some Palestinians in Gaza to support Hamas, which is a fact that Hamas can trade on. Hamas can pursue its militarized approach, in the name of Palestinian liberation, and many Palestinians will to some degree support it because it is the lesser of two evils—as human beings backed into a corner will do. 

Hamas knows it can exploit this coerced support. In fact, it appears that Hamas’ support was declining in the period leading up to the attacks, which might very well have been a reason for the attacks. Hamas has given little strategic justification for the violence of Oct 7, much of it post hoc, in part because Hamas barely competes for political support in Gaza. That is how you behave if you do not have to make much effort to justify yourself to the population on behalf of whom you act, or whose cooperation you can induce through violence. It is the behavior of an unaccountable and decaying, not emancipatory, movement. 

Reality 3: Yes, Hamas is a dead end, but that is not the end of the story on violence. Palestinians are forced to use violence. 

It is said that Palestinians should resist non-violently. Yet they are condemned or suppressed when they try that route. The Boycott, Divest, and Sanction movement was widely denounced as illegitimate. The recent 2019 March of Return was met with violence from the Israelis, which garnered little attention. The uncomfortable fact is that just about nobody pays attention to the Palestinians when they don’t use violence. This creates the following dynamic: When they are peaceful and nonviolent, they can be safely ignored and left to suffer in their extreme oppression. When any of them use any type of violence, then they are considered to have authorized their own destruction. 

At one level, this lends a bitter, repetitive character to the violence of groups like Hamas. But as we have seen, it is not entirely pointless. At least some of those acts of violence have a political effect. They do create a very small, momentary piece of freedom. In this recent case, the most horrendously violent in decades, Gazans not only broke down the fence and escaped their confines, but in a few cases, they made it to houses that their grandparents still had the keys for. This might seem morally and politically trivial given the grim slaughter that followed. But when you indefinitely confine people to an open-air prison, then a momentary jailbreak looks like freedom. That aspect of breaking down barriers was an essential feature of Oct 7 that has been understandably overshadowed by the brutal massacres that followed. When you recall that roughly half the population has lived their entire lives under the blockade that pens them in, it is understandable why some might support a horrific, dramatic, self-destructive act over the slow death and long-term imprisonment they currently face.

Second, the recent violence has produced a political crisis in and for Israel that Palestinians otherwise have been unable to generate. For one, it has provoked a degree of retributive violence and collective punishment that can only undermine the long-term legitimacy of current arrangements. It is an astonishing fact that Israel has somehow lost the moral high ground despite having experienced the worst terrorist attack, with the highest civilian death toll, in its history since 1948. The slow-burning legitimacy crisis is not just a result of the wildly disproportionate violence that the Israeli government has unleashed. The Oct 7 attacks and the response that followed also forced the world to confront the actual facts of occupation and the character of current and recent Israeli governments. Together, this has undermined the sense that there is a convincing strategic rationale behind the government’s response, making official violence look as senseless as the original Hamas attack. 

On top of this, the shock of the Oct 7 attacks exposed the lie of the post-Oslo security arrangements to Israel’s domestic population. The pivot from Oslo-era negotiations to the post-Oslo intensification of occupation, annexation, and blockade, was meant to allow Israeli-Jews to simply stop thinking about Palestinians. This can no longer be credibly promised. Nothing else that Palestinians have tried has come close to provoking this kind of delegitimation of current arrangements. 

So the shocking and disturbing fact seems to be that only an extreme act of violence, followed by a response more violent by many orders of magnitude, could shatter the status quo. 

To be clear, none of this is a defense or criticism of the violence, either by Hamas or Israel. It is just a disquieting political fact about it: violence has been effective in altering the politics on the ground in a way that no nonviolent or institutional paths have been. Those who want uncomplicated condemnation of violence have to explain why only violence seems to have had this kind of effect.

Reality 4: Hamas is less and less an expression of wider geopolitical realities.

The various attempts to understand Hamas as an extension of Iran or other regional forces misunderstands just how geopolitically isolated Hamas, and Palestinians more generally, are.

The gradual normalization of Israeli relations with surrounding Arab countries has been conditional on rejecting or bypassing the Palestinian question. This is especially significant for Saudi Arabia and Iran. The rapprochement between Saudi Arabia and Israel is of major significance in this light, as well as changes in relations with the Gulf States. Equally significant is the China-mediated softening of relations between Saudi Arabia and Iran. These diplomatic shifts go hand in hand with the development of new economic ties. This kind of normalization involves all of these countries not merely ignoring the Palestinian question, but also weakening their ties with Hamas. Well before recent events, Iran tended to hold Hamas at arms length, at times seeming to see Hamas as unreliable.

Initial reports to the contrary, there is little evidence that Hamas’ military operation was a product of Iranian attempts to sabotage Israel-Saudi relations. If anything, it might have been the opposite—partly driven by an attempt by Hamas to undermine any further US-Iranian diplomacy. Whatever else it was, it was most likely an expression of the further global isolation of Palestinians. Regional powers seem to have essentially bought what Israel was selling—that the Palestinians had been pacified and subjugated, and therefore could be ignored. If anything, regional powers have been strikingly restrained, even in the face of the enormously provocative way in which Israel has fought its war, including the recent escalation of bombing regional capitals like Beirut and Damascus. 

One might even say that there was a regional dirty secret. Israelis were doing the work of pacifying Palestinians, so that autocratic powers could pursue their other geostrategic objectives without upsetting their domestic populations. After all, regional despotisms from Iran to Saudi Arabia have cultivated anti-Semitism in general and anti-Zionism in particular to win some popular support in the absence of actual democratic legitimacy. They direct public attention outward towards Israel, so as to look as if they represent popular interests, while avoiding the task of earning genuine democratic authority domestically. Suppression of the Palestinian question was therefore useful to them too. 

The ability of regional powers to mostly suppress or limit popular protests against Israel speaks to the intensity of Palestinians’ regional isolation. These regimes would prefer to continue pursuing their geopolitical objectives, even if that means mostly standing by while Israel ethnically cleanses Gaza.

Reality 5: The current violence is an intensification of Israel’s dominating relation to Palestinians.

Post-Oslo, successive Israeli governments abandoned any serious effort to resolve the Palestinian question through politics. Instead, they chose force. Instead of facing the question of how Palestinians might live on the land as equals, these governments decided to provide Israeli Jews with a security guarantee by force. 

This was not a stable situation. The only real basis of security was and is inescapably political because only a political resolution gives everyone a reason to follow the rules. A political settlement, which involves some institutionalized mutual recognition of each others’ claims, is the only basis for developing trust, which in turn is the basis for genuine security. 

Instead, the post-Oslo approach made the Israeli state into something more like an ethnic protection racket than one even nominally committed to the equal rights of those subject to its authority. By the time the blockade of Gaza, the militarization of the West Bank, and the increasing legal precariousness of Palestinians with Israeli citizenship came to a head, it had become clear that any two-state solution was a thing of the past. Israel’s successful destruction of Palestinians’ national aspirations, and the multi-pronged cordon sanitaire of its post-Oslo strategy effectively incorporated the Palestinians into the state—the one-state—by force. The more the Israeli state has extended its domination over Palestinians, the more it has to pretend it is not responsible for them. The Netanyahu government’s attempt to represent its violence as a war against foreign invaders is an extreme effort to maintain the two-nation charade, even while the illusion collapses under the weight of tanks and JDAMs. 

The only way you can safely ignore a population whose claims you are unwilling even to entertain—in the sense they were entertained under the Oslo Peace Process—is to eliminate them. Force is a solution to the security problem only in that sense and only when you are willing to go all the way. So far, Israel has not shown itself willing to ethnically cleanse its entire Palestinian population, though it is increasingly looking like the Israeli government might be making that horrific choice in Gaza. Though the Netanyahu government has tried to lay its actions at the feet of Hamas, it is Israel that is the vastly superior force in this situation. That government is responsible for its decisions. 

Reality 6: Hamas is no anticolonial freedom struggle, nor anything to celebrate.

In the face of recent, and less recent, atrocities, there are those on the Left who have celebrated Hamas’ attacks and described Hamas as in some way an anti-colonial movement. Some found these celebrations understandably disturbing, but the real problem was that they were delusional. This celebration was the projection of a fantasy about anti-colonial struggle on a desperate situation and on a disastrous, politically unjustified act of violence.

There is a difference between being able to provide the frisson of highly-militarized resistance and representing an alternative resolution to the core political conflict on the ground. That conflict is about how to resolve the fact that both Israeli Jews and Palestinians have valid claims to live on the same land. Hamas publicly rejects that any but Palestinians, or perhaps just Muslims, have a valid claim to the land. In taking this position, Hamas reflects back Israel’s own even more intense unwillingness to recognize Palestinian rights and claims. Each population is trapped in the fight-to-the-death cage match that their respective governments/”representatives” are fighting.

In the Israel/Palestine discourse, what fights over chants, signs, and slogans obscure is the absence of any grounding on which such fights might be arbitrated. “From the river to the sea” and “intifada” have no single, unambiguous meaning because there is no representative organization that might make good on their promise. In other words, the emancipation of both Palestinians and Israelis from their predicament depends on a wider change in global politics, beginning with reclaiming democratic control over great power foreign policy. In the absence of that democratic control and institutions representing popular will, everybody provides a different interpretation of these slogans because nobody speaks for anyone else. Each hears what they think or want to hear.

It is notable that the only serious political demand to emerge out of the current violence is a ceasefire. People can say one-state or two-state, “Palestinian freedom” and self-determination, but it means nothing. It can’t until there are organized movements, among Palestinians and within Israel, that want to live in and extend to each other equal freedom. These will not emerge in the absence of wider movements, outside the region, of the same sort. Nor will they take shape without internal divisions emerging within both Israeli and Palestinian society.

Reality 7: The West is implicated in the violence it denounces.

Over the past decades, the West has turned violence into a question of victims and killers, such that groups have competed either to portray themselves as pure victims or as the righteous, civilized entities who know how to use violence morally and lawfully against genocidaires. That was the thrust of the whole post-Cold War humanitarian turn. By moralizing violence in this way, they stripped any particular use of violence of its politics. 

The political approach to violence requires seeing it in context, and not just in the sense of knowing its history and who committed which acts. It is necessary to understand whether violence has any potential, given the context, to create lasting, improved institutions to replace the old ones. That latter question was nearly obliterated during the humanitarian and War on Terror periods. It returned only as an afterthought, in bizarre discourses about “state-building” and “nation-building,” which were the backwash of having smashed states to chase down terrorists or stop crimes against humanity. 

The problem with moralizing violence in this way is that it suspends political disputes over land, institutions, representation, and authority by transposing them into the language of good and evil. The actual politics over institutions and policy are not addressed directly. Labeling groups as terrorists, beyond the pale of civilization, appeared to resolve a political discussion without having it. Once you have decided that some people fail a basic moral test—your moral test—then morality is playing a political function without anyone quite acknowledging it. And morality serves the political function of delegitimation. Any organization labeled immoral becomes impermissible as a representative in a political conflict or deliberation. 

In the Israel-Palestine setting, this moralization has played the role of destroying any political relationship with Palestinians. While previous organizations were coopted or destroyed, Hamas is put beyond the pale of politics itself, because of its way of using violence. And this perspective only deepens the degree to which Palestinians are effectively denied any valid political representation at all—Fatah is wholly collaborationist, thus no real representative of Palestinians, and Hamas unacceptable. There is thus nobody to talk to and deal with as a representative of the Palestinians. Palestinians as a whole are thereby placed beyond politics on supposedly moral grounds.

This situation effectively forces many Palestinians to consider a position of moral callousness. Their only remaining representatives are the very ones that they are supposed to denounce if they themselves are to win any recognition as moral—or as part of the acceptable members of political discourse. It is not enough for them to have the perfectly normal human reaction of recoiling from Hamas’ tactics. They are supposed to put on a public display of that moral reaction, so as to publicly delegitimize Hamas. And if they do not make the appropriate display, then they are considered insufficiently differentiated from Hamas itself. So they must either cooperate in the moral destruction of the only group in any way able to represent them—no matter how distasteful they find the form of that representation—or accept being beyond conversation.

The issue here is not just the coercion involved in being forced to denounce and delegitimize according to someone else’s standard. It is also that moralizing becomes part of a strategy for indirectly resolving political questions. It does so by undermining any legitimate representation of Palestinian interests and by suppressing other questions of political morality: Who has a legitimate claim to the land, whose authority should adjudicate these disputes? It is not hard, then, to see why some might just reject morality itself as a Western power play. And that is on the West, not those who reject it, because the West refuses to acknowledge what it is doing.

Not only does all this moralizing generate the very callousness it condemns. It also creates an incentive to commit extreme or spectacular violence—to make the situation as stark as possible and force a choice. And Hamas knows that this is the situation. 

This callousness finds its reflection on the Israeli side. Repeated government justification of their violence as moral ends up looking like permission to kill orders of magnitude more civilians than Hamas, just so long as the IDF doesn’t “aim” at them. Worse yet, by claiming morality for their violence, they are absolved of having to give much of a political justification for it. Half-hearted claims that this is a strategy for eliminating Hamas, whatever that means, are hasty rhetorical bandages for a reactive policy. Core political questions go unasked: Even if Hamas is gone, who will fill the void? What evidence does violence of this scale leave Palestinians that Israelis want security for all sides, rather than an even more extreme version of rule by force? The lack of clear strategy and indifference to civilian casualties are linked. If all you have to do is prove that your motives are good, then outcomes pale into insignificance. If you believe you are only responsible for what you intend, then you become callous towards consequences. 

This is, again, not a dynamic specific to Israel and Palestine, though it is on dramatic display at the moment. The inability to recognize the political consequences of moralizing politics is a disease spread by the West. The post-Cold War, unipolar moment was dominated by an ethical approach to foreign policy, which suspended any attempt to link violence to serious, morally complicated questions of how to create and sustain political institutions. Using violence with good intentions, indifferent to the predictable results, was the name of the game from Kosovo to Iraq to Libya to Haiti and elsewhere. It dictated how smaller states and non-state actors would relate to the West. At that level, the current violence reflects back to us the political degeneracy of our own states’ influence over global politics. The problem from hell was made in DC and Brussels. Perhaps that tells us something, too, about where our attention ought to be: on getting control of our own states, especially their foreign policy.

There is no straightforward conclusion to draw. Every dimension of the situation is discomfiting. While it is obvious that a ceasefire is necessary for any politics to happen, it seems equally clear that nobody has any serious politics to offer once the violence stops. The wider realities do not fit into a neat whole, nor do they fit easily into inherited slogans or moral formulas. They are a reminder only of the destructiveness of our political impasse and our impoverished ability to shape it.

Alex Gourevitch is an associate professor of political science at Brown University.