Another Damned Holy War

“It’s important, I think, that we all condemn the targeting of civilians in any form at any time,” Saudi foreign minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan said Saturday, at the beginning of a meeting with Antony Blinken. “The priority now has to be to stop further civilian suffering.”

The Saudis this week suspended a US-led effort to normalize ties with Israel, a serious setback for the Biden administration which has struggled to develop a rapport with Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman. The crown prince is keen to cast himself as a reformist and a modernizer, but the 2018 execution of a dissident in the Kingdom’s Istanbul consulate and Riyadh’s brutal war in Yemen say otherwise.

The Saudis haven’t formally condemned Hamas’s attack on Israel, to Washington’s consternation. MBS even entertained a call with Ebrahim Raisi this week to discuss the situation. You’d be forgiven for calling that ironic: MBS spent the better part of seven years at war in Yemen with an Iranian proxy which repeatedly launched cross-border attacks against targets in Saudi Arabia, including a spectacularly brazen strike on the Kingdom’s oil infrastructure in September of 2019. The Saudis everywhere and always branded those episodes “terrorist” attacks funded, encouraged and in some cases directly planned by Iran.

But you’d be more than a little naive to suggest a parallel with Israel and Hamas in Gaza. The Palestinian cause is deeply personal for many in the Arab world, and the notion that it can be sidestepped, subjugated to economic concerns or otherwise swept under a prayer rug in the course of high-level diplomacy spearheaded by the US is a dangerous delusion.

MBS and Israel share a common enemy in Iran, but as Ghaith al-Omari, a Senior Fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and a former adviser to the Palestinian peace negotiation team, wrote for Foreign Affairs, “The Saudi government cannot appear to be cultivating ties with Israel at a time when the country is in an active conflict with the Palestinians.” “For the duration of the fighting in Gaza and its immediate aftermath, a deal with Israel is out of the question,” al-Omari went on.

To casual audiences, this all seems impossibly convoluted. The Mideast is a kind of moving Venn diagram that continually vexes even the most seasoned outside observers, foreign diplomats and Western intelligence services. Every player — the Saudis, the UAE, Qatar, Iran, Jordan, Egypt, Turkey, Syria, Iraq — have their own unique decision calculus. Washington has never successfully navigated those waters, and it never will, particularly not on something as delicate as Palestinian rights.

Local officials in Gaza on Friday said 70 people were killed by airstrikes while trying to flee south following Israel’s evacuation order. To millions of angry people across the Arab world, it doesn’t matter if Israel targeted them or not. The optics were egregious. The Israeli military on Saturday provided a six-hour window during which civilians can traverse the strip’s two main roads “without any harm.”

In recent days, I’ve endeavored to stress how perilous this situation really is, and I’m thoroughly convinced that the vast majority of Western observers don’t appreciate the gravity of what’s unfolding. It seemed quite clear by Friday that Israel intends to level northern Gaza, invade it, kill anyone deemed a militant and destroy Hamas’s network of tunnels. What was (and will remain) completely unclear is what happens after that.

The trappings of government in Gaza won’t exist anymore. There won’t be any place for the hundreds of thousands of displaced to come back to. The infrastructure, the homes, all of it, will lay in ruins. The idea that impoverished Gazans are going to hike back, rebuild and establish a functional government that’s amenable to peaceful coexistence with Israel isn’t just laughably far-fetched, it’s completely impossible. One idea — I guess — is to impose temporary martial law under the IDF then convince Palestinian authorities in the West Bank to take over. But the West Bank isn’t exactly a bastion of stability, nor is it exemplary of competent governance. It’s just as likely as not that an Israeli ground campaign in Gaza will spark an uprising in the West Bank.

One way or another, Israel will have to occupy — temporarily or otherwise — whatever’s left of northern Gaza. For the entirety of that occupation, the IDF will face an armed insurgency. That insurgency will enjoy popular support from scores of citizens all over the region, not to mention governments, and the longer the war of attrition goes on, the worse the optics will be — not for the insurgents, but for Israel. The odds of this being an “in and out” kind of deal are vanishingly small.

In the meantime, the US and the UN will have to figure out how to get humanitarian aid at least to southern Gaza. That won’t be easy. The track record for so-called “safe zones” and the provision of aid to such specially designated areas during violent conflicts is quite poor. Invariably, Israel will be accused (sometimes rightly, sometimes wrongly) of targeting aid convoys, hospitals, shelters and on and on. In the event it becomes clear that nowhere in Gaza is safe, the crossing with Egypt will be overrun, and it’ll be impossible to determine who’s who in the melee.

In a worst-case scenario, Gaza turns into a mini-Syria. Although geography will severely limit the flow of people, arms, resources and fighters, this is, effectively, a Holy War. I struggle to find a polite way to say this, so I’ll employ a colloquial cadence to soften what might otherwise be an abrasive assessment: The Arab world is excitable, and nothing gets the locals more excited than the idea of a Holy War.

On Saturday, the UN Relief and Works Agency said “hundreds of thousands of people” have been displaced in Gaza “in the past 12 hours alone.” Hamas claimed Israeli airstrikes inadvertently killed another nine hostages.

We should, but never will, get beyond religion. Whatever good can be said of it, the fact that people die every, single day in defense of pure, unadulterated fiction makes it irredeemable. On that front, at least, our species has made worse than no progress in a millennium.


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20 thoughts on “Another Damned Holy War

  1. If He, She, or It does exist and their benevolence is as depicted in various “Holy” books, then the time has come to step in. Prove your existence.

    1. Yeah, really: “Things are gettin’ a little dicey down here in case you haven’t noticed. You used to speak up all the time, apparently, but we haven’t heard from you directly in quite a while. Every time we try to call, nobody picks up and it says your voice mailbox is full.”

      1. What amuses me is when the God people are proud of themselves because their prayers have caused a particular outcome. My wife is now cancer-free after going thru chemo and various radiations for lung and brain cancer, and my neighbors all think it’s because of their prayers!

    2. In the good news department, the 30,000 foot trend, at least in the US and most of the rest of the “West,” religion generally is in drawdown, while atheism (or its close variants) marches to higher highs. Closer to home, however, and setting aside the worrying meme stock that is Christian nationalism, a sizeable chunk of the population has veered off into idolizing an orange-tinted Taghut who seems the epitome of the very last thing that any higher power would purposefully countenance.

  2. Narrated Abu Huraira:
    Allah’s Messenger (?) said, “The Hour will not be established until you fight with the Jews, and the stone behind which a Jew will be hiding will say. “O Muslim! There is a Jew hiding behind me, so kill him.”
    This will not end well,
    never will
    Oh, when I was 13 and contemplating what was going on in the Middle East and Northern Ireland, I realized one simple truth. Most of human history is in fact God glory gold, or as my 13 year old, self phrased it.
    My God is better than your God and said I should kill you and have your stuff.

  3. What ever happened to the “golden rule” isn’t that supposed to be an important part of most religions? Let’s start there and see what we can do, actually let’s just turn all religions into service clubs.

  4. What is the market’s threshold of ignoring?I’m going to speculate that a destructive ground war in Gaza and the other things H previews won’t breach that threshold.

      1. Just read the Weekly. Agree. Corporations are sociopaths, and markets are heartless. It’s not their job to care about suffering, death, injustice, atrocity, or the reverse.

        Thus investors may have spent this week thinking more, or as much, about oil supply, weapons contracts, and petroyuan, than about the horrors that have happened and will soon happen.

        Investors of a certain age, perhaps, especially? I’ve been watching the Middle East for forty years, and nothing ever changes. There are massacres, intifadas, wars, refugees, occupations, accords, withdrawals, rapprochments, elections, coups, and none of these cycles makes any lasting difference as the ME always seems to end up the same hopeless mess that it was. To use a heartless analogy, it’s all just a trade.

        1. “The markets” once referred to a mass of investors. PEOPLE. Now it rightfully should be understood that the term refers to 75% algorithmic trading systems which certainly do not respond to human deaths and suffering.

          Unless the dwindling numbers of real “carbon life form” traders can push a factor the models rely on into a sell signal. That is unlikely. So up it goes.

  5. “The Palestinian cause is deeply personal for many in the Arab world”.

    As someone from and living in the heart of the Arab world (the GCC), this is spot on, and perhaps replacing “many” with “most” would be more accurate.

    Although I’m not new here, I’m surprised of your awareness of the above fact. If only the average American had a fraction of your awareness of what’s going in the real world.

    As for the relationship between Israel and Iran, even the people here are confused. My father, who is a voracious reader on geopolitics among other topics, is of the opinion that Iran’s hostile stance towards Israel is just an act. I frankly do not know enough to have an opinion on this.

    1. I dunno. I’ve lived in the ME too and it seems mostly performative. They aren’t picking guns and joining the fight and they aren’t pressuring their governments for granting Palestinians nationality… They are happy to sit back, enjoy their monthly government stipend and express hatred but not actually do anything.

      I think that, as long as MBS control his army’s and police forces’ loyalty, he could have stuck to negotiating this normalization deal and little would have happened.

  6. I have always thought of religion purely as a social institution, just like government, designed for the purpose of giving the bullies a way to control their subjects. In ancient Egypt and Rome, the political leaders designated themselves as gods and created an efficient form of subjugation. For the last 2000 years in most of the world, religious leaders either ran the world or partnered up with the king (for the money and troops) and carried on. To me organized religion has never been about god, only about population control and money. And you’ve got to admit this god thing is a scary mechanism to use to keep people in line. A King could throw you in jail but god could condemn your soul for all eternity. You can’t top that, at least as long as people don’t read and think for themselves.

    I can’t help remembering what Rome did when they had finally lost their patience with Carthage. They got in their ships, sailed across the Mediterranean to their enemy’s land and killed everyone there, everyone. Then the razed the entire place to the bare ground. Not a stick was left standing. Then they got tons of salt and plowed it into the ground to make sure nothing would ever grow there again. When I see Israel talking about the total destruction of their enemy, Carthage is all I can think of.

    1. Sorry to be that guy,
      but the salt story has been debunked. The Romans might have been irate, but they were not stupid. They knew better than to make one of the most fertile areas of the Mediterranean unusable. the province Africa was a major source of wheat for the roman Empire later on.

      Otherwise completely agreed. Obedience to a made-up Sky Daddy and his mercurial wishes, “interpreted” by old men who have no employable skills other than “knowledge” of an ancient book of fairy tales will be mankinds downfall.

    2. After the battle of Cannae in 216Bc in which approximately 50k Roman soldiers were killed by the Carthaginians and their “Spanish swords” the Roman army went to Spain to where the said Spanish swords were made so that they could meet Spanish iron with Spanish iron. This was one of the last occasions where the Roman army could, in fact, be called “Roman” because from then on soldiers were mainly non-Roman and non Italian.

  7. “ …nothing gets the locals more excited than the idea of a Holy War.” I suspect many American evangelicals, and other versions of same, are giddy about the situation as well.

  8. So, roughly 70% of Israeli and 50%of Palestinian y chromosomes are for all practical purposes identical. From 1963 till now, the Palestinian resistance has morphed from Christian and Muslim social conservatives all the way to Marxists to a movement dominated by religion. In Israel the very religious are slowly amassing a crushing control. This argues for perpetual war, because compromise equals betrayal. Hamas is the Muslim Brotherhood and Sunni. If Iran is truly pragmatic about this we are looking at an alliance that is messianic, apocalyptic and nihilist. Thus, both sides will have a strong minority or more of people who hate the 2 state solution and believe in winner takes all.

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