Donna Robinson Divine

We didn’t start the fire

Who started the fire matters less than how the ‘fire’ is defined. Does ‘fire’ mean Israel’s war against Hamas or is the correct reference to Hamas’ sadistic massacre that gave Jews their worst disaster since the Holocaust? There is enormous uncertainty crammed into the word ‘fire.’ Could it be a reference to Israel’s capacity to transport its military assaults into Lebanon and trigger a region-wide war in the Middle East? Or is ‘fire’ hinting at the deadly spiral of Hezbollah rockets, missiles, mortars, and drones raining down on the country’s north and siphoning off life from its cities and towns? All Israel can be turned into a front line if missiles and drones launched by any one of the Iran’s proxies in Syria, Iraq, and Yemen make it through the country’s heavily guarded air space.

How is a violence whose causes are amenable to so many different angles and whose scope is yet to acquire precise mappable coordinates quenched? Interestingly, despite the multiple allusions attesting to the complicated nature of the confrontation, the media and politicians have increasingly given this war a rather simple reading: a landscape of destruction in Gaza covered with Palestinian innocents washing away attention from the 7 October savagery. Giving the atrocities currency had to be quickly depleted because it complicated the familiar template of Palestinians as having no agency.

Notwithstanding, Israel’s repeated assurances that its firepower is aimed at terrorists, casualty figures streaming out of the Hamas’ Ministry of Health, albeit without independent verification, report shocking numbers of civilians dying. The horror of Hamas’s brutality has faded beneath empathy for Palestinians once again presumably ground down by Israel. Trained by a chatbot like narrative splicing away at facts, a fictional version of events justifies the messages sent out repeatedly to Israel to halt its attacks, exhibiting a mindset with a staggering hold over the world.

Throw into the running rhetoric preoccupied with destroying Hamas the memes dismissing the Palestine Authority as both ineffectual and hateful, policymakers and journalists have predictably disparaged Israel’s objectives as unrealistic, destructive of the critical need for continued American backing, and likely to cast the country into a quagmire certain to take down more young lives and waste away more of the country’s precious assets.

A recent headline from The New York Times and another from an anguished Tom Friedman column are paradigmatic illustrations of this disposition : “Skepticism Grows Over Israel’s Ability to Dismantle Hamas.” “It’s Time for the U.S. to Give Israel Some Tough Love.” Friedman continues,

It’s time for the U.S. to tell Israel that its war’s aim of wiping Hamas off the face of the earth is not going to be achieved — at least not at a cost that the U.S. or the world will tolerate, or that Israel should want.

Israeli media has also expressed concern about the postwar actions taken by a government filled with destabilizing provocateurs whose proposals, if, however improbably, they were enacted, they would squander battlefield victories. The point is there have been significant military gains even though they have not been registered in most media reports. A still grieving and warring Zion whose soldiers come from all parts of the country—rich and poor—and from all its sectors–religious and secular–Arab and Jew—from all faiths including Muslims and Druze—is completing its assigned objectives slowly and methodically without resorting to high rhetorical dudgeon. Judging by their words and deeds, Israel’s soldiers are clear about their goals: this is a fight for the safety of home and homeland and for the return of all to their beloved communities. While the fevered narratives of some government ministers seeded by demands for a policy for the ‘day after,’ have already drawn condemnation, they have also put the absence of a common vision for what should be done on public display offering Israel’s military the chance, in fact, to show what can be done to extinguish the fire.

But the country’s carefully crafted military strategy has not attracted attention from a media in the grip of a good story that prefers to see Israel’s footprint attached as much to Hamas brutality as to Gazan degradation. Israel is both a symbol of technological advancement and an avatar of oppression against a people presumably denied not so much the fulfillment of their political ambitions as their rightful redemption.

October 7 jolted the Middle East Conflict into an apocalyptic realm substituting the call for ‘two states for two peoples,’  with the cry for ‘From the River to the Sea Palestine Will Be Free,” discounting the many times Palestinian leaders rejected the idea of sharing the land but doubling down on the notion that a Jewish state necessarily deprived Palestinians of the chance to create their own. Coiled around a narrative of catastrophic defeat [nakba], Palestinians have become an enduring image of the innocent victim of an historic injustice.

No wonder that a rage took root transubstantiating rapists, kidnappers, and mutilators into icons of liberation, and encouraging the impoverished and brutalized masses across the globe to see in these atrocities models for their own emancipatory impulses. A struggle possessed of an emotional power has imbued Palestinians with the belief that they are fighting for pure and sacred goals even if what is promised can never be delivered.

That delivery failure has structured thinking about Palestinians as victims of a devastating oppression offering them no choice but to press on with their battles against Israel. And it has been in place long enough to become a totem for Hamas irrespective of how things evolve. It is a narrative giving resilience to the expectation that this Gaza War, like so many others in the past, will spur international pressure on Israel to stop the bloodletting from going too far and permit the customary pay offs to Hamas leaders in return for burying their rocket launchers until exhumed before the next round.

The Hamas juggernaut capturing Israeli land and subjecting communities to death and destruction has not only struck a chord with movements allied in protests these past several years against racism and police violence, it has also radiated an energy stirring up demonstrations to show that borders can be crossed, state institutions can be disgraced, and military power can be broken if hostile to a sacred cause. While culture—waving a kufiyah, carrying a flag—may feed political mobilization, it is also a critical staging ground for proclaiming a personal stance and for challenging global conditions where poverty, oppression, and violence are supposedly recycled by established structures of power.

These demonstrations have gone well beyond the mere performative. If the liberation of Palestine necessarily turns Israel into an abattoir, the people identifying with what has been done ought to be forced to take stock of what they are endorsing and whether the actions they are promoting have actually improved the lives of ordinary men and women—Jews and Arabs–Israelis and Gazans. No one has yet produced a final and reliable casualty count but those who find these killings laudable should, at least, be required to defend their calculations and held accountable for both the gains and the losses. For protesters supporting Hamas are, after all, engaging not only in a struggle for power but also in a contest between the moral foundations of society and the revolutionary ideology aiming to dismantle it. We all have a stake in its outcome.

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.