Samuel Heilman
Distinguished Professor of Sociology Emeritus CUNY

We are All Hostages of the War in Gaza

I do not want to minimize the horror and pain the October 7th hostages and their loved ones are currently experiencing and have since that dark day, but in many ways we on whose homes and public spaces this war is being waged are all hostages, held against our will by a select few who use their power to impose their self-serving will upon us.  First comes Yahya Sinwar and his small group of Hamas heavies who use the Palestinian people as pawns and shields to further their fundamentalist Islamist view that the most important goal is to remove Jewish sovereignty over the land between the Mediterranean sea and the Jordan River, a region Hamas defines as Dar al-Islam, the abode where Islam as they define it,  alone must rule.  Hamas is not a Palestinian liberation movement nor does it seek a democratic Palestine for its citizens but only a theocratic regime governed by fundamentalist Islamists, like the late cleric, Sheikh Ahmed Yassin’s its founder.  Always prepared to martyr themselves and their own people and to murder those in the way of this goal, something they’ve done consistently since their founding. As warriors for God, Hamas published its 1988 charter stating that theirs is a religious “battle with the Jews” that will continue “until the enemy is overcome, and the victory of Allah descends” upon all and they achieve a situation where “Islam is the system,” and “the Quran its constitution.”  The Jews remain the primary enemy (as the world protests against the war often echo) while the destruction of Israel is the immediate goal and the long-term objective is the imposition and establishment of a Sunni Islamist society in its place. Undoubtedly former prisoner Sinwar and quite a few others of his allies also harbor a wish for revenge against Israelis as well as their rivals among the secular Palestinian nationalists. Given that at most a third of the Palestinians in Gaza – and according to some surveys even fewer now, given the suffering the Hamas-initiated war has imposed on Gaza – share this goal, Hamas has concluded that keeping this war going is the best way to guarantee they remain in power.  Both the Palestinians and Israelis are hostages to the Hamas objectives.

Since 1982, Hezbollah, Lebanon-based fundamentalists, share much the same outlook, although seeking a Shia Islamist regime. It remains headed by a series of Islamist clerics, most famously Mohammad Hussein Fadlallah, Abbas al-Musawi and currently Hassan Nasrallah.  Like Hamas and its sponsor Iran, governed by Islamist clerics, its primary goal is not a Palestinian state but an Islamist fundamentalist regime supplanting the infidel Jews and their sovereign state in Dar-al Islam.  To that end not only do they hold the Palestinians hostage to this ideology, but also the variety of ethnic, religious and secular people of Lebanon, a fact often forgotten during their ongoing attacks on Israel and repeated wars, leading to a high price paid by people living on both sides of the Lebanese/Israeli border for over 40 years. Using the Hamas attack as an opportunity to renew their unprovoked assault on Israel, rally their believers, and keep themselves in power, they too have made us all hostages.

But not only Muslim fundamentalists are keeping this war going.  The current Israeli government and its Jewish fundamentalist coalition partners including the Messianist settler Religious Zionist partners led by Bezalel Smotrich, the Haredi or ultra-orthodox, parties whose dislike for Zionism and demand for a Jewish state with the Jewish Halacha as its constitution, as well as the extremist racist, nationalist, and putatively religious Otzma Yehudit (Jewish Power) headed by Itamar Ben-Gvir whose goals are primarily to impose their religious fundamentalist version of Judaism that seeks a Jewish state devoted not to democracy and equality but to what they view as God’s plan for the Jews, above all else are also holding us hostage to this war.  Aware that increasingly Israelis do not share this extremist coalition-government’s goals, they do all they can to keep this war and coalition going, holding the region and its people hostages to their ideology, and not incidentally to their lust for the benefits of personal power and influence.

Above all these, stands Benjamin Netanyahu, a prime minister corrupted by power and under criminal indictments who is convinced that only by remaining in office can he stave off conviction and punishment, as well as responsibility for the massive failures that led to the emergence of Hamas and the current war. These goals have made him a hostage to his extremist coalition, regardless of how destructive its goals for the people of Israel and the experiment of Jewish sovereignty and democracy that has been playing out here since 1948. In many ways Netanyahu is the linchpin to this set of players who have so tangled the people in the region into a gordian knot leading to suffering beyond measure and to abyss.

If I am correct about Netanyahu, the only way to free us all is maybe to remove the linchpin by offering him a preemptive pardon from his indictments in return for his resignation and a call for new elections.  Allowing a new leadership with a strategic goal other than stasis but one that offers alternatives to the fundamentalism in all quarters which lead ultimately to apocalypse is to me worth the price of letting this knave off along with his fellow war criminals and sending them to the dustbin of history so that all hostages might be released and a new day might come that offers Palestinians and Israelis, Jews and Muslims a path to hope and democracy.  With the bad actors out of the way, we can find new players with new ideas.

We have seen a horizon of one of those ideas. It occurred on April 14, when Iran attacked Israel with three hundred and thirty drones, cruise and ballistic missiles, to which an alliance of countries in the Middle East, Europe, and the U.S. came together with Israel to provide intelligence and a military response to shoot down a majority of the over 300 weapons the Islamist fundamentalists of Iran directed at Israel.  This same coalition could play a role in the rebuilding and help governing a future demilitarized Palestinian state under the aegis of reconstituted Palestinian authority and the Arab League.  This would be far more effective than Netanyahu’s empty promises of “total victory” and endless war.  Once this Israeli prime minister his disastrous government and the fundamentalists leave the scene, a new day can dawn.

About the Author
Until his retirement in August 2020, Emeritus Distinguished Professor of Sociology at Queens College CUNY, Samuel Heilman held the Harold Proshansky Chair in Jewish Studies at the Graduate Center. He is author of 15 books some of which have been translated into Spanish and Hebrew, and is the winner of three National Jewish Book Awards, as well as a number of other prestigious book prizes, and was awarded the Marshall Sklare Lifetime Achievement Award from the Association for the Social Scientific Study of Jewry, as well as four Distinguished Faculty Awards at the City University of New York.He has been a Fulbright Fellow and Senior Specialist in Australia, China, and Poland, and lectured in many universities throughout the United States and the world. He was for many years Editor of Contemporary Jewry and is a frequent columnist at Ha'Aretz and was one at the New York Jewish Week. Since his retirement, he and his family have resided in Jerusalem.
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