Analyzing Israel’s Disproportionate Response to Hamas’s October 7 Attack

Gaza 6

On October 7, 2023, the Palestinian militant organization Hamas, which is headquartered in Gaza City and governs the Gaza Strip of the Palestinian territories, carried out a surprise attack by land, air, and sea on southern Israel. According to Hamas officials, the operation, called al-Aqsa Flood, was in retaliation for Israel’s hitherto violent raids and clashes with worshippers on the al-Aqsa Mosque compound in the occupied East Jerusalem, as well as to draw the world’s attention to the dire conditions of Palestinians in Gaza and the occupied West Bank, where Israelis in illegal settlements have been increasingly engaged in deadly attacks on Palestinians.

Soon after Hamas’s lethal attack, which was unprecedented in terms of speed, coordination, and scope, as well as the number of Israelis killed and injured (as reported by Israeli officials; some accounts suggest, however, that this number also includes Israeli civilians who might have been killed by Israeli crossfire), the Israeli government declared war on Hamas, a war that, according to the Palestinian Health Ministry and Palestine Red Crescent Society, has so far led to massive civilian casualties in Gaza, including the deaths of thousands of children and the internal displacement of around 1.9 million Gazans across the Strip due to Israel’s relentless bombardment of the besieged enclave.

Though both Hamas and the Israeli military have been accused of war crimes in this latest round of fighting, the horrific nature of Israel’s military response in Gaza prompts us to ask: why did Israel decide to respond so disproportionately to the Hamas attack, knowing that its military intervention might involve acts that would likely be viewed by the international community and judicial authorities as gross violations of the rules of war, formally known as international humanitarian law, and the human rights of Palestinian civilians?

With the focus here being on the extremely disproportional nature of the Israeli response to the Hamas attack, two explanations seem plausible, one of which is politico-ideological in nature and the other geostrategic: a) the long-held Israeli ultranationalists’ desire (rooted in the Biblical view of historical Palestine as the Promised Land) of taking possession or further control of the remaining Palestinian territories, for the realization of which far-right elements in the current Israeli coalition government led by Benjamin Netanyahu have been especially hard at work, and b) the Netanyahu government’s interest in maintaining or expanding its control over the Palestinian territories’ vast oil and gas resources. Let us start by taking a closer look at the first explanation below.

In 2017, Bezalel Smotrich, the incumbent Israeli finance minister, published a propaganda piece titled “Israel’s Decisive Plan,” which is perhaps one of the most significant expressions of the Israeli ultranationalists’ desire to take possession of the remaining Palestinian territories in recent times. The core argument of the lengthy article is that the “two-state solution,” a framework for the partition of historical Palestine originally put forward by the United Nations in 1947, must be replaced by a new plan, one that utilizes a “rightwing, Zionist, faith-based approach.”

Thus, according to Smotrich, who has made no secret of his hatred for Palestinians and genocidal tendencies against them, Palestinians must give up their “national aspirations” in the Land of Israel and accept, as a result, one of three options: live as a part of Israeli society as a subordinate population without equal rights; voluntarily migrate to other countries (a suggestion made by early political-Zionist Theodore Herzl in his Diaries); or be killed if they choose to fight to realize their national ambitions.

Echoing Golda Meir, the fourth prime minister of Israel, Smotrich continues, in the same article (and again in Paris earlier this year), by rejecting the notion of Palestinian nationalism or nationhood altogether, presenting the “Palestinian People” as merely “a counter-movement to the Zionist movement.” Theirs, he says, is a nationalism that simply does not exist absent the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

What Smotrich does not realize, however, is that the same can be said about Jewish nationalism. According to Israeli-Palestinian Conflict experts, Rosemary and Herman Ruether, for example, “Jewish nationalism (Zionism) was shaped in response to an ethnically or racially exclusivist European nationalism and reproduced a similar racial-ethnic exclusivism of its own. Its plan for a Jewish state was for Jews only” (emphasis added).

Interestingly, however, David Ben-Gurion (formerly David Green), the secular founder of the state of Israel and its first prime minister, like Chaim Weizmann, Israel’s first president, was under no illusion that Palestine had an Arab population of its own, who called Palestine their home and country. In his book, The Jewish Paradox (1978), Nahum Goldman, the head of the World Zionist Organization, quotes Ben-Gurion as saying to him: “If I were an Arab leader, I would never sign an agreement with Israel. It is normal; we have taken their country. It is true God promised it to us, but how could that interest them? Our God is not theirs. There has been Anti-Semitism, the Nazis, Hitler, Auschwitz, but was that their fault? They see but one thing: we have come and stolen their country. Why would they accept that?”

What is more, Rosemary and Herman Ruether remind us that prior to the systematic effort by the Nazis to exterminate Jews in Europe, “Zionism [i.e., Jewish nationalism] remained a minority view among nineteenth- and early twentieth-century Jews.” The American Jewish community, for example, “dominated by Reform Judaism, even reacted with outrage when Christian Zionists in 1891 appealed to President Harrison to support a renewed Jewish state in Palestine. . . . For these Reform Jews, Judaism was a universal religion of Jews who were citizens of many nations.”

Thus, without denying the religious and historical significance of the region to Jews worldwide, it may be said that the establishment of Israel in Palestine was not just a state-building project, but also a nation-building project on the part of the political-Zionist movement in Europe, one that was hastened by Nazi anti-Semitism and facilitated by Britain through the Balfour Declaration of 1917, which was designed to protect British interests in Palestine vis-à-vis those of France and Russia. But as Rosemary and Herman Ruether have noted, the British promised “only to facilitate a ‘national home’ for the Jews, not a ‘Jewish state.’ Nothing is said about Jewish rule in this ‘home,’” where Arabs “comprised more than 90 percent of the population” at the time.

Clearly, then, Smotrich’s assertions with regard to Palestinian and Jewish nationalisms are highly distorted and historically flawed. And his “right-wing, Zionist, faith-based approach,” which the Netanyahu government seems to have happily adopted in this latest round of fighting, may plausibly be viewed as representing an attempt on the part of ultranationalists in Israel (particularly of the religious kind) to establish a moral basis for the kind of depraved violence that would be required for Israel to take possession or further control of the remaining Palestinian territories, an attempt that has so far elicited much opposition among Jewish and non-Jewish populations in and outside Israel since October 7.

This brings us to the second of the two explanations mentioned above, with regard to Israel’s disproportionate response to the Hamas attack; that is, the far-right Israeli government’s interest in maintaining or expanding Israel’s control over the Palestinian territories’ oil and gas reservoirs in violation of international law. According to a 2019 United Nations Commission on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) report:

Geologists and natural resources economists have confirmed that the Occupied Palestinian Territory lies above sizeable reservoirs of oil and natural gas wealth, in Area C of the occupied West Bank and the Mediterranean coast off the Gaza Strip. . . . The exploitation of Palestinian natural resources, including oil and natural gas, by the occupying Power imposes on the Palestinian people enormous costs that continue to escalate as the occupation remains in effect. This is not only contrary to international law, but also in violation of natural justice and moral law. To date, the real and opportunity costs of the occupation exclusively in the area of oil and natural gas have accumulated to tens, if not hundreds, of billions of dollars.

Of course, Israel has tried, self-servingly and without regard for the livelihood of the civilian population in Palestine, to defend its policy of not allowing Palestinians to exploit their own oil and gas reserves, as well as their share of these resources in the Eastern Mediterranean, by claiming that such exploitation will help strengthen Palestinian militants. However, the UNCTAD report warns that this sort of arrangement is not only illegal, but also can “potentially be a source of additional conflict and violence if individual parties exploit these resources without due regard for the fair share of others.”

Thus, the idea that Israel’s extreme military response since October 7 may have been designed to secure further control over the Occupied Palestinian Territory’s oil and gas resources is a plausible one to consider, especially when viewed in relation to the massive population dislocation that Israel has managed to bring about in Gaza. As migration and war experts Micinski, Lichtenheld, and Norman have explained in their article titled “Israel’s mass displacement of Gazans fits [the] strategy of using migration as a tool of war,” population dislocation has historically been used for “three strategic reasons in conflict,” the second of which is “As a grab for territory and resources.”

Where to, one may ask, from here? The history of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict clearly shows that, no matter how hard they try, ultranationalists in Israel will never be able to force Palestinians to give up their national aspirations or lose their longing for independence. As the UNCTAD report has correctly noted, the conditions that Israel has imposed on the occupied territories are not only unfair and inhumane, but also against international law. To this, one must add, of course, the relative decline of  Western economies and the US-led liberal order (in terms of the emergence of new geopolitical configurations), as well as the global discontent with the dire situation in the Palestinian territories, the combination of which is bound to limit what Israel and its allies can do in the region.

It would, therefore, do Israel well to consider ending its occupation of the Palestinian territories and arriving at a negotiated solution with the parties representing the Palestinian people, one that is genuine in nature and anchored in international law. And this, of course, requires a politically united front in Palestine, with a realistic strategy for peace.

If, on the other hand, the far-right government in Israel decides to further escalate the present situation, then it should carefully consider renowned sociologist Immanuel Wallerstein’s prescient remarks, which were made in 2015 in relation to Benjamin Netanyahu’s electoral victory in the same year:

[Netanyahu’s strategy] is straining the world’s patience, and most critically the patience of those who have been more or less faithful supporters of the Israeli government’s positions . . . . There has been a worldwide transformation of the perception of Israel as a “victim” to that of Israel as a “persecutor.” This is a nightmare for the Zionist cause in Israel. It can only get worse for Israel. There may even come a point, perhaps still a few years from now, that the United States will no longer be willing to veto resolutions in the U.N. Security Council that are critical of Israel.

And, indeed, it seems the United States is already at a point where it is finding it increasingly difficult to support Israel without paying a hefty price at home and abroad. A good case in point here is how some Arab- and Muslim-American groups and leaders in swing states have threatened to abandon President Joe Biden in the 2024 general election for his refusal to push for a ceasefire in Gaza, even though they realize that such a move might not be to their advantage.

Another case in point is the global anger that has been directed at the Biden administration for vetoing, on December 8, yet another UN Security Council resolution that called for an immediate humanitarian ceasefire in Gaza. Not surprisingly, however, the UN General Assembly voted overwhelmingly on December 12 for the adoption of a nonbinding resolution that demanded an immediate ceasefire in Gaza, further reflecting the lack of international support for the US position on the issue.

Additionally, one must pay attention to how the war in the region is also affecting social life in societies that claim to be free and democratic. In other words, will their governments be able to manage the domestic fallout of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in ways that would guarantee to their people their Constitutional rights and freedoms? This remains to be seen.

For now, people around the world should continue to call for a permanent ceasefire in Gaza and an end to the Israeli occupation of the Palestinian territories as minimal conditions for the emergence of a viable solution to the decades-long conflict.

Ramin Mirfakhraie is a sociologist based in the US. His research interests include capitalist globalization and international politics. He holds a PhD from the University of Warwick in the UK.

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