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23 October 2023

The deadly logic of existential war

Warnings that the escalating Israel-Hamas conflict could become a genocide should be heeded.

By Yair Wallach

The word “pogrom” appeared almost immediately on the morning of Saturday 7 October, as the news of Hamas’s shock attack on Israel broke. The desperate pleas of families whose loved ones had been killed, wounded or taken hostage were posted to social media. When more details emerged of a systematic murder of children, adults and the elderly, and of hundreds of casualties, some started calling it the “biggest massacre of Jews since the Holocaust”. Antony Blinken, the US secretary of state, said on his visit to Israel that as a Jew he understood, on a personal level, “the harrowing echoes that Hamas’s massacres carry for Israeli Jews, indeed for Jews everywhere”.

These echoes were indeed inescapable. The collective memory of 20th-century pogroms is etched deep inside every Jewish person. The two children in Kfar Azza who hid in the wardrobe for 14 hours, after watching their mother murdered in front their eyes, inevitably brought to mind similar stories from the 1903 Kishinev pogrom in Czarist Russia, or the Farhud, the 1941 attack which killed hundreds of Baghdadi Jews. What made this comparison possible was not only the horrific violence, but also the fact that the attacked communities near Gaza were abandoned for long hours. The Israel Defense Forces (IDF) were nowhere to be found, and residents had to fend for themselves.

The reference to pogroms is understandable and inevitable, given modern Jewish history. But it is also misleading. Pogroms were attacks against Jews when they were a beleaguered minority, living under hostile regimes. The state allowed the attacks to happen and sometimes even participated in them. Israeli Jews by contrast are a hegemonic majority, living in a Jewish state, which was founded to protect them. The IDF’s failure was the worst in its history, but it remains one of the most powerful armies in the world. Mob anti-Semitic attacks against Jewish minorities are not the same as those by a guerrilla organisation which has fought Israel since 1988. While some claim that Hamas’s violence can be explained solely in terms of racial or religious hatred, such an explanation would be reductive at best. The attack cannot be disconnected from the violence of the conflict more generally, and specifically Israel’s 16-year blockade of Gaza.

Comprising thousands of fighters and, it is believed, two years of preparation, Hamas’s attack was the largest and most complex military operation ever conducted by a Palestinian organisation. Its sophistication and scale surpass the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) attacks of the 1970s and 1980s. After many years in which Palestinians seemed to have lost all agency to shape the geopolitical agenda, the attack was a moment of assertive Palestinian initiative. Hamas fighters surprised and overpowered Israeli military bases and positions, killed hundreds of soldiers and captured others. But they didn’t stop there: the main thrust of their attack was directed against the civilian population. Nearly 20 kibbutzim and towns, as well as two outdoor festivals and parties, were attacked, with an estimated 1,000 civilians killed, including many children. Among the victims were not only Israeli Jews but also Palestinian citizens of Israel, Thai and Filipino migrant workers, and Nepalese students. Two hundred hostages were taken to Gaza.

[See also: Kenneth Roth: We should be conservative about accusations of genocide]

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With this mass attack on civilians, Hamas returned to the approach it took between 1994 and 2005, when its main tactic was the mass killing of Israelis through suicide bombings. After 2005 Hamas focused on other military strategies such as rocket launching, and in the 2010s it made several diplomatic efforts to rehabilitate itself internationally. In 2017 it adopted a new manifesto, which suggested it could agree to a two-state solution to the conflict. These attempts, and indirect negotiations with Israel, did not bring the end to the blockade. The 7 October attack, and the horrific nature of the violence, close the avenue for further diplomacy permanently.

It is clear that Hamas, even though it had the operational capacity to differentiate between soldiers and civilians, chose not to do so. It regards everyone in Israel as a legitimate target. For Israelis, the scope and ferocity of the violence prove beyond doubt that Hamas’s aim is, and has always been, to destroy Israel. The conflict appears existential, between “us” and “them”, and many extend the “them” to include all Palestinians.

In recent years the Israeli far-right has increasingly become explicit in its advocacy of an eliminationist war against the Palestinians. Israel’s current finance minister, Bezalel Smotrich, published “Israel’s Decisive Plan” in 2017. The plan spells out, with chilling clarity, the expulsion and destruction of Palestinians, unless they accept a second-class status and give up any national aspirations. Smotrich’s comment in February 2023, calling for the army to “wipe out” the village of Huwara in the West Bank, was widely condemned. When it comes to Gaza, however, discourse of this nature now appears almost universal in Israel.

[See also: Does Qatar fund Hamas?]

Gaza has long been an object of fear and hate in Israeli public discourse. Benny Gantz, widely considered a centrist, launched his 2019 election campaign boasting that as chief of staff of the IDF he had sent parts of Gaza “back to the stone age” during the 2014 Protective Edge operation. In Israeli TV studios, during previous escalations, it was not uncommon to hear calls to “flatten Gaza” or to “turn it into a parking lot”. But in the current campaign, the genocidal discourse is inescapable. In the ongoing frenzy following the attack, calls for revenge can be heard across the political spectrum. Yoav Gallant, the defence minister, called Palestinians “human animals”. Isaac Herzog, the president, said that “it is an entire nation out there that is responsible”. One TV military correspondent speculated that kibbutzim to the east of Gaza “may soon have a view on the Mediterranean Sea”, while another stated that “if it takes a million Gaza casualties, so be it”. Graffiti calling to “annihilate Gaza” can be seen in the streets of Tel Aviv.

So far, after ten days of bombing, more than 3,000 Palestinians are thought to have been killed in Gaza. Over a thousand of those are children. More than a million residents were ordered to leave their homes and go to the southern part of the Gaza Strip, as Israel prepares for a ground invasion.

Such orders bring immediate echoes of the 1948 Nakba – “the catastrophe”, in Arabic, in which 750,000 Palestinians were expelled or fled their homes in what had been British Mandatory Palestine, and then were forcibly prevented by Israel from returning. For many years, Israeli leaders strongly denied responsibility for the depopulation of 1948. But in recent years, the Israeli right has acknowledged and even celebrated it as a justified approach to Palestinians. Activists and journalists are now openly threatening the Palestinians with a “second Nakba”.

It would be naive to think that similar scenarios could not materialise in 2023, or that this time – unlike in 1948 – the international community would step in to prevent it. The number of people who were ordered by Israel to leave Gaza City already surpasses the number of those displaced in 1948. Only a few weeks ago more than 100,000 Armenians fled Nagorno-Karabakh after Azerbaijan occupied the province. There was no significant international outcry or attempt to stop this mass exodus and guarantee the safe return of Armenians to their homes. Permanent mass ethnic cleansing of Palestinians is a very possible scenario in the event of a regional escalation. If that came to pass, it would be a trauma that would shape the region and the world for generations to come, much as the 1948 Nakba did.

This is the logic of the existential war, which declares all members of the other community to be legitimate targets. No one is innocent and all are implicated. Hamas’s attack clearly showed this logic at work. But only Israel has the military capacity to enact it on a much bigger scale. Current warnings against genocide should be taken seriously. Without a political horizon which recognises the rights of all people between the Jordan river and the sea, eliminationist violence would triumph.

[See also: Misinformation in the Israel-Hamas war is a serious problem]

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