Benjamin Netanyahu on Monday said Israel will “change the Middle East” in the course of retaliating against Hamas for attacks which killed more than 700 Israelis over the weekend. “We are already in the midst of a battle that has only just begun.”
His remarks came as Israel ordered a “complete siege” of Gaza. “No electricity, no food, no water, no fuel,” as Defense Minister Yoav Gallant put it. Some 600 Palestinians were already dead in the enclave, where homes, markets and mosques lay in ruins following furious airstrikes. Gaza’s health ministry claimed the IDF was “directly and systematically” targeting ambulances.
As sure as night follows day (and as sure as the Middle East will forever be plagued by senseless religious violence), I’ll receive an irritable email every time I mention casualties in Gaza or lament the objectively tragic plight of Palestinian civilians. Someone complained first thing Monday morning, in fact, and such complaints will be an ongoing occurrence for the duration of the war.
I want to be clear about two things. First, I have friends in Israel. I’ve known them since I was 27 years old. I spoke to two of them over the weekend. One of my mentors as a young professional was orthodox. I would’ve spoken to him as well, but he tragically passed away three years ago. Second, a civilian is a civilian. The life of a non-combatant in Israel killed by a Hamas rocket isn’t worth more (or less) than the life of a five-year-old Palestinian killed in an Israeli airstrike. Just like the life of someone who died on 9/11 in Manhattan isn’t worth more (or less) than the life of a farmer killed by American troops in Afghanistan. That should be self-evident to everyone.
My point on Monday morning in emphasizing the very high odds of a historic humanitarian catastrophe in Gaza wasn’t to elicit sympathy (because, frankly, your sympathy isn’t going to bring back the recently dead loved ones of grieving Palestinians or Israelis), but rather to prepare readers for a potentially world-changing event should Netanyahu decide that the time has come to rid Israel of the Hamas menace once and for all. His remarks on Monday were a testament to his intentions in that regard.
The cost of such an effort will be high, not just in terms of what’s guaranteed to be an escalating death toll in Gaza, but also in terms of US military support and, quite possibly, more domestic friction in America, where high profile politicians on both the far-left and far-right have been accused of anti-Semitism. I could name those politicians, but I assume I don’t have to. The accusations, as leveled against the far-left in America, are generally misplaced. It’s not a people (or a religion) that some high profile Democrats take issue with, it’s a government and the policies of that government towards another people. By contrast, anti-Semitism (and in some cases, overt, out-in-the-open anti-Semitism) is a fixture of the online, “new right” echo chamber in America. And anti-Semitic dog-whistling is a tactic regularly deployed by right-wing fringe figures with social media followings that overlap voter blocs within the new American right.
Support for Israel (the state, the people and the government) is regarded as sacrosanct in the political center. If sacrosanct isn’t quite right, then suffice to say not supporting Israel isn’t seen as politically viable. Failing to come to its aid in a crisis is a total non-starter, which is why the Biden administration and America’s malfunctioning legislature looked poised to quickly put aside differences in order to ensure that whatever Israel needs for the war effort, Israel gets. “The American effort to supply Israel with new military assistance took a step forward, as Biden administration officials briefed Congress on specific weapons the ally is seeking from the US,” Politico reported. “During the unclassified call, officials told lawmakers that America’s closest ally in the Middle East urgently needs precision-guided munitions and more interceptors for the Iron Dome air defense system.”
A quick look around right-wing, tabloid-style websites and fringe portals known to traffic in anti-Semitic tropes, suggested the profit motive (i.e., the desire to maximize web traffic) entailed playing up the terrorist angle in the immediate aftermath of the weekend attacks, and also intimating that Joe Biden somehow facilitated the tragedy or was even complicit in it. But it’ll be interesting (in a very sad sort of way) to see how America’s far-right, and the web portals which cater to far-right constituencies, “balance” their penchant for monetizing anti-Semitic propaganda with the kind of gung-ho Islamophobia that sells just as well, if not better.
In the halls of power, the debate won’t be a debate initially. But, as the humanitarian toll climbs in Gaza and advocates for the Palestinian cause (of which there are many) begin to explicitly tie American weapons and money to the crisis, the discussion will become more contentious. To be sure, rural constituencies and undereducated voters in red states won’t be swayed by images from Gaza, no matter how horrific. Still, if this turns into a months- or even years-long war effort, pressure will mount on the White House and congressional leaders to at the least tie funding and arms to peace negotiations.
In the meantime, Iranian and Russian misinformation networks around the world will work tirelessly, day and night, to sow confusion and chaos, and where it’s possible to leverage the war in the service of dividing American society, those networks will take full advantage. Such opportunities will present themselves at every turn, and there needn’t be a coherent message. Indeed, incoherence is an asset for misinformation campaigns to the extent it creates a sense of confusion, chaos and, ultimately, mistrust.
Coming full circle (and dismissing, for now, conspiracy theories about the political “convenience” of this deadly distraction for Netanyahu), Israel’s not wrong to believe that these attacks carry a special significance, and thereby demand a definitive response. The Wall Street Journal, while purporting to detail the planning process, noted that although “Iran has long backed Hamas, as a Sunni Muslim group, it had been an outsider among Tehran’s Shia proxies until recent months, when cooperation among the groups accelerated.”
That’s a very important consideration. The Sunni-Shiite divide has a solid claim on being the most intractable point of contention in a world where contentiousness predominates. If that divide is now completely subordinate to shared enmity vis-à-vis Israel, it’s alarming and raises the specter of a Hezbollah assault from Lebanon in the event Israel enters Gaza. That sets up a quandary for the IDF: If you enter Gaza and tie up your troops and Hezbollah invades from the north, you’re stretched thin in a two-front war. Hezbollah, as most readers are probably apprised, is no walkover on the battlefield. Far from it. If you’re the IDF and you don’t enter Gaza, then you can’t really address the Hamas threat.
Note that according to the Journal‘s reporting, the planning process for the attacks was overseen directly, in person, by Ismail Qaani. When Qaani succeeded Qassem Soleimani upon the general’s assassination in January of 2020, some suggested the Quds Force was permanently degraded. Soleimani was, by most accounts, the most dangerous intelligence operative on Earth and a field commander with no peers. Qaani’s resume is long indeed, but to call him a poor substitute for Soleimani was to materially understate the case. If the Journal‘s reporting is accurate, though, it suggests Qaani isn’t completely inept at the helm after so many decades as a deputy.
This all comes at a time when Bashar al-Assad has emerged mostly victorious from Syria’s decade-long civil war thanks in no small part to Tehran, Hezbollah and Vladimir Putin. Assad showed up in China last month “in search of friends and funds,” as the Times put it.
As the Journal went on to say, in the same linked article, “The strike was… aimed at disrupting accelerating US-brokered talks to normalize relations between Saudi Arabia and Israel that Iran saw as threatening” to the extent “expanding Israeli ties with Gulf Arab states could create a chain of American allies linking three key choke points of global trade — the Suez Canal, the Strait of Hormuz, and the Bab Al Mandeb.”
Although the attack on Israel was unprecedented in some very bad ways, and while it might’ve indeed marked the third world-changing event in three years, there’s unfortunately nothing new about the loss of human life in defense of religion and “sacred” territory. To employ one of countless indecorous quotes from Soleimani’s unlikely executioner, “blood-stained sand.”