Matthew N. Lyon's Blog

Reading Adam Shatz on the war in Gaza

by Matthew N. Lyons
Three Way Fight

How do we forcefully make the case to defend the Palestinian people in Gaza against Israel’s increasingly genocidal assault, and also honor the conflict’s heartbreaking contradictions? This is a question I’ve been grappling with for the past month. Adam Shatz’s essay “Vengeful Pathologies” gets at the challenge better and more fully than anything else I’ve read so far. In this post I will use short excerpts from Shatz’s essay to highlight some of his key points, in many cases pairing them with links to related articles and other resources. (Unless otherwise indicated, all quotes below are from “Vengeful Pathologies,” which is archived here.)

Shatz spells out the systemic and massively greater violence Israel has imposed on Palestinians for generations, and he also refuses to sugar-coat the gruesome nature of Hamas’s October 7 attack, contextualizing both in the long, bitter history of colonialism and anti-colonialist resistance in Palestine and elsewhere. He recognizes how, for many Jews, October 7 touched deep-rooted fears of annihilation, and he underscores that Israel has long misrepresented its opponents (including Hamas) as Nazis in order to hide its own crimes and massive military power. He calls out the Biden administration’s active complicity in mass murder, the growing demonization of Palestinian solidarity, the surge in attacks on Arabs and Muslims in the US (including the murder of 6-year-old Wadea Al-Fayoume near Chicago), and he also calls out Hamas’s admirers among western leftists and those who misread Frantz Fanon to uncritically celebrate all anti-colonialist violence. Shatz’s approach to Hamas is to neither romanticize nor demonize it, but contextualize it as an Islamic nationalist organization that feeds on despair, that is unpopular among many Palestinians because of its authoritarian rule yet also has strong roots in Palestinian society and cannot be destroyed by military force.

See also:
Adam Shatz on Israelis, Palestinians, and Hamas” (Podcast)

Israel’s control over Gaza

“In the words of Amira Hass, an Israeli journalist who spent many years reporting from Gaza, ‘Gaza embodies the central contradiction of the state of Israel—democracy for some, dispossession for others; it is our exposed nerve.’ Israelis don’t say ‘go to hell’, they say ‘go to Gaza.’… After the conquest of Gaza in 1967, Ariel Sharon, then the general responsible for Israel’s southern command, oversaw the execution without trial of dozens of Palestinians suspected of involvement in resistance (it’s unclear how many died), and the demolition of thousands of homes: this was called ‘pacification’. In 2005, Sharon presided over ‘disengagement’: Israel withdrew eight thousand settlers from Gaza, but it remained essentially under Israeli control, and since Hamas was elected in 2006 it has been under blockade, which the Egyptian government helps enforce…. The people of Gaza—it’s not accurate to call them Gazans, since two-thirds of them are the children and grandchildren of refugees from other parts of Palestine—are effectively captives in a territory that has been amputated from the rest of their homeland.”

Of course, Gaza is just one region within Israel’s overall system of oppressive rule over Palestinians, a system that Amnesty International and even a former head of Mossad (among many others) have identified as apartheid.

See also:
Mohammad Matar, “The Settlers Can Do Whatever They Want With Us” (on anti-Palestinian violence on the West Bank)

Israel’s current mass killing in Gaza

“Israel’s disregard for Palestinian life has never been more callous or more flagrant, and it’s being fuelled by a discourse for which the adjective ‘genocidal’ no longer seems like hyperbole. In just the first six days of air strikes, Israel dropped more than six thousand bombs, and more than twice as many civilians have already died under bombardment as were killed on 7 October. These atrocities are not excesses or ‘collateral damage’: they occur by design. As Israel’s defence minister, Yoav Gallant, puts it, ‘we are fighting human animals and we will act accordingly.’… Since Hamas’s attack, the exterminationist rhetoric of the Israeli far right has reached a fever pitch and spread to the mainstream. ‘Zero Gazans,’ runs one Israeli slogan.”

Shatz’s essay was published on October 20. As of November 6, the IDF’s campaign in Gaza has killed over 10,000 people, including more than 4,000 children, and the numbers keep rising.

U.S. complicity

“In the days since the Hamas attack, the Biden administration has promoted policies of population transfer that could produce another Nakba. It has backed, for example, the ostensibly temporary relocation of millions of Palestinians to the Sinai so that Israel can continue its assault on Hamas….To aid its assault, Israel has received further weapons shipments from the US, which has also dispatched two aircraft carriers to the Eastern Mediterranean, as a warning to Hamas’s chief regional allies, Iran and Hizbullah…. On the CBS news programme Face the Nation, Jake Sullivan, the US national security adviser, defined ‘success’ in the war as ‘the long-term safety and security of the Jewish state and the Jewish people’, without any consideration of the safety and security—or the continuing statelessness—of the Palestinian people.” 

The United States’ continued military aid to Israel led State Department official Josh Paul to resign in protest on October 18. That same day, lawyers from the Center for Constitutional Rights issued a report arguing that Israel is attempting to commit or is committing genocide in Gaza and that the U.S. is legally complicit.

Exploiting the history of anti-Jewish violence

“That Jews, both in Israel and the diaspora, have sought explanations for their suffering in the history of antisemitic violence is only to be expected. Intergenerational trauma is as real among Jews as it is among Palestinians, and Hamas’s attack touched the rawest part of their psyche: their fear of annihilation. But memory can also be blinding. Jews long ago ceased to be the helpless pariahs, the internal ‘others’ of the West. The state that claims to speak in their name has one of the world’s most powerful armies – and a nuclear arsenal, the only one in the region. The atrocities of 7 October may be reminiscent of pogroms, but Israel is not the Pale of Settlement.”

Israel and its supporters have long used the legacy of Nazi genocide in Europe to get people to uncritically support the State of Israel and its policies. I wrote about this in 2014, during a previous Israeli war in Gaza, in a piece titled “Mythologizing the Holocaust.”

See also:
Natasha Roth-Rowland, “When ‘Never Again’ Becomes a War Cry

Suppression of Palestinian solidarity

“In Europe, expression of support for Palestinians has become taboo, and in some cases criminalised…. France has banned pro-Palestinian demonstrations, and the French police have used water cannon to disperse a rally in support of Gaza in the place de la République. The British home secretary, Suella Braverman, has floated plans to ban the display of the Palestinian flag. The German Chancellor, Olaf Scholz, declared that Germany’s ‘responsibility arising from the Holocaust’ obliged it to ‘stand up for the existence and security of the state of Israel’ and blamed all of Gaza’s suffering on Hamas.”

See also:
Céline Cantat, “We asked: How is the Suppression of Palestinian Solidarity Unfolding in France?
Ansar Jasim, “We asked: How is the Suppression of Palestinian Solidarity Unfolding in Germany?
Chris McGreal, “Pro-Palestinian views face suppression in US amid Israel-Hamas war

October 7 attack

“The motives behind Al-Aqsa Flood, as Hamas called its offensive, were hardly mysterious: to reassert the primacy of the Palestinian struggle at a time when it seemed to be falling off the agenda of the international community; to secure the release of political prisoners; to scuttle an Israeli-Saudi rapprochement; to further humiliate the impotent Palestinian Authority; to protest against the wave of settler violence in the West Bank, as well as the provocative visits of religious Jews and Israeli officials to the Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem; and, not least, to send a message to the Israelis that they are not invincible, that there is a price to pay for maintaining the status quo in Gaza. It achieved a grisly success… Never has Israel looked less like a sanctuary for the Jewish people.”

“The fighters of Hamas and Islamic Jihad—brigades of roughly 1500 commandos—killed more than a thousand civilians, including women, children and babies. It remains unclear why Hamas wasn’t satisfied after achieving its initial objectives. The first phase of Al-Aqsa Flood was classic—and legitimate—guerrilla warfare against an occupying power: fighters broke through the Gaza border and fence, and attacked military outposts…. The second phase, however, was very different. Joined by residents of Gaza, many of them leaving for the first time in their lives, Hamas’s fighters went on a killing spree. They turned the Tribe of Nova rave into a blood-drenched bacchanalia, another Bataclan. They hunted down families in their homes in kibbutzes. They executed not only Jews but Bedouins and immigrant workers…. As Vincent Lemire noted in Le Monde, it takes time to kill ‘civilians hidden in garages and parking lots or sheltering in safe rooms.’ The diligence and patience of Hamas’s fighters were chilling.”

Shatz has cautioned elsewhere that there’s a lot we still don’t know about October 7, such as the extent to which the attackers were following or not following orders. Some people have noted that the delineation between killing soldiers and killing civilians is blurred in a context where many soldiers are reservists and armed settlers function as a vigilante extension of the state. The Israeli newspaper Haaretz presented evidence suggesting that on October 7 some Israelis may have been mistakenly or recklessly killed by the IDF. But when all that is taken into account, Hamas’s October 7 attack remains an atrocity.

See also:
Gaza blockade: Hamas’s tragic attack a response to longterm and escalating, immediate violence
Israel/Palestine: Videos of Hamas-Led Attacks Verified

Romanticization of October 7

“And then there are Hamas’s admirers on the ‘decolonial’ left, many of them ensconced in universities in the West. Some of the decolonials… seem almost enthralled by Hamas’s violence and characterise it as a form of anti-colonial justice of the kind championed by Fanon in ‘On Violence’, the controversial first chapter of The Wretched of the Earth…. Others suggested that the young people at the Tribe of Nova festival deserved what they got, for having the chutzpah to throw a party a few miles from the Gaza border.”

“As the Palestinian writer Karim Kattan wrote in a moving essay for Le Monde, it seems to have become impossible for some of Palestine’s self-styled friends to ‘say: massacres like those that took place at the Tribe of Nova festival are an outrageous horror, and Israel is a ferocious colonial power.’ In an age of defeat and demobilisation, in which the most extreme voices have been amplified by social media, a cult of force appears to have overtaken parts of the left, and short-circuited any empathy for Israeli civilians.”

“But the radical left’s cult of force is less dangerous, because less consequential, than that of Israel and its backers, starting with the Biden administration.”

 See also:
Israeli Progressives Speak Out on War

Shatz’s conclusion

“The inescapable truth is that Israel cannot extinguish Palestinian resistance by violence, any more than the Palestinians can win an Algerian-style liberation war: Israeli Jews and Palestinian Arabs are stuck with each other, unless Israel, the far stronger party, drives the Palestinians into exile for good. The only thing that can save the people of Israel and Palestine, and prevent another Nakba – a real possibility, while another Holocaust remains a traumatic hallucination – is a political solution that recognises both as equal citizens, and allows them to live in peace and freedom, whether in a single democratic state, two states, or a federation. So long as this solution is avoided, a continuing degradation, and an even greater catastrophe, are all but guaranteed.”

Whether the catastrophe Shatz refers to can be avoided is unclear. What the State of Israel is doing–in Gaza, in the West Bank, and within its 1948 borders–is utterly appalling, and it’s unclear what kind of pressure, if any, can make them stop. But there’s some hope offered by the large and growing protests we’ve seen in the U.S. and many countries, the acts of mass civil disobedience, the workers refusing to load weapons onto ships. This is a moment when we need broad-based action to defend the people of Palestine against forced displacement and mass murder. And this is also a moment to go deeper, to try to understand the conflict’s complexities–not to weaken calls to action but, on the contrary, to ground them in historical understanding and acknowledgement of pain. As a proponent of three way fight politics I’m skeptical of simple “us-versus-them” models of socio-political conflict. As an anti-Zionist Jew I identify with the words offered by the group IfNotNow, which for the past month (and longer) has been one of the groups at the forefront of Palestine solidarity actions by American Jews:

“It seems like you have two choices: Justify the abduction and mass murder of Israelis by Hamas? Or ‘stand with’ the Israeli government’s starvation and vengeance on 2 million Palestinians, most of them children, caged in an open air prison? No….

“Both: Apartheid is an abomination. Every day it continues is a blight on the lives of millions, and a moral stain on the rest of us. And: Abducting children and murdering families is an atrocity. We fight for a future worth living in for everyone, not a parade of corpses.”

*          *          *

“Our pain is not your weapon. Our grief is not your excuse. Stop using Jewish pain to justify Israeli massacres of Palestinians. War crimes do not justify more war crimes. Revenge is not a strategy for safety for anyone.”

Photo credit

Solidarity protest for Palestine in London, 9 October 2023, photo by Alisdare Hickson (CC BY-SA 2.0 DEED), via Wikimedia Commons.

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