Gaza: The impending catastrophe and the urgency of stopping it (plus: Between a second chapter of the Nakba and the revival of the Oslo fiction)

bombing Gaza

First published at Gilbert Achcar blog.

In the last few days, Gaza has epitomized the global North-South divide more than any other conflict in contemporary history. The indecent unanimity of Western governments in unreservedly expressing their unconditional support of the Israeli state — at the very moment when the latter had already and quite obviously embarked on a campaign of war crimes against the Palestinian people of unprecedented magnitude in the 75-year-long history of the regional conflict — has been truly sickening. Since the 7th of October, these governments have been outbidding each other in this endeavour — from projecting the Israeli flag on Berlin’s Brandenburg Gate, London’s Parliament, Paris’s Eiffel Tower and Washington’s White House, to sending military hardware to Israel as well as dispatching U.S. and UK naval reinforcements to the Eastern Mediterranean in a gesture of solidarity with the Zionist state, to prohibiting diverse forms of expression of political support to the Palestinian cause, thus curtailing elementary political freedoms.

All this is happening at a time when the usual imbalance in Western media reporting on Israel/Palestine has reached a peak. As usual, grieving Israelis, women in particular, have been profusely shown on screens, incomparably more than grieving Palestinians have ever been. Hamas’s Operation Al-Aqsa Flood occasioned a flood of images of violence against unarmed people, with a special focus on a rave similar to those commonly organized in Western countries, so as to accentuate the “narcissistic compassion … evoked much more by calamities striking ‘people like us’, much less by calamities affecting people unlike us.” The much larger-scale Israeli violence that has been pounding civilians in Gaza since Hamas launched its operation has been much less reported, let alone condemned. Even as blatant a war crime as the total blockade in water, food, fuel, and electricity inflicted upon a population of 2.3 million and the no less blatant violation of humanitarian law consisting in ordering more than one million civilians to leave their city or face death under the rubbles of their dwellings is all but condoned by prominent Western political leaders and major Western media.

It is as if they had reconstituted the International Society for the Suppression of Savage Customs for which Joseph Conrad’s fictional Kurtz (in Heart of Darkness) had written a report ending with the terrifying postscript: “Exterminate all the brutes!” Kurtz’s prescription has indeed found an equivalent in Israeli minister of “defence” Yoav Gallant’s sinister announcement: “I have ordered a complete siege on the Gaza Strip. There will be no electricity, no food, no fuel, everything is closed ... We are fighting human animals and we are acting accordingly.”

Western media have been unsurprisingly echoing Israel’s media in depicting Hamas’s operation as the deadliest attack targeting Jews since the Holocaust, continuing the usual pattern of Nazification of the Palestinians in order to justify their dehumanization and extermination. The truth, though, is that, however dreadful some aspects of Hamas’s operation have been, they are not a continuation of Nazi imperialist violence in any meaningful historical perspective. They are inscribed instead in two very different historical cycles: that of the Palestinians’ struggle against Israeli colonial dispossession and oppression, and that of the struggle of the peoples of the Global South against colonialism. The key to the mindset behind Hamas’s action is not to be found in Adolf Hitler’s Mein Kampf, but indeed in Frantz Fanon’s Wretched of the Earth — the best-known interpretation of the feelings of the colonized by a political thinker who was also a psychiatrist. Fanon reflected on the struggles of the colonized against French colonialism — the Algerians in particular. The parallels are striking:

The colonized, who have made up their mind to make such an agenda into a driving force, have been prepared for violence from time immemorial. As soon as they are born it is obvious to them that their cramped world, riddled with taboos, can only be challenged by out and out violence. …

The violence which governed the ordering of the colonial world … will be vindicated and appropriated when, taking history into their own hands, the colonized swarm into the forbidden cities. To blow the colonial world to smithereens is henceforth a clear image within the grasp and imagination of every colonized subject. …

The outcome, however, is profoundly unequal, for machinegunning by planes or bombardments from naval vessels outweigh in horror and scope the response from the colonized. The most alienated of the colonized are once and for all demystified by this pendulum motion of terror and counterterror. They see for themselves that any number of speeches on human equality cannot mask the absurdity whereby seven Frenchmen killed or wounded in an ambush at the Sakamody pass sparks the indignation of civilized consciences, whereas the sacking of the Guergour douars, the Djerah dechra, and the massacre of the population behind the ambush count for nothing.

Were some of the acts committed by Hamas fighters during Operation Al-Aqsa Flood “terroristic”? If by “terrorism” is meant the deliberate assassination of unarmed people, they certainly were. But then, the deliberate killing of thousands upon thousands of Gazan civilians over the past seventeen years — since 2006, a few months only after Israel evacuated the Gaza Strip to control it from without, in the belief that the cost would be lesser than controlling it from within — that is terrorism too. State terrorism has indeed caused much more casualties in history than terrorism by non-state groups.

Likewise, were some of the acts committed by Hamas fighters acts of “barbarism”? Undoubtedly so, but they were no less undoubtedly part of a clash of barbarisms. Allow me to quote here from what I wrote about this more than twenty years ago, in the wake of the 9/11 attacks:

Taken separately, each barbarous act can be judged equally reprehensible from a moral standpoint. No civilized ethic can justify deliberate assassination of non-combatants or children, whether indiscriminate or deliberate, by state or non-governmental terror. …

Nevertheless, from the point of view of basic fairness, we cannot wrap ourselves in a metaphysical ethic that rejects all forms of barbarism equally. The different barbarisms do not carry the same weight in the scales of justice. Admittedly, barbarism can never be an instrument of “legitimate self-defence”; it is always illegitimate by definition. But this does not change the fact that when two barbarisms clash, the stronger, the one that acts as the oppressor, is still the more culpable. Except in cases of manifest irrationality, the barbarism of the weak is most often, logically enough, a reaction to the barbarism of the strong. Otherwise, why would the weak provoke the strong, at the risk of being crushed themselves? This is, incidentally, why the strong seek to hide their culpability by portraying their adversaries as demented, demonic and bestial.

The most crucial issue with Hamas’s conception of the fight against Israeli occupation and oppression is not moral, but political and practical. Instead of serving Palestinian emancipation and winning over to its cause an increasing number of Israelis, Hamas’s strategy facilitates the nationalist unity of Jewish Israelis and provides the Zionist state with pretexts for increased suppression of Palestinian rights and existence. The idea that the Palestinian people could achieve its national emancipation by way of armed confrontation with an Israeli state that is far superior militarily is irrational. The most effective episode in Palestinian struggle to this day was unarmed: The 1988 Intifada provoked a deep crisis in Israel’s society, polity, and armed forces, and won for the Palestinian cause massive sympathy in the world, Western countries included.

Hamas’s latest operation, the most spectacular attack it ever launched on Israel, has provided an opportunity for much more than the usual pattern of brutal murderous retaliation in a protracted cycle of violence and counter-violence. What looms on the horizon is nothing less than a second stage of the Nakba—the Arabic word for “catastrophe” that is the name given to the forced displacement of most of the indigenous Palestinian population from the territories that the newborn Israeli state managed to conquer in 1948. The present Israeli government, which includes neo-Nazis, is led by the leader of Likud and heir, therefore, of the political groups that perpetrated the most infamous massacre of Palestinians in 1948: the Deir Yassin massacre. Benjamin Netanyahu led the opposition to Ariel Sharon and resigned from the Israeli cabinet run by the latter in 2005, when Sharon opted for Israel’s “unilateral disengagement” from Gaza. Soon after, Sharon quitted Likud which Netanyahu has been leading ever since.

The Israeli far right led by Likud has been relentlessly pursuing its goal of a Greater Israel that encompasses the entire territory of British-mandate Palestine between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River, including both the West Bank and Gaza. Only a few days before Hamas’s operation, Netanyahu, during his speech at the UN General Assembly, brandished a map of Greater Israel—a deliberate signal that did not go unnoticed. That is why the injunction given to the population of Northern Gaza to move southward is much more than the usual hypocritical excuse for the deliberate destruction of civilian-populated areas, while laying the blame at Hamas’s door by accusing it of hiding among civilians (an absurd accusation indeed: how could Hamas exist in the wilderness, out of urban concentrations, without being wiped off by far superior Israeli remote warfare means?).

What we are witnessing is in all likelihood the prelude to a second round of displacement of Gazans toward the Egyptian Sinai, in the intention of committing the second major act of territorial conquest combined with ethnic cleansing since the Nakba, under the pretext of eradicating Hamas. The Palestinians immediately remembered the 1948 exodus, when they fled war only to be prevented from returning to their towns and villages. They have understood that they are now facing in Gaza a second instance of forced displacement preluding to further dispossession and settler-colonization. This second stage of the Nakba will be much bloodier than the first: The number of Palestinians killed until the time of writing is already nearing the number of those killed in 1948, and this is but the beginning of the Israeli onslaught. Only massive popular mobilization in the United States and Europe to bring Western governments to pressure Israel into stopping before it fulfils its sinister war aims could prevent this dreadful outcome. This is extremely urgent. Make no mistake: the impending catastrophe will not be contained in the Middle East but will certainly spill over into Western countries as has been happening for several decades — on a yet more tragic scale.

Gaza: Between a second chapter of the Nakba and the revival of the Oslo fiction

First published at Gilbert Achcar blog.

There are forecasts that one hopes will be belied by reality. What we forecasted on these pages a week ago (“The ‘Al-Aqsa Flood’ Threatens to Sweep Gaza Away”, Al-Quds al-Arabi, 10 Oct. 2023) on the fourth day of the new Gaza war, is one such instance. Here is what we foresaw:

Since the establishment of the State of Israel, the Zionist right has been dreaming of completing the Nakba of 1948 with a new mass expulsion of Palestinians from the whole of Palestine between the sea and the river, including the Gaza Strip. There is no doubt that they now see what happened last Saturday as a shock that will allow them to drag the rest of Zionist society behind them in implementing their dream in the Gaza Strip first, while awaiting the opportunity to implement it in the West Bank. The gravity of what befell Israel last Saturday can reduce the deterrent role of Hamas’s holding of hostages, unlike what happened in previous rounds of confrontation between the movement and the Zionist state. It is very likely that the latter this time will not be satisfied with anything less than a destruction of the Gaza Strip to an extent that exceeds anything we have seen to date, in order to reoccupy it at the lowest possible Israeli human cost and provoke the displacement of most of its residents to Egyptian territory, all under the pretext of completely eradicating Hamas. It is to be greatly feared therefore that the ‘Al-Aqsa Flood’ will eventually sweep away the entire Gaza Strip, just as the natural flood swept away the Libyan city of Derna a month ago, but on a much larger scale.

Unfortunately, the spectacle of Gaza’s destruction has already began to outweigh that of what the natural flood swept away in Derna. What is yet more serious than the destruction of buildings is that the new massacre that the Zionist occupation army has begun to carry out in Gaza has already exceeded in size the largest previous massacres that befell the people of Palestine, while the Israeli aggression is still at its beginning, and the number of displaced people inside the Gaza Strip has now exceeded the number of those who were displaced during the 1948 Nakba. The Zionist army is truly destroying the Gaza Strip to an extent that exceeds anything we have seen to date.

This is because it is an army keen on keeping its human losses low, which is what thwarted its attempt to invade Beirut in August 1982. Ariel Sharon ordered his troops to storm the besieged Lebanese capital then and they were forced to stop the operation after realizing that they would incur heavy losses because of the difficulty of penetrating into built-up areas, where it is easy for resistance fighters to hide and surprise the enemy. The lesson was confirmed when the Zionist army launched a ground attack on Gaza in 2009. The Zionist army was not going to repeat the experience, therefore. Instead, it is using its overwhelming superiority in destructive power to flatten built-up areas as a prelude to storming them.

Destruction on a similar scale was not possible in Beirut 1982, nor in Gaza 2009 due to the absence of favourable political conditions (in 1982, Israel was subjected to great international pressure and its society was deeply divided over the invasion of Lebanon led by the duo of Menachem Begin and Ariel Sharon). Today, the “Al-Aqsa Flood” operation — which included acts of killing committed against unarmed men and women in numbers that exceeded anything Israel had ever known before, acts that were exploited to the fullest extent by the global pro-Israel media — provided Israel with a golden opportunity to proceed with the implementation of a new chapter of the Nakba, just as Al-Qaeda’s attacks in 2001 provided the US administration of George W. Bush with a golden opportunity to realize its members’ long-held project to occupy Iraq (they agreed to start with Afghanistan after some of them insisted that starting with Iraq might be difficult to sell to the public opinion).

The massive destruction inflicted on Gaza is not limited to military considerations this time. It serves an additional goal, which is the displacement of the Strip’s population. We have become accustomed to the Zionist army’s excuse that it did warn civilians and that Hamas is responsible for their deaths because it is based in the middle of built-up, populated areas (as if it were possible for Hamas to be based outside these places without being immediately destroyed by Israeli bombing!). However, this time the call on the people to flee is not like what was witnessed in previous rounds of aggression against the Gaza Strip but falls rather transparently into the project of displacing most of Gaza’s population, in the same way as eighty percent of the Palestinians living in the lands seized by the Zionist state in 1948 were displaced out of them.

Completing what was begun in that fateful year is a dream that has haunted the Zionist far right since the Nakba. This far right, of which the Likud Party is the legitimate heir, blamed David Ben-Gurion and his colleagues in the mainstream Zionist movement of that time for having accepted a ceasefire before completing the occupation of all the land of Palestine between the sea and the river. It is worth remembering that it was that same political movement that carried out the Deir Yassin massacre, the most famous of the atrocities that accompanied the Zionist takeover of Palestine and caused the displacement of its population.

The Zionist far right remained determined to achieve its “Greater Israel” project. Thus, Sharon faced strong opposition within Likud in 2005 when he was both leader of the party and Israeli prime minister and decided to evacuate Gaza (“unilateral disengagement plan”) to satisfy the military’s desire to get rid of the burden of controlling the Strip from within. Sharon’s priority was indeed to consolidate Israel’s control of most of the West Bank and formally annex these territories at first political opportunity, while keeping Gaza and Areas A and B stipulated in the Oslo II Agreement under the control of the Palestinian Authority so as to liquidate the Palestinian cause under the pretext of granting the Palestinians an entity of their own (even if under tight Israeli supervision).

Benjamin Netanyahu led the campaign against Sharon within Likud and went so far as to resign from the cabinet in protest against the withdrawal from Gaza. Sharon soon left Likud to establish another party, and Netanyahu replaced him at the helm of the party, which he continues to lead to this day. He saw in the “Al-Aqsa Flood” not only an opportunity to divert the attention of the Israeli opposition from him and achieve a Zionist revengeful unity against the people of Gaza, but also a golden opportunity to reoccupy the Gaza Strip, while emptying it of most of its people this time, as in the 1948 Nakba. Netanyahu, who brandished a map showing “Greater Israel” at the UN General Assembly less than a month ago, clearly wants to displace most of Gaza’s people to Sinai, beyond the border with Egypt. For this, he hopes that the United States will be able to convince the Egyptian regime to take them in.

On the other hand, Washington hopes that the Zionist army will “content itself” with eradicating Hamas (and Islamic Jihad) from the Gaza Strip in order to then hand over its administration to the Ramallah Authority, thus reviving the Oslo fiction without a permanent displacement that would increase the amplitude of the Palestinian refugee issue. For, what Netanyahu aspires to would inflame the entire Arab region and cancel the “normalization” achieved between Israel and some of the Arab regimes, whereas Washington believes that what it advocates will allow the “normalization” process to move forward. Which of the two options will be achieved in the end will be determined by the speed with which the Zionist army can advance in seizing the Gaza Strip in the face of an international pressure that will escalate the more the spectacle of what is happening to Gaza’s people will overshadow the scenes of the “Al-Aqsa Flood”.