Podcast / Start Making Sense / Oct 26, 2023

Adam Shatz on Israelis, Palestinians, and Hamas

On this episode of the Start Making Sense podcast, The Nation’s former literary editor comments on the Israeli war underway in Gaza.

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Adam Shatz on Israelis, Palestinians, and Hamas | Start Making Sense with Jon Wiener
byThe Nation Magazine

In response to Hamas’s attack on Oct. 7, Adam Shatz says Israel’s disregard for Palestinian life has never been more callous or more flagrant. But Israel can’t extinguish Palestinian resistance by violence any more than the Palestinians can win an Algerian-style liberation war. 

The only thing that can save the people of Israel and Palestine is a political solution that recognizes both as equal citizens. Shatz is the former literary editor of The Nation and now US editor of the London Review of Books, where he wrote about Israel and Gaza.

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A group of Palestinians stands amid the rubble of a bombed building.

Palestinians look for survivors of the Israeli bombardment of Rafah, southern Gaza Strip, October 17, 2023.

(Hatem Ali / AP Photo)

In response to Hamas’s attack on October 7, Adam Shatz says Israel’s disregard for Palestinian life has never been more callous or more flagrant. But Israel can’t extinguish Palestinian resistance by violence any more than the Palestinians can win an Algerian-style liberation war.

The only thing that can save the people of Israel and Palestine is a political solution that recognizes both as equal citizens. Shatz is the former literary editor of The Nation and now US editor of the London Review of Books, where he wrote about Israel and Gaza.

The Nation Podcasts
The Nation Podcasts

Here's where to find podcasts from The Nation. Political talk without the boring parts, featuring the writers, activists and artists who shape the news, from a progressive perspective.

Our Failing President, and Our Right-Wing Court | Start Making Sense
byThe Nation Magazine

On this episode of Start Making Sense, John Nichols on Biden, and David Cole on the Court’s big 6-3 decisions. Biden’s efforts to renew his candidacy are “risk-averse, uninspired, and dangerously misguided” – that’s what John Nichols says, as we review the efforts to persuade him to drop out of the race.

Also: During the Supreme Court term that just ended, the conservative majority granted new constitutional rights to hedge fund managers, big business—and Donald Trump. David Cole explains the shocking decisions that have transformed our government.

Finally, Jane McAlevey died Sunday–she was The Nation's strikes correspondent, and one of our best.

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Jon Wiener: From The Nation magazine, this is Start Making Sense. I’m Jon Wiener. Today, Adam Shatz talks about Israelis and Gaza, Palestinians and Hamas, coming up in a minute.

[BREAK]

We need to talk more about Israel and Hamas, the Palestinians and Gaza. For that, we turn to Adam Shatz. He’s the US editor of the London Review of Books, and former literary editor of The Nation. He’s also written for The New York Times Magazine, The New York Review of Books, and The New Yorker. His book Writers and Missionaries: Essays on the Radical Imagination, was published in May. We talked about it here. His new book is on Frantz Fanon, it’s titled The Rebel’s Clinic. It will be out in January. And he has a big piece on Israel and Gaza out now at the LRB. We reached him today at Bard College. Adam, welcome back.

Adam Shatz: Thank you, Jon.

JW: We are speaking on Tuesday, October 24th. As of today, Israel has killed more than 5,700 Palestinians in Gaza, according to the Gaza Health Ministry; mostly civilians, including more than 2,300 children. The UN Humanitarian Office says 1.4 million people have now been internally displaced. That’s more than half of Gaza’s population. Meanwhile, in Israel, the toll from the Hamas attacks on October 7th has reached about 1,300 dead and at least 3,300 wounded. I think it’s 289 of the dead were soldiers, the rest, civilians. 222 hostages are being held right now in Gaza, Israelis, and some foreign nationals. Today, we are waiting for Israel’s invasion of Gaza, which of course will kill and injure lots more Palestinians.

You open your piece for the LRB with a report about life in the Gaza Strip now, interviews The New York Times Podcast did last week with two Palestinians, starting with a man in Rafah at the Egyptian border. He told her, “What’s happening here is not about Hamas at all.” What did he say it was about?

AS: He said that this is not about Hamas. He’s not a member of Hamas. He doesn’t have political sympathies with Hamas. He felt that it’s a war against the Palestinian people, and that their crime had been to be born Palestinian. And I think that is a very strong sentiment that runs among people in Gaza. We have to remember that Hamas is not particularly popular and has not been particularly popular in Gaza in recent years, in large part because of its authoritarian rule. And in fact, it’s often said, and this may be an exaggeration, but maybe not too great an exaggeration, that Hamas is more popular in the West Bank than it is in Gaza and the reverse is true for the Palestinian Authority.

And there has been a tendency to conflate Hamas and the people of Gaza, and to thereby justify Israel’s violence against ordinary Gazans. The New York Times ran a story a day or two ago in which the reporter estimated that at least 13 Hamas leaders had been killed in Gaza; 13—out of now over 5,000 dead.

JW: In your piece, you also quote the great Israeli journalist, Amira Hass, who’s been reporting on Palestinian life now for decades. What did she say about Gaza?

AS: Amira Hass wrote in her great book on Gaza, Drinking the Sea at Gaza, that “Gaza embodies the central contradiction of the state of IsraelL democracy for some, dispossession for others. It is our exposed nerve.” Israelis don’t say, “Go to hell.” They say, “Go to Gaza”—which tells you something about how the Gaza Strip is perceived in Israel.

JW: Let’s talk about Hamas for a minute. Hamas knew their attack on October 7th would provoke massive Israeli bombing of Gaza, and an Israeli ground invasion, and maybe sustained occupation. Hamas knows it can’t protect the people of Gaza from Israeli retaliation. So what is their strategy here? What were their motives on October 7th?

AS: Well, there are their motives and then there’s the strategy, and those obviously are two different things. And before I go on to talk about that, I just want to register that an event of this scale, I think, elicits as one’s first response, not even an attempt to explain or to assess motives, but a kind of mute horror, because this is a major war crime, a crime against humanity. To some people, to many observers, what Hamas did may seem inexplicable, or to use another adjective that has often been cited, unprovoked.

But Hamas’s motives are not very mysterious. They wanted to reassert the primacy of the Palestinian struggle at a time when it seemed to be falling off the agenda of the international community. They wanted to secure the release of the more than 5,000 Palestinian political prisoners in Israeli jails. They wanted to scuttle the rapprochement between Israel and Saudi Arabia, the so-called Abraham Accords. They wanted to humiliate Mahmoud Abbas and the Palestinian authority that he leads in the West Bank. They wanted to protest against settler violence in the West Bank, which has been particularly extreme under the Netanyahu government, which is headed by the settlers, zealots, and extremists. They wanted to protest the visits of religious Jews and Israeli officials to the Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem.

And I think they also wanted to send a message to the Israelis that the Israelis are not invincible, and that they have to pay a price for maintaining the status quo in Gaza. I suspect too, Jon, that provoking an Israeli response, a very fierce response, a potential ground invasion, may have figured in their strategy, because the likely result of that is to drive people even further into the hands of Hamas.

And also—I think this is something that I don’t think people have really considered—to make armed struggle the sole means by which Palestinians speak to and deal with Israelis. Because—it’s not particularly well understood in the West—but there are rich traditions of protest and civil disobedience among Palestinians. The first in Intifada from 1987 until 1991 was defined largely by nonviolent, unarmed civil disobedience. The second Intifada obviously was a violent one.

I think that Hamas wants to transform itself, wants to project itself rather as the sole legitimate authority of the Palestinian people and as the vanguard of an armed struggle.

JW: You note there were two distinct and radically different parts of the October 7th attack. First, the Hamas fighters broke through the Gaza border and fence and attacked military outposts, killed hundreds of Israeli soldiers, and took 250 more soldiers hostage. You call this “a classic and legitimate form of guerilla warfare against an occupying power.” And you distinguish sharply between that and the second phase of the Hamas attack, where Hamas fighters were joined by residents of Gaza on a killing spree, hunting down civilians on the kibbutzes near the border. Remind us about the difference between these and the horrors of the second part.

AS: Well, first of all, I want to underline, Jon, that I’m not saying that these are two strictly demarcated sequential phases—because for one thing we don’t know. And secondly, we also don’t know what the explicit orders were of the Hamas commanders. Was the mass carnage part of the plan that Hamas had developed over the last, what seemed to be the last two years, or was it some kind of deviation from the plan? Was it that the soldiers were not under strict orders, were undisciplined, and began rampaging along with, of course, other ordinary Gazans who had followed Hamas into Southern Israel?

We don’t know, and I think that it would not be right for me to suggest otherwise. But it does seem to me that there are distinctions to be drawn between launching a military operation that targets representatives of Israeli state power and the Israeli soldiers, and an operation that designates as its targets ordinary civilians, men, women, children, even babies, and to slaughter them in cold blood. And then of course as we know also to post videos of the killing on the social media sites of the families of victims.

This is something that is quite different, it seems to me, and deeply troubling. And of course, there is a possibility that this was calculated. We simply don’t know.

JW: We’ve been told that the initial Hamas attack on October 7th was “Israel’s 9/11.” That underestimates the impact. The percentage of the Israeli population killed that day is many times greater than 9/11. The methods of killing were far more personal and bloody. But the 9/11 comparison does work in a couple of ways. One is refusing to talk about the root cause of the attacks: in this case, the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories. Many Israelis and their supporters in the United States have a strange ability to simply forget about the occupation. But I doubt there are any Palestinians on the West Bank or in Gaza who can forget about the occupation.

AS: That’s true, Jon. To be a Palestinian is to remember the occupation every minute of your life. And Palestinians, of course, also remember the 1948 Nakba, the catastrophe. And it’s worth recalling here that we can’t really refer to “Gazans” because 2/3 of the people in Gaza are the children and grandchildren of people who were driven out of what is now Israel in 1948. The occupation was clearly one of the motivations behind this horrific assault. Because in recent years, Israel has been able to cobble together deals with a variety of Arab countries, Arab countries that are interested in Israel’s Pegasus technology, its surveillance systems, to monitor their own dissidents.

And Netanyahu, who’s always believed, who’s always insisted that Israel could transcend what he called the territorial dimension of the conflict, really thought that he was making the Palestinian issue disappear. And I would say that among all the motives for this attack, and there were many, perhaps the most important was to say, ‘no, we’re still here and there can be no peace in this region without us.’

JW: I’m sorry, but we need to pause for a break here. We’ll be back in a minute.

[BREAK]

In your LRB piece, you suggested that a closer parallel than 9/11 is the Algerian revolution. The FLN killed lots of French civilians who lived in Algeria, and f course eventually drove the French settlers back to mainland France, even though they’d been in Algeria for more than a century. There’s lessons here that are being studied by both Hamas and by the Israelis.

AS: Right. I mean, of course there are differences. The Israelis, unlike the French in Algeria, don’t have a homeland to go back to, so there are distinctions. And yet at the same time, Israel is a country that originated in colonial settlement and a country where waves of settlement have continued over the years—because Israel is not merely a state. It’s a movement of colonization of the entire territory of mandate Palestine.

The parallel that I was alluding to had to do with an uprising that took place in 1955, less than a year after the Algerian independence struggle began in a harbor town called Philippeville in Eastern Algeria. The FLN had found itself at an impasse that it was having a hard time breaking out of. Not unlike Hamas confined to Gaza in a 17-year siege, in a sense reduced to governance without being able to break out of its confines. And so the FLN decided to carry out a very bloody attack in which dozens of French people and also some Algerians were killed. And this massacre led the French to commit terrible atrocities afterward. About 12,000 Algerians were killed in the weeks after the Philippeville uprising.

And the result was to create a kind of river of blood that separated the two populations, and to drive even the most moderate Algerians into the hands of the FLN. It was the turning point in that war.

JW: In the debate that’s been going on, each side accuses the other of Nazi-like atrocities. Of course, that’s a very powerful image in the history of the Jewish people. What do you make of the current charges being hurled back and forth?

AS: Well, first of all, on an emotional level, Jon, it’s understandable that Jews have reached out for Holocaust and pogrom analogies in order to understand the October 7 attacks, even if these analogies are not perhaps the most instructive for understanding of what has transpired, as obscene as it is. And it’s understandable too that Palestinians suffering these horrendous levels of violence in Gaza would see their oppressors as Nazis. I don’t judge this behavior because these are people caught in an absolutely horrible situation.

But I’ve always been very wary of introducing analogies to Nazism and the Holocaust when discussing this issue for a number of reasons. First, the Israelis have shamelessly instrumentalized the Holocaust in defense of inhumane and brutal policies of expulsion, land confiscation, and of course, this occupation, which is now over 50 years old. And faced with Israel’s abuse of the Holocaust and with the suggestion that their own suffering can never measure up to Jewish suffering in the Second World War, Palestinians have responded either by calling the Israelis “Nazis,” or by denying that the Holocaust ever happened and that it’s just Zionist propaganda.

Now, this is not an intellectual argument. This is just verbal warfare. And the Nazification of the enemy, whether it’s by the much more powerful party, the Israelis, or by the weaker party, the Palestinians, has prevented both of them from understanding something that Edward Said constantly emphasized, which is that the Palestinians are victims of victims. I think that this insight of Said is not just a moral one, it’s also a political one. Because people who think of themselves as history’s victims and who are determined never again to be victims are capable of resorting to the most extreme and even genocidal forms of violence.

As we saw with the Serbs in Bosnia, as we’re now seeing with the Israelis in Gaza, the attack on October 7th stirred the deepest fear in the Israeli Jewish psyche, the fear of annihilation. Just listen to the language of people like Israel’s defense minister Yoav Gallant, who describes Palestinians as human animals. Another Israeli official said the objective here is to inflict damage on Gaza. And they’ve inflicted quite a lot of it. So I’m afraid to say that the campaign that Israel is conducting now in Gaza, 5,000 people killed, 2,000 children, is forcing me to reassess my own resistance to the use of the term genocide.

It seems to me there’s been a progression in Israel’s posture towards the Palestinians, especially those in Gaza, from expulsion to discrimination, oppression, occupation, and now to levels of violence that remind us of Russia in Grozny or episodes in the Second World War. Israel’s objective may still be what Baruch Kimmerling, an Israeli sociologist, called politicide, the elimination of the Palestinian people as a political entity. But it’s moved very rapidly since October seven to something closer to ethnocide.

It’s a horrific development for the Palestinian people who are suffering unimaginably, but it’s also a tragic chapter in the history of the Jewish people and their transformation from victims to perpetrators. Israel is running a great risk by building its security on the ruins of Gaza, and I fear that Jews abroad could be placed at grave risk by what Israel’s doing.

JW: We also need to talk about American policy, which of course means Joe Biden. You are very critical of Biden’s policy in your LRB piece. On the other hand, Biden in his Oval Office primetime speech said I think three really important things.

He said, first, the US “remains committed to the Palestinian people’s right to dignity and to self-determination. The actions of Hamas terrorists don’t take that right away.”

And second, he emphasized to Netanyahu “the critical need for Israel to operate by the laws of war. That means protecting civilians in combat as best they can.”

And third, he told Bibi that “the people of Gaza urgently need food, water, and medicine.” That’s pretty much what I hoped he would say.

AS: Right. I mean, he said some of the right things in these quotes that you just cited. But what kind of pressure is being applied? I mean, I see them dispatching aircraft carriers and preventing their diplomats from using language like ceasefire or reducing the harm to civilian lives and so on. And there was also a State Department official who oversaw the arms transfers to Israel, who recently resigned and published a very eloquent letter denouncing the policy and said he could no longer work for the government.

So I see yet another stark contrast between these very reassuring words about the US’s ultimate intentions with respect to a Palestinian state, and it’s all too indulgent policy of permitting Israel to rain what is essentially state terror on the Gazan people. I mean, one hopes the Gazan people will survive to see such a state when you observe the kind of combat tactics that Israel is currently using.

Jake Sullivan, the US national security adviser, was quoted as saying that “the administration defined the success of the war as ensuring the security of the Jewish people.” What about the Palestinians? Don’t they deserve security as well? It seems that that’s not a consideration of ours.

I should add by the way that Biden has also discouraged the Israelis from opening a second front and attacking Hezbollah in Lebanon, which could gravely escalate the conflict and draw Iran in. But the Israeli military, which seems even more emboldened than Netanyahu himself, and remember, Netanyahu has historically been very reticent about getting involved in ground defenses. The Israeli military appears to be pushing ahead with that. The tensions on the border, on the Israeli-Lebanese border, have increased, and there is a possibility that if the ground invasion of Gaza begins, then Hassan Nasrallah, the Hezbollah Secretary General, who’s been quite cautious so far, only attacking symbolically, really, the Shebaa Farms—may feel that he has no choice but to enter the battle. And that’s a very scary thought.

JW: And one last thing. Suppose Israel succeeds at its proclaimed goals of killing the leaders of Hamas and lots of its fighters. Will that be the end of the organization?

AS: I doubt that very much. Hamas has a political leadership outside the country. Much of it is in Qatar. Hamas is an organization that does not represent the majority of Palestinians, but it is an important part of Palestinian political society, and I do not think that it can be eliminated by force of arms. I think that’s a fantasy. I mean, we may not like Hamas, whether it’s for attacks like October 7 or its views about gender and homosexuality or its religious intolerance. But the reality is that Hamas has deep roots in the society and its influence has been abetted, I’m afraid, by the Israelis.

Hamas has been the enemy that it wants, to prevent the emergence of a Palestinian state and to weaken the Palestinian Authority, and Netanyahu has been very clear about that. As recently as 2019, he said that his policy was to strengthen Hamas, and at the same time, Hamas has been a kind of ally. As long as Hamas is there in Gaza, the Israelis can say “We have no partner for peace.” Now, obviously, that delicate—and what we now see as a lethal—dance with Hamas, that’s over. The Israelis are not interested in shoring up Hamas. They’re interested in liquidating it.

But I think it’s an utter fantasy. And even if Hamas were to be vanquished, it would reappear either under the name Hamas or under a different name. Or it might be succeeded by an even more radical organization. I mean, it’s kind of a miracle, given the extreme suffering to which the people of Gaza have been subjected for so many years, that more radical forms of political Islam haven’t taken root there. There has not really been all that much of an ISIS problem in the Gaza Strip. There have been a scattering of radical Islamists, but very few. That too could change.

JW: Your final thoughts today?

AS: My final thought, Jon, is that the only thing that can really rescue the people of both Israel and Palestine, Israeli Jews and Palestinian Arabs, and of course also Palestinian citizens of Israel, and prevent another Nakba, the great dispossession and displacement of Palestinians that occurred in 1948, is a political solution that recognizes all of the inhabitants of Israel-Palestine as equal citizens, and allows them to live in peace and freedom—no matter the framework, whether it’s a single democratic state, or two states, or a federation. And so long as that solution is avoided, we will see a continuing degradation—and possibly a greater catastrophe.

JW: Adam Shatz—he wrote about Israel and Palestine, Hamas and Gaza for the London Review of Books. Adam, thanks for your work on this, and thanks for talking with us today.

AS: Thank you, Jon.

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Dave Zirin is the sports editor at The Nation. He is the author of 11 books on the politics of sports. He is also the coproducer and writer of the new documentary Behind the Shield: The Power and Politics of the NFL.

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