Media Brief: Extremists on Both Sides Edition

This is about two lengthy must-read analyses that together explain why the current Israel-Hamas war began and why it’s so difficult to end in a satisfactory way. First, on April 5th, Haaretz published an article by Shlomi Eldar, “Hamas Actually Believed It Would Conquer Israel . . .” Then, on May 16th, the NY TImes Magazine published “The Unpunished: How Extremists Took Over Israel” by Ronen Bergman and Mark Mazzetti.

Hamas Goes Crazy, Israel Reacts Brutally

Haaretz reporter Shlomi Eldar returned to Egypt after reporting on the Arab Spring overthrow of Hosni Mubarak in 2011, to catch up with Palestinians he’s known for years; he noted that “tens of thousands of Gazans have fled to Egypt since the war broke out” — largely people of means, given the high monetary expense involved. One of those he met up with is Sufyan Abu Zaydeh, who learned Hebrew in an Israeli prison, studied at Sapir College in Sderot and earned a doctorate in England, after being released as part of the Oslo peace process, which he fully supported. In later years, as an associate of Mohammed Dahlan (a rival to PA President Abbas) he ran afoul of the Palestinian Authority, and fled Gaza with his family shortly after October 7th — knowing all too well how Israel would respond.

For a time, Abu Zaydeh was useful to Hamas, working with Dahlan to funnel UAE aid money to fund educational programs. He admits to being duped by the leadership of Hamas that their agenda included improving the lives of Gazans. He said that he and other Fatah activists did not take seriously boastful Hamas pronouncements that soon they’d enter Ashkelon, free all the prisoners and even go on to conquer all of Israel.

Not for a minute does Abu Zaydeh defend the Hamas atrocities of October 7th, nor the initial jubilation of Gazans greeting returned attackers with their captives. (” It is a disgrace. I am ashamed that they murdered and abducted people – children, women, old people. . . .”) But he is also a sharp critic of how Israel reacted. The following is the worst of the catastrophic incidents, emanating from IDF actions, which he cited:

“. . . To kill [Hamas brigade commander] Ahmed Andor you destroy a whole neighborhood? Have you gone mad?”

According to Abu Zaydeh, the IDF used tons of explosives in the attack, wiping out an entire neighborhood and killing about 250 Palestinians. It was later reported in Israel that three captives – Sgt. Ron Sherman, Cpl. Nick Beizer and civilian Elia Toledano – were killed in a nearby tunnel, apparently as a result of the attack.

“For one person whom you wanted to assassinate, you killed hundreds of people. Does that make sense to you?”

Abu Zaydeh also complained bitterly of a lack of coverage in Israeli media of such incidents, including an episode in which 100 civilians were apparently killed in a diversionary attack to free two hostages. Israel’s behavior in this war is in sharp contrast with previous military engagements. Eldar writes that in the past:

. . . The Israeli media took a critical stance and asked questions. The best example is the response to the decision to assassinate Salah Shehadeh, the head of Hamas’ military wing, at the height of the second intifada, in July 2002. The missile that struck his home also killed another 14 civilians. The event caused a public furor in Israel, and 27 Israel Air Force pilots famously sent a letter to protest the action.  . . .

The Hamas ‘End of Days’ Scenario

As for Hamas under the leadership of Yahya Sinwar, Abu Zaydeh explained to Eldar that its October 7th operation was meant as a literal fulfillment of “the last promise,” a theological vision regarding the “end of days” when all people will embrace Islam. In meeting with “Iyad” (not his real name) another Fatah moderate in exile from Gaza, Eldar got more confirmation of Sinwar’s plans. Iyad spoke of the Hamas investment of $250 million in their underground infrastructure, and some other indications of how seriously they took this objective:

“So strongly did they believe in the idea that Allah was with them, and that they were going to bring Israel down, that they started dividing Israel into cantons, for the day after the conquest.”

On September 30, 2021, they held a conference in the Commodore Hotel on the Gaza coast, discussing their plans for the management of the Palestinian state after “liberation.” Iyad was offered and refused the chairmanship of the group that would oversee the Palestinian takeover of the Ramle-Rehovot area. As for the Israeli Jews being conquered, conference attendees concluded that:

“. . . there must be a distinction in attitudes toward [the following]: a fighter, who must be killed; a [Jew] who is fleeing and can be left alone or be prosecuted for his crimes in the judicial arena; and a peaceful individual who gives himself up and can be [either] integrated or given time to leave.” . . .

“Educated Jews and experts in the areas of medicine, engineering, technology and civilian and military industry should . . . not be allowed to leave [immediately] and take with them the knowledge and experience that they acquired while living in our land and enjoying its bounty . . . .”

Hamas Actually Believed It Would Conquer Israel. In Preparation, It Divided the Country Into Cantons” by Shlomi Eldar, Haaretz, April 5, 2024.

Israel Taken Over by Its Own Crazies

NY TImes reporters Ronen Bergman and Mark Mazzetti tell their story in three parts: Part I documents the unequal administration of justice between Israeli settlers and West Bank Palestinians. The second part shows how violent extremists targeted Palestinians and then Israelis who were trying to make peace. The third is about how those extremists advanced to the heart of political power within Israel. Violent extremists on both sides claim to be following God’s will.

Taken from documents and interviews, the reporting begins with General Yehuda Fox, the IDF head of Central Command, complaining in March that Bezalel Smotrich, a key ultra-right minister in Netanyahu’s coalition, has completely blocked any law enforcement against the settlements and settlers. (By way of substantiation, an article written by other NY Times reporters, published on June 1, relates how armed settlers in the West Bank, often backed by IDF soldiers, have stepped up land seizures during the current war.)

But the unequal administration of justice in the West Bank has been going on long before the current far-right coalition took power in 2023. As the reporters indicate:

. . . In nearly every month before October, the rate of violent incidents was higher than during the same month in the previous year. And Yesh Din, an Israeli human rights group, looking at more than 1,600 cases of settler violence in the West Bank between 2005 and 2023, found that just 3 percent ended in a conviction. Ami Ayalon, the head of Shin Bet from 1996 to 2000 — speaking out now because of his concern about Israel’s systemic failure to enforce the law — says this singular lack of consequences reflects the indifference of the Israeli leadership going back years. “The cabinet, the prime minister,” he says, “they signal to the Shin Bet that if a Jew is killed, that’s terrible. If an Arab is killed, that’s not good, but it’s not the end of the world.”

Ayalon’s assessment was echoed by many other officials we interviewed. Mark Schwartz, a retired American three-star general, was the top military official working at the United States Embassy in Jerusalem from 2019 to 2021, overseeing international support efforts for the partnership between Israel and the Palestinian Authority. “There’s no accountability,” he says now of the long history of settler crimes and heavy-handed Israeli operations in the West Bank. “These things eat away at trust and ultimately the stability and security of Israel and the Palestinian territories. It’s undeniable.”

The Unpunished: How Extremists Took Over Israel” by Ronen Bergman and Mark Mazzetti, The NY Times Magazine, May 16, 2024.