Israel & Hamas

Heather Cox Richardson

In an NPR piece yesterday, Bill Chappell noted that “the war between Israel and Hamas is being fought, in part, through disinformation and competing claims.” 

Khalil al-Hayya, a member of Hamas’s leadership team currently in Qatar, told Ben Hubbard and Maria Abi-Habib of the New York Times that Hamas’s goal in their attack of October 7, 2023, when Hamas terrorists crossed from Gaza into Israel and tortured and killed about 1,200 people, taking another 240 hostage, was to make sure the region did not settle into a status quo that excluded the Palestinians. 

In 2020 the Palestinians were excluded from discussions about the Abraham Accords negotiated by then-president Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner that normalized relations between Israel and the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain (and later Morocco). More recently, Saudi Arabia and Israel were in talks with the United States about normalizing relations.   

Al-Hayya told the reporters that in order to “change the entire equation and not just have a clash,” Hamas leaders intended to commit “a great act” that Israel would respond to with fury. “[W]ithout a doubt, it was known that the reaction to this great act would be big,” al-Hayya said, but “[w]e had to tell people that the Palestinian cause would not die.” 

“Hamas’s goal is not to run Gaza and to bring it water and electricity and such,” al-Hayya said. “This battle was not because we wanted fuel or laborers,” he added. “It did not seek to improve the situation in Gaza. This battle is to completely overthrow the situation.”

Hamas media adviser Taher El-Nounou told the reporters: “I hope that the state of war with Israel will become permanent on all the borders, and that the Arab world will stand with us.”

Hamas could be pretty certain that Israel would retaliate with a heavy hand. The governing coalition that took power at the end of 2022 is a far-right coalition, and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu needs to hold that coalition together to stay in power, not least because he faces charges of bribery, fraud, and breach of trust.   

Once it took power, Netanyahu’s government announced that expanding Israeli settlements in the Palestinian West Bank was a priority, vowing to annex the occupied territory. It also endorsed discrimination against LGBTQ people and called for generous payments to ultra-Orthodox men so they could engage in religious study rather than work. It also tried to push through changes to the judicial system to give far more power to the government. 

From January 7 until October 7, 2023, protesters turned out in the streets in huge numbers. With the attack, Israelis have come together until the crisis is resolved.

Netanyahu’s ability to stay in power depended in large part on his promises that he would keep Israelis safe. The events of October 7 on his watch—the worst attack on Jews since the Holocaust—shattered that guarantee. Polls show that Israelis blame his government, and three quarters of them think he should resign. Sixty-four percent think the country should hold an election immediately after the war. 

Immediately after the attack, on October 7, Netanyahu vowed “mighty vengeance” against Hamas, and Israeli airstrikes began to pound Gaza. On October 8, Israel formally declared war. Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant said the country’s retaliation would “change the reality on the ground in Gaza for the next 50 years,” and on October 9 he announced “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.”

Israel and the U.S. have strong historic and economic ties: as Nicole Narea points out in Vox in a review of their history together, the U.S. has also traditionally seen Israel as an important strategic ally as it stabilizes the Middle East, helping to maintain the supply of Middle Eastern oil that the global economy needs. That strategic importance has only grown as the U.S. seeks to normalize ties around the region to form a united front against Iran.

For Biden, Secretary of State Antony Blinken, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, and other envoys, then, it appeared the first priority after the October 7 attack was to keep the conflict from spreading. Biden made it very clear that the U.S. would stand behind Israel should Iran, which backs Hamas, be considering moving in. He warned: “[T]o any country, any organization, anyone thinking of taking advantage of this situation, I have one word: Don’t.”

The movement of two U.S. carrier groups to the region appears so far to be helping to achieve that goal. While Iran-backed Hezbollah fighters from Lebanon and Yemen’s Houthis have fired missiles and drones at Israel since October 7, Iran’s leaders have said they will not join Hamas’s fight and are hoping only to use the conflict as leverage against the U.S.

Militias have fired at least 55 rocket and drone strikes at U.S. forces in Iraq and Syria since October 7 without killing any U.S. soldiers. In retaliation, the U.S. has launched three airstrikes against militia installations in Syria, killing up to seven men (the military assesses there were not women or children in the vicinity) in the third strike on Sunday. The U.S. keeps roughly 900 troops in Syria and 2,500 troops in Iraq to work with local forces to prevent the resurgence of the Islamic State.

At the same time that Biden emphasized Israel’s right to respond to Hamas’s attack and demanded the return of the hostages, he also called for humanitarian aid to Gaza through Egypt and warned Netanyahu to stay within the laws of war.

Rounds of diplomacy by Secretary of State Antony Blinken, who flew to Israel and Jordan initially on October 11 and has gone back repeatedly, as well as by Biden, who has both visited the region—his second trip to a war zone—and constantly worked the phones, and other envoys, started humanitarian convoys moving into Gaza with a single 20-truck convoy on October 21. By early November, over 100 trucks a day were entering Gaza, the number the United Nations says is the minimum needed. Yesterday the Israeli war cabinet agreed to allow two tankers of fuel a day into Gaza after the U.N. said it couldn’t deliver aid because it had run out of fuel. 

The U.S. has insisted from the start that Israel’s military decisions must not go beyond the laws of war. Israeli officials say they are staying within the law, yet an estimated 11,000 civilians and Hamas fighters (the numbers are not separated out) have died. Gaza has been crushed into rubble by airstrikes, and more than a million people are homeless. That carnage has sparked protests around the world along with calls for a cease-fire, which Israel rejects. 

It has also sparked extreme Islamophobia and antisemitism exacerbated by social media. In the immediate aftermath of October 7, Islamophobia inspired a Chicago man to stab a 6-year-old Palestinian American boy to death; more recently, antisemitism has jumped more than 900% on X (formerly Twitter). On Wednesday, Elon Musk agreed with a virulently antisemitic post on X. White House spokesperson Andrew Bates responded: “We condemn this abhorrent promotion of Antisemitic and racist hate in the strongest terms, which runs against our core values as Americans.” Advertisers, including IBM and Apple, announced they would no longer advertise on Musk’s platform.

While calling for humanitarian pauses in the fighting, the Biden administration has continued to focus on getting the hostages out and has rejected calls for a cease-fire, saying such a break would only allow Hamas to regroup. In The Atlantic on November 14, former secretary of state Hillary Clinton, who negotiated a 2012 cease-fire between Hamas and Israel only to see Hamas violate that agreement two years later, explained that cease-fires have only kicked the can down the road. “Israel’s policy since 2009 of containing rather than destroying Hamas has failed,” she said.  

Clinton called for the destruction of Hamas on the one hand and “a new strategy and new leadership” for Israel on the other. “Instead of the current ultra-right-wing government, it will need a government of national unity that’s rooted in the center of Israeli politics and can make the hard choices ahead,” she wrote. 

Central to those choices is the long-neglected two-state solution that would establish a Palestinian state. Biden and Blinken and a number of Arab governments have backed the idea, but to many observers it seems impossible to pull off. Still, at the same time Clinton’s article appeared, King Abdullah II of Jordan published his own op-ed in the Washington Post  titled: “A two-state solution would be a victory for our common humanity.”

“[L]et’s start with some basic reality,” he wrote. “The fact is that the thousands of victims across Israel, Gaza and the West Bank have been overwhelmingly civilians…. Leaders everywhere have the responsibility to face the full reality of this crisis, as ugly as it is. Only by anchoring ourselves to the concrete facts that have brought us to this point will we be able to change the increasingly dangerous direction of our world…. 

“If the status quo continues, the days ahead will be driven by an ongoing war of narratives over who is entitled to hate more and kill more. Sinister political agendas and ideologies will attempt to exploit religion. Extremism, vengeance and persecution will deepen not only in the region but also around the world…. It is up to responsible leaders to deliver results, starting now.”

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