Facing the Horror in Gaza

Our Zoom call this week will be at the regular time: Friday at Noon EST.

Since I recorded this week’s video, I’ve learned that Sara Roy will be unable to join us on Friday because of a family emergency. (Here’s the extraordinary lecture of hers I mentioned.) Luckily, we’ll still be joined by Jehad Abusalim, executive director of the Jerusalem Fund, co-editor of Light in Gaza: Writings Born of Fire, and of important essays earlier this year on Hamas and the danger of another Nakba. We’ll talk about Gaza, its history, culture and politics. Why it became a cage, and now, tragically, has become a mass grave.

As usual, paid subscribers will get the link this Wednesday and the video the following week. They’ll also gain access to our library of past Zoom interviews with guests like Thomas Friedman, Ilhan Omar, Omar Barghouti, Benny Morris, Noam Chomsky, and Bret Stephens.

Share

Sources Cited in this Video

Since 2022, 25 percent of Ukrainians have been displaced from their homes. In the Gaza Strip since October 7, the figure is 75 percent.

Save the Children’s astounding comparison of the number of children killed per day in Ukraine, Yemen, Syria, and Gaza.

The Washington Post’s investigation into the reliability of death tolls provided by Gaza’s health ministry. A similar investigation by the Associated Press.

When the US denounced human shields in South Vietnam

The UN’s estimate that 68 percent of the people reported killed in Gaza are women, children or the elderly.

Human Rights Watch’s report on Israel’s use of white phosphorus in Gaza.

An alternative to bombing and invading Gaza.

Things to Read

In Jewish Currents (subscribe!) Maya Rosen and Erez Bleicher remember the scholar and activist Khalil Abu Yahia, who was killed in an Israeli airstrike on October 30.

The New York Times investigates the history and contested meanings of the slogan, “Palestine will be free, from the river to the sea.”

Renowned Holocaust scholar Omer Bartov on why Israel’s actions in Gaza do not constitute a genocide but could become one.

87-year-old Holocaust survivor Marione Ingram on why she’s protesting Israel’s attacks on Gaza.

Haaretz journalist Amir Tibon on what he endured on October 7 and why he thinks Hamas must be destroyed. A response by the International Crisis Group’s Mairav Zonszein.

For the Foundation for Middle East Peace’s Occupied Thoughts podcast, I interviewed former Obama administration deputy national security advisor Ben Rhodes and (separately) Craig Mokhiber, who recently resigned from the United Nations over its response to Gaza.

I talked to Ali Velshi on MSNBC about Israel’s lack of a strategy for Gaza.

Check out The Ideas Letter on Substack.

See you on Friday at Noon,

Peter


VIDEO TRANSCRIPT:

For our call this Friday for paid subscribers, we’re going to talk about Gaza. It’ll be at noon ET. We’re going to try to talk about what the society and culture and politics of Gaza were like before this utter destruction that has been rained down in recent weeks to try to move beyond this image of Gaza as just this mass of faceless victims or faceless terrorists depending on how it’s described, and to imagine perhaps what its future could be, and to understand how it got to this terrible, terrible situation, with two people who know Gaza really well: Jehad Abusalim, who’s from Gaza, who’s the executive director of the Jerusalem Fund, a nonprofit, in Washington, DC; and Sara Roy, who’s the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, the author of a really renowned book called The Gaza Strip: The Political Economy of the De-development. Sarah lived in Gaza for many years. She’s also the author of a lecture that I found personally one of the most moving things I’ve ever read about Israel-Palestine. It’s about how during her time in Gaza when she witnessed the humiliation that people in Gaza had to live with, she came to understand the experience of her Holocaust survivor parents in a way that she never had. Not to say obviously that Gaza is the same at the Holocaust, but that she came to understand something about the experience of humiliation in Gaza that allowed her to finally connect to her parents to whom she’d never really been able to connect to given what they had gone through. That’ll be Friday at noon ET for paid subscribers.

I want to talk about the scale of the devastation in Gaza because one of the things that has been most sad to me to see is that many people in the American Jewish community—and I’m talking about really good people, really smart people, thoughtful people—I feel like have created a series of defense mechanisms or kind of excuses to distance ourselves from the reality of what’s happening. And this sense of defense mechanisms has separated many American Jews, not all but many American Jews, from other people who consider themselves progressives who are responding with horror and with activism to what’s happening in Gaza. And so, then you have many American Jews looking at this activism and this anger and being alienated by it, and saying, why are these people so angry, and feeling like it’s antisemitism. There is some antisemitism. It’s true. I devoted my whole video last week to it, but there’s also just a genuine human anger and horror at what’s happening, particularly because it’s being funded by the United States in so much large measure that I think American Jews need to understand where that comes from. We need to challenge the set of kind of, I would say, excuses and defense mechanisms that we have created to shield ourselves from that same human reaction to the utter horror that’s taking place in Gaza.

And I want to start by just talking about the scale of this, the scale of the horror. Because there’s this tendency again among Jews often to think, well, sure, Israel does bad things, but you know, it’s it never does things that are as bad as the worst governments in the world since it’s after all kind of fundamentally a benign liberal democracy. And we often talk that way about the United States. But just a couple of comparisons. According to the UN Refugee Agency, 11 million people in the Ukraine have been displaced since Russia kind of extended its invasion back in February 2022. That’s 11 million either internally or externally displaced out of a population of 44 million. So, it’s one quarter of the population. That’s a staggering figure in Ukraine. That’s part of the reason that we saw it as such a crime that what Vladimir Putin did, and so many people want to put him on trial at the Hague. Twenty-five percent.

Do you know the percentage of the people in Gaza that have been displaced from their homes since October 7th, since Israel’s response to October 7th? Seventy-five percent. Three quarters. One point five million out of 2 million, according to the World Health Organization. And we were horrified by what happened in Ukraine. Another statistic just on the scale. So, Save the Children did a comparison of the number of children who had been dying in Gaza per day compared to other conflicts, some of the other the worst conflicts in the world that we’ve seen in recent years. So again, Save the Children’s figures in Ukraine since February 2022: 0.7 children per day have died. So, less than 1 per day in Ukraine. In Yemen, 1.5 children per day. In Syria, since the height of that conflict, 3 children per day. In Gaza, since October 7th, the figures are as of late October, 136 children have died per day. The scale of what is happening is almost unfathomable. I mean, one can’t even get one’s mind around it, right? And again, being funded with American arms. These are American weapons. And people are wondering why Americans and other people whose governments are deeply complicit, in Britain and Western Europe, why they’re so angry? Why they think this is a disgrace that they need to stop?

But in the American Jewish community, in the establishment and in many parts of the American Jewish community, we respond to these things by with a kind of moral distancing, with a series of kind of stock excuses that we offer essentially to not have to face this reality. So, I want to go through those and try to explain why they just don’t make a lot of sense, right? So, the first is that the numbers are wrong, or at least the numbers are untrustworthy because, after all, the Health Ministry in Gaza is run by Hamas. So, who knows how many people. Maybe it’s far less. Those numbers are untrustworthy. OK, The Washington Post did a pretty deep dive on this, right? First of all, they found that the human rights reports of the US State Department have for years been using those very figures in previous conflicts. They also checked with the UN about, again, the track record of this Gaza Health Ministry and its numbers, and it found that the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs said that past experience indicated that tolls were reported with high accuracy.

Omar Shakir, the Israel and Palestine Director of Human Rights Watch said that in past conflicts the numbers have been generally reliable. The Associated Press went to the World Health Organization, the head of their Health Emergencies Programs who said, ‘the numbers may not be perfectly accurate on a minute-to-minute basis but they largely reflect the level of death and injury.’ Because we have a lot of experience, because we’ve had many conflicts in Gaza now where you can compare the numbers that were put out by the Health Ministry in Gaza and then the subsequent investigations that were done by the UN, by human rights organizations. And most astonishingly of all, The Washington Post points out that if you go back to the 2014 conflict, for instance, and you look at the numbers that were put out by the Hamas-run Health Ministry, they were almost exactly the same as the ones that were ultimately arrived at by Israel. So, in 2014 the Gaza Health Ministry said that 2,310 Palestinians were killed in Gaza. Israel’s number was 2,125. The UN’s was somewhere in between. Not a very large difference, right? So, we’re being told by the UN, by human rights agencies, by the US, essentially, even by Israel, right, that historically the numbers that are being reported out of Gaza are not really that off.

The second kind of defense mechanism, excuse, is, well, Hamas bears the blame for this. Yes, it’s horrible, it’s horrible. But Hamas bears the blame because they’re using Palestinians as human shields, because they’re embedded in amongst the civilian population. And yes, I’m sure they are embedded in amongst the civilian population. But this is not unique to Hamas. This is the way all guerilla groups fight. This is the nature of insurgencies fighting against far more powerful armies. Mao Zedong famously said, right, ‘the guerilla must move among the people as a fish swims in the sea.’ There’s a really interesting book about this idea of human shields by the Israeli academic Neve Gordon and Nicola Perugini. And they note that during the Vietnam War, the US dropped leaflets over Vietnamese villages, which said, ‘the Viet Cong,’—now the Viet Cong were the communist guerillas that America was fighting—‘the Viet Cong say they are strong. Why must they continue to use defenseless women and children as shields and your villages for their protection?’ Because the Viet Cong were also embedding themselves in villages, keeping their weapons there. They weren’t walking out into the field and waving to the American army and saying, ‘here we are, let’s fight,’ right? Because when you’re a very weak guerilla force facing a much more powerful army, that’s the way you fight. That’s the way virtually all guerilla armies fight. It’s not unique to Hamas. It doesn’t make it right, but my point is that any time you’re gonna fight a guerilla movement and insurgency like this, you have to take this into account morally.

And so, what I hear people saying is, well, the people who are morally responsible for these deaths are Hamas because Hamas is fighting with guerilla tactics. But that moral logic, it seems to me, which is to say the people are who are responsible is not the people who pull the trigger, not the people who drop the bombs, but the people who have essentially provoked them or created these conditions, that is an erasure of moral responsibility. It’s not that different from saying, as some on the left have, that Hamas is not responsible for the massacre that took place on October 7th because Israel had provoked them because Israel had made the Gaza Strip unlivable, made it an open-air prison according to human rights groups, etc., etc. No, that argument from the left was wrong because no matter what the provocation that Israel was doing in Gaza, the people who had the primary moral responsibility for pulling the trigger when they went house to house in these kibbutzim and other places were the people who pulled the trigger. And you can’t say that but then say Israel is not morally responsible for when it decides to drop a bomb in Gaza that destroys an entire apartment building on an entire block sometimes because you think that there were some Hamas members there. You can’t have it both ways. People say in the Jewish community that Israel is trying to avoid civilian casualties. Well, it’s just not doing a very good job of it. We certainly know that, right? According to, again, to the UN, the UN has estimated that 68% of the people who’ve been killed are women, children, and the elderly. Human Rights Watch has noted that Israel is using white phosphorus, which they describe as unlawfully indiscriminate when used in populated urban areas that it burns down entire houses and causes egregious harm to civilians with no ability to distinguish.

The last kind of excuse that we tend to hear, I would say kind of a defense mechanism to say we’re not really complicit in this, Israel’s not really responsible for this, is to say that the people at fault in this case are not even Hamas, but the people at fault are the people of Gaza because after all they elected Hamas. Well, it’s true in 2006, there was an election in which Hamas won a majority of seats in the Palestinian parliament. First of all, that was in 2006. So, given how young a population of people Gaza has, only about 25% of the people in Gaza were old enough to vote in that election. Secondly, Hamas only won 44% of the vote. It won 58% of the seats because Fatah, its opponent, ran two candidates in many of the districts, splitting the vote. But Hamas only won 44%. And thirdly, the election wasn’t even just held in Gaza, right? People somehow always forget this. The election was held in Gaza, the West Bank, and East Jerusalem. So, if all of the people of Gaza are responsible for this election that Hamas won with 44% in 2006, why aren’t all the people in the West Bank and in East Jerusalem responsible as well, right?

These arguments just don’t make any sense. And I see such good people, such thoughtful, admirable people just making arguments that seem to me don’t make a lot of sense because I think fundamentally, we in the Jewish community, many of us, don’t want to happen to face the scale of the horror that is being done in Gaza by a state that speaks in the name of the Jewish people. And if you are going to support this level of slaughter, you at the very, very least need to have really, really good answers about why you believe this is going to keep Israel safe. So, you need to have good answers about what Israel is gonna do after it deposes Hamas. Has anyone heard those good answers? Has anyone heard those good answers? Netanyahu is now saying that he’s going to reoccupy Gaza. Does anyone think that’s gonna end well? How could it be that Israel could reoccupy Gaza without facing an insurgency as far as the eye could see? A quagmire. The kind of thing that Israel faced when it was in southern Lebanon. The kind of thing that the US faced in Iraq and Afghanistan. Does anyone really think that this Israeli government, which is not only profoundly radical, right, with elements that want to rebuild the settlements in Gaza, with deep hostility to trying to create any legitimate Palestinian leadership anywhere, which is not only radical, but a government that’s also deeply incompetent, as we saw on October 7th when they couldn’t keep Israelis safe. Do people really have faith that this government has a good strategy for what it’s doing in Gaza?

It seems to me it is incumbent on the people who are supporting this to have good answers. I can offer some alternatives. I did a whole video two weeks ago about what I think an alternative political strategy would be to try to undermine Hamas by strengthening Palestinians who are fighting for their freedom in an ethical way, and a much, much more limited military response that would simply focus on targeting the people who carried out this attack, not the entire population. But it seems to me, the onus is on the people who are supporting this horrifying slaughter to at least have very good answers about how it’s actually going to play out in a way that makes Israel safer, rather than caught in an endless quagmire against an insurgency, right? And I haven’t heard those answers. And if you don’t have those answers, it seems to me, you should be asking yourself really hard questions about why you’re supporting this. And I fear that in much of the American Jewish community, we’re not asking ourselves those hard questions. What we are instead doing is distancing ourselves from the moral horror of this through a series of very, very flimsy excuses and defense mechanisms. And that is separating us from this larger group of progressive people all around the world who are responding in a humane way to what is happening and are acting against that. And I think we should join them. Because I think what’s happening is something that will be a scar on Israel and the United States and all of us for many, many, many years to come. Again, on Friday at noon, I’ll be talking to Jehad Abusalim and Sara Roy. I hope you can join us.

Authors
Peter Beinart