Saturday morning saw a turning point in the ongoing struggle between Israel’s apartheid system and the Palestinians who must live under it. Hamas launched a massive, well-coordinated, and brutal assault on Israel, taking the Israeli government and military completely by surprise.
This is certainly only the beginning of a lengthy period of intense bloodshed, even by the standards of Israel and Palestine. But it need not have come to this. There were and are other paths. Many of those have been intentionally blocked for Palestinians by Israeli and American decisions. Ultimately, Israel, with its militarist nature and ultra-nationalist Zionist ideology, is incapable of seeing alternatives. The United States, despite the political pressure any White House is under, is the party making the freest choices. And the administration of Joe Biden has chosen to back a far-right Israeli government and disregard Palestinian rights to an extent even his predecessors rarely approached.
A Response to Apartheid
It strikes me as no coincidence that the attack came one day after the 50th anniversary of the start of the Yom Kippur War in 1973. Doubtless, there was a message here, but also a hope on Hamas’ part that the effect would, in time, be similar. The 1973 war forced Israel to reassess its policy toward Egypt and eventually led to Israel’s withdrawal from the Sinai Peninsula and the peace treaty with Egypt. Such an echo may be too ambitious, but there are more similarities that are worth looking at. Two such similarities come to mind: the hubris of Israel’s leaders and the fact that both surprise attacks were not inevitable but the result of choices.
The weight of the current moment is too great for a review of the 1973 war, but few would disagree that one of the proximate causes was Golda Meir’s arrogance in ignoring warnings of an imminent Egyptian-Syrian attack. In the current case, the hubris was more widespread, partially the result of the extremist and uneducated nature of the current Israeli government and partially the result of years of corruption, zealotry, and apartheid. I fully agree with analyst Omar Baddar, who wrote on Twitter“If we’re going to be morally consistent and care about the lives and wellbeing and freedom of both Palestinians and Israelis equally, we’ll need to realize there is no military solution to this violence, and resolving this problem requires JUSTICE through an end to Israeli apartheid.”
Hamas carried out a lightning strike in multiple places, exposing the weakness of Israel’s massive military and its vaunted intelligence network. I cannot condone what Hamas did here. To the extent they targeted the military, that is very much legal, and an exercise of the right to resist that is granted to people under a belligerent military occupation. The tactic of capturing civilians as hostages is a familiar one in conflicts, but that makes it no less criminal, and given some of the targets, including very young children, no less horrifying. The extensive targeting of civilians in this attack is not covered by that right to resist. While Hamas, with its relatively primitive rockets, often has little ability to distinguish between civilian and military targets, they clearly could have in the ground assault on Saturday. That was a decision Hamas made, and it was not an acceptable one.
But why did they make that decision? Israel and its supporters would have us believe it was because Hamas are just vicious killers who have a particular bloodlust for Jews. In reality, it was the actualization of what anti-apartheid activists among Palestinians, Israelis, and many of us all around the world have been warning about for many years.
Israel and the United States labored for decades to render negotiations futile. They also closed off the international legal and political system, threatening sanctions against any international body that admitted Palestine. They insisted that the Palestinians could only pursue their freedom through bilateral negotiations in which they had absolutely no leverage and which were brokered by the world’s sole superpower, which has an “unbreakable bond” with Israel, which, itself, is a regional hegemon sitting at the table with representatives of a dispossessed, stateless, divided people.
That created a pressure cooker, one which was always on the verge of blowing. For years, Israel has had a sort of unspoken relaxation with Hamas, despite Hamas occasionally responding with what means it had to Israeli provocations in Gaza or Jerusalem, and Israel periodically “mowing the lawn” with its routine bombing campaigns of the Strip.
The extreme right-wing government currently running Israel upset that balance. It escalated the raids on Palestinian villagesincluding terrorizing people in their homes, all under the protection of the Israeli army and security forces. They ethnically cleansed Palestinian villages in so-called Area C. They regularly raided Palestinian towns, arbitrarily arresting people and holding them for indefinite periods without charge (that’s also known as kidnapping). Those raids and other encounters led to 2023 being the deadliest year for Palestinians since the height of the second Intifada. They launched drone attacks on Palestinian towns and repeatedly took shots at Palestinians in Gaza on the Gazan side of the separation barrier. As Israeli writer and activist Hagai Matar put it“The dread Israelis are feeling right now, myself included, is a sliver of what Palestinians have been feeling on a daily basis under the decades-long military regime in the West Bank, and under the siege and repeated assaults on Gaza.”
Hamas launched an attack they had clearly been planning for a long time and probably had in their pocket for an extended period, ready to use this option when it was needed. And Israel brought that moment on with its right-wing government and its decisions to double down on brutal, apartheid repression.
The U.S. role
Few were so naïve as to hold out hope that Joe Biden would break with long-standing precedent and try to dissuade Israel from its apartheid practice. American voters have always supported an even-handed policy in Palestine, even if they are ill-informed as to how uneven the American hand has been and what even-handedness might look like, but even the lowest expectations for his administration have been sorely disappointed.
Biden has done nothing to address the damage of the Trump administration and, in fact, has made it worse. He has refused to do anything to mitigate the move of the American embassy to Jerusalem or Trump’s recognition of Israeli sovereignty on the Golan Heights. Instead, he has taken Trump’s most damaging policy—the Abraham Accords—and tried to expand it to Saudi Arabia so he could own that “triumph” for himself.
Under Biden, Israel has found total impunity for murdering a prominent Palestinian journalist, Shireen Abu Akleh. Israeli killings of Palestinians have reached new heights. Ethnic cleansing has been taking place on a scale not seen in decades. There has been no desire, let alone action, to try to end Israel’s occupation, with empty platitudes about “equal measures of prosperity and security” substituting for substance. Biden’s record will show that he did less to try to bring some sort of “peace” than any of his predecessors. That’s a remarkable statement considering the U.S.’ awful historical record on this issue.
But the American tactic of massive bribes to Arab dictators to entice them to abandon the Palestinians threatens to finally obliterate the only diplomatic leverage the Palestinians have, minimal though even that is. As bad as the initial Abraham Accords were, if the Saudis also abandon Palestine, the game, at least in the arena of international diplomacy, is over.
Whether or not that specifically weighed on Hamas’ decision to launch that attack, it increases the overall despair that leads to an attack like this one. Hamas’ leadership certainly knows that, however much they may have bloodied Israel’s nose, Palestinians will pay for it many times over. Israel will—whether by cutting off electricity to Gaza, bombing, or even reoccupying the Strip—kill far more Palestinians than Hamas killed Israelis. They will do far more damage than Hamas can possibly do to Israel.
Hamas knows that will be the result, yet they did it anyway. Why? Because the United States, more than ever before, made it clear that they will work with Israel to thwart any hope for Palestinian freedom. As horrifying as the violence Hamas perpetrated was, it was the only thing Biden and Benjamin Netanyahu left them to make Israel and the U.S. take notice. It was the only way they could demonstrate that Palestine was not going to be buried.
Saudi Arabia publicly blamed Israel for the attack, which certainly implies that normalization is on hold, at least temporarily. Their statement said they had warned Israel of “the ongoing occupation and the deprivation of the Palestinian people of their legitimate rights, as well as the repeated deliberate provocations against their sanctities.”
All of this can be changed, and the U.S. has the power to change it. True, the politics are complicated. But it begins with leadership from the White House. A just American policy is almost inconceivably far off. But the Biden administration is well aware that there is plenty of support in the U.S. for conditioning military aid, for an end to the settlements, an end to settler impunity, and relief for the people in the open-air prison of Gaza. Yes, there’s plenty of opposition to all of those things, too. But if the President can’t show some leadership about them, the scene we saw this weekend is going to repeat itself many times. And each incident is likely to be worse than the last.