The humanitarian, strategic and moral catastrophe of Israel's looming invasion of Gaza
Things are about to get a whole lot worse for Gaza. And for Israel.
Early this morning, Israel’s military gave the 1.2 million Palestinians in northern Gaza 24 hours to evacuate in advance of an expected ground invasion. This follows several days of intense bombing of a densely populated city and the intensification of the total blockade which has cut off power, water, and food. There is little question that Hamas and its factional allies committed horrific atrocities during last weekend’s shocking invasion of southern Israel for which they should be held accountable. Israel’s response in Gaza has already inflicted massive suffering on a captive civilian population, and it is now projecting its intention to do far worse, with absolute impunity and seemingly with the active encouragement of much of the international community. It may be too late to stop the impending catastrophe, given the overheated political environment and the Israeli government’s avowed maximalist goals. But it’s not quite yet too late to try.
I have a longer analytical piece coming out soon which will assess the strategic implications of an Israeli ground offensive and the potential regional and international ramifications. That will look at the potential for the war to spread to the West Bank, to Lebanon, or even to Iran (which would be the absolute height of strategic folly, so of course is being advocated loudly). It will also look at the absence of any plausible endgame; if Israel does manage to topple Hamas (which is no sure thing), it will find itself either ruling over an utterly traumatized community burning with its own desire for revenge, or a depopulated territory bearing witness to a manifestly illegal forced displacement.
But for now, before it’s too late, I want to just register the enormity of the human suffering about to be unleashed and its utter unacceptability for anyone who ostensibly cares about international law or the norms of international order. There is no Israel exception to international law, no sidebar that allows countries to commit war crimes if war crimes were done unto it. Palestinian children are children who bear no responsibility for the decisions of the Hamas leadership. The Palestinians who live in Gaza are human beings, with full human rights (a basic fact which disappears far too often from policy discussions and public discourse). The Biden administration’s full-throated blanket support for Israeli war crimes may play well politically, but it makes an absolute mockery of its rhetoric in support of Ukraine’s defense against Russian war crimes and advocacy for liberal international order.
The Biden administration’s one nod to humanitarian concerns is to support a “humanitarian corridor” to allow Gazan civilians to flee the fighting. This is actually worse than doing nothing. Palestinians in Gaza have noplace to go. Highways are destroyed, infrastructure is in rubble, there is little remaining electricity or power, and the few hospitals and relief facilities are all in the northern target zone. Even if they wanted to leave, the Rafah crossing to Egypt has been bombed — and Egypt’s President Sisi has shown few signs of offering a friendly refuge. What is more, most Gazans believe that Israel’s intention is to carry out another Nakba, the forced displacement of Palestinians during the 1948 war. They do not believe - nor should they believe - that they would be allowed to return to Gaza after the fighting. To the extent that a humanitarian corridor accomplishes anything, it would be to accelerate the depopulation of Gaza and the creation of a new wave of permanent refugees. It would also, fairly clearly, offer the right wing extremists in Netanyahu’s government a clear roadmap for doing the same in the West Bank and Jerusalem.
I’ll have more to say about all of this soon. But for now, I would urge the pundits and commentators urging Israel on to maximalist goals in Gaza to step back and reconsider whether the fleeting pleasures of revenge really outweigh the obvious costs of such an offensive - humanitarian, political, and moral. Is there a realistic endgame here, or are they urging into Israel blundering into an enormously costly strategic and moral debacle? And I would beg the White House to step back and reconsider whether granting Israel blanket immunity in the coming days really serves the interests of either Israel or the United States, or if what Israel really needs right now is an external hand to impose restraint and save it from its own worst impulses. The coming days look likely to be filled with horrific images and a horrific reality. It’s not too late to avoid that… but it’s getting there.
Imad Alsoos, a Palestinian scholar at the Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology, is one of the few political scientists who have been able to spend significant time in Gaza doing research on the Hamas organization. He has published a number of excellent articles based on his research, including one in Mediterranean Politics on the organizational reasons for Hamas’s resilience and another in Middle Eastern Studies on the evolution of Hamas’s discourse “from jihad to resistance.” He wrote several outstanding short analysis pieces for the old Monkey Cage site about protest mobilization in Gaza and the Great March of Return, and this good Carnegie piece (with Nathan Brown) on Hamas strategy and leadership. And he’s completing a book on Hamas which hopefully will be published soon.
Earlier this week, I recorded a Middle East Political Science Podcast segment with Alsoos about Hamas’s organization, its political strategy, and its place within Gazan society. He made a number of fascinating and important points. He unpacked the foundations of Hamas’s resilience as an organization and its ability to respond to political repression under the Palestinian Authority, strategic competition from other Palestinian factions, and to the exigencies of the Israeli blockade and bombing campaigns.
Listen to the full interview with Imad Alsoos about Hamas and Gaza here:
Alsoos pointed to the importance of the failure of the 2018-19 Great March of Return as a pivotal point tipping the balance within Hamas leadership away from a strategy of protest mobilization towards a renewed emphasis on armed resistance; the success (from its perspective) of its 2021 intervention in the Jerusalem clashes further strengthened advocates of that position. As he put it,
“From my interviews there was a division inside Hamas about the Great Marches of Return. Hamas normally agrees on one strategy. But regarding this strategy, there was no consensus inside Hamas. When Israel reacted by killing so many civilians.. .many people started to ask whether this was useless. Why do we have to send them to the border to die? Then with the 2021 war, Hamas regained its popularity as a resistance group through uniting Jerusalem and Gaza as one unit. So the voices inside Hamas that support popular protest were suppressed by this group which advocated military responses. And I think this is where this internal group calling for protest failed. Not completely, it could come back again, but so far no.”
Alsoos thinks that Hamas’s decision to launch the surprise invasion was driven in part by the political atmosphere in the West Bank and Jerusalem, including the steady drumbeat of settler attacks and the manifest incapacity of the Palestinian Authority. He speculates that Hamas may have been surprised by its own success when it broke through the security perimeter, but that it will be well prepared for an Israeli ground invasion after years of preparation.
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