Lessons after 100 Days of another War

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February15, 2024

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A few weeks before October 7 upended much of foreign politics, there was a minor scandal in the Canadian parliament. At issue was a World War II veteran present for Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s speech. This was back when the world could devote more of its attention to the middle of Ukraine’s second year in a fight for survival against Russian invasion.

As I highlighted then, in “War makes us terrible historians”, one problem revealed by the veteran’s Waffen-SS connection was Western historical illiteracy. A common consequence of building national identity around black-and-white myths of righteous warfare is that it leads us to experience current conflict in a vacuum. We’re often caught off guard by political and historical complexity because “good guys” and “bad guys” are routinely given to us in simplistic terms.

Two weeks after that incident, Hamas broke through Israeli defenses around the Gaza Strip. More specifically, this terrorist organization’s Al-Qassam Brigades led a multigroup attack called Operation Al-Aqsa Flood, so named to invoke a broader sense of Palestinian, Arab, and Muslim solidarity against Israel, after years of regional conflicts around the Al-Aqsa Mosque Compound, also known as the Temple Mount. The result was many civilian and military casualties in the moment, and the immediate launch of another war with no clear end in sight.

As with the last, it has also meant that we have become terrible historians.

But there are lessons we can learn from our reactions here, too.

At the outset of a new war

The exact lead-up to October 7 has been hashed out ever since, with certain regional histories permitted, and others verboten. This narrative schism emerged in part because, unlike the US after 9/11, Israel did not wait to declare war and engage in full, retaliatory bombing. The US didn’t begin its own military operations until October 7, 2001, while negotiating with Afghanistan and other regional actors to hunt down the people responsible for murdering nearly 3,000 US citizens. But Israel under Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu dove right in, and whether or not he had any other choice, that action made all the cultural difference.

The impact of this compressed time scale was immediate: Israeli citizens had hardly been given time to grieve local atrocities still underway in many regions, while the world was also witnessing retribution rain down on Gaza, racking up civilian casualties among its over 2.2 million citizens in turn.

Jewish families couldn’t sit Shiva for lost loved ones, or figure out if their missing were dead or kidnapped elsewhere, and yet already the world’s attention and dismay was shifting to the women and children being killed concurrently in Gaza. Many Israelis felt immediately abandoned and betrayed in the wake of the largest attack on Jewish people since the Holocaust. Conversely, defenders of civilian lives everywhere couldn’t understand why they weren’t allowed to call for Israel’s government to stop killing Palestinian civilians, too.

Relatives and friends of those who were killed by Hamas militants in the October 7 attacks at their burial site /AP

 

Couldn’t everyone just hit pause, and allow clarity around October 7 to come first?

Opinions were split. Proponents of a total war argued that Israel couldn’t give Hamas even a second to regroup. People fearing for hostages in a war zone were divided on the same question, but united in their rage at Netanyahu for having put them in this position in the first place. Meanwhile, some dismissed the idea that there were “civilians” in this war at all: if you were in Israel, you were a colonizer, and complicit in the actions of your elected government; if you were in Gaza, you were as good as a terrorist yourself, because you hadn’t ousted Hamas after its 2007 coup.

And those who believed that legitimate state governments have to be held to higher standards, no matter what illegitimate armed groups do to them? They were accused of denying Israel its right to self-defense, and of hypocrisy for failing to condemn Hamas more thoroughly before rushing on to tell Israel what to do.

The week after October 7 was filled with heated remarks from Netanyahu’s government. As Defense Minister Yoav Gallant stated, “I have ordered a complete siege on the Gaza Strip. There will be no electricity, no food, no fuel, everything is closed. We are fighting human animals and we are acting accordingly.” Netanyahu quoted in an early speech from a poem that embraces the idea of deep and unrelenting vengeance. Israeli President Isaac Herzog said that “[i]t is an entire nation out there that is responsible. It is not true this rhetoric about civilians not being aware, not involved. It’s absolutely not true. They could have risen up. They could have fought against that evil regime which took over Gaza in a coup d’état.”

In early days, this level of “reduce them to rubble” fury was fortified by early disinformation like the claim of 40 beheaded babies in Kfar Aza (where 46 civilians died, according to Israel’s national social security agency and by Haaretz‘s count: the youngest 14 years old in both registers). References to rape were also invoked in early press and state materials, though the Israeli government didn’t start proper documentation processes for these crimes for many weeks, while denying the UN war crimes unit direct access in part because of an ongoing feud with the organization over past investigations involving Israeli actions.

The real difficulty, though, was navigating an information landscape filled with people who seemed to have forgotten important truths while trying to process all this new and horrifying data. In any war, we cannot ever expect a government or military agency to be entirely honest with its citizens and the media. Honesty is not the main objective in such circumstances: only winning.

But had we forgotten?

Or was something more difficult taking place?

At the outset of this war, we saw a divided sense of the media’s role among fellow citizens. Some still believed that media should act as a check and balance against the inevitable run of competing disinformation. Others, though, seemed to recognize that whenever a party at war is publishing new data, it’s also making a bid for your loyalty, and offering you new tools to aid in the fight.

In a way, political disinformation, from any side of an active conflict, tells the world “if you want to be seen as on our ‘side’, this is what we need you to believe, endorse, and disseminate, so that we can do our job and win. If you don’t want to be seen as an enemy of our cause, don’t get in our information’s way.”

False information might be our biggest issue in the next few years.

But not necessarily because we’re being tricked by it. Sometimes, we recognize a different purpose for the information we’re being fed—as a weapon, as a way to regain agency amid disaster—and we choose to lean into that purpose instead.

More pragmatic factors leading to disaster

Putting aside the rhetoric used by many different parties to fortify a horrified world while Israel’s government engaged in immediate retaliation against Hamas in Gaza, there were many more critical factors underpinning the events of October 7, which also merited our careful consideration.

Right from the outset, there was a strong sense that Hamas had attacked at this juncture to disrupt Saudi Arabia’s normalization with Israel, and in the process to foil US President Joe Biden’s efforts to become a stronger actor in the region. (Normalization may still be possible now, though, despite all efforts by Hamas and other Iranian-backed players to disrupt the process.)

Hamas does not accept the legitimacy of Israel as a state, so it seized Gaza in 2007 after the Palestinian Authority (PA) tried to bypass its refusal to normalize Israeli relations. This was after Hamas, running as the “Change and Reform” party, won 44.5% of Palestine’s new legislature in 2006. The PA tried to get Hamas to work as part of a coalition “Unity” party that accepted Israel’s right to exist, but Hamas just kicked out PA members and took Gaza all for itself instead.

Hamas militants pose in Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’ personal office after they captured it in Gaza in 2007/ REUTERS

Years later, Hamas and the PA had failed to achieve any more stable relationship between themselves, let alone for the Palestinians living under their fractured rule. Within Israel, commentators noted after October 7 that Netanyahu had played a role in sustaining this schism himself: supporting many facets of Hamas activity for years, to destabilize the PA in service to Israeli settler goals in the West Bank.

Netanyahu’s actions also directly affected Israeli democracy earlier in 2023. In January, weekly protests began against Netanyahu’s attempts to suppress the Supreme Court‘s ability to serve as a check and balance for legislative action. Netanyahu had entered the year of Israel’s 75th anniversary facing three corruption charges, and the coalition government he’d formed in December 2022 was the most far-right in Israeli history. It included many extreme religious nationalists in favor of more aggressive approaches to Jewish settlement in the West Bank.

Israeli protesters carry placards depicting Benjamin Netanyahu as Julius Caesar during a demonstration against his new hard-right government, Tel Aviv, 21 January 2023 (AFP)

In other words, Israeli citizens furious with Netanyahu’s sense of impunity were in the throes of a critical democratic conversation on the streets, before this war knocked everyone into an entirely different political orbit.

The IDF thus had two big problems in the lead-up to October 7. Security experts were well aware of a blueprint for attack they called “Jericho Wall”, which outlined a campaign similar to Operation Al-Aqsa Flood. However, senior security officials had decided it was beyond the scope of Hamas. When a female-dominant IDF spotter team warned superiors about training activities similar to the Jericho Wall blueprint, their concerns were dismissed. At the same time, morale issues among reservists were rising on account of Netanyahu’s political agenda, and Staff Lt. Gen. Herzi Halevi clashed with the PM all summer in trying to get him to take military readiness more seriously. Halevi then acknowledged IDF failures after October 7.

And to make matters worse, a peaceful music festival in Southern Israel had just changed locations two days prior to the attack, placing thousands in Re’im at the worst possible time. On October 6, Israeli security forces also met to discuss urgent credible threats of an attack, which were not passed on to festival organizers by the military division entrusted with their care. Civilians would wait hours before being rescued (if they were) in the coming onslaught.

In that first weekend of violence and confusion, with all sorts of real and fake media shaping initial impressions of those shocking events, the death count rose alongside word of Hamas taking hostages with the stated aim of using them for future swaps with Palestinians in Israeli custody. Rumors soon after circulated that Iran had directly orchestrated the attack, and Western pundits wondered what this would mean for Biden and the 2024 US Presidential Election.

To make the spin cycle worse, in countries less favorable to the West, October 7 was often reported as simply a military campaign, with the civilian slaughter diminished or omitted. This difference in initial media presentation encouraged future reports about civilians to be seen as mere propaganda in many Arab regions. In turn, Western media got to argue that images of foreigners cheering on October 7 necessarily showed their reactions to hearing about civilian slaughter.

Old political lines had been drawn sharply, in other words: not in spite of the chaos, but because of it. Although many important military and political issues underpinned Hamas’s brutal attack, there was also a much easier narrative for everyone to take up, and many did. The Arab/Islamic world was simply teeming with bloodthirsty animals, to some. The West was simply teeming with colonizing sociopaths, to others. Antisemitic and Islamophobic violence surged in lockstep, all over.

Our struggle with disinformation would not get any easier from there on out.

The war from then to now

In the next few months, historical illiteracy ran rampant, coaxed by different local relationships to propaganda and national myth. As I noted in “Israel and the West”, many who celebrate Israel as a democracy rarely think about the shape of that democracy on its own terms. We’re often more interested in how the country serves Western aims in the Middle East, how it props up WWII savior myths, and its possible role in Christian Evangelical hopes for a coming end of days.

And that ignorance has been costly. It’s allowed for both the infantilization and the demonization of complex regional demographics. It’s invited huge upticks in antisemitism, Islamophobia, xenophobia, and racism, and increased Western hostility toward the act of democratic demonstration itself. It’s opened the US and other Western nations to deep charges of hypocrisy, too. Thanks to past Western complicity in other acts of ethnic violence, and high civilian death counts there, very little “moral high ground” remains for most countries to rely on, whether defending or criticizing Israeli and Palestinian actors in this latest war.

This does not mean, however, that all international efforts have been in vain. Third-party countries facilitated hostage transfers in October and again in November. Qatar, where members of Hamas reside, helped secure the release of two US-Israeli citizens on October 20. Two elderly Israeli women were released on humanitarian grounds on October 23. Russia secured the release of some Israeli-Russian citizens separate from Qatar, Egypt, and US negotiation.

In November, a ceasefire was then achieved for a few days to facilitate the exchange of hostages for Palestinian women and children being held in Israeli custody. 240 Palestinians, three-quarters held without formal charge and 107 under 18, were exchanged for 105 civilians (81 Israelis, 23 Thai nationals, and one Filipino) before the deal fell apart. Some two dozen hostages are believed to be dead in Gaza, and just over 130 remain to come home.

On January 15, word emerged of more hostages killed in Gaza, with Hamas attributing their deaths to IDF actions. This comes mere weeks after IDF took responsibility for killing three escaping hostages, and amid ongoing pressure from families of the hostages for the Israeli government to do more.

The problem is that Netanyahu, who knows that his time in office is now tethered to this war, sides with the hardliners in his cabinet, in viewing the recovery of hostages as secondary to the main goal of “eliminating” Hamas. On the 100-day anniversary of this war, as protesters rallied locally on behalf of the hostages, the PM reasserted his commitment to fighting for nothing less than “total victory”.

Small concessions, like the exchange of medicines for hostages and more humanitarian aid for Palestinians, are being eked out in the interim.

Broader international efforts for reform

And then there are the bigger movements for accountability, which have met with varying levels of success on the world stage. Long before this latest conflict, Israel was accused of sustaining a state of apartheid in its country, and in Palestinian territories under its control. Human Rights Watch published a report to this end in 2021, and Amnesty International endorsed that language with a report of its own in 2022. As late as August 2023, legacy news services like Associated Press were still running major articles about the settler-driven humanitarian crisis for Palestinians in the West Bank, based on demographically divided local policies.

Human Rights Watch 2021 Report

The problem is that the world will never agree on core terms. Jewish settlers call the West Bank Judea and Samaria, and consider it the rightful property of Israel. So too does Netanyahu’s Likud Party; the conservative party’s original platform says that “between the Sea and the Jordan there will only be Israeli sovereignty.” The aim of the Likud Party has to been to hasten Israeli repopulation of the area, driving others out. To much of the world, this is a form of ethnic cleansing. To many in the Zionist movement, this is simply reclaiming a long-lost home.

Against this broader debate about apartheid and displacement, October 7 transpired.

Soon after, amid Israel’s intense aerial bombardment of Gaza, flyers were dropped with a 24-hour evacuation order for half the Gazan population, from north to south. This was a Herculean ask for families caught between Hamas and IDF with limited means to move, and for many with disability issues and young children. Nevertheless, the rhetorical win was strong. Many genuinely believed that if you didn’t leave the north within 24 hours when told, maybe there was a good reason to doubt that you were a civilian when you died in a subsequent attack.

During this fraught early period for Gazan civilians, Egypt, Jordan, and other local powers held firm on their refusal to accept refugees, on the grounds that they did not wish to assist in the removal of Gazans from their land. To deflect from the charge of ethnic cleansing implied in these refusals, many pro-Israel advocates spun Palestinians as subhuman troublemakers unwanted everywhere. Why should Israel have to deal with them when “no one else wanted them”? When even other Arabs “knew” they were no good? And why should Israel be punished for killing civilians to defeat Hamas when “no one else” would put them out of their misery by rehousing them on other national soils instead?

Amid such dehumanizing power plays, though, many did rally for a ceasefire as the Palestinian death toll surged, and to express displeasure for their country funding Israeli actions against Hamas without making sufficient provision for civilians in the fray. Even as the US gained a contentious reputation for its unwavering support of Israel, Biden was using his closer position to Netanyahu to push for Gazan aid, as well as the evacuation of foreign nationals from Gaza, and the critically injured to better facilities. With the assistance of Egypt, the first aid trucks arrived two weeks later. On October 28, IDF ground operations launched in the Gaza Strip.

Three months on, the International Court of Justice (ICJ) held hearings on the charge that Israel is acting in contravention of the Genocide Convention. A full case on such charges will take years, but South Africa only came to the ICJ asking for “provisional measures”, which means that the question before the court is whether some actions for which Israel stands accused would fall within its jurisdiction.

This prima facie or “first glance” verdict has been issued in other conflicts: to protect the Rohingya people from genocide in Myanmar, and Ukrainians from further Russian violence. But those examples also illustrate the limits of the court to do much in the short term, even if the ICJ ultimately declares that any actions presented by South Africa fall within their purview, under the Genocide Convention.

The more pragmatic aim is simply to diminish the reputation of Israel and its supporters on the world stage, if they do not respond favorably to the ICJ’s preliminary verdict. But what would a “favorable” response look like at this juncture?

Over 85% of Gazan residents have been internally displaced over these past three months, and over 23,000 killed, according to its health ministry and not including thousands presumed to be under the rubble. This number is loosely corroborated by IDF’s claim of 9,000 dead combatants, with a general civilian-to-combatant death rate of 2:1. At this juncture, with so much destruction behind it, what does Israel have to gain by accepting an international reproach, and standing down?

People flee to the southern Gaza Strip along Salah al-Din Street, November 18, 2023. /Adel Hana/AP Photo

War doesn’t just make us terrible historians and terrific propagandists. It also reduces our ability to hold complex thoughts in tension.

Widening war challenges

In any case, whatever happens at the ICJ cannot be expected to soothe all the region’s ills. Violence expanded in the West Bank after October 7, where extremist settlers were emboldened in attacking Palestinians and torching homes. In the last three months, Israeli forces also ran raids in the West Bank that led to thousands of arrests and killed over 280, according to the PA: most in raid-related standoffs.

The US would later issue visa restrictions for settlers involved in such violence, but in the north and northeast, the US and Israel have also been engaged in complex skirmishes with Hezbollah, an Iran-backed group operating out of Lebanon and Syria, where other Iranian-linked infrastructure has also been targeted by the IDF. Israel has expressed a strong interest in expanding military operations in Lebanon if Hezbollah does not withdraw its forces soon.

Houthi attacks from Yemen are another global crisis stemming from October 7, though they only significantly picked up in November. Partially an attempt to block foreign aid to Israel, and partially an effort to boost local prominence for the Iran-backed “resistance” outfit, Houthi attacks on cargo vessels in the Red Sea aren’t just compromising a region responsible for 12% of global trade flows. They’re also challenging critical alliances, as European coalitions falter and the US and UK land themselves in complicated waters with recent direct strikes on aggressors.

Houthi fighters hijacked a British-owned and Japanese-operated ship in the Red Sea on 19 November

Within Israel, too, a sense of safety has not returned. On January 15 in Tel Aviv, a car-based attack injured over 17 pedestrians after the culprits stabbed and killed one vehicle’s owner. Hundreds of thousands of Israelis were also internally displaced at the start of the war, and many still await resettlement or return.

By the numbers, or not

Taken together, the ongoing violence in our second major war in two years speaks to a situation that no single international decree can ever hope to heal.

Three months on, even the October 7 deaths are still caught in the fog of war. Israeli social security data set the number of civilian dead at 695 in mid-December, including a ten-month-old, a family with three children ranging from two to six, a five and an eight-year-old shot in the car with their parents, and ten children killed by rocket fire. That Bituah Leumi data set, which does not differentiate between friendly fire and deaths at enemy hands, also includes 373 police, security, and active IDF members. This is lower than the initial IDF list of 525 soldiers and 60 police officers released on October 8, but might reflect shifts from active duty listings.

Haaretz‘s death list had 1,256 names, including 10 Nepali students, 38 Thai laborers, over 20 Bedouin, over 360 music festival attendees, and well over 100 at Be’eri. Meanwhile, the Action on Armed Violence group suggests 1,269 dead: 816 civilian, 59 police, 382 military, 13 emergency services.

In late October, the Gazan health ministry released a list of 6,747 names of dead Palestinians in its territory, a data set that allowed for further statistical breakdowns and a timeline of major mortality events. Death counts for women and children have hovered around two thirds the total throughout the war, suggesting that all male casualties are being counted as Hamas combatants by IDF. 82 journalists and other media workers have also been confirmed dead as of January 15.

But the impact of an ongoing war with nearly 60,000 non-fatal Gazan casualties is much more complex. Over ten children a day have lost one or more of their legs since October 7. The collapsed medical system means many surgeries without anaesthetic, in what few hospitals remain functional at all. Every day, there are 3,200 new cases of diarrhea among under-fives, which is 1,200 more per day than the baseline before hostilities, and nine out of ten children under two are living in “severe food poverty”. By mid-December, Israel had dropped 29,000 bombs, leaving some 70% of Gazan homes and half its buildings damaged or destroyed.

But even outlining statistics like this, which are ever in flux in the fog of war, brings us right back to the greater challenge presented by the Israel-Gaza war, as it takes place alongside Russia’s ongoing invasion of Ukraine. Because who really cares about statistics in war, if they don’t serve one’s “side” in the end?

In the last few months, we’ve seen our susceptibility to the other cultural uses of up-to-the-minute news play out for better and for worse.

We often know full well when we’re being told to be angry, to be driven by disgust or fear for our group’s survival. We recognize when we’ve been given new intel by our preferred authorities that we can weaponize in future argument, to keep a sense of righteousness on our side, no matter what the human cost.

It comforts us, this weaponized use for new information. It gives us “moral clarity” in the middle of active worldly trauma. It tells us that we don’t need to concern ourselves with anything that distracts us from the mission: retribution, survival, a vague sense of complete tribal safety that will never fully come.

But it diminishes us, too.

War doesn’t just make us terrible historians and terrific propagandists. It also reduces our ability to hold complex thoughts in tension. It trains us to group up as quickly as we can, and to make sure that we’ve shown all due fealty to our “side”.

Can it be surmounted? In the middle of two wars, with disinformation all around us, and many more incendiary news cycles still to come?

That’s the question for the next 100 days.

And the next, and the next, and the next—for however long the world keeps thinking in terms of battles to be won at all.

M L CLARK is a Canadian writer by birth, now based in Medellín, Colombia, who publishes speculative fiction and humanist essays with a focus on imagining a more just world

This article is republished from Only Sky under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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