Donna Robinson Divine

The Gaza War: The Hostile Takeovers

In their agonizing reactions to the failures to anticipate Hamas’ October 7 butchery, Israeli officials have fixated on their misguided framework presuming the terrorist organization more interested in raising Gaza’s standard of living than in fulfilling its ambition to take over Palestine’s national struggle. Days before the surprise onslaught, Israel’s Defense Ministry was preparing another 17,000 labor permits convinced that Hamas wanted its domain in the Gaza Strip quiet even as it stirred up violence on the West Bank.

Prime Minister Netanyahu repeatedly rejected proposals to try to destroy Hamas rule because the battlefield would have been covered with casualties, the heavy costs for repair and recovery thrust upon Israel, and attention would necessarily have been diverted from Iran, the country’s major existential threat.

There was always widespread recognition that the joy and comfort in military victory could quickly turn into a chronic entanglement with landmines laid by one or another Iranian backed proxy intent on halting Israel’s march on the yellow brick road to security.

Thus did signs of Hamas’ pragmatism abound for those wanting to see them. Two violent encounters between Israel and Islamic Jihad did not draw Hamas into the exchanges of rocket fire. Hamas leaders stopped their followers from launching incendiary balloons to set fire to Israel’s forests and fields in exchange for suitcases, packed in Qatar, filled with cash. Israel even loosened its naval blockade allowing the notoriously labelled dual use construction materials to be imported. Without announcing it as a policy change, the Jewish state stopped conducting targeted killings. Israel’s Gaza wars in 2008-2009, 2012, 2014, 2021—named but downgraded as episodic–did not raise widespread alarms about their undercurrents or about the potential for carnage on a much larger scale.

A framework is by nature limited, offering a single vision built from assembling information that presumably confirms one or another of its essential assumptions. But what happens when the assumptions you believe in fail? When what was once taken for granted as a narrative of the past and a projection for the future, cannot account for what is happening in the present?

The savage attacks unleashed against Israel on October 7 forced not only a reckoning with failed assumptions but also a radical revision of strategic calculations. Still, a transformation of the conception undergirding a major component of the country’s security doctrine did not disable the foundational principles about what had to be done to defend the Jewish state and safeguard its population. There was no way to contain Hamas’ murderous aims without military action. Just how all this will play out is not yet totally known or knowable. Partly because Hamas’ bid for control of the Palestine National movement is not yet fully resolved.

But Hamas is not the only force pursuing a hostile take-over. For its barbaric assault has won sympathy across the globe from many who see these atrocities as aligning with their own ambitions. Some Hamas supporters have made excuses for the savagery or downplayed the violence, but a surprising number have fully embraced the glory of its deeds, giving the movement a revolutionary legitimacy it never had before with implications reaching far beyond the contentious Middle Eastern borders seeding its fanatical violence. Messages including “Glory to Our Martyrs” and “Free Palestine From the River to the Sea” were projected onto the exterior of a campus building at George Washington University and shouted out in worldwide rallies organized in accordance with a calendar devised by Hamas.

These movements are mounting their own hostile take-overs of the campus, the media, the halls of congress, and even Jewish religious institutions in America. They brand Israel with the war crimes that have, historically and now contemporaneously, target Jews: genocide, ethnic cleansing. Or they invoke the term, ‘settler colonialism,’ not as a set of policies or actions that can be historically identified or confirmed but rather as an evil inherent in the Jewish state. What has been defined as a political conflict over land—and presumably resolvable–is transformed by words into what is called a matter of social justice demanding the dismantling of the Jewish state. Hamas’ barbarity is less important than its capacity to show Israel’s vulnerability bolstering what is seen as an ethical stance into a crusade that might actually fulfill its ambition.

Make no mistake, the words deployed are loaded with an ethic that assigns guilt and innocence on the basis of ethnic, racial, or social group rather than on the individual as the primary locus of accountability. An ethic prevalent in cutting edge academic disciplines has colonized the minds of students who graduate, leave the campus and channel their lexicon into their professions—law, journalism, politics, medicine, even the Rabbinate—producing new codes of conduct that emphasize suffering as the only marker of identity and ultimate morality.

Calls for an immediate ceasefire to end Israel’s military action against Hamas illustrate this morality: a ceasefire would save the terrorist organization from destruction while preserving its capacity to strike again. Deeming Israel’s military strikes ‘genocidal’ projects the actual Hamas deeds of rape, murder, and slaughter of young and old on to Israel, a country supposedly tainted by an original sin that can never be redeemed only obliterated. This not only reconfigures a vocabulary but ladles a generous helping of it on to a vocabulary instantly transmitted to intellectuals, artists, journalists, politicians, and bureaucrats in a highly networked world. It also shrinks history into the comfort of simplicity the more easily it can be force-fed to people who turn a foreign policy crisis into a domestic issue that often comes wrapped in their own identities.

Consider the video posted on YouTube and widely shared on social media made by Rabbis For Ceasefire, self-described as a groundbreaking collaboration of eighty rabbis and rabbinical students across denominations and political affiliations. Urging “the larger Jewish community and U.S. representatives to call for a ceasefire in Gaza now,” they denounce Israel for pursuing genocidal policies with its military actions. The video displays absolute illiteracy on the topic of war crimes and apparent and shocking unfamiliarity with any of the Rabbinic texts on self-defense. Or take the statements issued by professors at major universities cheering on Hamas attacks as liberation from Israeli oppression in an emotional grammar that has little to do with actual events or developments.

Some concepts are important less because they resolve a puzzle or raise important questions but more because they are symptomatic of collectively shared patterns of thinking within a particular moment in time. In this regard, the movements calling for an immediate ceasefire and turning Israeli self-defense measures into what they call a genocidal campaign of ethnic cleansings speak directly to an age of broken communities and social fragmentation that gives these charges both their domestic political power and material resources.

Ironically, this discourse speaks more directly to 21st century sensibilities than to distant Middle Eastern battleground conditions. In an age where grammar is both emotional and therapeutic, the question for many is which side aligned with  how they wanted to be identified by their peers or cohorts, not which side can end the brutal killing, restore order, and open an opportunity for peace.

If the choice is between sides that foreclose or open pathways to peace, there is no doubt. Just listen to what spokesmen for Hamas say. They profess an absolute determination to double down on massacring Jews and to kill anyone who stands in the way of destroying Israel. And while the October 7 attack precipitated an intimate catastrophe between Hamas and Israel, it also aimed at bringing an end to increasing the number of  Arab countries normalizing relations with Israel– what for Hamas and for its Iranian patron, is a dire regional crisis. The decision to turn the Israeli communities in the so-called Gaza envelop into an abattoir was intended to asphyxiate all prospects for ending the conflicts plaguing the Middle East while subjecting the region to continued warfare. If Hamas wins, the chances for peace, with or without Palestinians, will end. If Hamas wins, Palestinians can look forward to their society resembling others–Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Yemen– that operate within the Iranian orbit.

Israelis pay a high price for a Jewish state. A country where parents still send their children off to war needs a politics with a vision and a public discourse pitched as a mission of high moral purpose. That is why, even though a set of strategic assumptions failed, that failure has not shattered the country’s essential foundational principle; namely, the belief in future better than in the past but only  made better by the hard and sometimes painful work of the heart and the mind. Zionism promised to lift up Jews—and by extension all citizens of a Jewish state– to the possibility of a new kind of solidarity, moral development, and power to shape their own destiny. Everything that has happened since the October 7 tragedy has shown that Israelis—Jew and Arab; religious and secular—are still trying to keep that promise.

About the Author
Donna Robinson Divine is the Morningstar Family Professor of Jewish Studies and Professor of Government emerita at Smith College, where she taught a variety of courses on Middle East politics. Able to draw on material in Hebrew, Arabic, and Turkish, her books include Women Living Change: Cross-Cultural Perspectives; Politics and Society in Ottoman Palestine: The Arab Struggle for Survival and Power, Postcolonial Theory and the Arab-Israeli Conflict, Exiled in the Homeland: Zionism and the Return to Mandate Palestine, and Word Crimes: Reclaiming The Language of the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict.
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