Violence is language in physical form. It transmits messages and points the way. Consequently, the orgy of violence executed in Israel’s Western Negev villages on 7 October was inscribed with an unmistakable portent. It has presented the Israeli populace with the prospect of annihilation. That form of violence is genocidal.
The Hamas action was no commonplace terrorist attack. Rather, it was a military action prepared minutely and well in advance. The planning was grounded in a calculus, taking hostages to force Israel into an exchange. Breaking through the massive barrier around the Gaza Strip – a barrier that was electronically armed and considered impenetrable – was a rationally calculated military accomplishment.
The atrocious, militarily dysfunctional because time-consuming violence perpetrated by Hamas in the surrounding Israeli villages is at all the more distance from that rational calculus. Alongside the horror experienced by individual persons, the sadistic tormenting and killing of civilians, including women and babies, the old and disabled, the beheading, incineration, and rape, had symbolic valence: manifestly, the bodies disfigured beyond death were meant to stand for the collective body of Israeli Jews.
A shock went through the Israeli body politic. The genocidal message was understood there. Israel will no longer be what it was.
A conflict full of paradoxes
The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is riddled with paradoxes. They are at a distance from immediate impressions, in whose framework Israel seems nigh-omnipotent, the subjected Palestinians as weak. Within their body politic, Israeli Jews assert themselves as a majority. The Arab Palestinians, by contrast, are seen as a minority. But with closer consideration the constellation turns into its opposite.
On the one hand, the Palestinians in Israel, the West Bank, and Gaza, as well as in the nearby and distant diaspora, understand themselves to be Palestinians in a relatively narrow, national sense. On the other hand, they are of Arab affiliation and mostly Moslem.
Likewise, the more religious consciousness fans the conflict on both sides, the stronger the mobilizing force of the Al-Aqsa Mosque on the Temple Mount. In this manner, the presently powerful-seeming Israel could turn out to be historically – which is to say viewed in the long term – weak, and the presently weak Palestinians strong. That is, in any case, the action-guiding awareness at work in the ongoing conflict.
As complex as it is paradoxical, this constellation is reflected in both the form and degree of violence at work in the conflict. It clarifies why the Jewish state of Israel, made up of a minority in the regional context, is compelled to balance off its demographic weakness through superior potential for violence. Militarily, such potential is manifest in a capacity for convincing deterrence.
This deterrence has been significantly damaged through the tactical success of Hamas on 7 October. Alongside the otherwise omniscient security services, Hamas succeeded in also making veritable fools of the Israeli military apparatus. That things could reach this point is tied to glaring operative negligence on the Israeli side, a now notorious trust placed in the power of technology (above all electronic defense) – and an arrogance hovering over everything else.
There are, however, deeper causes. Observers were struck by the fact that during the Jewish High Holidays in September and October, troops had been concentrated in the West Bank, for the sake of complying with the overbearing wishes of settlers. On the other hand, the western Negev directly adjacent to the Gaza Strip was militarily largely exposed.
This negligence was grounded in a core conception adhered to by long-term Prime Minister Netanyahu: that uncompromising Hamas was more opportunely situated in respect to Israeli interests than the Palestinian National Authority, striving as it was for an autonomous Palestinian state, hence ready for compromises with Israel. With Netanyahu arranging normalization treaties with distant Arab potentates and tolerating Hamas, thus sidelined, receiving coffers of money from Qatar, the PNA was circumvented, the settlement process expanded. With 7 October, this policy has dissolved into failure.
State of Israel / Land of Israel
The security-policy distinction between a West Bank requiring settlement and a western Negev left to its own devices – a distinction now having revealed itself as fatal – would seem to have a broader, even more deeply located backdrop. We can understand the western Negev and its residents as standing for the original State of Israel, within the borders of 1948/49. This body politic understood itself mainly as a home for Jewish refugees and persecuted persons, in the end for survivors of the Holocaust; as such, it also gained international recognition. For its part, as “Judea and Samaria,” the settlement-demanding West Bank, under Israeli rule since the 1967 June War, stands for a biblically grounded claim to Eretz Yisrael, the Land of Israel. It is tied to ideas of eschatological salvation.
This geographical-political distinction between two Israels, State and Land, corresponds closely with the hiatus within the Israeli populace regarding domestic policy, a hiatus both catalyzing a planned “judicial reform” alteration of the state and becoming evident at that process’s start. The crisis sparked by these efforts at “reform” did enormous damage to the body politic, while diminishing the attentiveness of Israel’s security organs, including the military.
Among Arab and Moslem neighbors with little affection for the State of Israel, this domestic Israeli upheaval, interpreted as weakness, intensified long-nurtured desires. Hamas sensed its chance to execute its major, long- and untiringly practiced plan of invasion.
Static warfighting as a faith
The ideological motif of the “entire land” may well have played a part in another Israeli military debacle. Fifty years ago, an October event likewise shook the country: the Yom Kippur War, when an Egyptian-Syrian alliance militarily surprised the Israeli state.
Here as well, arrogance was an important factor, together with a reprehensible degree of official negligence. But the most important factor was an increasingly evident contradiction between, on the one hand, the strategic depth gained in the 1967 war – rule over the Sinai Peninsula, the Golan Heights, the West Bank and Gaza – and, on the other hand, the strategy of mobile warfare developed in the previous, small-scale phase of the state.
In view of the genocidal massacre perpetrated by Hamas, Israel is inclined toward a major military campaign in Gaza – this already for the sake of restoring deterrence through the organization’s destruction. The anticipated ground offensive is now underway.
In search of an exit strategy
The offensive got off to a slow start, evidently revealing a degree of caution. Presumably this reflected, at least initially, the possibility of hostages being freed through indirect negotiations with Hamas, together with an American request that Palestinian civilians in the Gaza Strip be protected as much as possible – and that an exit strategy be found for the period after the military goals were achieved.
Accompanying the unfolding Israeli offensive is the threat on Israel’s northern front of an escalation of – still-limited – hostile exchanges with Shiite Hezbollah. Militarily, this militia represents a far greater threat to Israel than Palestinian-Islamic Hamas: on account of its massive rocket arsenal, but also its extremely close ties to Iran.
To be sure, in the situation on the northern border, a nigh-paradoxical form of restraint seems apparent: all damage and losses inflicted on Israel notwithstanding, Hezbollah’s open strategic entry would likely lead to the organization’s military destruction; with Hezbollah, Iran would lose its precious Levantine dagger. Consequently, the Shiite militia is meant to only be deployed if Israel by itself, or with U.S. support, decided to attack Iran’s nuclear facilities. The militia’s direct entry into the present war would thus not be in the immediate interest of Teheran, patiently building up its capacities over a long-term horizon and not wishing to be disturbed by externally caused upheavals.
The threat of commingled conflicts
In this way a precarious uncertainty now marks the unfolding events, the emergence of a situation that nobody can really control. For its part, Israel seems determined to destroy Hamas militarily through its ground offensive, while Hezbollah presents the prospect of opening a total war if Israel seems about to do just that – and America both offers Israel its support and tries to keep it from plunging ahead without a sustainable exit strategy. At the same time, concern is now being loudly expressed that Israel’s present military-political leadership, above all the ex-generals and the former general-staff head brought together in the war cabinet, might not have the right expertise and experience to deal successfully with the situation they face. Most of them born around 1960, with the exception of the 1982 Lebanon War their primary wartime experience has consisted of relatively brief military operations. That is a major difference with their military ancestors, who experienced the 1973 October War, the June War of 1967, the Suez-Sinai war of 1956, Israel’s foundational war of 1948, and even World War II in militarily active fashion.
In this respect, it is striking that Netanyahu is receiving advice from an older pensioned officer who knows the armed forces extremely well and, for a long time now, has made a name for himself as a monitory critic. Present-day Israel is another Israel than the body politic that inscribed itself in the historical memory of the world.
For Israel, what is now crucial is considering the period after. With all the ideas for circumventing the Palestinians having dissolved into nothing, a new initiative is called for – one leading to the establishment of a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Such consensual territorialization would place limits on the danger of interethnic conflict, with its tendency toward indiscriminate violence.
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