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David Breakstone
Reflections on Israel and the Jewish world

UN chief Guterres is right — Oct. 7 didn’t occur in a void

Understanding the Israel-Hamas war is so much simpler than you thought
Protesters gather with placards and Palestinian flags during the "London Rally For Palestine" in Trafalgar Square, central London on November 4, 2023. (JUSTIN TALLIS / AFP)
Protesters gather with placards and Palestinian flags during the "London Rally For Palestine" in Trafalgar Square, central London on November 4, 2023. (JUSTIN TALLIS / AFP)

Addressing the U.N. Security Council during a hearing on the Israel-Hamas war, U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres declared that “It is important to recognize the attacks by Hamas did not happen in a vacuum,” a statement broadly interpreted as justifying the October 7 massacre in which some 1,400 Israelis were butchered, nearly 6,000 injured, and another 242 taken hostage – the overwhelming majority of them civilians, including infants, children, the aged, the infirm, and, ironically, some of Israel’s leading peace activists.

The broad condemnation of Guterres’s proclamation was fast and furious. But I, for one, think he was right. But only as far as his assertion that the atrocities did not happen in a void. They didn’t. But he and I differ widely as to the context in which they were executed.

The secretary general went on to assert that “The Palestinian people have been subjected to 56 years of suffocating occupation. They have seen their land steadily devoured by settlements and plagued by violence; their economy stifled; their people displaced and their homes demolished. Their hopes for a political solution to their plight have been vanishing.”

What Mr. Guterres conveniently declined to mention is that all of this, to whatever extent it may be true, is the consequence of the immutable rejection by Hamas – and its brothers in arms, the Islamic Jihad Movement in Palestine (PIJ) – of the basic right of Israel to exist in any territory whatsoever.

This is not a matter of speculation. The Hamas Charter asserts categorically that “Palestine is an Islamic Waqf, land consecrated for Muslim generations until Judgement Day” and calls for the obliteration of Israel and its replacement with an Islamic state extending from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea (Article 11), an objective fueled by vitriolic hatred of the Jew. “The Day of Judgment will not come about until Muslims fight the Jews, when the Jew will hide behind stones and trees. The stones and trees will say, ‘O Muslim, O servant of Allah, there is a Jew behind me, come and kill him’” (Article 7), precisely the harrowing script played out on October 7.

The Charter goes on to glorify violence as the only way to dismantle the Zionist entity. “I indeed wish to go to war for the sake of Allah! I will assault and kill, assault and kill, assault and kill,” it instructs, quoting Muhammad ibn Isma’il al-Bukhari, a 9th century Muslim muhaddith (religious scholar) regarded as the most authoritative redactor of hiddith, sayings and deeds of the Prophet Muhammad (Article 15). Leaving no room for misinterpretation, the Charter declares unequivocally that “Initiatives, and so-called peaceful solutions and international conferences, are in contradiction to the principles of the Islamic Resistance Movement (Hamas). There is no solution for the Palestinian question except through Jihad. (Article 13). Furthermore, it decries every attempt by any Arab country to enter into a peace agreement with Israel as a betrayal of Islam (Article 32).

My assumption is that the vast majority of Hamas sympathizers are unfamiliar with its Charter, and, even if they were, would tend to dismiss this decree of war against Israel as being merely declaratory. Until October 7 they would have been wrong, but their misconstruction perhaps understandable. Until that Black Sabbath, even Israel’s top political, military, and intelligence echelons were reportedly operating under the illusion of a flawed conception that the threat Hamas posed to the country could be managed through economic inducements and contained by the encouragement of what was mistakenly perceived of as the emergence of a more pragmatic approach within the organization that would ultimately predominate.

Israel’s leaders now know better. Those around the world still clinging to the misconception that Hamas might be mollified by anything less than the total destruction of Israel should be disavowed of this delusion as well. Even those who would continue to dismiss the Charter as an outdated document not to be taken literally, can hardly ignore the declarations of its top leadership today. In an October 24 interview on Lebanese television (LBC), Ghazi Hamad, a senior member of the Hamas political bureau stated categorically that “Israel is a country that has no place on our land. We are not ashamed to say this, with full force… The Al-Aqsa Flood [the October 7 slaughter] is just the first time, and there will be a second, a third, a fourth.” Asked if he is committed, then, to the annihilation of Israel, he responds with stark simplicity, “Yes, of course.”

Hamas sympathizers need also understand that the suffering of the Palestinians in Gaza is, at its core, also the responsibility of the organization, which has held its civilian population hostage to its fanatical refusal to pursue peace with its neighbor to the north.

Following its 2005 unilateral withdrawal from the entirety of the Gaza strip, Israel readily signed an Agreement on Movement and Access with the Palestinian Authority “to promote peaceful economic development and improve the humanitarian situation on the ground.” It would have allowed for imports and exports, the passage of persons and goods between Gaza and the West Bank, the immediate construction of a seaport, and a commitment in principle to the building of an airport as well – all laying the groundwork for the emergence of a Palestinian state encompassing Gaza and the West Bank. Then came the 2006 elections in Gaza, which brought Hamas to power after a bloody struggle that decimated the Palestinian Authority, rendering the accord obsolete.

How different things would have been these past 17 years for the Palestinian people, never mind Israel, if Hamas had built on the foundations of coexistence put in place by those it dethroned rather than destroying them;

if the billions of dollars it has received in international aid had been channeled into the building of schools, community centers, hospitals and welfare institutions instead of a massive complex of underground military installations;

if it had paved roads and created an infrastructure for public transportation instead of burrowing an estimated 1,300 subterranean tunnels spanning 300 miles (in a territory only 25 miles long!) in preparation for its war on Israel;

if it had invested in industrial parks and hi-tech startups instead of the manufacture of a vast arsenal of rockets launched at those asking for nothing more than good neighborly relations;

if it had trained doctors, scientists, and teachers instead of indoctrinating children with fanatical hatred of an imagined enemy;

if it had constructed that open seaport rather than inviting restrictive measures on its land crossings both from Egypt to the south and Israel to the north.

Hamas chose differently. Nevertheless, despite its rejectionism, Israel has continually facilitated the flow of humanitarian aid, goods, electricity, water and fuel into Gaza – albeit with limitations and scrutiny dictated by concern for its own security. And right up until Hamas launched its brutal attack, 18,000 Gazans were crossing into Israel every day to work, with an increase to 30,000 in process. On an individual level, too, dozens of Israeli peace activists living in settlements bordering Gaza were involved daily in various initiatives to ease the plight of their Palestinian neighbors suffering under the Hamas regime – until they, themselves, became victims of the heinous Hamas assault.

Understanding the root cause of the Israel-Hamas war, then, is as simple as this: As long as Israel insists on its right to exist, and as long as Hamas survives, the conflict will continue. And it is in that simplicity that the tragedy lies. The unintended death of innocent Palestinians is tragic, as is the deliberate butchering of innocent Israelis. The cries of the children on both sides of the border reach to the heavens. But following October 7, after almost two decades of restraint in response to the incessant rain of Hamas and Jihad rockets launched at its civilian population, Israel is unwavering in its determination to eliminate the threat of Hamas once and for all. Whatever strategy it adopts in pursuit of that objective, there will regrettably be far too many casualties on both sides.

Ultimately, the bloodletting will only end if those ruling Gaza after the war join hands with those Arab states – and the millions of Arabs they encompass – that have embraced The Abraham Accords, that have already normalized relations with Israel, or that are in the process of doing so today. To them, all we are saying is give peace a chance. Since the Jewish people returned to its homeland, that is all we have wanted, all we have striven for, and all we hope for today. To that end we must free Palestine, free Palestine from Hamas.

About the Author
Dr. David Breakstone is presently engaged in establishing the Yitzhak Navon Center for a Shared Society. He previously served as deputy chair of the Jewish Agency executive and the World Zionist Organization and was the conceptual architect and founding director of the Herzl Museum and Educational center in Jerusalem.
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