Understanding the True Nature of the Hamas-Israel War

Nov 28, 2023 | History, Voices

The reason the Hamas-Israel war can be hard for outsiders to understand is that three wars are going on at the same time: a war between Israeli Jews and the Palestinians exacerbated by a terrorist group, a war within Israeli and Palestinian societies over the future and a war between Iran and its proxies and America and its allies.

But before we dig into those wars, here’s the most important thing to keep in mind about them: There’s a single formula that can maximize the chances that the forces of decency can prevail in all three. It is the formula that I think President Biden is pushing, even if he can’t spell it all out publicly now — and we should all push it with him: You should want Hamas defeated, as many Gazan civilians as possible spared, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel and his extremist allies booted, all the hostages returned, Iran deterred and the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank reinvigorated in partnership with moderate Arab states.

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The first and most obvious of the three is the latest round of the century-long battle between two indigenous peoples — Jews and Palestinians — over the same land but now with a twist: This time the Palestinian side is not being led by the Palestinian Authority, which since Oslo has been committed to reaching a two-state solution based on the borders that existed before the 1967 war. It’s being led by Hamas, a militant Islamist organization dedicated to eradicating any Jewish state.

On Oct. 7, Hamas embarked on a war of annihilation. The only maps it carried were not of a two-state solution but of how to find the most people in the Israeli kibbutzim and kill or kidnap as many of them as possible.

While I have no doubt that ending Hamas’s rule in Gaza — something every Sunni Arab regime except Qatar is quietly rooting for — is necessary to give both Gazans and Israelis hope for a better future, the whole Israeli war effort will be delegitimized and become unsustainable unless Israel can do it with much greater care for the Palestinian civilians. The Hamas invasion and the rushed Israeli counterinvasion are unleashing a humanitarian disaster in Gaza that is only underscoring how much Israel needs a legitimate Palestinian partner to help govern Gaza in the morning after.

The second war, very much related to the first, is the struggle within the Palestinian and Israeli societies over their respective longer-term visions.

Hamas argues that this is an ethnic-religious war between primarily Muslim Palestinians and Jews, and its goal is an Islamic state in all of Palestine, from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea. For Hamas, it’s winner take all.

There is a mirror image of Hamas’s extremist views on the Israeli side. The Jewish supremacist settlers represented in Netanyahu’s cabinet make no distinction between those Palestinians who have embraced Oslo and those who embrace Hamas. They see all Palestinians as modern-day descendants of the Amalekites. As Mosaic magazine explained, Amalekites were a tribe of desert raiders mentioned often in the Bible who inhabited today’s northern Negev, near the Gaza Strip, and lived by plunder.

Perhaps it is not surprising, then, that some Jewish settlers simply cannot stop talking about rebuilding settlements in Gaza. They want a Greater Israel from the river to the sea. Netanyahu embraced these far-right parties and their agenda to form his government and now cannot banish them without losing his grip on power.

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And while Arab allies of America and Israel are not democracies — and do not aspire to be — their leaders are all on a journey away from the old model of building legitimacy through resistance — resistance to Israel, to America, to Iran and Iranian-backed Shiites — and toward building their legitimacy on delivering resilience for all their people (through education, skills and growing environmental awareness) so they may realize their full potential.

That is not Iran’s agenda. The raw power dimension is over who will be the hegemon, i.e. the big dog, in the region — Shiite Iran, tied to Russia and extending its reach to Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Yemen, or Sunni Arab-dominated Saudi Arabia in a tacit alliance with Bahrain, the U.A.E., Jordan, Egypt and Israel and all backed by America. In this third war, Iran’s goal is to drive the United States out of the Middle East, to destroy Israel and to intimidate America’s Sunni Arab allies and bend them to its will.

In this war, America is projecting its power through our two aircraft carrier groups now stationed in the Middle East. Meanwhile, Iran is countering us with what I call landcraft carriers — a network of proxies in Lebanon, Syria, Gaza, the West Bank, Yemen and Iraq serving as platforms for launching rocket attacks on U.S. forces and Israel every bit as lethal as those from our aircraft carriers.

This third war started to escalate on Sept. 14, 2019, when Iran launched an audacious, unprovoked drone attack against two major Saudi Aramco oil processing facilities in Abqaiq and Khurais. The Trump administration did nothing. “That was an attack on Saudi Arabia, and that wasn’t an attack on us,” Donald Trump said. On Jan. 17, 2022, Yemen’s Iran-aligned Houthi militia attacked the United Arab Emirates with missiles and drones, igniting a fire near the Abu Dhabi airport and setting off explosions in fuel trucks that killed three people. Again, no U.S. response.

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We’re talking about the top Israeli researchers, scientists, techies, cyberspecialists and innovators who drive the start-up nation’s economy and defense industries. Today, a vast majority are highly motivated and support the Israeli government. But if Israel cannot maintain stable borders or shipping lanes, some of these 400,000 will emigrate.

“If a critical mass of them decide to leave, the consequences for Israel will be catastrophic,” Ben-David said. After all, “in 2017, 92 percent of all income tax revenue came from just 20 percent of adults” — with those 400,000 responsible for creating the wealth engines that generated that 92 percent.

If Iran gets away with this, its appetite for squeezing any rival with its landcraft carriers will only grow. Israel can put up a strong fight and is capable of striking deep in Iran. But ultimately, to break Iran’s tightening stranglehold, Israel needs allies from the United States and NATO and the moderate Arab states. And the United States, NATO and the moderate Arab states need Israel.

But such an alliance will not come together if Netanyahu sticks with his policy of undermining the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank — essentially driving Israel and its seven million Jews into indefinite control of five million Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank. The pro-American forces in the region and Biden cannot and will not be party to that.

So I end where I began, only now I hope three things are totally clear.

1. The keystone for winning all three wars is a moderate, effective and legitimate Palestinian Authority that can replace Hamas in Gaza and be an active, credible partner for a two-state solution with Israel and thereby enable Saudi Arabia and other Arab Muslim states to justify normalizing relations with the Jewish state and isolating Iran and its proxies.

2. The anti-keystones are Hamas and Netanyahu’s far-right coalition, which refuses to do anything to rebuild, let alone expand, the Palestinian Authority’s role.

3. Israel and its U.S. backer cannot create a sustainable post-Hamas regional alliance or permanently stabilize Gaza while Netanyahu reigns as the prime minister of Israel.

Thomas L. Friedman is the foreign affairs Opinion columnist. He joined the paper in 1981 and has won three Pulitzer Prizes. He is the author of seven books, including “From Beirut to Jerusalem,” which won the National Book Award. @tomfriedman • Facebook

View this New York Times Report from November 28th