7 min read

Water carriers for the abyss

I am at a loss for words as I watch the war in Israel/Palestine bloom. So I'm sending this essay by my friend, the academic Suzanne Schneider, who has taught me much about the place and its problems over the years. I hope you find the piece as urgent and moving as I did.

By Suzanne Schneider

The hot takes could have been written in advance, which should tell you something about the structural realities in Israel and Palestine. The usual suspects churn out the usual pieces about the need to crush Hamas and reinstate PA rule in Gaza (Thomas Friedman, Bret Stephens); how Hamas’s massacre of Israeli civilians proves that Palestinians can never be trusted with freedom (Eugene Kontorovich of the Kohelet Policy Forum, which has taken a break from overhauling Israel’s judiciary); how only absolute victory in Gaza–regardless of the costs to Palestinian civilians–can create the condition for a stable peace (Daniel Pipes). Meanwhile the Democratic Socialists of America demonstrate a level of strategic blunder and tone-deafness that clarifies why we can’t have nice things. Self-described leftists take to social media to celebrate Hamas, envisioning this suicidal reactionary faction as a revolutionary anti-colonial force that will restore all that was taken: Palestine will be ours again, you will go back to your farms and the Jews will be no more, we will party like it’s 1913. For those of us on the Jewish left–who have been outspoken critics of Israel, the occupation, and the ongoing practices of dispossession–it is depressing to find our supposed allies celebrating the massacre of Jewish children and kidnapping of non-combatants as if this is a great victory. For whom? For what? 

I am not fully immune from the hot-take disorder, as my computer files reveal half-finished articles from 2008, 2014, and 2021 that all could have appeared today and that say, in essence, what most astute observers already know: that the deprivation of Palestinians living under occupation and blockade represent a ticking time bomb; that there is no military solution to the underlying political problems that began over seventy-five years ago; that both peoples have been repeatedly failed by their leaders, who have chosen escalation and who believe–delusionally at this point–that the other might one day disappear; that the human cost of the status quo is devastating and ever-worsening; that attacks against civilian populations merely strengthens the exclusionary logic of those who regard ethnic cleansing of their enemy as the only way forward. 

Who is responsible for this awful state of affairs? The Netanyahu government with its continued provocations of Palestinians in the West Bank, incursions into East Jerusalem, and sixteen-year blockade of Gaza? Absolutely. Hamas and its cruel delusions of grandeur? Certainly. The United States government and Zionist groups that have for years helped maintain the fiction that Israel can achieve security through force? Definitely. There is room for all at the banquet of culpability.

As a historian who has worked on aspects of this conflict and its underlying causes for most of my adult life, I find myself particularly weary of those who have fallen back on the familiar slogans: the ‘right to resist’ and ‘the right to self-defense’. You see, we have been here many times before, trotting out the same quotes from Franz Fanon and the Hamas charter, and yet the underlying logic of the conflict remains the same: Israel will never achieve security through apartheid and Palestinians will never achieve liberation through armed struggle against a nuclear adversary. The two sides are not equally matched, but these two truths are. I am here to scream into the abyss that another road must be found.

The usual defense of Hamas draws on a repository of anti-colonial thought associated with figures like Fanon and Aimé Césaire. They point to the violence inherent in colonial rule and occupation and insist that only violence can compel the colonizer to give up the game (Fanon also argued that the revolution would eat itself as racism and corruption came to rule the post-colonial roost, but I digress). These arguments, all of which were originally made in particular strategic and material conditions, are often elevated to some sort of new gospel that should be valid in all places and time. Thus, the idea circulates that Hamas’s attacks will shatter the illusion that security is possible while the occupation and blockade are ongoing, and somehow compel a change in Israeli government policy. Algeria, where an eight-year war between the FLN and France led the latter to end its occupation, is often invoked as a model for decolonization.  

But Israel is not Algeria, and that context matters. At the height of their power, French settlers made up only 15% of the total population of the country; and importantly, they had a mother country that would take them back. The situation in Israel and Palestine, on the one hand, features approximate population parity; and unlike the pied noir in Algeria, most Israeli Jews have nowhere else to go as a result of extermination in Europe and expulsion from their Arab homelands. In this context, the idea that brutal attacks on civilians will compel Israelis to change course is delusional. On the contrary, as we saw from the Second Intifada, the more likely result is that the population will grow ever-more disillusioned with the possibility of peace-making and embrace the more radical ‘solutions’ offered by its far-right government: annexation, expulsion, collective punishment, and permanent legal inequality for Palestinians. They call this ‘security.’ 

While much less capable of achieving their vision, it is important to note that Hamas also has a one-state dream, and it looks nothing like the democratic and bi-national option that progressive activists in the West claim to support. Though the militant group signaled in 2017 that it was willing to accept a Palestinian state along 1967 borders, its recent attacks inside the Green Line indicate it is nowhere close to abandoning a maximalist posture aimed at the institution of an Islamic government over all of historic Palestine, with only Jews who arrived in the land prior to WWI having a right to reside there. Creating a new class of refugees cannot be the aim of any liberation worth its name, a lesson that the PLO realized in 1970. But Hamas keeps singing the same old song, hoping in vain that its chords will one day sound sweet. 

Meanwhile, Israelis who believe that a military victory against Hamas will finally rid them of their political struggle with Palestinians fan the flames of their own delusions: that another people would consent to living without basic human rights for generations; that physical separation and a sophisticated security apparatus would enable most Israelis to forget about the occupation the way that Americans forgot about wars in Iraq and Afghanistan; that they can strike a decisive victory and eradicate Palestinians’ desire for liberation. This is a game of whack-a-mole ultimately. You can eliminate Hamas but a new faction will spring up in its place; this deadly dance will continue until a just political settlement is found. Meanwhile, many Israelis who were last week protesting the Netanyahu government now fall in line behind him and his commanders as they openly embrace war crimes in Gaza. Can you not see that this man, whose claim to leadership has always been based around the idea that security can be achieved by force, is an abject failure? That repeatedly bombing Gaza over the past fifteen years has achieved nothing? That this success of this attack against Israel–the most dramatic intelligence and military failure since 1973–demonstrates he is unfit to lead? That he calls for revenge on Gaza to try to salvage his own position? 

Not surprisingly, public opinion has hardened alongside the political stalemate that has set in over the past two decades. The two-state solution, which was long hoped to bring an end to the bloodshed, is less practical to implement today than at any other time in history. Recent polling has shown that support for the two-state solution has fallen to 33% among Palestinians and 34% among Israeli Jews, yet a majority of both groups indicate that it is no longer viable. 37% of the latter group favor annexation of the West Bank without granting Palestinians citizenship rights, and Hamas’s assault only strengthens their hand. In the eyes of many who study the conflict, the only solution has long been a single state and the only question is what kind. Those of us who hope to see a democratic, bi-national state offering equality to Israeli Jews and Palestinians alike are a definitive minority, but we are still here offering an alternative to one-state fantasies built on inequality, expulsion, or dispossession. 

There is no clear way out of this abyss given the very real asymmetries of power that structure the entire conflict, though any desired settlement will likely involve significant American pressure on the Israeli government. It is worth noting that the latter will never come about without substantial domestic pressure from American Jews – most of whom remain unconvinced that gunning down children serves the cause of liberation. Palestinians cannot afford to assume that the righteousness of their cause should be obvious or that it obviates the need to build these alliances. As Peter Beinart and George Bisharat have argued, they may rightly chafe at that pragmatic need, but that does not make it any less critical. With Gaza under siege–cut off from electricity, food, water, or medical supplies, and facing aerial bombardment with nowhere for civilians to run–American messaging is probably the only thing that can encourage restraint. The adults in the room seem incapable of de-escalation, and I’d frankly rather hear from the children; the terrified ones who don’t know if they will live or die, if they will return home to their parents or if home will disappear in a pile of rubble. The screams of those children–not heroism or valor or decolonisation or revenge or any other martial virtue you can dream up–are the reality of this long war for those trapped within it. 

So if you find yourself celebrating Hamas’s assault or calling for Israel to raze Gaza, I would invite you to imagine those children as your own. Your belligerence will never shelter them; the old ways will continue to fail every new generation; the blood of those not yet born will be on your hands. Give me not your martyrs, sacrifices, battle cries or romantic odes to the holy land. These plot lines have all been tried before and I have grown weary of those carrying water for the abyss.