by Sophie Trist
Hamas’s recent attack on Israel, which left over a thousand unarmed civilians dead, is unquestionably a heinous, obscene act of terrorism that cannot be justified under any circumstances. Rather than confine their resistance to military targets, Palestinian militants made the despicable choice to murder 260 unarmed people at a music festival, go door-to-door in Israeli villages shooting and kidnapping scores of women, children, and elders, and threaten to execute these innocents on camera. Trying to absolve Hamas terrorists of responsibility for this attack or treating them as heroes, as some on the left have done, is morally bankrupt. The cold-blooded slaughter and abduction of civilians is not part of any anti-imperialist struggle for liberation. These are not the legitimate tactics of freedom fighters. Those of us concerned about Palestinian rights must not celebrate or glorify this atrocity in any way; neither should we minimize the grief and anguish of Israeli families whose loved ones have been killed or taken hostage.
However, it is also important to recognize that this attack did not take place in a vacuum. It is just the latest in a cycle of repression, violence, vengeance, and more repression that has engulfed the region for decades, dehumanizing people on both sides of the conflict. Millions of Palestinians have suffered years of military blockade and occupation, dispossession and violent attacks by Zionist extremists building illegal settlements on their land, prolonged and arbitrary detention in Israeli jails, and increasing restrictions on civil rights and freedoms under successive Israeli governments. The policies of Israel and the United States set the stage for — though do not excuse or justify — this latest outbreak of violence.
This blog post cannot summarize all the history and myriad complexities of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but it’s crucial to understand the anger and hopelessness that is driving Palestinians to lash out. Under Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government, Israel has rapidly expanded the approval and construction of Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank. Israel has even begun retroactively legalizing outposts built on land officially registered to Palestinians. Many of these settlers do not hide the fact that their primary goal is to impede Palestinian statehood and sovereignty, and when they attack Palestinian villages, the Israeli government does little to meaningfully hold perpetrators accountable. The Geneva Convention labels the transfer of an occupying power’s civilian population into disputed territory a war crime; it’s often an element of or prelude to ethnic cleansing. The Israeli minister in charge of settlement construction has urged radical Zionists to seize as much territory as possible by force and has made disturbing and genocidal comments about Palestinian people.
Prior to the recent escalation in the conflict, 2023 had already been the deadliest year on record for Palestinians in the occupied territories, with over 230 killed from January to October. Nearly forty of the victims were children and teenagers. In a long and vulnerable Facebook post, a Palestinian-American woman gave a glimpse of the thousand traumas and acts of violence that make up daily life under military occupation. Her family was forced from their home twice, with no compensation or legal process, and she was held at gunpoint during an Israeli military raid at age nine.
Israel and Egypt have been blockading the Gaza Strip since Hamas took power there in 2007. For over a decade, over two million Palestinians have lived in what Human Rights Watch calls an “open-air prison,” almost completely cut off from the outside world.Isaac Saul, a Jewish commentator who has spent time living in Israel, offered a nuanced, well-balanced take on the situation:
“Israel is unwilling to give the people in Gaza and the West Bank more than an inch of freedom to live…You cannot keep two million people living in the conditions people in Gaza are living in and expect peace. You can't. And you shouldn’t. Their environment is antithetical to the human condition. Violent rebellion is guaranteed. Guaranteed. As sure as the sun rising.”
Though the U.S. has meekly protested some of Israel’s most radical policies, particularly settlement expansion, our government has mostly been content to ignore the Palestinians’ plight.
In the days following Hamas’s attack, Israel has launched indiscriminate airstrikes on the Gaza Strip, focusing on damage rather than precision. The death toll keeps rising — ten days in, and over 4000 are dead, many of them civilians and UN personnel. Supporters of Israeli policy argue that Israel warns civilians when airstrikes are imminent, while Hamas often uses them as human shields, and there is some truth to that. But Palestinians contend that these warnings happen more rarely than Israel claims and often do not come in enough time to evacuate. People cannot flee the Israeli bombs because Egypt has refused to open the Rafah Crossing and give Palestinians sanctuary within its borders. Israel’s Defense Minister has ordered a complete siege of Gaza and has cut off all water, food, fuel, and electricity. “We are fighting barbarians and will act accordingly,” he said. This is an atrocity in answer to an atrocity.
The United States rightfully blasted Russia for using similar tactics against Ukrainians, but most Americans are either silent or encouraging Israel to pursue its reprisals with maximum force. At a pro-Israel rally in New York City, protesters urged the killing of all Palestinians. Larry Derfner wrote in Newsweek, “Let another thousand or so Palestinian civilians be killed… I want revenge too, and I want to restore some sense of deterrence.” According to Mr. Derfner, children as young and infinitely precious as those murdered and kidnapped by Hamas deserve to die for praying differently and being born on the other side of a border. According to him, only Israeli lives are valuable. It’s the same ghoulish, dehumanizing mentality that saw some Pro-Palestinian protesters chanting, “Gas the Jews!” at a rally in Sydney and defacing Jewish schools and synagogues with Nazi graffiti. The worldview of people calling for genocide against Palestinians differs only in substance from Hamas’s twisted desire to kill Jews and wipe Israel off the map.
People across the world are referring to the Hamas attack as “Israel’s 9/11.” In response to the horrific attacks in 2001, the United States launched catastrophic invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan, causing tens of thousands of civilian casualties, and untold environmental damage — and terrorist groups are still committing atrocities. If Israel goes through with an invasion and reoccupation of Gaza, we’re likely to see more deaths, more resentment, and more radicalization. As Isaac Saul writes,
“There is no way out of this pattern until one side exercises restraint or leaders on both sides find a new solution. Israelis will tell you that if Palestinians put their guns down then the war would end, but if Israel put their guns down they'd be wiped off the planet. I don't have a crystal ball and can’t tell you what is true. But what I am certain of is that every time Israel kills more innocents they engender more rage and hatred and recruit more Palestinians and Arabs to the cause against them. There is no disputing this.”
Doing the same thing repeatedly and expecting a different result is a common definition of insanity, but this is what Israel and the U.S. are doing.
To be honest, I don’t have an answer, but there must be a better path. It will take decades of hard, painful work from both sides to rehumanize and heal from the myriad traumas each has inflicted on the other. All I know is that my heart breaks equally for the Israeli mother who has been dragged into captivity with her two little girls, the people who have had to watch videos of their friends and relatives being tortured and murdered, the Palestinian parents who have lost their child to an Israeli airstrike, the medical staff in Gaza hospitals fighting to save lives with no electricity or medicine. I reject the idea that empathy for Palestinians and support for their human rights and dignity equates to support for Hamas’s brutality. The first of many steps toward ending this cycle of violence is recognizing that both Israelis and Palestinians are human beings, with immeasurable worth — and the right to live in safety and freedom to nurture their families in peace.