Hamas, Israel, and American Foreign Policy

To refer to the Hamas attack on Israeli civilians, including women, children, and the elderly, as a criminal operation might not adequately describe what took place on October 7, 2023. Adding terms such as barbaric, heinous, and abominable better characterizes Hamas’ actions.

The causes of this conflict are strikingly similar to those of the Russia-Ukraine war. Evaluating this conflict is difficult because of the political and military ties that bind the American people to the Israeli nation. Nonetheless, our medical analogy illustrated in the article below, “Ukraine: Analysis of a War,” might help us to understand that wars do not always originate when first shots are fired.

The most evident statement about this conflict is that a political tumor that first appeared over seventy years ago had been largely ignored by Israel and major Western powers and now has surfaced with devastating consequences. As the present has deep roots in the past, we might as well examine what the past was like in the Middle East.

Since the beginning, the Israeli/Palestinian issue has had to do with an attempt to redraw geographical maps from a political perspective. It must be understood that the only way to redraw political maps ultimately entails force unless nation-states enter into agreements following the threat of war or war itself. Nations, however, must be careful when they seek to reconfigure geography. If precedents of old claims of land possession were to be established today, many countries, including the U.S., would lose their right to exist since there always have been other people occupying the lands on which the current geopolitical map is drawn.

While it is correct that Jews occupied Palestine centuries ago, they did so by displacing the Canaanites. Afterward, the Romans conquered the area and controlled it for centuries until the Arabs forced their way into Judea and dominated it for long periods. Vestiges of Western colonialism and the results of two world wars transformed Palestine into a ‘no man’s land’ populated by Muslims, Jews, and Christians alike.

The creation of the Israeli state

In 1917, under the Balfour Declaration, the United Kingdom (UK) announced support for establishing an Israeli nation-state on lands (known as Palestine) that had been under the control of the Ottoman Empire toward the end of WWI and now were administered by the UK. The declaration looked favorably upon the creation of  “a home for the Jewish people” (adding, however, that) “nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine, or the rights and political status enjoyed by Jews in any other country.” As Palestine did not exist other than as a tract of land, it became a competing space between two religious and quasi-ethnic nationalities. Thousands of Jews began to migrate from various countries into the area, eventually leading to skirmishes between Palestinians and Jews.

In 1947, the United Nations General Assembly adopted a Partition Plan under which Palestine was to be divided between Palestinians and Jews. Palestinians rejected the partition for several reasons, including that Jews were given more living space and fertile land despite Palestinians having many more people in the area. The real issue revolved around the view favored by the West that Jews had been expelled from their land and subjected throughout history to abuse and discriminatory behavior and now deserved to live in the land they previously inhabited. Palestine had been part of the Eastern Roman Empire, which was defeated in the seventh century by Muslims.

In the 1940s, following the announcement of the Partition Plan, Palestinians and surrounding Arab nations saw increased Jewish migration as threatening the elimination of what they considered their land, and they opposed the creation of Israel. Israel saw the creation of a Jewish state as humanely and religiously proper, but also as the beginning of a plan that would eventually extend its territory throughout the entire region.

Initially, the U.S. considered the Jewish/Palestinian issue a localized problem. Washington had favored the creation of the State of Israel without paying much attention to potential repercussions (no other major power did). All this changed following a Jewish victory during the Six-Day War in 1967 against a coalition of Arab states that led to Jewish annexation of Arab territories. The political ramifications of the conflict grew immediately. At the United Nations, Resolution 242 was unanimously approved by the U.S. and the rest of the Security Council stating that the acquisition of territory by Israel by war was inadmissible. It called for a Just Peace and the withdrawal of Israeli forces from occupied lands. Years later, in 1974, the U.N. General Assembly proclaimed Palestinian rights of self-determination, including national independence and the rights of Palestinians to return to their homes, thereby shaping a political preamble to a two-state solution.

However, during the 1970s, amid the Cold War, the U.S. made a turnabout opposing mandates that Israel had to return annexed lands, indicating that the border issue had to be negotiated between the two opponents, Israelis, and Palestinians, alone. The implication of the U.S. action left two enemies, whose opposition to each other was based on hatred, to decide their fate by themselves. U.S. policy proved to be divisive (and in retrospect, illusory) as Arab countries grew increasingly hostile toward Washington.

Although U.S. presidents, Republicans and Democrats, led negotiations toward a resolution of the conflict, Washington began adopting a ‘let them (Israeli & Palestinians) sort the problem by themselves’ approach that successive administrations believed would, somehow, lead to a two-state solution. This approach has remained American policy on the issue up until today. Following the October 7 Hamas attack, U.S. political leaders began to plead, more forcefully this time, for a two-state solution. These pleas are the most evident confirmation that U.S. foreign policy regarding the Palestinian-Israeli issue had failed through decades of neglect and the lack of U.S. forceful leadership. American domestic politics chose to ignore the conflict, which reinforced a U.S. ‘mild hands-on’ approach to resolving the issue.

The OSLO Accords (1993, 1995) attempted to accelerate the Israeli withdrawal of its forces from Palestinian lands. The accords established recognition of the State of Israel by the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) and Israel’s acceptance of the PLO as the representative of the Palestinian people. Ultimately, the accords failed to push negotiations forward as the two opponents remained unwilling to change their views. Two Intifadas, or popular uprisings against Israeli occupation of Gaza and the West Bank in 1987 and 2000, reflecting disappointment with the failed OSLO Accords resulted in thousands of deaths and injured civilian and military personnel on both sides.

In 1979, Iran became a new opponent of Israel and the U.S. Its opposition was largely targeted at the U.S. by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. Washington had been backing the dictatorial Shah since its involvement in overthrowing Iran’s prime minister, namely to allow foreign oil companies to gain access to Iranian oil. Since then, Iran has taken up the Palestinian cause and created proxy militants such as Hezbollah in Lebanon and the Houthis in Yemen to join the struggle. Economic self-interests and the lack of political sensitivity on the part of the U.S. were responsible for creating a new enemy.

Over the years, the situation among Palestinians had changed from disenchantment to disappointment to anger and hatred, given the dire socio-economic and political circumstances they faced. Israeli intransigence, however, has not been unreasonable at times, given the multiple acts of terrorism committed by Palestinian groups. A vicious cycle (serious political tumor) had emerged in the region. Meanwhile, the U.S. continued to allow political fate to solve the conflict.

Allegations of genocide against Israel

The Palestinian population in Gaza and the West Bank today is over 5 million people, according to U.S. and Israeli data. There are an estimated 20,000 to 40,000 Hamas militants, enough to cause havoc but not strong enough to threaten the security of Israel.

For a long time, Israeli military policies have aimed at deterring hostilities by making the enemy pay a heavy price for its actions. Such policies and the U.S.’s lack of forceful involvement have exacerbated the situation. In past conflicts, including the two Lebanon Wars (1982 & 2006), Israel has inflicted losses to its opponents three to four times higher than those sustained by Israel, including the civilian population. Gathering information from various sources indicates that the two Intifadas together resulted in the death of between 1,100 and 1,300 Israelis, including civilians and soldiers, while Palestinian losses were over 6,000, including civilians and militants.

However, the superior use of military force by Israel had failed to deter the Palestinians. Disproportionate losses throughout this conflict became evident by the 2023 Hamas attack. Given approximate numbers reported in the media between the end of January 2024 and the beginning of March 2024 about the war, excluding the wounded, over 1,200 Israelis were initially killed by Hamas, two-thirds of them civilians, including children, while nearly 250 Israelis were taken hostages. On the other side, the number of Palestinians killed by Israel is well over 34,000. Between 10,000 and 12,000 Hamas militants have been killed, according to Israeli sources. Nonetheless, some 14,500 children and 9,500 women, according to the U.S. Human Rights Commission, have perished due to Israeli counterattack. Thousands of children have survived without their parents.

Even if the numbers are inflated, given the number of Palestinian civilians killed, various groups have begun to claim that Israel has committed genocide against Palestinians. Technically, this does not seem to be the case, although Israeli actions have lent popular and quasi-judicial credibility to the charges.

The U.N.-sponsored Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide codified the crime in 1948, defining it in Article II “as a crime committed with the intent to destroy a national, ethnic, racial or religious group, in whole or in part. It does not include political groups or so-called “cultural genocide”.” Accordingly, it does not appear that Israel has the intent to exterminate Palestinians in the same manner as Hitler did to Jews, the Hutus’ intention when it attacked the Tutsis in Rwanda in 1994, or the Sudanese Government’s continued assaults against various ethnic groups in 2003. Nonetheless, as judged by the disproportionate number of deaths among Palestinians following Hamas’ operation, the Israelis have unleashed what may be described as a largely unrestrained raging assault, bombing operation, and tactical deprivation against the Palestinian population, resulting in over thirty times the number of Palestinian casualties.

The Israeli Government, the U.S. and other voices have consistently labeled Israel’s military counterattack as the right to self-defense that, in reality, has meant the destruction of Hamas, suggesting further that the increasing number of Palestinian casualties are the result of collateral damage. However, while no one would question a nation’s right to defend itself from its enemies, self-defense, whether according to international law, religious, or humanist standards, does not mean obliteration.

Traditionally, collateral damage has meant the accidental destruction and number of casualties resulting from a lack of reliable intelligence in warfare. Today, however, nations use the term to cover the willful destruction of their enemies; that is, the indiscriminate killing of innocent lives that stand in the way of eliminating armed opponents. It is true that in non-conventional military conflicts, armed personnel masquerade as civilians or use civilian sites to hide. What Hamas did on October 7, 2023 was horrific and criminal. Nonetheless, it is not reasonable or humane, and possibly unlawful, to characterize the willful and largely unrestrained Israeli bombing and shooting of civilians and the physical and emotional deprivation that Palestinian are asked to endure as collateral damage or as the right to self-defense.

With U.S. support, Israel became a vibrant democracy decades ago. However, since its creation, Israel had not been a significant military or economic ally of the U.S. Washington’s support was mostly political in response to promises (or feelings of wrongfulness for what it failed to do during the Holocaust). President Harry Truman recognized the State of Israel in 1948, on the same day Israel declared itself a state. Given the increase of Arab/Muslim hostility toward Israel and the U.S., Washington solidified its support of Israel, which now has become the largest recipient of U.S. foreign aid, mostly in military equipment. The Israeli domestic lobby—made up of Jews and Christians, along with Israel’s emergence as a military power in the region, and the ideological and political ties that bind both nations have created an unshakeable—if perilous—alliance between the two countries. The possibility remains that Israel’s unwillingness to a compromising solution may lead to an escalation of the conflict that may drag the U.S. into it.

While negotiations have kept failing, Israel has continued to increase Jewish settlements in Palestinian territories from over 200,000 to over 700,000, with the tacit consent of the U.S. despite its illegality according to international law. Former President Donald Trump added to the region’s volatility by not objecting to the settlements. Although the Biden Administration reversed this policy, the settlements kept increasing before the October 7 Hamas attack, allowing Washington’s ‘let them go at it by themselves’ approach to continue. Domestic politics during an election year have prevented a more forceful display of U.S. leadership to stop the war. Washington has opted to have its cake and eat it too by verbally distancing itself from Israeli destruction of Gaza while continuing its diplomatic, political, and military assistance to the Jewish nation.

Israel’s intransigence, insecurity, and distrust, along with Hamas’ continued hatred and reluctance to a peace accord, and the U.S. lack of forceful involvement in the process over the years, are mainly responsible for the growth of the politically cancerous tumor that became the Hamas attack. The old slogan, ‘our chickens have now come back to roost’ may best characterize current conditions that, in addition, have immensely complicated Israel’s and the U.S.’s decision-making.

Hatred is among the most potent human sentiments. To answer the question of who hated first–whether Palestinians or Jews–to establish accountability, is now meaningless. Having nowhere to go, it appears reasonable that Jews have a right to existential land, but so do Palestinians. Making them coexist, as difficult as it may be, is no longer up to them; it never was. Thus, Israel and the U.S. have fallen into a blind snare, built to defeat the enemy without realizing that both have been walking all along into it. If there is to be peace in the region, it appears that only a U.S.-led forcefully negotiated two-state solution will be the beginning to the end of the conflict. It is highly improbable that Israel will allow a democratic one-state solution in which non-Jews may become the dominant population. Moreover, if Israel seeks to govern Gaza, and eventually all Palestinians, it will be like attempting to extinguish an active volcano.

The general features of a diplomatic solution may be attained provided that, as with all compromises, zero-sum approaches are ruled out. That is, both parties must be willing to give up significant features in exchange for a lasting peace. Israel will have to accept a Palestinian state with East Jerusalem as its capital. In turn, all Palestinians will recognize the right of Israel to exist as a nation-state. Palestinians will renounce the Right of Return in exchange for just compensation for properties seized in the past. Israel will return all settlements that are not in accord with previous international agreements. And, Hamas (and other armed groups) will forswear armed struggle against Israel. Although it is potentially volatile, a militarized buffer zone populated by U.S., NATO, and forces from other Muslim countries along with U.N. observers will need to be established. By now, it must be recognized that if there were to be diplomatic negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians without Washington’s forceful leadership, peace would remain a chimera.

The absurdity of existing political activism

Polarization of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict has extended throughout the world. Naively and foolishly, university protesters and critics on both sides (who ought to know better) have failed to realize that the legitimacy of their individual causes is being devalued exponentially because each side is reluctant to acknowledge their use of unrestrained force to attain political ends–the generally accepted definition of terrorism. Many who participate in pro-Palestinian protests are expressing opposition to the inordinate levels of destruction and killings by the Israeli forces. However, the message is being co-opted by antisemitic feelings of hatred toward Jewish people simply because they are Jewish. Such absurd and illogical manifestations denote sheer prejudice and ignorance. It must be unequivocally stated that those who support indiscriminate killing and maiming as instruments of policy in the name of Palestinian freedom from oppression must realize that they are supporting behavior similar to what they claim Israel is doing in Gaza. Likewise, it must also be understood that charges of antisemitism against pro-Palestinian activists fall on deaf ears when those who side with Israel ignore the harsh and cruel impact of Israeli military counteraction. In effect, when each side decides to support attacks against civilian populations without acknowledging the criminal results of their own actions, they are nullifying the moral and political high ground each side so desperately desires to defend. Instead, they are simply advocating the continuation of war.