Scenes from the Israel-Hamas War: A Dismal Miscellany

UNSPECIFIED, ISRAEL - NOVEMBER 22: Israeli Forces continue preparations by deploying tanks and armored assets along the Gaza border as Israeli attacks continue on the 47th day on November 22, 2023. (Photo by Mostafa ... UNSPECIFIED, ISRAEL - NOVEMBER 22: Israeli Forces continue preparations by deploying tanks and armored assets along the Gaza border as Israeli attacks continue on the 47th day on November 22, 2023. (Photo by Mostafa Alkharouf/Anadolu via Getty Images) MORE LESS
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On Tuesday in the Michigan primary we had a protest vote that was nominally about forcing President Biden either to demand or actually force a permanent ceasefire in the ongoing fighting in the Gaza Strip. I’ve written a lot about the pros and cons of this both on the ground in Israel-Palestine and within U.S. domestic politics. That dynamic however shouldn’t obscure a greater and more immediate reality, which is that even on its own terms, the current Israeli operation in Gaza has largely reached a point of diminishing returns. It is Israel which desperately needs the U.S. to put an end to it.

This isn’t to say that there are not still legitimate military goals Israel has. The Hamas leadership is still holed up in Rafah. The hostages, imprisoned for four months, are still held captive there. Hamas as a military force is clobbered but not yet broken. But as is always the case, military action is a tool to accomplish political ends. Military action which makes sense on its own terms can be revealed as folly when viewed through a broader and more consequential political prism. Tom Friedman covered a lot of this in his most recent column from a couple days ago.

Friedman captures the essence of the situation, which has always been inevitable as long as Benjamin Netanyahu remains in power: “toxic combination of thousands of civilian casualties and a Netanyahu peace plan that promises only endless occupation, no matter if the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank transforms itself into a legitimate, effective, broad-based governing body that can take control of both the West Bank and Gaza and be a partner one day for peace.”

Incremental steps toward a global settlement of the conflict won’t bring thousand of people back to life. They won’t cool rage and outrage any time soon. But they are a logic if not a justification to catastrophic loss of life and a path toward the possibility of something different. Netanyahu’s government offers literally nothing but a perpetual cycle of mutual massacre. For Netanyahu that is both a product of longstanding ideological commitments and his immediate and contingent efforts to remain in power and out of prison.

Just this morning we have news of what Palestinians are calling a “massacre” in which at least a hundred have apparently been killed and hundreds more have been wounded. The facts as they are emerging don’t seem to support the language of “massacre,” at least if by that we mean a planned and intentional killing of civilians. But the reality is no less damaging. Many details remain unclear but the gist seems to be you had large numbers of hungry and desperate Palestinians crowding around an UNRWA food convoy. It’s a chaotic scene. Civilians are at near starvation conditions in parts of Gaza. There’s no organized system of distribution, or at least not a sufficient one. And when people are that desperate they’re likely to overwhelm any planned system in any case. Nearby are Israeli soldiers charged with securing the convoy route. According to statements from the IDF, civilians surrounded the aid trucks and “looted the supplies” and many were “killed and injured from pushing, trampling and being run over by trucks.” But speaking on condition of anonymity an Israeli official told the Times that “Israeli soldiers securing the passage of the aid convoy had opened fire after a crowd approached the forces in a manner that the military said posed a threat.”

It seems like an already chaotic and desperate situation in which some people probably were trampled and run over. Then you have Israeli soldiers getting jumpy and feeling threatened, along with permissive rules of engagement. They open fire. Other descriptions say at first they fired warning shots and then shot at legs. They killed lots of civilians. That leads all hell to break loose as people run for their lives, which spurs more shooting, more trampling and more dying.

Think whatever you will of the details and whatever else we might learn. I think that the most significant thing about this event is this: If there’s no operating civil authority and the IDF is the only organized force (police or military) in direct kinetic contact with Palestinian civilians AND the population is desperate and facing acute hunger on the verge of starvation, events like this are basically inevitable. Who did what first, in my mind, is kind of beside the point.

Events like this are the downstream reality not necessarily of the Israeli retaliation for the October 7th massacres in southern Israel and its war to the death with Hamas but certainly of the political decisions of this government which quite deliberately rules out in advance any change in the status quo — permanent occupation in which the only conceivable partners for a global settlement are undermined and weakened as a matter of policy.

The irony of the situation from an Israeli and U.S. perspective is that most of the major powers of the Arab world are actually desperate, even now, to build a de facto or perhaps even formal alliance with Israel against Iran, Hamas and its various proxies throughout the region. In practice, or at least until late last year, they wanted it even without any kind of global settlement of the Palestinian issue. But it’s impossible without even a pathway or possibility of that in the future.

The U.S. needs to shut this down for Israel’s sake and it’s own sake. As I wrote to a friend last night: “By sticking with a purely rejectionist stance on statehood, Israel is playing a losing game. Even in cynical terms it would make more sense to be open in principle but then legitimately insist on a partner that has the ability to make a compromise. A cynical player could string that out for years. As you’ve said many times you have basically all the major players in the Arab world who hate Hamas and hate Iran and hate Qatar. They’re dying to be in an alliance with Israel. All of that can be mobilized. But all of that remains on the sidelines as long as this is the policy.”

The U.S. needs to bring this to an end and help the Israelis move on to elections not because those will necessarily improve the situation but because they are the only way any improvement is possible.

For me, in domestic politics, the one bright red line is taking up your marbles and going home. That’s the one unforgivable sin. It’s a point I tried to make two nights ago in this piece on the Michigan primary. The most important thing to me about the push for an “uncommitted” vote in the state is that it wasn’t ruling out supporting Biden in November. Within the group there’s a wide spectrum, with some saying expressly that they would vote for Biden in November and with others all but ruling it out. For most it seems to have been a demonstration of strength showing what was at stake if Biden doesn’t shift policy.

But yesterday Times columnist Charles Blow published a column with a more jarring and unequivocal stance. He spent time with high-level CAIR activists (the head of the Michigan chapter and the executive director of the national group). They were clear. They don’t want to threaten or get Biden to change his policy. They want to crush him and end his career. Dawud Walid, the head of the Michigan chapter, removed any doubt about the strategy when he said that short of Biden “resurrecting 29,000 dead Palestinians like Jesus,” Muslims would and should never vote for Biden again.

In a speech at one mosque, CAIR national executive director and co-founder Nihad Awad presented a vote against Biden not as a matter of politics but repentance. Having once voted for Biden, voters became complicit in his support for genocide in Gaza. True repentance required ending his presidency.

Walid hit the lesser evil argument on its own terms, arguing that Trump is actually the lesser evil and that Trump is preferable to Biden. As for others in the broader anti-Trump coalition? How do they fair under Trump? Walid and Awad, had a familiar rejoinder: pain is what is often necessary for true change. Awad made this argument before invoking the name of Aaron Bushnell, the active duty airman who lit himself on fire in front of the Israeli embassy, as an example.

Blow was clear that most of the people he spoke to in Michigan were not looking to self-immolate, either literally or politico-metaphorically. They want Biden to change his position. It was the CAIR people who seem to go further and the question, to Blow, is how many Muslims and Arab-Americans in Michigan they speak for.

What struck me most in Blow’s column was not so much the outrage he found but, in the voices of Walid and Awad, something I can best describe as glee at the punishment they want to mete out against Joe Biden.

Though striking, these comments do not exactly surprise me. CAIR is a traditionalist and religion-centric organization. It’s worldview is very different from that of most Trump opponents in the U.S. While many in the U.S. are outraged by Israel’s bloody war in Gaza despite also denouncing Hamas rule in Gaza, men like Walid and Awad are sympathetic with Hamas’ worldview if not its methods.

My sense, just judging from a distance, is that most of the voters who voted for “uncommitted” on Tuesday did so as a show of strength. That’s how politics works. That’s what politics is. Indeed, I think the “uncommitted” push served an important purpose in providing a safe harbor for outrage and anger over Gaza. But Walid and Awad were in Michigan advocating for “uncommitted” as well. So, as I said, there’s a spectrum of opinion within it. Which is another way of saying it’s not static. These are small populations but in a swing state small numbers matter a lot. How it ends up in November will depend a lot on what happens over the next eight months.

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