What Hamas’s attack means for Israel and the West
Lenin’s famous line that “there are decades where nothing happens; and there are weeks where decades happen” has proven its truth once again. Over the course of one bloody weekend, decades of stalemate has ended and the cast of the next ten years has been set.
In a sophisticated sneak attack after two years of inaction, more than a thousand Hamas fighters stormed undermanned checkpoints between Southern Israel and Gaza early on Saturday morning, before apparently enacting a massacre of almost incomprehensible savagery.
Early reports indicate that Hamas’s actions included the gang rape, torture and murder of young women attending a peace festival on the border of Gaza, and the mass murder of children. Almost all of this is denied by the pro-Hamas side, which claims that stories of atrocities are Israeli fabrications, while specific points are disputed by skeptics. The body count has been estimated at over 1,000: easily the deadliest day so far in Israel’s history.
Beyond any arguments about context and legitimacy – arguments which today appear as obscene – what happens next is inevitable. The scale of brutality, captured on camera phones and broadcast to a horrified world, has left Israel with no choice: a psychological line has been crossed that there is no coming back from. There can be no return to the status quo ante. Hamas must be destroyed.
But is this even possible? Counterinsurgency warfare is notoriously dirty and bloody. In order to achieve its mission, Israel will be compelled to do to Gaza something like what Putin did to Grozny. This means incalculable suffering for Gaza’s civilian population. People who do not support Hamas and have done nothing wrong – people, for instance, like the relatives of a friend of mine – will perish in their tens of thousands. Hamas, for whom the value of human life is less than zero, will work systematically to maximize civilian casualties in order to weaponize them as atrocity propaganda. Scenes of civilian suffering will be captured on camera phones, and disseminated across the Muslim world including among Israeli Arabs, and in Europe and the United States. The result will be mass civil unrest and wild cat terror attacks on Israeli and Jewish targets worldwide. Appeals for the US and Europe to remain on the sidelines of a regional war accordingly have no chance of success: the domain of conflict is already global. Meanwhile the mood in some sections of Israeli society is close to psychosis. The prospect of Baruch Goldstein-style terror against Israeli Arab and West Bank targets also cannot be ruled out.
We are now at the edge of a global paroxysm of violence from which no retreat is possible, and in which the best possible outcome is the “merely” catastrophic. Already, following the initiation of airstrikes on Gaza, Saudi Arabia, engaged for over a decade in its own brutal conflict against Iranian proxies in Yemen, has announced the suspension of delicate negotiations to normalize relations with Israel. At some point in the next several days, Israel will commence highly uncertain ground operations in Gaza, and Hezbollah will escalate attacks on Northern Israel “in response to Israeli aggression” and open-up a second hot front.
The obvious geopolitical winner from all of this is Iran, which funds and controls Hamas, and has already applauded their action; according to the Wall Street Journal the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps helped to plan it. According to journalist Sohrab Ahmari, pro-regime Iranians are openly speaking of an eschatological final showdown against the broader geopolitical background of the increasingly directionless, deranged and overstretched United States and there is every reason to anticipate this prospect. One can note uselessly once again the most critical error made by the United States in recent decades: following the end of the Soviet Union, Russia could, and should, have become a crucial partner in a global north stretching across the planet. But that opportunity was missed. Instead, three decades of hubris and corruption have led to the birth of a global system of counter-power which threatens the West existentially, and perhaps has already destroyed it.
Hamas clearly has counted on all of this: leaving Israel no choice except to respond with ferocity suggests at least one explanation behind the savagery of their tactics. But the problem is evidently not only Hamas. As public squares from New York to Sydney filled with demonstrators openly celebrating a weekend of atrocities, with the bodies of their victims not yet cold, the intellectuals of the anti-colonial Left were already issuing statements simultaneously applauding Hamas and blaming their violence on Israel.
What is at work here is the same matrix of nihilism now at work everywhere, and underneath everything, from blasé celebrations of war crimes, to crazed calls for genocide, to preening statements of affected indifference and delusional arrogance and empty rhetoric and hollow gestures. But perhaps what we are also witnessing is the end of this too. Already in 1970 McLuhan predicted that World War Three would be “a guerrilla information war, with no divisions between military and civilian participation.” With the atrocities that flooded social media on Saturday, and are still continuing to flood it, this war has now begun. What is desperately needed at a moment of extraordinary danger is genuine moral courage and leadership: whether or not it is found will determine if the West can save anything from what happens next.