On Solidarity and War Crimes
Over the past 75 years Israel has created a Jewish supremacist state whose response to any Palestinian resistance — from non-violent demonstrations to armed actions — has been unmitigated violence. This is the context within which Hamas’ brutal attack on October 7 unfolded. And true to form, Israel is responding to Hamas’ attack with unimaginable violence, not against Hamas, but against the people of Gaza.
Hamas’ slaughter of 1,300 Israeli civilians, wounding of 3,621 more, and kidnapping of more than 130 was a war crime, which occurred in the context of Israel’s ethnic cleansing of Palestinians but cannot be excused by it. Killing civilians is wrong. Kidnapping, assaulting, and torturing civilians is wrong. Killing and kidnapping children and babies is wrong. Killing any child anywhere, any time, for any reason, by anyone, is morally repugnant and criminal.
Israel does all of these things to Palestinian civilians. Between 2000 and 2022, Israel killed more than 10,000 Palestinians, including 2,300 children, more than 500 of whom were 8 years old or younger. This is ethnic cleansing. This is genocide. This is a war crime.
To say that Hamas’ attack was a war crime does not excuse or divert attention from Israel’s history of war crimes, or equate what Hamas did with what Israel has been doing for 75 years. Hamas’ war crime stands on its own and must be judged on its own. Israel is fundamentally and historically — but not solely — responsible for the unending violence in Israel-Palestine, and Hamas committed a war crime; Palestinian civilians are the primary victims of Israel’s unending violence, and killing Israeli civilians is wrong.
In Mondoweiss, Zubayr Alikhan wrote that Hamas’ attack was
targeting and capturing countless colonial settlers, in uniform and plain-clothes… those targeted were, are, colonizers, settlers, the primary agents, actors, impellers of the colonization and genocide of Palestine… [T]he resistance targets colonial settlements, established atop ethnically cleansed and razed Palestinian villages; it targets colonial settlers that live in stolen Palestinian houses, on stolen Palestinian land, urinate on our corpses and dance on our graves… a colonizer is a colonizer, in uniform or out.
Israelis live on stolen Palestinian land. Because they live on stolen land, they are settlers. This applies not only to Israelis living in West Bank settlements, but also to Israelis living in Tel Aviv, Bethlehem, and Sderot. That fact alone does not make all Israelis “the primary agents, actors, impellers of the colonization and genocide of Palestine.” The primary agents of colonization and genocide are institutions such as the Jewish National Fund, which owns much of the stolen land; corporations and banks (foreign and domestic) that profit from the occupation, from the extraction of natural resources, and from the captive Palestinian economy; the military-industrial complex (foreign and domestic), which provides the weapons and enforces the project; the political class, which administers the project; the Israel lobby (Zionist organizations, Israeli government hasbara operations, think tanks, billion-dollar donor networks, etc.); and the U.S. and other governments that provide military, diplomatic, political, and economic support for the project.
Non-indigenous people in this country are settlers because we live on land stolen from native peoples. That is a contingent fact of history. Capitalism turned stolen land into a commodity for profit and working people have no choice but to live on it. The 23.7 million people who work for federal, state, and local governments are not the primary agents of U.S. imperialism. Neither are the striking UAW workers, or the 110,000 immigrants living in shelters in New York City, or the 400 members of the Los Angeles Children’s Chorus.
To “target” civilians simply because they live on stolen land, is to substitute demography and geography for political analysis.
William Shoki and Bruce Baigrie put it well:
The notion that true solidarity means refraining from opining on the methods and tactics of resistance employed by an oppressed group is ridiculous and ahistorical. To treat solidarity as a posture of complete deference to an oppressed group is lazy and dehumanizing, robbing that group of agency and complexity. In this context, it is ironically orientalist. Palestinians are by no means compelled to take heed of what outsiders say, but they are no monolithic hivemind. Unwavering solidarity with the Palestinian people can be complemented with deeper support for specific political formations (and implicit rejection of others).
The Palestinian people have the right to resist their oppressors, including by violent means. “Palestinians have the right to self-defense,” Noura Erakat said, “and to use force to resist settler colonial occupation—not an unqualified right, but a right nonetheless.”
Hamas is an Islamist group that has routinely used and is still using controversial and unsavoury methods to further its agenda. But like other anti-colonial movements that employed questionable methods, it is first and foremost, a nationalist movement that long condemned al-Qaeda and ISIL, and never staged an attack outside historical Palestine. Unlike al-Qaeda, Hamas has won a majority in parliament in Gaza’s last legislative elections in 2006, and — after surviving an American orchestrated coup — it has acted as the de facto government of the besieged strip.
The Palestinian people have the right to self-determination, which the United Nations defines as the “right of people to determine, with no compulsion or coercion, their own future, political status and independence.” That right is inherent, and nothing that individual Palestinians or groups of Palestinians do can justify denying that right to the Palestinian people. Just as nothing that Israelis or groups of Israelis do can justify denying that right to the Israeli people.
But saying that both peoples have the right to self-determination is not enough, because Israelis have that right and Palestinians do not. Zionism’s concept of the Jewish state is predicated on the belief that Israeli self-determination requires denying Palestinians that right, that Jews can be safe only by making Palestinians unsafe. In the words of Israel’s 2018 Basic Law: “The right to exercise national self-determination in the State of Israel is unique to the Jewish people.”
Israel was brutalizing Palestinians before Hamas was formed in the late 1980s — from the Nakba in 1948 through the military occupation of the West Bank, Gaza, and East Jerusalem in 1967 — and continuing through the siege of Gaza since 2006, when Hamas came to power. In an article analyzing current events in Israel-Palestine, Haidar Eid quoted Paulo Freire:
With the establishment of a relationship of oppression, violence has already begun. Never in history has violence been initiated by the oppressed. How could they be the initiators, if they themselves are the result of violence? … There would be no oppressed had there been no prior situation of violence to establish their subjugation. Violence is initiated by those who oppress, who exploit, who fail to recognize others as people — not by those who are oppressed, exploited, and unrecognized.
Nothing that Hamas does can justify Israel’s violence against the Palestinian people. “Israel and her allies have to find a way to crush Hamas — and to make peace with the Palestinians,” wrote Jewish Forward editor-in-chief Jodi Rudoren. And she is getting her wish — at least the crushing part. Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant ordered “a full siege on the Gaza Strip. No power, no food, no gas, everything is closed. We are fighting human animals and we act accordingly.” Israel has been bombing Gaza continuously since shortly after the Hamas attack, including with the use of white phosphorus weapons. As of October 14, Israel had killed 2,228 Palestinians in Gaza and wounded 8,744. Entire families are being obliterated. With the threat of invasion by Israel, tens of thousands of Palestinians are trying to flee northern Gaza to find refuge in southern Gaza, on top of the 423,378 whom Israel had displaced by October 12.
Apparently, that carnage is not enough. “Hamas wanted a change and it will get one. What was in Gaza will no longer be,” Gallant said, “We started the offensive from the air, later on we will also come from the ground. We've been controlling the area since Day 2 and we are on the offensive. It will only intensify.”
According to Gideon Sa’ar, a minister in Israel’s war cabinet, Gaza “must be smaller at the end of the war. We must make the end of our campaign clear to everyone around us. Whoever starts a war against Israel must lose territory.”
From Israeli President Isaac Herzog: “It’s an entire nation out there that is responsible. This rhetoric about civilians were not aware, were not involved — it’s absolutely not true. They could have risen up, they could have fought against that evil regime.” There are no innocent people in Gaza.
This is Israeli officials saying clearly that their intention is genocide and ethnic cleansing. And Joe Biden and the West are cheering them on.
In a military invasion of Gaza, Israel will kill thousands of Palestinians, wound untold thousands more, displace hundreds of thousands, and destroy what is left of Gaza’s fragile infrastructure. Collective punishment of Gaza’s 2.4 million people in the name of revenge.
President Biden says Israel has the right to defend itself. How is Israel defending itself by depriving 2 million people of electricity, water, food, and fuel? How is Israel defending itself by killing and wounding thousands of Palestinians who had nothing to do with Hamas’ attack? How is Israel defending itself by exploding white phosphorus shells over Gaza City? And why don’t the Palestinians have a right to defend themselves?
And what happens after? How would the extermination of Palestinians and the devastation of Gaza make Palestinians more receptive to peace? As Palestinians have made clear for the past 75 years, Israel’s violence will not deter Palestinian resistance because an oppressed people will never abide their oppression. If Israel “crushes” Hamas, Palestinians will create another mechanism of resistance. Israel can’t choose its enemies among the Palestinian people, it can only create them.
If Hamas had infiltrated Israel and only attacked Israeli military targets and killed, wounded, and captured only Israeli soldiers, Israel would still bomb Gaza. If Hamas had infiltrated Israel and only attacked Israeli military targets and not killed, wounded, or captured Israeli soldiers, Israel would still bomb Gaza. If Hamas had infiltrated Israel, attacked Israeli military targets and killed, wounded and captured Israeli soldiers, and infiltrated Israeli towns but not attacked civilians, Israel would still bomb Gaza. If Hamas had infiltrated Israel and killed one Israeli civilian, Israel would still bomb Gaza. Under any possible scenario of Hamas’ attack, Israel would still bomb Gaza, because Hamas did the unforgivable — it brought the fight into Israel; it shattered Israelis’ sense of immunity, their belief that what their state is doing to Palestinians is not their problem.
Israel subjects Palestinians to the daily physical, emotional, psychological, and economic violence of military occupation and siege, punctuated by episodes of concentrated, horrific violence, especially in Gaza. Palestinian lives don’t matter. Defense Minister Gallant called Hamas fighters “human animals,” but Israel treats all Palestinians as such.
Until last weekend, Israel thought that it could keep a lid on Palestinian resistance by “mowing the lawn” when necessary. Hamas’ brutal assault changed that calculus. As Haidar Eid pointed out, Hamas “dared to do the ‘unthinkable,’ i.e., return, not as visitors granted permission by the coloniser but as liberators upholding their right to their ancestral land.”
To those who rejoice at or dismiss the murder of Israeli and Palestinian civilians, I say: We have to have hearts big enough to hold all of the suffering, and minds clear enough to understand how to make the suffering stop. To those filled with rage and despair in this moment, and especially to my Jewish brothers and sisters, I offer this prayer by Rabbi Alissa Wise.
May the One Who Remembers allow us to hold in one hand 75 years of occupation, dispossession and violence, and in the other a future of peace, justice and freedom;
May the One Who is Slow to Anger soften our hearts and our fists, helping us to put down the sword even at the height of the arc of our rage;
May the One of Possibility remind us that a future of peace with justice is possible;
May the One Who Awakens Us to Life hold us in our pain and vindictiveness until we set those down for the sake of life;
May the One Who Endures allow us to act for the sake of the coming generations;
May the One Who is Without Limit expand our senses of what is possible as we reach for justice, freedom and peace for us all.