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The Israel/Hamas War: A Perfect Storm of Complexity and Chaos
Newsletter 176 - November 16, 2023
This is the second half of the post we started yesterday in Newsletter 175, though since we cover different topics, we’ve given this a different name. Yesterday’s post generated several emailed comments, some supportive, some less so. (We ask that all comments be emailed to us to stop bots, and promise to share all that authors are willing to share). But we want to post the second half of our thoughts first. Then we'll follow with the promised "good news" post(s) as a respite for those of us who are becoming depressed (all of us, maybe)? And then we'll revisit the Israel situation after that.
We are going to take Thanksgiving week off to give ourselves and our readers a chance to unwind, and for those of us who are lucky enough to live in the U.S., celebrate the holiday. We'll be thinking all the while of course, that the people in Israel and Gaza won't be celebrating anything. So our hearts and prayers go out to them. But here we still hope to enjoy family, friends, turkey, and pie, and we'll come back to this the week of November 27.
Hyper-Polarization and the Israeli / Hamas War
A couple of weeks ago, we (Guy and Heidi) were worried that the crisis in Israel might divert our attention away from our primary focus — hyper-polarized intractable conflict. Now it is clear that the two are deeply intertwined. It seems very likely that the crisis was triggered, at least in part, by that hyper-polarization in both the U.S. and Israel, that probably let both Hamas and Iran to conclude that both Israel and the U.S. were significantly weakened by their internal conflicts, that that this would be an optimal time to attack. It appears they were right. What they might have miscalculated was the speed at which Israel was able to pull itself together. The "unity government" took longer to form than some hoped, but in the meantime, the citizenry took over. Past divisions largely disappeared, and everyone sought a way to contribute to the war effort, quite independent of the government. Even Israel's ultra-orthodox Jews, who have been exempt from military service in the past (a source of considerable internal Israeli tension) are joining the military.
While the war has brought Israelis together, quite the opposite has happened in the United States. Here, the conflict has ignited further hyper-polarization, both between the Right and the Left and within the Left which is being torn apart over the question of whether to support Israel or Hamas. This fissure on the left is hurting President Biden's already dismal approval ratings, and is further eroding his chances of beating Donald Trump (the presumptive Republican nominee) for the Presidency next November. The divisions are also threatening to impact the foreign policy of the United States and other Western democracies. Our relations with our allies are being strained, and there is an increasing call for more more isolationistic US foreign policy that could help tip the global power balance toward increasingly aggressive authoritarian regimes in Russia, China, Iran, and elsewhere.
These divisions are also apparent in the U.S. peacebuilding community, as some people are more focused on the "context" that contributed to Palestinian support for military action against Israel. Others (like us) are more focused on assuring Israeli and Palestinian security and putting to put a stop to Hamas' barbarism and its practice of using civilians to shield its military activities — a practice designed to create a humanitarian crisis for the people of Gaza. Still others are trying to maintain a more neutral stance as they struggle to think through the many implications of this complex crisis.
These divisions are being inflamed, of course, by the full range of hyper-polarization-related dynamics that we have been focusing on in this newsletter over the last 18 months. One contributor is the fact that many people are locked in homogeneous and self-reinforcing information bubbles — bubbles that sharply downplay alternative views. The Hamas/Israel crisis is also happening in the context of a global information war, marked by the desperate effort of both sides to present their story in the most favorable light possible (even if that involves being deliberately deceptive or using other sophisticated propaganda techniques). In both the war zone and among interested, external observers, the search for objective truth is secondary to the more immediate goal of winning the information war and the larger battle for public support (which is crucial to both Hamas' and Israel's survival). Particularly important battlefields in the information war focus around the meaning and attribution of key terms like "genocide," "cease-fire," and "context" and the debate over the accuracy and meaning of the Gazan Health Ministry casualty statistics.
Further complicating the situation is the fact that a wide range of psychological biases are pushing us all toward worldviews that limit cognitive dissonance and the unpleasantness that comes from having to consider the possibility that we may be wrong on a matter of such critical importance. The result is that, depending on the information that people are exposed to, people now have very different images about what's really going on. Those of us in the conflict resolution and peacebuilding fields need to admit that, even while we may think of ourselves as experts, we are subject to the same kinds of pressures — pressures that we need to work to surmount.
A Perfect Storm of Complexity and Chaos
Another area in which we would like to expand on our initial thoughts is by acknowledging that, in our effort to focus on the grotesque inhumanity of the October 7 attack, and the role that the commitment of Israel's enemies to its total destruction has had on the failure of the "two-state solution," we did not give sufficient attention to the larger array of other factors that make this particular conflict a "perfect storm" of exceptional ferocity.
So, if you are looking for another villain to blame for the tragic events now swirling around Gaza, we suggest focusing on bad luck. This is a conflict in which an especially large array of social tensions and conflict dynamics (each with their own set of villains and victims) have, over the last century, converged in ways that are especially destructive and dangerous. Factors that make this conflict so difficult include:
Centuries and Millennia of Anti-Semitism and Pogroms
The Holocaust and the Desperate Search for a Secure Jewish Homeland
Simultaneous Jewish and Arab Attachment to the Land of Israel
Palestinian Authority Corruption and Dysfunction
Israeli Hyper-Polarization, Corruption, and Political Dysfunction
Hyper-Polarization and Democratic Decline Within Western Democracies (including, especially, the U.S.)
Intersectional Anti-Zionist Anti-Colonialism
Theocratic Muslim Commitment to the Destruction of Israel
Competing Arab and Jewish Refugee Flows
Superpower Rivalry and Cold War Proxy Wars
Authoritarianism Regimes in Neighboring Muslim Countries (and associated scapegoating of Israel and tolerance for large-scale violence such as that seen in Syria)
Authoritarian Regimes Fueled by Oil Wealth
Violent Muslim Fundamentalism (such as that practiced by Al Qaeda, ISIS, Hezbollah, and Hamas)
The Ukrainian War (and associated pressures on the availability of military equipment)
All of these factors are contributing to the current catastrophe. It is the combination of all of these factors, plus a wide range of amplifying conflict dynamics, that has led people on all sides of this conflict to do the most terrible things to one another (while, at the same time, often failing to take advantage of the few opportunities for diffusing the situation conflict that have presented themselves). Both sides have done and are doing things that humiliate, anger, and sow fear in the other. Further complicating things is the fact that many of the peace efforts that have been undertaken have been violently attacked by opponents of those initiatives (including, most notably, Anwar Sadat's and Yitzhak Rabin's assassinations).
If you think back on the horror stories that have been flying around the Internet in the days since the October 7 attack, as justification for either pro-Palestinian or pro-Israeli positions, you will find that almost all of them involve especially inflammatory episodes from this perfect storm conflict — episodes that are generally carefully selected to bolster one's predetermined position. That said, it would be a mistake to assume that the terrible wrongs committed in this conflict are symmetrical and equally unjustifiable. The barbarity of the October 7 Hamas assault, compounded with its hostage taking and its practice of surrounding its military facilities with civilians put it, we believe, in a class by itself.
The conflict has now escalated to the point where the lives of pretty much everyone in the region is in jeopardy. Given this, it is not surprising that people have quit looking at nuance and, instead, are rallying in the defense of "their group" and in opposition to "the enemy." After all, once war breaks out, the prime directive is to do whatever it takes to win that war. That is why, as is so often quoted, "war is hell" and why those who have devoted their lives to peacebuilding have long tried so hard to prevent it. The depth and intensity of the disagreements among peacebuilders and other outside observers, which is evident any time you hear people talking about this issue, is also attributable to the fact that the stakes are so enormously high.
The Insidious Impact of Terrorism As a Strategy
In thinking about how the above factors conspired to produce the ongoing tragedy, it is important to recognize the outsize effect of one particular factor, the decision to commit to terrorism as a long-term strategy and the lionization of suicide bombers and martyrs who make that strategy possible.
Terror is, at its core, a deliberate, self-dehumanization strategy. By forcing Israelis, over the course of decades, to endure a seemingly endless series of terrorist attacks, they have forced almost everyone to, at a subconscious gut level, consider the very real possibility that virtually any Palestinian, in any setting, might be a mortal threat. Children have been suicide bombers. Pregnant women (or at least women pretending to be pregnant) have been suicide bombers. In doing this, terrorists are directly attacking the bonds of human connection and trust that are critical to the success of any sort of coexistence-based resolution of the conflict (including the both the "one state" and two-state solutions).
Terrorism is a strategy designed to make people fear and hate one another at the most visceral level — a tactic designed to force people to take the kind of harsh steps to protect themselves that outsiders, who can't quite imagine what it's like to live under the constant threat of this kind of terror, are likely to view as morally reprehensible. In short, terrorism is a tactic designed to undermine and destroy everything that the conflict and peacebuilding field tries to accomplish, and replace it with a cycle of violence makes any type of coexistence-based, mutually acceptable solution to the conflict impossible.
The Alternative to Coexistence
By conventional measures of economic and military might, this might seem like a contest that Palestinians couldn't possibly win. In this case, however, they have discovered that, by hiding among civilians and provoking Israeli reprisals, they can play "powerless victim" in ways that has been quite successful. This strategy has been able to turn world public opinion against Israel in ways that just, in the course of a few short weeks, have transformed the previously remote possibility of a second Holocaust into a very real, near-term possibility.
For those who don't find this credible, consider the widespread global support that Hamas has received for both its goal of driving Israel into the sea and its October 7 use of the most grotesquely inhuman terror tactics. Consider what could happen in the space of a few short hours if the 150,000+ missiles that Hezbollah has in southern Lebanon were unleashed on Israel's population centers. Or, consider the growing wave of anti-Semitic attacks and anti-Jewish mob violence around the world. And, this doesn't even mention the fact that Iran may have or may soon be able to acquire nuclear weapons.
Such a cataclysm would, of course, not be confined to Israelis. It could easily unleash a larger war that would have correspondingly severe impacts on the people of Lebanon and Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank, along with likely possibility of regional Gulf War, as well as the involvement of the US and other global powers. And were that to happen, what are the chances that China would see that the U.S. was so distracted that it could attack Taiwan with impunity. Putin, too, might see the U.S. as further weakened and take even bolder moves in Ukraine or other parts of the former Soviet block.
As we look toward such a cataclysm, it's worth contemplating how different the history of the region might have been had the Palestinians followed the teachings of King, Gandhi, and Mandela instead of Arafat.
Hyper-Terrorism and All-Out War
Finally, we think it's important to recognize that Hamas' October 7 attack on Israel was not just another skirmish in the seemingly endless (but manageable) series of terrorist and missile attacks followed by Israeli reprisals.
The number of people killed (proportionally 14 times those killed in the US on 9/11) and the grotesquely brutal way in which they were killed, combined with the taking of approximately 240 hostages, and the locating of offensive military facilities in civilian areas made this attack, not just quantitatively different but qualitatively different. Still, the thing that made this attack particularly horrifying to us was the unfathomable joyousness with which this brutal attack took place, the way in which these atrocities were recorded to be celebrated on the streets of Gaza, around the Muslim world, and even in the democratic West. What we witnessed was something truly different — something that we, for want of a better word, are calling "hyper-terrorism." This is the kind of attack that has made it impossible for Israelis to consider going back to the status quo ante. They have to find some much more robust way of preventing something like this from ever happening again. It likely has also made a one-state solution, and probably a two-state solution much less possible than it was before. And it wasn't doing well before!
It was a deliberate and quite successful effort to provoke an all-out war — the kind of war you start when you so want to destroy an enemy that you will subject your citizens to enormous hardship and risk your own destruction to accomplish that goal. It seems clear that Israeli society and its high-tech, cosmopolitan economy cannot survive, unless it finds an effective way to put an end to such attacks. Like Pearl Harbor or 9/11, these are not the kind of attacks that generate "a proportional response." They are the kind of attacks that force the target of the attack to devote all available resources to an effort to totally defeat the attacker to the point where they either unconditionally surrender or are driven into exile (as the US did in World War II and tried to do in Afghanistan after 9/11). And that, apparently, is what Hamas intended to do — create a permanent state of war that makes coexistence and peace impossible.
Normally, this is the part of an essay where the authors, having outlined a terrible and daunting problem, confidently offer a formula for escaping the tragedy — a formula that would work despite compelling reasons and incredible pressures on people to do something different. We can't bring ourselves to do that. We don't have a escape plan. We haven't yet heard one that we find credible, although our colleague Lisa Schirch has offered one that comes closer to being credible than others we have seen.
We deeply hope that military experts can figure out how to protect civilians as much as possible, while still successfully dismantling Hamas. We believe Julia Chaitin when she said that "the Palestinians are not the enemy. The terrorist organizations are. This is a war between those who value life and those who disregard and mutilate life." While we respect all the people who have been sending us critiques of our analysis (and we very much appreciate those, as it helps us continue to learn), it is still stunning and deeply frightening to us to see how many of our friends and colleagues are siding with those who disregard and mutilate life, while calling Israel the genocidal actor.
Israel has done a lot of reprehensible things. So has the United States. So has pretty much every other country in the world at some time. But none, not even the Nazis, to our knowledge of history, reveled in the joyousness of butchery that we saw on October 7. We deeply hope there is a way out of this disaster that doesn't reward such that behavior.
We got a note today from one of our colleagues who said that we are creating a "straw man" and are being quite inaccurate in the way we presented "intersectionality" in our last newsletter. We haven't yet gotten his permission to post his comments, but we thought we might explain to all of our readers that we based our ideas about intersectionality on personal conversations, our own extensive reading on the subject (which is often cited in our Colleague and Context Newsletters) and especially our reading of Yasha Mounk's important and carefully documented new book, The Identity Trap. Mounk's analysis makes it clear that the "intersectional" political coalition, which is now so powerful in the United States, is, in many ways, similar to a mutual defense pact in which "an attack on one is regarded as an attack on all." Intersectionality calls on members of identity groups that have joined forces to fight oppression to come to the defense of other coalition members, without questioning whether or not those coalition members are, in that particular instance, deserving of support. This commitment, Mounk explains, stems from the belief in "standpoint epistemology" and the belief that victims of the particular instance of oppression are the only ones truly suited to analyze the situation and decide what courses of action are appropriate. This helps explain why so many of those committed to helping the oppressed are so supportive of the Palestinians and so reluctant to condemn Hamas. It also helps explain why this conflict is, for so many people, being interpreted as a much more personal, "us vs them" conflict in which they are personally involved, and not somebody else's "over there" conflict. This effect is, of course, amplified by the fact that so many Jews feel personally threatened by the war and rise of anti-Semitic incidents around the world.
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