A War Between Peoples

I am not a lover of Hamas, but they are entirely truthful about one reality. In their highly questionable casualty claims, they make no distinction between civilians and military deaths. The only distinctions are between women, children and men. To Israeli eyes, this seems like it is simply an attempt to hide their own military deaths. After all, they have done so in the past. However, there is a greater truth behind this categorization. For Hamas, every man in a society is a combatant. Women and children are part of the ‘resistance’ as well, although they belong in a separate category. This same logic justifies their attacks on Jews. Every Jewish man is a combatant and clearly – as women fight as well – so is every Jewish woman. Jewish children are just future combatants. Every Jew is a target.

With their casualty figures Hamas appropriately recognizes that they are engaged in a war between peoples, not a war between governments or armies. While many Israelis resist this perspective, the fact that our enemies embrace it should fundamentally impact Israel’s conduct during this war. 

In the West, we have this fantasy of governments fighting for set objectives while trying to minimize the harm to civilians who aren’t really a part of it all. I call it a fantasy because in the era of strong national identities, the old vision of Kings and Emperors duking it out with the civilians just being pulled along is no longer as compelling as it was – even in the West. In World War II, Germans and British were enemies, not just their governments or rulers. In Yugoslavia and now Ukraine, the same remains true. The fantasy, even in the West, is just that.

There are those conflicts in which the fantasy is reality, though. Iran’s government is at war with Israel, but a great number of Iran’s people are not. The Americans went into Iraq and Afghanistan with the idea that their rulers, not their people, were the enemy. In World War I, the burgeoning Marxist movement argued that the war was between governments, and not between peoples. But even most of them abandoned this argument, showing that it was perhaps not as strong as they imagined.

Despite these exceptions, by and large, the conflicts of today are wars between peoples. When conceiving of this, it is important to keep in mind that ‘peoples’ are not necessarily states with functioning governments. Lebanon is locked into conflict between Christian, Shiite and Sunni ‘peoples.’ Syria in a conflict between minority peoples (who nominally rule the country) and the Sunni people who are its majority. Sudan has multiple peoples engaged in a broad conflict with Arabs broadly on one side and indigenous Africans on the other. These conflicts are not like many of the revolutions that overcame Eastern Europe with the fall of the Soviet Union. In these conflicts, a people isn’t revolting against a government essentially made of its own. They are locked in a conflict with another people.

Hamas is living this reality. In their mind, every Jew is a target whether eating at a café, going to school, or carrying a gun in Gaza. In the general Israeli mind, every Palestinian is clearly not a target. Otherwise, the Arab population of Israel wouldn’t be 2 million strong and the bombing campaign in Gaza would have easily killed over a million people.

What we have in Gaza is a conflict that mirrors the American efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan. On the Hamas side, factions are engaged in an all-out war against the Jewish people. It is the same style of conflict you’d see in the Hebrew Bible. On the other side, Israel’s armed forces are trying to draw fantastical distinctions in an effort to satisfy the Western values systems (and praise) many Israelis aspire to.

In Iraq and Afghanistan, this approach led to defeat for the vastly superior American military. Admirably, the Americans weren’t willing to impose victory on a people who didn’t quite deserve defeat. The approach (in hindsight) should have been to punish the Taliban and then just leave.

Israel doesn’t have the same options as the Americans. We can’t just leave. In reality, the Jews of the Arab World (99.8% of them) did just leave. They left the Arab world and came to Israel where they now form a majority of the population. They don’t have anyplace else to go. Thus, the American strategy won’t work.

That leaves only a few options.

The first is to leave Palestine like the Allies left Germany after World War I. The Germans weren’t completely crushed and dreamed of a return. The combination of anger, economic collapse, ongoing debt etc… led directly to World War II. Israel has repeated this approach time and again and despite its results, there are legitimate arguments that the costs of the alternative are too high. Israel keeps the screws on decade after decade to limit how badly things spiral. But the conflict never ends and Palestinians – all Palestinians – suffer unnecessarily for their population’s widely held genocidal dreams.

The second option is to defeat the Palestinian people. We may debate the ethics of the late and post-war campaigns against the German people (in which as many as 2.5 million civilians were killed) but Germany was pacified after World War II. As an interesting aside, German civilians in the U.S. and U.K. occupation zones received 1,200 calories a day of food. Displaced non-Germans received 2,300 calories. American soldiers were under orders to destroy food they didn’t eat to prevent Germans from getting it and tens of thousands of Germans prisoners died of hunger and disease. The Americans and British used population-wide hunger to squeeze any resistance out of the German people – after the war was over.

This sort of complete defeat is awful to behold and is not justified in many cases – even when facing an enemy who wants to kill every man, woman and child in your population. It is justified when they may be able to develop the means to do so. October 7th was almost far far worse than what we saw. Hezbollah waited to see how successful it would be before attacking. It was successful enough that they may have joined the war, but in the 6 hours they held off, Israel got reinforcements North and kept them back. Hamas was anticipating murder raids in Tel Aviv, a general Arab uprising in Israel and massive assaults from the West Bank. Gaza and the West Bank are only separated by 20 miles. The Hamas media of the day was talking about a day of liberation. Not a terror strike, but the elimination of Israel itself. In the future, an EMP attack by Iran, coordinated with a similar mass attack, could spell the real genocide of Jews. The threat is credible, the actors intend to carry it out, and thus Israel is justified in doing whatever it can to stop it.

For this reason, Israel should be considering a real victory. Not just the death of Hamas, but the surrender of Palestine. Such a result would open the door, as it did in Germany, to a post-war local government that can live in peace with its former enemies.

However, there are serious reasons to doubt that this option would be feasible. Islam has suffered innumerable defeats since the Mongol elimination of Baghdad. Their ability to reinterpret loss as victory has kept them resistant – if not strong. A recent example involves the Russian campaign in Chechnya. Russia killed 10% of Grozny’s population. Now Chechens form the shock troops of the Russian government. The Chechens were roundly defeated, but Chechen terrorism continues (although the concert bombing wasn’t Chechen).

The Spanish (hardly an example to follow) expelled their Muslim and Jewish populations. But in the following 300 years up to a million Spanish and Portuguese were captured and enslaved by Arab Muslim raiders. Ethnic cleansing didn’t work and there is good reason to suspect that it wouldn’t work here either. Walls don’t mean as much as some might hope.

Because of Islam’s resilience in the face of defeat and ability to carry on the fight, there is a need for a third option.

To find one, we have to widen our perspective.

When we look at the concept of a war between peoples, it is not only relevant to Jews and Palestinians. ISIS, in its various manifestations, sees itself as engaging in a war between Islamic people and non-Islamic people (and often Islamic people who aren’t Islamic enough or are the wrong kind of Islamic). The widespread pro-Hamas protests may be seen as a broad leftist cause célèbre for a suffering people, but the Islamic movement (and their Qatari and Iranian backers) have something very different in mind. They have demonstrated their ability to use violence and threats to cow the government of the UK on all levels. Canadian police are seemingly unable to respond to their violence and American police are often just as ineffectual. Maybe Americans, Canadians and British believe they aren’t the target in the conflict. If so, they are severely mistaken. 9/11, the Moscow concert attack and the public statements by Islamist leaders should all disabuse them of the notion that they aren’t the enemy of these groups. The Houthi’s slogan is: “G-d is the Greatest, Death to America, Death to Israel, A Curse Upon the Jews, Victory to Islam.” Nonetheless, the current US administration took them off the list of Specially Designated Global Terrorists one month after it took office.

Critically, though, these are not the only voices in the Islamic world. The ‘Islamic people’ are far less defined than ISIS would like it to be. Not that long ago, Catholics and Protestants were in all-out religious war (30% of Europe’s population died). They learned, through the cost of their violence and the vision of another reality, that something else could emerge. They developed alternative self-definitions. Reality, through a mix of sticks and carrots, encouraged it to emerge. Islam already has many versions and approaches, those that define Islam’s future need not be maximalist.

The third path, then, is to undermine the peoplehood of those who define their identity as being in genocidal conflict with you while encouraging the development of an alternative identity. In Israel’s case, this means killing every member of Hamas but welcoming Ra’am into the government. It means declaring war on Hezbollah, but encourage the Saudis to administer Gaza. It means dropping weapons in Iran so Iranians can overthrow their own genocidal government. Do everything you can to isolate and destroy those dedicated to a war between peoples, while welcoming those who can adhere to another vision. Israel itself could be something akin to the City on the Heights (my third book). It is already place that demonstrates that different peoples, Muslim, Jewish, Christian, Druze, Circassian… can actually build a better reality together in this region. It is time to extend that vision by violently marginalizing the ideologies that will not accept it.

In my mind, this third path is the most realistic of the three. It simultaneously calls for the crushing of the Palestinian genocidal dream and the support of a Palestinian self-government that has abandoned that dream. As I wrote in A Free Palestine Starts in Rafah and A Truly Free Palestine, the only hope for a free and prosperous Palestine lays in establishing a functioning civil society. So long as the likes of Hamas and the deeply corrupt Palestinian Authority control the Palestinian population, there is no hope for progress. Without a Palestinian civil society, even the destruction of Israel will not free Palestine.

While the North Gaza Project represents a maturation of the ideas in those earlier articles, the generally thrust of the effort remains the same.

2,500 years ago, Sun Tzu wrote of the need for a Golden Bridge. You had to give your enemies a way out, especially when you had them surrounded and on the edge of catastrophic defeat. It is time for us to define the Golden Bridge for Palestine, and then to overwhelmingly defeat those who refuse to cross it.

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