[Follow-up from “Opinion — When Hamas seeks martyrdom” by Michael Bilow on October 7th, 2023.]
The situation in the Middle East has the United States itself on the brink of war. One critical aspect of World War I that is not widely understood is that, although historians traditionally date the start of the war to the assassination of Franz Ferdinand on June 28, 1914, it took months for most of the combatants to realize they were in a war.
My view is that the world is again in a status of cold war, this time between the United States and China, with subsidiary players, especially Russia and Iran, lining up on each side. Just as in Cold War I, there are occasional flashes of hot war, where the Russian invasion of Ukraine is substantially analogous to the Korean War.
Iran sees the United States as an implacable enemy: they call us the “Great Satan” and they mean that absolutely literally, in the sense that the West is a force of evil working against God, and that much of the world including the European Union and Israel are puppets of the United States in that effort. To that end, Iran operates and funds proxy forces throughout the world, especially Hiz-b-Allah (“Party of God”) in Lebanon.
Islamism is a political ideology that claims a basis in the religion of Islam, but it is not itself a religion and it is important to understand that the vast majority of the 1.6 billion followers of Islam are not Islamists. The best estimate is that about 15% agree with the tenets of Islamism, which is a supremacist faction that believes Islam is the one true religion and it should be imposed by force on the entire world, with the population of the earth given the choice of conversion or death. Most majority Islamic nations regard Islamism as an existential threat, and many nations outlaw it and imprison the leaders of Islamist organizations.
The root Islamist group is the Muslim Brotherhood, founded in Egypt in 1928 but of little significance until after the creation of the State of Israel in 1948, which was seen as a direct challenge and threat to their goal of Islamic supremacy. The Muslim Brotherhood established what are effectively local chapters throughout the Middle East and Hamas, founded in 1987, is their Palestinian Arab chapter. Probably the most notorious act of the Muslim Brotherhood was the assassination of Egyptian President Anwar Sadat in 1981 for what, in their view, was the capital crime of signing a peace treaty with Israel in 1979, pursuant to the Camp David accords in 1978.
Iran is of enormous geopolitical significance because it is the only sovereign nation with an Islamist government. While there are Islamist sympathizers running other countries such as Turkey, Iran is constitutionally an Islamist theocracy. After the democratically elected prime minister, Mohammad Mosaddegh, nationalized the oil industry that had been under British ownership and introduced other social reforms, the American CIA and the British MI6 engineered a coup in 1953 that deposed him and put the former monarch (“shah”) back on the throne. The shah ruled autocratically and made himself extremely unpopular, and pro-democracy advocates chose a figurehead, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, in a popular revolution that succeeded in 1979. (“Ayatollah” is an honorific for a senior religious cleric in Iranian Shia Islam.) Khomeini’s Islamist and anti-democratic views were well known and he managed to politically outmaneuver the pro-democracy advocates to become what the new constitution of the “Islamic Republic of Iran” called the “Supreme Leader.” Iran is not a dictatorship: although the Supreme Leader theoretically has final say over everything the government does, he rarely personally intervenes and there is a functioning parliament (“majlis”) that has members representing a variety of views and perspectives. While there is a requirement to be vetted by religious authorities in order to even run as a candidate, there is some range of differing views that are tolerated within the scope of Islamist clerics. This tends to prevent Iran from doing anything really truly and terribly stupid.
Iran currently faces a number of major crises. Huge protests followed the death of Mahsa Amini, a young woman arrested by the religious police who accused her of improperly covering her hair as required by laws about feminine modesty. She subsequently died in police custody in Sep 2022. The main driver for these protests is the demographic balance of Iran: of its 87 million people, 74% were not yet born by the time of the 1979 revolution and 24% are age 14 or younger. The government of Iran is in the hands of geriatric clerics whose conservative religious outlook is increasingly out of sync with the people, and those clerics are increasingly willing to do anything in their desperate quest to hang onto power: More than 500 people peacefully protesting the death of Mahsa Amini were killed by the police, including about 10% – 15% under age 18. Rather than permit women to be in public with their hair uncovered, the regime of geriatric clerics is willing to shoot down teenage girls in the street.
The whole reason President Biden recently visited Tel Aviv and sent two aircraft carrier strike groups to the vicinity of Israel is to deter Iran and its proxies from getting involved in the Hamas war. Iran participated in at least a year of planning for the terrorist attacks by Hamas that killed 1,300 in Israel — wsj.com/world/middle-east/iran-israel-hamas-strike-planning-bbe07b25 — supplying money and weapons including missiles, and giving the green light to the operation. The awe-inspring military capability of two American aircraft carrier strike groups is enough to level Iran, and Iran knows it. The entire US Navy only needs 11 carrier strike groups to defend the entire world, so that gives some sense of the power that will be sitting in the Mediterranean Sea and the Persian Gulf.
Lebanese Hiz-b-Allah has threatened that if Israel conducts a widely expected ground invasion of Gaza, then it would attack Israel from the north using its massive inventory of missiles. This is a serious threat: Unlike Hamas, which had about 10,000 missiles, almost all makeshift metal tubes that are stuffed with explosives at one end and rocket propellant at the other end, making them short-range, unguided terror weapons, Hiz-b-Allah has an estimated 100,000–150,000 missiles, mostly higher quality guided weapons made in and supplied by Iran. (Iran is a major weapons producer and has a thriving export business to Russia and other customers.) If Hiz-b-Allah makes good on its threat, the only possible military response would be for Israel to pretty much obliterate southern Lebanon, which is what happened the last time Hiz-b-Allah tried it in 2006; the head of Hiz-b-Allah famously said in an interview that if he had known what the Israeli response would be then he would never have provoked it.
Israel is not willing to accept the possible tens of thousands of casualties to both soldiers and civilians that would result from a full-scale war with Lebanese Hiz-b-Allah, and their strategy may be to strike directly at Iran in order to force them to call off their proxy. The enormous danger here is that these minor players on the global stage, Hamas and Hiz-b-Allah, could set off a conflagration they do not intend as happened in World War I, and the hope to avert such a regional war between Israel and Iran is that cooler heads will prevail. While Hamas is suicidal, Hiz-b-Allah is less so and Iran is not at all. Nevertheless, the possibility cannot be ruled out that Israel and Iran will become directly engaged in war, and that may force the involvement of the United States; the worst case scenario, which is actually shockingly plausible, is World War III.
There is no such thing as “Palestinian history” because (as explained in my article “The Indigenous People of Israel: Zionism is reclamation and return, not colonialism“) the term “Palestine” was originally coined by the ancient Roman Empire after the suppression of the Jewish revolt and the sack of Jerusalem in 70 CE, replacing “Judea” which literally means “place of the Jews.” The term fell into disuse until the Zionist movement revived it in the 1890s, and then it was exclusively used by the Zionists through the Balfour Declaration in 1917 and the League of Nations Mandate for Palestine intended to carry out the Zionist project. Through the interwar period, the Arabs denied there was any such place as “Palestine,” insisting that the land was instead southern Syria and the Arabs living there were simply Arabs.
Only in 1948 when Israel declared itself a state pursuant to the UN General Assembly partition plan in 1947, after the Arab armies attacked and invaded Israel in an attempt to exterminate it and its people, did a refugee crisis ensue where Arabs fled in a mass movement into Jordan and Egypt. The Arabs who stayed behind in what is now Israel became citizens of the new country, but those who fled did not. (About 25% of the Israeli population now is not Jewish.) Such transfers of population are common as a result of wars: Similar things happened dozens of times following World War I. The independence of India from Britain, also in 1948, resulted in a partition into Hindu-majority India and Muslim-majority Pakistan and Bangladesh, with millions of people crossing the borders to reside where their religion was the majority.
Uniquely, the Arab refugees from the 1948 Arab-Israeli war were treated by the Arab nations as permanent refugees in order to maintain the contention — to this day — that Israel would soon be destroyed and the refugees could then move back into an Arab state that would replace Israel. Unlike any other refugees, the Arab states used them as pawns: Rather than allowing them to become citizens or even legal residents of the states in which they were given refuge, the children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren without end are all treated as refugees by the Arabs. The identity of “Palestinian Arabs” dates only to the 1948 war: As noted, the Arab nations denied the existence of such a people prior to that.
But the refugees from Israel proper in 1948 were mostly living in Gaza and the West Bank, which were Egyptian and Jordanian respectively, and no Arab nation so much as suggested creating a Palestinian Arab state in those territories but maintained the fantasy that they were temporarily awaiting the destruction of Israel. The next major development was the Six-Day War in 1967 when a number of Arab nations, including Egypt, Jordan, and Syria, combined to mass military forces on the Israeli border to crush it out of existence. Things went so badly for the Arabs in that war that Egypt lost the Gaza Strip and the entire Sinai Desert, while Jordan lost the West Bank including the old city of Jerusalem. With the acquisition of these territories, the Palestinian Arab refugee problem, which had been created by the Arab League to exploit the refugees in their denial of recognition to Israel, became an Israeli problem. The Arab League adopted the Khartoum Resolution: no recognition of Israel’s right to exist, no negotiations with Israel, no peace with Israel. This guaranteed that the Palestinian Arabs would be totally screwed, which was the Arab League intent.
There is no “Palestinian Arab history” before 1948 because the entire ethnic identity is a creation and result of the war that year.
It is beyond dispute that the Palestinian Arabs have been historically screwed-over, but it is important to examine why and by whom. The unwillingness of the Arab nations to tolerate the existence of a Jewish state in 1948 is the fundamental cause of the current situation, because they pretended that Israel would soon be destroyed and replaced by a Muslim-majority state. Now 75 years later, there are cracks in that position, with peace treaties signed by Egypt (1979), Jordan (1994), and the Abraham Accords with the UAE, Bahrain, Morocco, and Sudan (2020). There were highly credible rumors that Saudi Arabia was about to join, which would have been influential as it is the pre-eminent Islamic nation, the guardian of Mecca and Medina. All of these nations view Islamism and Iran as enemies and threats, especially Saudi Arabia.
Just as Hamas is the Palestinian Arab chapter of the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood, many of these nations are plagued by their own local Islamist groups: Boko Haram in Nigeria and Morocco, al-Shabaab in Somalia and Sudan, al-Qaeda and the Taliban in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and so on. All such groups have ties to Iran, the only Islamist sovereign nation.
The Arab nations have never viewed Israel as a threat, but as an embarrassment: They all give lip service to the interests of the Palestinian Arabs, but have never lifted a finger to do anything for them and care only to exploit them as political pawns. As the Arab nations sign peace treaties with Israel, even the usefulness of the Palestinian Arabs as political pawns disappears, and they become a geopolitical irrelevancy. If Saudi Arabia signed a peace treaty with Israel, that could be the death knell for the Palestinian Arab cause.
Between 1948 and 1967, when Gaza was Egyptian and the West Bank was Jordanian, there was no talk of establishing a Palestinian Arab state in those areas, and instead all of the Arab rhetoric was about destroying and replacing the State of Israel, thereby solving the permanent refugee crisis. Only after 1967 when Israel acquired control of these territories and the reality of its existence as a nation began to sink in, did anyone start to think about such a possibility.
In 1970, the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) tried a violent overthrow of the government of Jordan after they were promised military backing from neighboring Syria with the endorsement of the Soviet Union. That led to an international crisis, Jordan asking for help from the United States which directed them to ask for help from Israel. The diplomatic efforts of the United States with the Soviet Union caused Syria to renege on the promise to help the PLO, with the result that the PLO were so soundly defeated on the battlefield that they were kicked out of Jordan and had to flee all the way to Tunisia. This was certainly a main reason why Egypt, getting back the entire Sinai Desert in the 1979 peace treaty with Israel, declined to accept the contiguous Gaza Strip because they were worried the Palestinian Arabs there would try in Egypt what they did in Jordan. Similarly, Jordan was not interested in the return of the West Bank, fearing that the large contingent of Palestinian Arabs there would lead to a repeat of the 1970 overthrow attempt. In other words, Egypt and Jordan decided it would be in their interest to stick the Israelis with the Palestinian Arab refugee problem when they signed peace treaties.
Almost everyone acknowledged that the situation was untenable and unstable, and that led to a largely spontaneous popular uprising among the Palestinian Arabs starting in 1987 that became known as the “First Intifada” that until it ended in 1983 resulted in about 200 Israeli and 1,200 Palestinian Arab deaths. After winning the first Gulf War in 1991, President George H.W. Bush, one of the most experienced American presidents in foreign policy, proposed a realignment of the Middle East that would include solving the Palestinian Arab refugee issue. That led to the multiparty Madrid Conference in 1991, co-sponsored by the United States and the Soviet Union, attended by Israel, Jordan, Lebanon, and Syria, and with a non-state delegation representing the Palestinian Arabs. This was followed by a series of bilateral negotiations between the parties, but eventually led to the back-channel negotiations that resulted in the Oslo Accords in 1993–1995.
This turned out to be the high point of the peace process, and nearly everyone (including me) was optimistic that the emergence of a Palestinian Arab state that would live in peaceful co-existence with Israel looked inevitable. The main effect of the Oslo Accords was that the PLO recognized the legitimacy of the State of Israel, formally abandoning the expectation that it would be replaced, and Israel recognized the PLO as “the sole, legitimate representative of the Palestinian people.” A major part of the Oslo Accords was the creation of the Palestinian Authority (PA), effectively a government-in-waiting for the eventual Palestinian Arab state, that in the meantime would have substantial control over the West Bank and Gaza. The Oslo Accords were and still are the only agreement ever signed by Israel, the PLO, and the US.
There were objections to the Oslo Accords from the extremists on both sides. In Israel, the religious right viewed the ceding of the West Bank, which they regarded as the biblically promised “Judea and Samaria,” to be a breach of sacred duty. Yitzhak Rabin, a military hero and the prime minister who negotiated and signed the Oslo Accords on behalf of Israel, was assassinated in 1995 by a right-wing Jewish religious extremist, shocking both Israelis and Arabs.
On the Arab side, the objections to the Oslo Accords came primarily from Islamists who viewed any tolerance for the existence of a Jewish state as religiously forbidden. (The PLO is a secular organization largely founded under the auspices of Soviet Marxist influence.) Nevertheless, the PA began operations and in co-operation with Israel began collecting taxes, hiring a civil service, and doing all of the basic activities of governance.
The culmination of the Oslo process was supposed to be the Camp David summit in 2000 where the US, Israel, and the PLO/PA were expected to work out the final terms for a Palestinian Arab state. Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak put an offer on the table that would turn out to be the best offer the Palestinian Arabs would ever receive: a Palestinian Arab state comprising 100% of Gaza and 92% of the West Bank. Yasser Arafat, the chairman of the PLO, rejected that offer for reasons that are still debated. The unexpected collapse of the talks led to grave disappointment all around and mutual recriminations in public. In turn, the diplomatic failure led to the Second Intifada, this time much less a popular uprising than a cynical effort by Arafat to exert political leverage. The Second Intifada 2000 – 2005 resulted in the death of more than 1,000 Israelis (about 75% civilians) and more than 3,000 Palestinian Arabs, effectively destroying the peace process.
In 2005, hoping in part to end the Second Intifada, Israel unilaterally withdrew 20,000 soldiers and 8,500 civilians from Gaza, leaving it as an experiment in self-governance by the PA. Palestinian Arab elections in 2006 resulted in a shock victory of Hamas over Fatah, the main component of the PLO. Because Hamas is regarded as an Islamist terrorist organization by Israel, the United States, and the European Union, seating the newly elected Palestinian Arab officials would have cut off the PA from funds and diplomatic contact. In 2007, the simmering civil war between Palestinian Arabs resulted in Hamas defeating Fatah in Gaza, publicly executing Fatah members by shooting them in the streets and throwing them off of rooftops.
Although the PA retained control of the West Bank and conditions there were far better than in Gaza, Hamas continued to be focused on the fantasy of destroying Israel and murdering all of the Jews in the world. Not only did this marginalize Hamas and isolate it diplomatically, but also resulted in Hamas diverting foreign aid from humanitarian to military purposes, such as using supplies of concrete not to reconstruct buildings that could benefit the people but to build underground tunnels used to manufacture and store weapons including explosives and rockets. These rockets were rudimentary terror weapons, incapable of being aimed, and about one-third of the time would land inside Gaza, often killing Palestinian Arabs.
While Hamas was willing to see the economy of Gaza devastated and the people suffering, it invested its resources into such projects as making tens of thousands of terror rockets to be launched against Israeli civilians just over the border. Israel developed its “Iron Dome” defense system to shoot down these rockets, freeing its government and military from being forced to respond to rocket attacks with massive force such as firing artillery into Gaza to disable the rocket launchers. Hamas sited its rocket launchers near civilian residences, and even next to hospitals and schools, to maximize the chance of an Israeli response harming these “human shields.”
Israel and Hamas reached a modus vivendi where every few years Hamas would greatly increase the volume of rocket fire and Israel would respond in a limited way, sometimes with a short ground incursion to destroy terror tunnels or other military assets in Gaza. Hamas is internally divided between a military wing that adheres to its Islamist origins and sees compromise of any sort as traitorous, and a political wing that seemed to tacitly ignore the existence of Israel while attending to the practical challenges of governing. Israel became encouraged that the political wing was in the ascendancy, and that Hamas would be changed by the need to govern Gaza to begin acting rationally and abandon the fantasy of destroying Israel.
On 7 Oct 2023, this Israeli assumption that Hamas had the potential to embrace moderation was shattered by an attack where hundreds of terrorist operatives infiltrated about 20 Israeli civilian communities, murdering almost everyone they encountered including the elderly and small children. Hamas posted videos of their terrorists with bullet-riddled, incinerated, and decapitated bodies. The evidence became clear that the attack had been planned and rehearsed for at least a year – documents recovered from dead Hamas terrorists were dated as long ago as 2022 – and the decision to undertake the attack at this specific time was likely because of an open-air music concert that would be attended by more than a thousand young Israelis at the same time, presenting an ideal “soft target” opportunity for Hamas terrorists to attack with paragliders and pickup trucks, killing at least 260.
Most seriously, Hamas captured about 200 hostages, a matter of utmost concern to all Jews and not just Israelis. Some of these hostages are nationals of 30 or 40 other countries, including the United States. Israel declared a state of siege, turning off electricity, fuel, water, and food supplies to Gaza until the hostages are returned. Hamas controls the situation: All they have to do to end the siege is return the hostages.
If Hamas is unwilling to return the hostages, their embrace of the paramount goal of martyrdom is likely to be realized at the hands of the Israeli military: It is one thing to choose martyrdom for oneself, but utterly immoral to choose martyrdom for other people, in this case the civilian population of Gaza.
At one time, I was optimistic that a Palestinian Arab state was possible, that it could live in peaceful co-existence with Israel, and this would follow from the Oslo process. Even after the Second Intifada, I believed it was still possible in time. After the Hamas attacks on Oct 7, whatever hope I had for a Palestinian Arab state is gone.
I don’t know what the solution is, nor even if a solution is possible. The Palestinian Arab people are doomed to live indefinitely in misery unless they can manage to free themselves of their own political leadership, which in the case of Hamas are nihilistic seekers of martyrdom and destruction and in the case of the PA are corrupt and complacent seekers of power.
A Palestinian State can never be allowed to exist if, instead of seeking the welfare of its people, it is run by extremists who care nothing for them and instead are only out to destroy Israel and kill Jews, the explicitly stated goals of Hamas. Islamism is a supremacist political ideology (distinct from Islam) that seeks world domination and the forcible imposition of theocracy, and is therefore a cancer out to end civilization itself. Iran may help bring about the end of civilization, especially if it triggers World War III.
Like World War I, we might discover some months from now that World War III has started up around us. Everyone always imagined that we would know immediately as ICBMs dropped warheads from the sky, but I think there is an alternative: Cold War II could slowly transition to hot and become World War III, with the slow drip of escalation moving from Ukraine to Israel to Lebanon to Iran. The US Navy will have two carrier strike forces off the coast of Israel to let us know.
The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of Motif.