Joseph Rabie

Understanding and Dismay at the Devastation in Gaza

Many evenings, Rear Admiral Daniel Hagari, the Israeli Defense Forces military spokesman makes an appearance on television. A calming, dapper figure, he presents the challenges and achievements of the day’s combat. He explains that the armed forces are fighting by the book, doing their utmost to conduct a clean war. Behaving in a professional manner. And one believes him, or wants to; give his words credit, because he is the image of reassurance. And one is led to understand that the elevated number of civilian casualties and destruction is to be imputed to the very nature of the battlefield, a consequence of the way Hamas has intricated military infrastructure within every corner of the urban fabric. That the IDF does its utmost to warn the population to evacuate targeted neighbourhoods, in order to minimise collateral damage.

But the unprecedented number of civilian deaths, and a recent press report revealing the modus operandi of Israel’s mysterious 8200 cyber unit, demonstrate that things on the ground are not as clear-cut as Hagari would have us believe. A so-called artificial intelligence, developed by the unit, provides an enormous list pinpointing the plausible whereabouts of Hamas operatives, compiled on the basis of myriad sources of data. One is obliged to question whether the rules of war are indeed being respected when a low-level combatant is targeted, taking with him an entire apartment building and dozens of extended family members, because a machine calculated that he was probably at home, and that the collateral damage would be “proportional”.

Or maybe he wasn’t even home at all, because an AI provides a prediction, not the hard evidence of a physical sighting, and on that basis many innocent people may have been killed.

Which should not for a moment have us forget that Kfir Bibas, all of fourteen months old, has been imprisoned half his life in a Hamas jail, along with the other hostages, including many young women, for whom one must fear the worst. Or not have us understand that those decimated Gazan families would be going about their lives unhindered, right now, if Hamas had not not done what it did on October 7th. And that Israelis, amongst them many sympathetic to the Palestinian cause, would not have hardened their hearts in the face of so much Gazan suffering, if Hamas had not committed its heartless monstrosity.

As the months go by, friends of Israel who have been adamant in their support since October 7th, are becoming more and more dismayed with what appears to be wanton violence in Gaza. It is more and more difficult to blindly accept the Israeli claim that the choice is not theirs, in a war in which Hamas wilfully uses their own population as human shields. This is compounded by a worsening humanitarian crisis, in which Israel is accused of hampering the distribution of aid. Hospitals are in ruins because they have been used to conceal military infrastructure, yet Israel refuses to address a health situation, worse than disastrous, for which it is answerable. Hamas are undoubtedly monsters, but to many in the world, and particularly to more and more of its friends, Israel appears to be turning into ruthless bastards.

Voices are being heard, including from military commentators, questioning the efficacy of Israel’s strategy, given that after six months of war a much diminished Hamas continues to hold its own, most of its leaders unscathed despite the pledge to liquidate them, while the remaining hostages – or those still alive – have yet to be liberated. And alarm rises at what is manifestly gratuitous lethality, serving no other advantage than provoking demoralisation and despair within the Gazan population. And in so doing, damage Israel’s reputation and erode its moral status, as Corinne Melul has brilliantly pointed out in an article, The Cost of Ignoring Gazan Suffering, in The Times of Israel.

Which invites a further question: How to understand the collective disregard shared by so many Israelis towards the ongoing devastation in Gaza?

Before we continue, a misunderstanding has to be dispelled, concerning the term understanding itself. For example, when one is asked to understand the behaviour of a violent person who suffered maltreatment at the hands of his parents; or acts of antisocial behaviour provoked by social injustice; or even the terrorism of those who were colonised and humiliated. This kind of forbearance often justifies support for perpetrators, whose circumstances supposedly merit their being let off the hook. The left is generally blamed for this kind of indulgence – condoning the misdeeds of those categorised patronisingly as the underdog – though the right has their version of it as well.

A more rigorous approach is to speak of understanding in sociological terms, researching intellectual explanations for the mechanisms at play in the actions of individuals and social groups. This distances itself from the complacency implicit to the type of “understanding” presented above. There certainly may be mitigating circumstances that must be taken into consideration; nonetheless, no one is exempt from accountability for their acts. This applies as equally to Israel’s foes as to Israel itself. It is within the framework of these two kinds of understanding that we seek to analyse Israeli brutality, and its acceptance, in Gaza.

But first, a bit about Israel’s foes. For those on the left, who condone Hamas’s atrocities as an “act of resistance”, condemning Israel represents a corollary aversion towards those whom they consider the overdog (yes, the term exists). Israel is the uber overdog, worthy of vilification under all circumstances, its very existence considered a colonial crime. And though Israel must be held to account for the illegal occupation of the West Bank, slogans such as “From the river to the sea, Palestine shall be free”, go much further, helped along with a generous dose of antisemitism. After all, a portion of the left were accusing Israel of genocide the moment it started to fight back on October 7th, brushing aside the atrocities, gleefully demonstrating their support.

Indeed, the antisemitic nature of the accusation of genocide against Israel needs to be clearly understood. Hamas has never made any mystery of its project to exterminate the Jews, stating that they would repeat October 7th as many times as it took. So why the double standard, turning a blind eye to Hamas’s declared genocidal intentions? Because accusing Israel, and the Jews by extension, of genocide serves to relativise the Shoah. In other words, to proclaim that the Jews gassed in the concentration camps, or mowed down in the killing fields, got their just deserts retroactively, retribution for the crimes their descendants would allegedly commit in Gaza.

It should be noted in passing that South Africa refused to respect a warrant issued by the International Criminal Court for the arrest of Omar al-Bashir, the Sudanese dictator, on counts of genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes in Darfur, when he visited the country. A flagrant double standard, when it comes to accusing Israel of genocidal behaviour in the International Court of Justice. It has been suggested that the ANC government is instrumentalising this in order to improve its standing in the coming elections, which it is likely to lose. The utterings of Naledi Pandor, Minister of International Relations and Cooperation, who declared her support for Hamas on October 7th, reflects upon an atmosphere of state antisemitism in that country.

Israeli brutality in Gaza, as well as in the occupied West Bank, can be understood in terms of an extreme right-wing government, in the sway of Jewish supremacist extremists who openly champion ethnic cleansing of the Palestinian population. In all likelihood, certain Israeli actions can be qualified as war crimes or crimes against humanity, in which case the political and military leaders responsible for their execution should be held accountable. Not only because of the acts themselves, but for the moral damage they are doing to Israel as a country, and to its standing in the world.

That much of the Israeli population appears to be indifferent to the killing and destruction can be understood as a traumatic reaction to what happened on October 7th. Revenge is surely part of it, boosted by a general refusal to afford compassion for the suffering of those affiliated with such a monstrous enemy. This has been compounded by the evident enthusiasm of the many civilians who rushed across the border and partook in the atrocities. That the Palestinians are victims of the hardships that Hamas has brought upon Gaza, does not mean that they do not support them. After all, the population has been subjected to confinement and poverty for decades (the reasons for which will not be entered into here), so it is not illogical that they should support a group that has succeeded in an attack that has left Israel reeling.

For the Israeli left, durably diminished since the Second Intifada, amongst those who continued to unflinchingly hang onto the hope for coexistence, wide Palestinian support for Hamas on October 7th has constituted a grievous betrayal. That the left-wing kibbutzim had sought, over the years, to establish neighbourly relationships with their Gazan neighbours, however asymmetrical circumstances caused them to be, did not save them. For many traumatised survivors, it is henceforth an issue of “them or us”. Many from the left consider that they had been naive, and have come to believe that Palestinians as a whole will never give up on their dream for Israel’s ultimate disappearance.

A further reason explaining the indifference towards the brutality may be traced back to the Holocaust. The Shoah was the culmination of millennia of abuse. Pogroms, persecutions, blood libels, discrimination, hatred, Jews being treated as if they constitute a vile and conspiratorial intrusion upon a “virtuous” world.

At the end of the 19th century, it became possible for Jews to leave Europe and seek out a future of dignity and independence in the land of their ancestors, ending 2000 years of exile. The local Palestinian population might have shown hospitality, but ultimately hostility led to violent conflict. Indeed, the Mufti of Jerusalem allied himself with Hitler during World War Two. It is pure hypocrisy that those on the left who show sympathy (justifiably so) for migrants seeking a haven from poverty and conflict in the West, refute this for Jews who fled maltreatment and violence in Europe.

After the Shoah, the Jews said, “never again,” not only to what happened, but to ever being victims again. No longer would they cower in the realm of meek pity, pushed around and bullied. Nor accept the perverse, patronizing attitude that they are expected to be beholden, as if their former victimhood obliges them to a higher moral standard than others.

What is happening in Gaza is conditioned by the Shoah. It is a dire warning. From now on, understand that this is what happens to whoever harms a hair on a Jewish head. Lethal dissuasion. Death and destruction. A price tag on hateful agendas that will make any aggressor think twice. The rules of war, proportionality, all humanist niceties cancelled for as long as survival is on the block. And a balance of power overpoweringly in Israel’s favour – for if it were the other way round, what Hamas would inflict on Tel Aviv would make Gaza pale by comparison.

Notwithstanding, neither this, nor anything else, can justify the devastation being wrought. Not even an enemy declaring genocidal intent writes Israel a blank check for so many thousands of collateral deaths. To condone it depreciates the values of humanity and democracy that Israel has always – whatever its contradictions and misdeeds – undertaken to uphold. An incapacity for dismay, an incapacity for empathy, means that victory ultimately goes to the monsters.

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.