Joseph Rabie

For Whom Toll the Bells?

March against antisemitism, Paris, 12th November 2023 (photo Joseph Rabie)
March against antisemitism, Paris, 12th November 2023 (photo Joseph Rabie)

For Israel (and Jews all over the world), what Hamas did on Saturday 7th October deeply resonates as a proof of concept for how to conduct genocide as a “solution” to the Arab-Israeli conflict. Thus, given Hamas’s avowed intention to destroy Israel in particular, and the Jewish people in general, its elimination as a political and military entity imposes itself as an existential imperative.

Many Israelis, who support the legitimacy of Palestinian aspirations for statehood, have always been disturbed by the dire conditions suffered by Gaza’s inhabitants. Yet, the truth be told, the traumatic experience of the terrorist attacks that killed many hundreds of Israeli civilians during the Second Intifada two decades ago, effectively gutted the Israeli left, and it has never recovered since. And in recent years, for most of a prosperous Israeli society, the Palestinians have become invisible, a non-issue, in particular at times of elections focused on other questions. Even the organizers of the monster demonstrations against Benjamin Netanyahu’s attempt to bend the judiciary to his will have preferred to elude the divisive issue of the occupation. The events, of what Israel has called its Black Shabbat, have been a grief-filled wake-up call.

In the wake of the horror, sections of Israel’s traumatized population call for revenge, echoing Netanyahu’s populist call for retribution. Indeed, Israel’s enemies seek to vindicate what Hamas did as the revenge of Gazans traumatized since childhood by years of bombing, destruction, and death–claiming in total depravity that Israel has brought the atrocities upon itself. For his part, Netanyahu’s personal call for total war plays to his proto-Fascist government and its dream for ethnic cleansing, that seizes opportunistically upon every occasion to wreak havoc upon the Palestinians.

All around the world, lines are drawn between victims and villains, depending on the side one is on.

To be honest, one can hardly be surprised that condemnation targets Israel, whereas compassion goes to the Palestinians. They have, after all, been subjected to an occupation that has gone on for far too long, with no solution in sight. Whatever explanations may be offered to demonstrate their part of responsibility in the failure to negotiate a Palestinian state, they are the underdogs.

Yet one is deeply troubled by the hundreds of thousands of demonstrators and the social media storm that refuse to show any empathy for the horrors committed by Hamas. A disturbing equation is put into place in which rape, burning people alive, kidnapping small children, decapitating babies are considered “comprehensible”, because they are seen as the just retribution for the suffering meted out by the other side, minimizing or exempting the personal responsibility of the perpetrators. An equation in which Hamas is celebrated as a figurehead for Palestinian resistance by students, activists, and artists, who prefer to ignore what it really is, a jihadi dictatorship that represents the antithesis of progressive values. But then, certain segments of the left in western countries have never been short on useful idiots.

Different terms have been used to qualify Israel’s misdeeds towards the Palestinians. Referring to Gaza as “an open air prison” has become generalized. Israel’s supporters take exception: Israel withdrew from the enclave in 2005, Gaza could have become “a second Singapore”, but instead the Hamas regime came to power, and never-ceasing hostility gave Israel no other choice than imposing a blockade, at the civilian population’s expense. A blockade that Egypt, no friend of Hamas, has abetted, despite its declared support for the Palestinian cause.

“Apartheid” has been used to describe the occupation, to the consternation of the many Israelis of South African origin, who had opposed the racist regime in their former country. The Palestinian population in the occupied West Bank has come to refer to the Separation Barrier (Israel’s term) as the Apartheid Wall, and indeed the Afrikaans term translates as “Separateness”. When Israel decided to erect the wall during the Second Intifada it was for security reasons, to stop infiltration by terrorists; there were no racist motivations.

Now the term “genocide” is being shouted out in a great chorus, to describe the massive fatalities inflicted upon Gaza’s civilian population in the current war, just as it has been in previous engagements. Declaring that Israel is “committing genocide”, in Gaza or elsewhere, is a recurring figure. It is factually incorrect, since (unlike Hamas) there is no evidence that Israel has any intent to exterminate the Palestinian people as a whole. Israel’s opponents could have accused Israel of war crimes (as the United Nations has done)–rather than genocide–for the devastation caused in its effort to neutralize Hamas. All said and done, the deliberate choice of the term genocide, leveled specifically against Israel–and by extension the Jewish people–bears a heavy charge. It operates as a deliberate attempt to relativize the Shoah, and as such can be interpreted as being antisemitic.

The irony of it all is that while segments of the left are virulently opposed to Israel, segments of the European right and extreme right, traditionally antisemitic, have become Israel’s staunchest supporters. Perhaps this is because of a sense of guilt for the Shoah, or relief that the creation of Israel took the remaining vestiges of European Jewry off their hands. But certainly because Islamophobia has come to provide the new mythical “other” that they obsessively believe is hellbent on destroying their identity. As they say: “The enemies of my enemies….”

So now we witness, with dismay, the population of Gaza in the throes of humanitarian disaster, attempting to scramble to safety. During the weeks leading up to their all-out attack, the Israeli military warned them of impending hostilities, and exhorted them to clear out–impossible, one might say, for there is scarce refuge within the densely populated confines of the Gaza Strip, no place to go that is genuinely safe. At the same time, Hamas militants have allegedly ordered them to stay put, threatening them if they leave. The Israeli military consider that they are doing their humanitarian duty, and one believes them sincere: the issue is with Hamas, not the Palestinians as such. What happens to those who stay behind and get caught in the crossfire is terrible, but collateral damage that is no longer their affair. And given the anger in Israel at the sight of Gaza’s population celebrating the return of their heroes with their brutalized hostages (the elderly, women, infants) and the carnage left in their wake–though many Israelis are mortified by the toll wrought by the military upon Gaza’s inhabitants–there is limited solicitude on their behalf.

In the meantime, the civilian death rate rises vertiginously. The balance of power is crushingly in Israel’s favor; the imbalance in body count is outrageously against it. Even Israel’s most steadfast supporters are beginning to express discomfort in the face of retaliation perceived as being disproportionate. Yet what macabre accounting can even calculate “proportionality” in order to decree at which point Israel’s reaction becomes excessive? Every civilian death on either side is tragic, however antagonistic may be each’s representation of events. That the supporters of either side might deny the suffering of the other in the face of their own, is indecent. There are loved ones on both sides.

As far as Israel is concerned, it has no choice, that those many people unable to avoid being caught in the crossfire are incomparable to the deliberate, impassioned, personal slaughter undertaken by Hamas. Israeli collective memory is founded upon a history of exile, persecution, and genocide: Hamas’s unequivocal intentions threaten to add the next chapter. That is why, as far as Israel is concerned, Hamas has to be dealt with definitively: that necessity is as dire as that of the Allies taking Berlin.

For its enemies, Israel’s striking back constitutes the original act of aggression that in some mysterious way inverts the responsibilities for cause and effect. Yet one cannot ignore that Israel’s propensity to use maximal force in suppressing all dissent in the occupied West Bank–most of which cannot be considered terrorism, despite Israel labelling it as such–has led it to commit, on many occasions, what can doubtlessly be qualified as war crimes. Indeed, occupation and colonization have gone on for over half a century now, and is turning into a de facto annexation, compromising the prospect of a two-state solution.

Having looked at how each side relates to the other, now let us see how each relates to its own.

Israel has a longstanding reputation for taking care of its citizens. One remembers how they sent commandos to Entebbe in 1976 to rescue the hostages from a hijacked plane held by Idi Amin. That operation, in which only one Israeli soldier, Bibi Netanyahu’s older brother Yonatan, was killed, seized the world’s imagination for its audacity. Israel is prepared to negotiate the release of prisoners in order to recover the bodies of its fallen. The soldier Gilad Shalit, held captive by Hamas, was exchanged in 2011 against over a thousand Palestinian prisoners–some of whom allegedly led the massacres on the 7th October.

Yet the shift towards the extreme right in Israel, in favor of a messianic vision calling for a so-called Greater Israel, at the Palestinians’ expense, has caused a rift. For those people, in power, those on the right are the true patriots, while those on the left are smeared as traitors. Such has been Bibi Netanyahu’s deleterious rhetoric for decades, inciting against Rabin before his assassination, and in his methodical scuttling of the Oslo peace process. His vilification of the left has reached new depths in response to the massive demonstrations against his project to legislate the Supreme Court out of existence. Indeed, the sole platform of the current extreme right-wing government is based on making the charges for corruption against Netanyahu disappear, in exchange for giving a free reign to avowed Jewish supremacists in the occupied West Bank.

After the killings and kidnappings of the 7th October, Netanyahu and his government quite simply ignored the victims, commentators attributing this to the fact that the inhabitants of the attacked villages were in the majority on the left of the political spectrum. Worse, the villagers were left to fend for themselves for hours, much of the army having been deployed in the occupied West Bank to protect the settlers. In his call for revenge and total war on Gaza, the families of the victims have accused him of a willingness to sacrifice the hostages, contradicting all previous Israeli doctrine on the question. The Israeli military has since declared that freeing the hostages is part of their mission. In the meantime, the war has stopped the demonstrations: many thousands of Israelis await its end to march on Jerusalem.

The regime that Hamas has established in Gaza, despite initially being voted into power, can in no way be qualified as democratic. There is no opposition, and dissidents are persecuted. The Palestinian Authority was banished after a war between the two in 2006-7, among other reasons because the former remained committed to a negotiated settlement, while Hamas refused to recognize Israel, calling for its destruction. Under Israeli blockade ever since, Gaza has survived through the infusion of money and aid from the exterior in support of its civilian population, to a large extent diverted by Hamas to develop its military complex.

The exposure of the civilian population to the Israeli assault raises a troubling question: why are there no bomb shelters in Gaza, after so many years of conflict? Why hasn’t Hamas provided a defensive infrastructure to protect them, in the knowledge that the Israeli air force attacks those densely populated residential areas precisely because they purposely conceal military installations, allegedly in part under hospitals, schools and mosques? It’s not as if Hamas lacks the know-how to build underground. Quite the opposite, they have spared no expense in the construction of an enormous web of tunnels and bunkers to safely house their military infrastructure. In Israel, almost every inhabitant has access to shelter, either an obligatory strongroom in each apartment, or underground neighborhood shelters.

When Hamas attacked Israel in the way they did on the 7th October, they knew pertinently that Israel would be obliged to retaliate with maximal force, far more extreme than in any previous engagement between the two. And this is undoubtedly part of Hamas’s plan: they have drawn up lines of battle to greet the Israeli military with utmost lethality. But instead of Hamas doing all in its power to protect the civilian population in the confined urban configuration making up Gaza City, they are exposing them in the front line. Their strategy is manifestly founded upon the expendability of Palestinian civilians, forcing Israel into a situation where, in order to combat Hamas, committing war crimes will be inevitable. Cynically weaponizing the victimhood of their own citizens, for the most perverse political gain in world opinion.

Might one wish, at the end of all this, that both peoples rid themselves of the leadership that has served them so badly, that they defy the conflictual logic that seems to govern human nature, and envisage coexistence as their only viable option?

About the Author
Joseph Rabie is an all-purpose creative person with a finger in many pies – architecture, urban studies, photography, multimedia, digital art, writing, cartography, drawing, caricature, cooking (sometimes). The question of place constitutes the motive force uniting these various pursuits, giving meaning to the fundamental relationship that connects humans and all other creatures to the singular "where" on Earth each inhabits.
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