The 2023 Israel–Hamas War: Conflicts About Conflicts

I’m no expert on international relations, and I’m even less qualified to speak on the hornet’s nest of the century-long issues pertaining to Israel-Palestine. Lack of knowledge or expertise rarely prevents anyone from forming strong convictions about something now days, though. So, why not give this particular hornet’s nest a shake?

Aside from picking up on things just from consuming what small amounts of news I engage with, probably the majority of knowledge on the early history of the Israel-Palestine conflict comes from the Martyrmade podcast series called “Fear and Loathing in New Jerusalem” by Darryl Cooper, which follows the history from the Zionist movement of the late nineteenth century and up through the establishment of the Israeli state in the latter half of the 1940’s. Aside from what is covered in that podcast, I have really just a basic knowledge of the history of the region – the 1948 Arab–Israeli War, the 1967 Six-Day War, the 1973 Yom Kippur War, the 1978 Camp David Accords, the 1978 South Lebanon conflict, the 1987-1993 First Intifada, the 1993 Oslo Accords and subsequent 2000 Camp David summit, the 2000-2005 Second Intifada, the 2005 Israeli ‘Disengagement’ from Gaza, the 2006 Lebanon War, the 2008-2009 Gaza War, and the continuing tensions and skirmishes in the area leading up to the current conflict.

My view of Israel’s right to exist is this: back in the first half of the twentieth century the Zionist movement held no legitimate claim to Palestine. The religious claim has no leg to stand on, since the God of Abraham almost certainly does not exist, and multiple religions make mutually incompatible religious claims on the patch of land. The political claim (that it is their rightful homeland in the way that, say, the region of land currently circumscribed by the Polish border is the rightful homeland of the Polish people) since the land had de facto not been the homeland of the Jewish people as any sort of political entity in some two millennia. If a political claim on land had that long of shelf life, then the U.S. government would have even less of a defense against any potential claims by Native American tribes to have the entire country given back to them, since the conquest of the Americas is much more recent than the Jewish diaspora.

This all being said, when it comes to whose claim on a patch of land is legitimate, it is unfortunate that might-makes-right often takes precedence (e.g., the Americas were taken from the natives by force and now these claims are widely viewed as legitimate). As much as people dislike the notion of anarchy, international relations are conducted anarchically (i.e., “since you know as well as we do that right, as the world goes, is only in question between equals in power, while the strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must”), since there is no governing body that holds a global monopoly on force. This is why, as is often observed in a societies with weak institutions, countries have to continuously “show resolve” and refuse to back down from conflict, lest they be viewed as weak and taken advantage of; and why third-party mediation of conflicts is often needed, since neither side of a conflict wants to be the first to cry uncle. In other words, international relations is governed by the same sort of honor culture that arises in societies of weak institutions.

The point being that at a certain point in the mid-twentieth century, through force, resolve, and an ability to associate with stronger partners, the Israeli claim on that patch of land on the eastern shores of the Mediterranean Sea became de facto legitimate. The corollary, then, is that the Palestinian claim on the region became de facto illegitimate. Now, the ways in which the Israelis have governed their patch of land, erecting an apartheid state and forcibly evicting Palestinian Arabs from their homes, and whether these policies should be condoned by other nation-states, is a separate question altogether from whether Israel has a right to exist (similar to the question of whether other nation-states ought to condone the early U.S. policy on slavery was a separate question from whether the U.S. had a right to exist). The result of their claim being legitimate, then, is that Israel has a right to exist and also has a right to defend itself.

Now, with the extent of my ignorance and my various biases laid out, I do have to issue the boilerplate condemnation of violence against non-combatants. The Hamas militants have behaved atrociously and get no sympathy from me. The IDF certainly finds itself in a tight spot, having to engage in a war wherein the chances of causing civilian casualties is inescapable. Now, I’m no fan of the Israeli government and their policies toward Gaza or settlements in the West Bank, but Hamas had to know that their actions here would reap the whirlwind, and the response from Israel is both understandable and warranted – anyone else in their position would react the same way. Yet, the anger and extremism from the people in Gaza is also understandable, even if their methods are indefensible. Not even just for the atrocities, but also because there is no way their actions could ever have been effective (at least if we assume that the welfare of the Palestinians in Gaza is their goal). I agree with Dan Carlin when he says this (check out his entire thread on the topic):

Being that I have little of value to add to the conversation about the current conflict directly, I would like to turn my attention to the conflicts about the conflict, i.e., the balkanizing to different sides based on whether someone supports the Israelis or the Palestinians, as if they are sports teams here for our amusement. All the talking heads and commentators who speak on the current war have predictably come down on the sides people might expect them to given their other political sympathies (although the staunchly pro-Israel right and the antisemitic right being at each others throats on this particular issue makes being rightwing in general somewhat less of a predictor of one’s sympathies). This allows people to bring in all their pet issues, as seen with Sam Harris with his position that radical Islamists are simply interpreting their doctrines the most faithfully and that this interpretation is at odds with western liberal democratic civilization:

Or Ben Shapiro’s pet issues (though also check out the comments he gets on this Tweet, with many of them betraying their own pet issue of antisemitism):

I found this same phenomenon interesting when the Russo-Ukrainian War escalated in 2022. The usually Russophobic conservatives, after enduring six years of progressives hyperventilating about their Trump-Russia “collusion” conspiracy theories, had done a 180 and became fans of Putin and Russia (although the right’s descent into authoritarianism was certainly a catalyst in their reframing of Putin as a ‘strong leader’ who ‘gets things done’). But the Israel-Palestine conflict has been a sort of political sports team rivalry for quite some time, with partisans espousing opinions on the matter that are as full of unearned confidence as they are ignorance.

What it comes down to is this: for people like me living comfortably in the United States, and likely also in other western societies (e.g., Europe) where offering up unsolicited opinions is a favorite pastime, there is little in our concrete, everyday lives that warrants such strong convictions regarding the Israel-Palestine conflict as a political matter. Certainly everyone is entitled to feel strongly about death and suffering, but the conversation rarely stays there for any longer than is needed to make a political point (e.g., “so-and-so are doing X, Y, and Z horrific things, and anyone who does not unquestioningly condemn them for these actions is evil/stupid/wrong!”).

Worse is that even saying the “right things” (from a particular perspective) can get someone in trouble for saying it incorrectly, or for allowing some modicum of nuance to slip in, or for not pounding one’s first in advocacy (or condemnation) with enough enthusiasm. This invites the worst forms of purity testing, virtue signaling, paranoia, and uncritical credulity. Indeed, although I’ve not endorsed nor condemned either side in the current war, I’m sure people will read into what I’ve written here as being insufficiently dogmatic in my support or denunciation of one side or the other.

In the end, while sitting in the comfort of our own homes, not having to worry about Hamas marauders kidnapping, raping, and/or executing us, or having IDF bombs and missiles raining down on us, the conflict really becomes about ourselves. Supporting one side or another, or opprobrium for either side, is a way for us to demonstrate certain allegiances or “correct” beliefs. Who ultimately wins or loses the war is, for us, purely symbolic. Speaking on it is merely a way of making ourselves feel better about ourselves for coming down on the “right” side of the conflict. Our righteous indignation or full-throated zealousness instills within us a sense of purpose or community. I would wager that the preponderance of those commentating on the conflict don’t personally know anyone involved and have no personal stake in it, or would even have their lives noticeably altered if one side or the other emerged victorious (indeed, I’d be interested to know how much of the social media commentariat could even find the place on a map). Voicing our opinions is done for our own gratification, regardless how vehemently we may deny this about ourselves.

So, once we have thought our thoughts and uttered our impotent prayers for the victims on our chosen home team, we should all take a real hard look at ourselves and ask: why do I actually care as deeply as I do about this conflict? Is voicing my opinion (or berating those who disagree with me) actually going to help anything or anyone? Or am I doing it just for me?

P.S. the following videos do a good job of describing the events of the current conflict (up to October 13 EDT)

P.S. #2 (10/21/2023): the following video is a great analysis of how the conflict will affect woke ideology (and what, according to the video’s host Jared, what Wokeness really is):

One thing I really like about Jared’s analysis here is that, if people were honest with themselves, then it is the way that people would answer the questions in the last paragraph of my post. One point I think the video misses, though, is that the reason the Israel/Palestine conflict invokes such powerful feelings in people is because it is viewed through the lens we westerners view our own society, yet there is a sort of wrench in the woke gears: the Israelis are seen, through the woke lens, as the white oppressors of brown people; simultaneously, it is difficult to accuse the Israelis of being fascists when it was the Jewish people who were the primary victims of fascism. Add onto this the fact that Hamas is itself a fusion of Islamism and fascism, their own covenant rehashing Nazi talking points (in article 22):

For a long time, the enemies have been planning, skillfully and with precision, for the achievement of what they have attained. They took into consideration the causes affecting the current of events. They strived to amass great and substantive material wealth which they devoted to the realisation of their dream. With their money, they took control of the world media, news agencies, the press, publishing houses, broadcasting stations, and others. With their money they stirred revolutions in various parts of the world with the purpose of achieving their interests and reaping the fruit therein. They were behind the French Revolution, the Communist revolution and most of the revolutions we heard and hear about, here and there. With their money they formed secret societies, such as Freemasons, Rotary Clubs, the Lions and others in different parts of the world for the purpose of sabotaging societies and achieving Zionist interests. With their money they were able to control imperialistic countries and instigate them to colonize many countries in order to enable them to exploit their resources and spread corruption there.

You may speak as much as you want about regional and world wars. They were behind World War I, when they were able to destroy the Islamic Caliphate, making financial gains and controlling resources. They obtained the Balfour Declaration, formed the League of Nations through which they could rule the world. They were behind World War II, through which they made huge financial gains by trading in armaments, and paved the way for the establishment of their state. It was they who instigated the replacement of the League of Nations with the United Nations and the Security Council to enable them to rule the world through them. There is no war going on anywhere, without having their finger in it.

“So often as they shall kindle a fire for war, Allah shall extinguish it; and they shall set their minds to act corruptly in the earth, but Allah loveth not the corrupt doers.” (The Table – verse 64).

The imperialistic forces in the Capitalist West and Communist East, support the enemy with all their might, in money and in men. These forces take turns in doing that. The day Islam appears, the forces of infidelity would unite to challenge it, for the infidels are of one nation.

“O true believers, contract not an intimate friendship with any besides yourselves: they will not fail to corrupt you. They wish for that which may cause you to perish: their hatred hath already appeared from out of their mouths; but what their breasts conceal is yet more inveterate. We have already shown you signs of their ill will towards you, if ye understand.” (The Family of Imran – verse 118).

It is not in vain that the verse is ended with Allah’s words “if ye understand.”

This leads to a cognitive dissonance, where the fascists are viewed through the woke lens as being on “our side” while the historical victims of fascism are viewed through the woke lens as being fascists (not to say that the Israeli government isn’t rightwing, but it would be a mistake to call them fascists). And so, just as the right is riven between the staunchly pro-Israel right and the antisemitic right, the left is riven by those who (at least want to appear like they) abhor Islamist-fascist violence and those who can never see anything except through a western woke racial lens (i.e., whiter skin automatically means bad, darker skin automatically means good).