Can We ‘Both Sides’ Hamas?

It is commonplace in the face of the atrocities perpetrated by Hamas, plus the mounting humanitarian crisis in the Gaza Strip, that when people condemn violence “on both sides” or aren’t explicit in singling out Hamas for its evil-doing, that they are accused of “both-sides-ism.” Some people may accuse me of the same misdeed — with a full-throated condemnation of Hamas while also wondering whether the full-on devastation being delivered to the people of Gaza is the best and only course.

Writing and speaking after the first days of the war, Julia Ioffe, a well-known journalist who immigrated to the US as a child with her Russian-Jewish family, is similarly troubled. She deplores how acknowledging “complexity is equated with moral equivocation.”

In the same vein, there’s a substack post by Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg. Although one need not agree with every point she makes, she tries to encompass a moral perspective, addressing the crimes of Hamas and the misdeeds of Israel’s occupation, from a place of anguish and compassion. Her post of Oct. 12th is called “A lot of things are true” and subtited “the refusal to grasp this is a non-trivial amount of the problem.”

The outrage of most Jews and Israelis is fully understandable, and I share their hope for a crushing defeat of Hamas, but doubt that it can be destroyed. It’s repeatedly risen from the rubble & ashes of at least four previous wars with Israel (one loses count), including what looked like successful Israeli operations to destroy the “terrorist infrastructure” and decapitate this monster only to see it grow new heads. Nevertheless, Hamas is an enemy of peace, an obstacle to the future wellbeing of both Israelis and Palestinians, and at least needs to be sidelined.

More Than One Root of the Problem

Pro-Palestinian partisans have legitimate complaints about Israeli policies and practices, but Hamas has (very predictably) brought this suffering on its own people by attacking Israel repeatedly, extolling the deaths of Israeli civilians, without any reasonable prospect of military gain.  Sadly, this is not what is heard from a number of moderate Palestinian voices, who mostly blame “Zionism” and settlements.

In the category of someone who should know better is the reputed advocate of non-violence, Mustafa Barghouti. Speaking on the BBC soon after Hamas attacked, he called it “resistance” and insisted upon “the root” of the conflict being Israel’s oppressive actions toward the Palestinians. He had to be coaxed by the interviewer into denouncing the kidnapping of civilians — including women, children and the elderly — as an afterthought.

It is true that the longstanding denial of human and political rights to Palestinians, including the restrictions of egress and entry for the people of the Gaza Strip, is part of the reason for the current conflagration. It is also true that Hamas’s rejection of Israel’s existence — both in its extreme Islamist ideology and in its persistent use of violence — is likewise at the root of what’s going on, not to mention the immediate trigger for the current war.

How Hamas Victimizes Palestinians

I have a long memory of experiences as a left-Zionist peace activist. Around the time that Hamas took over the Gaza Strip, I recall listening to Yossi Beilin — a key architect of the Oslo peace process and of the unofficial Geneva Initiative (from 2001 to 2003, prominent Israelis and Palestinians met to model a detailed two-state peace agreement). Also a former government minister and ex-head of the Meretz party, Beilin saw the George W. Bush Administration and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice as badly mistaken in approving the participation of Hamas in the Palestinian legislative elections in January 2006, without requiring it to endorse the principle of a two-state peace agreement between Israel and Palestine. Bush and Rice did not anticipate Hamas taking advantage of Fatah’s corruption and ineptitude to win a plurality of the vote and a majority of the legislative seats. Israel began its partial blockade of Gaza in response.

Before that, in the summer of 2005, Ariel Sharon as prime minister reversed his decades-long course as a champion of the settler movement to order the forceful removal of all 8,000 settlers in Gaza and an equivalent number of supporters, in a major military and police operation. As head of Meretz, Beilin instructed his MKs to support this with their votes in the Knesset, but he was sharply critical of Sharon for not coordinating with Mahmoud Abbas and the Palestinian Authority. Israel’s unilateral withdrawal of all the settlers and of all IDF troops looked like a victory for Hamas violence, and greatly increased its popularity as a resistance movement.

In June 2007, Hamas violently seized power in the Gaza Strip, expelling Palestinian Authority officials. If we didn’t know before, it should be clear from the current crisis that Israel kept this enemy bastion alive, even with its partial blockade, with the transit of food, fuel, medicines and other goods & services through its sovereign territory. Still, attacks from Gaza periodically bit the hand that feeds it; Israel would open, squeeze or close this lifeline depending upon varying degrees of threat, attack or quiet emanating from Hamas and Islamic Jihad. Egypt has similarly imposed a partial blockade from its border.

One may engage in a chicken-or-egg argument on whether the blockade or the violence have devastated Gaza’s economy more. Opportunities offered by its Mediterranean beaches and warm, sunny climate for a resort industry and productive agriculture have been smashed. The Second Intifada effectively killed plans for an international seaport which had been approved during the Oslo process, with construction terminated in 2001. The international airport, which had been functioning with flights to a variety of Middle East destinations, was destroyed.

So What Now?

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez broke with colleagues at the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) who initially celebrated the Hamas attacks as “resistance.” Her statement partially compensates for her terrible decision to back out of an online memorial for Yitzhak Rabin, organized by Americans for Peace Now in 2020. She had suddenly learned that as defense minister during the First Intifada in 1988, Rabin had exhorted security forces to “break their bones” — ignoring how he sacrificed his life in the cause of peace eight years later.

This is the press release from her office, dated October 9, 2023:

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Today, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (NY-14) released a statement on the violence in Israel and Palestine. 

“Today is devastating for all those seeking a lasting peace and respect for human rights in Israel and Palestine. I condemn Hamas’ attack in the strongest possible terms. No child and family should ever endure this kind of violence and fear, and this violence will not solve the ongoing oppression and occupation in the region. An immediate ceasefire and de-escalation is urgently needed to save lives.”

Nevertheless, AOC’s call for an immediate ceasefire is not something that most supporters of Israel want to hear. This would leave Hamas in place and once again in a position to come out of their holes to celebrate their “victory” on the mountains of corpses and the broken bodies of thousands of Palestinians and Israelis, and to plan their next series of atrocities. One of our TTN colleagues, Cary Nelson, who chairs the executive committee of the Alliance for Academic Freedom, makes this argument at Fathom, the British online journal, against a ceasefire.

Alan Johnson, the editor of Fathom, is not proposing an immediate ceasefire, but advises against an all-out ground invasion, from his pro-Israel perspective. He has also co-authored this, arguing against a total siege, which engenders the kind of humanitarian catastrophe unfolding in Gaza. Gazans are being subjected to terrifying bombardment, with 1.4 million ordered to “leave” en masse with no place to go that’s safe. And the aid belatedly allowed in through Egypt’s Rafah crossing is totally inadequate.

There’s so much more that could be said, but can’t fit comfortably into a blog post. There are stories that are hard to believe, but apparently true: e.g., most troops guarding the Gaza border were shifted to the West Bank where 70-80 percent of active-duty IDF soldiers protected settlements; radical settlers have been allowed to run amok against West Bank Palestinians, killing 51 in the first week of this war — according to the online Israeli journal +972 Magazine, corroborated by more mainstream media coverage of settler violence and of the expanding conflict in general in the West Bank.

Netanyahu’s one-dimensional “economic peace” strategy, e.g., upping to 20,000 the number of Gazan permits for day labor, has completely failed. His popularity has plummeted and his political future looks bleak.

I don’t want to preach to Israelis about what’s right and what they should do; there are no easy answers. Despite my doubts, I hope they achieve something positive militarily. A key question is whether at the end of this awful mess, the people of Gaza hate Hamas more than they hate Israel. Given their current agony, it’s likely to be the latter. Seliger Ralph