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Middle Eastern history repeats itself or maybe it doesn’t?

James M. Dorsey

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If there is a lesson to be drawn from the Gaza war, it is that history repeats itself: hardliners on both sides of the Israeli-Palestinian divide reinforce each other.

That was true for Yasser Arafat's Palestine Liberation Organization and Israeli leaders before the PLO's 1988 recognition of Israel and the 1993 Israeli-Palestinian Oslo accords.

Prime Minister Rabin, President Clinton, Chairman Arafat September 13, 1993, The White House Photo: Israel, GPO

Palestinian airline hijackings and attacks on Israeli towns, Israeli retaliatory military actions, and the assassinations by renegade Palestinian commander Abu Nidal in the 1980s of senior PLO officials engaged in unofficial talks with Israeli activists served hardliner purposes.

So did tacit Israeli support for Hamas, born under Israeli occupation in opposition to the occupation of Palestinian lands, as an imaginary anti-dote to Palestinian nationalism.

If anything, the reinforcement of hardline positions reinforced by the latest war, together with the unnecessary brutality and harshness of the occupation, has produced a conflict with an unprecedented disregard for the lives of the other.

Mounting resistance to the Israeli occupation was inevitable without any possibility of resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict but Hamas and Israel had choices in how to conduct hostilities.

Hamas did itself no favours with the wanton and random killing of Israeli civilians in its unprecedented October 7 attack on Israel that shattered perceptions of Israeli military and intelligence superiority, demonstrated the unsustainability of the occupation, and rallied degrees of support for Israel, not only from its traditional US and European allies but also influential Global South countries like Kenya and India.

Smoke rises after Israeli warplanes targeted the Palestine tower in Gaza City, October 7, 2023. Mohammed Saber, EPA-EFE.

Instead of embarking on an Islamic State-style killing spree, Hamas could have achieved its objectives by restricting its offensive to targeting Israeli military installations and personnel.

The presence of an unknown number of Israeli soldiers among the more than 100 hostages kidnapped by Hamas proves the point.

By the same token, rather than bombing Gaza back to the Stone Age, Israel could have opted for targeted killings of the Hamas senior and mid-level leadership. With a different

government, it could have coupled its retaliation with a credible proposal to solve the conflict.

Granted, past targeted killings didn’t produce the desired outcome and Israel is in no mood to talk about peace.

But similarly, the current sledgehammer violence by both parties in violation of international law, too, will not achieve preferred results, at least in the short term, and likely only harden positions, much like the second Intifada or Palestinian uprising against Israeli occupation in the late 1980s and early 1990s failed to prevent escalating violence.

A lone Israeli military voice, retired Major General Itzhak Brik warned that “should a regional war break out and we are not prepared for it, the catastrophe will be hundreds of times greater… A military operation in Gaza can degenerate into an all-out war on five fronts.”

Major General (Res.) Itzhak Brik. Photo: Yonatan Sindel/Flash90

In Mr. Brik’s counting it would be a multi-front war involving not just Hezbollah and Lebanon, the West Bank, Syria, and Iran but also Israeli cities and towns.

“The next war will feature both very difficult battles on land and very difficult attacks from the air. The Israeli home front will be hit by thousands of missiles every day, and along the border, we will be facing thousands of fighters who want to come across.” Mr. Brik said.

“But we’ll face the biggest catastrophe inside the country, as tens of thousands of armed Arab rioters will run throughout the country, and we hadn’t prepared for this,” the former military officer added.

To be sure, neither Hamas nor Israel are what they were in the 1980s.

Now gone are the days when the Israeli military told then-Israeli Prime Minister Itzhak Rabin during the Intifada: "We can resolve this but not at a price that either you or we find morally acceptable. You solve this."

What may not be lost and will likely regain prominence are attitudes underlying ceasefire talks in 2014 to end that year’s military conflagration between Israel and Hamas.

Senior Hamas official Mousa Abu Marzouk noted at the time that "the charter is not the Quran. It can be amended.” Mr. Abu Marzouk was referring to Hamas’ charter that calls for the destruction of Israel.

His words echoed the words of the late Israeli Defence Minister Ezer Weizman who in the 1980s stood in front of his Likud Party emblem that showed Jordan as part of Israel and said concerning the Palestine Liberation Organization charter that at the time called for Israel's demise: "We can dream, so can they."

For now, the Hamas attack and Israel's response leave hardly any flexibility. Overall, the Israeli carpet bombing of Gaza and the cutoff of food, fuel, and medical supplies to the Strip has stiffened Arab public opinion’s rejection of relations with Israel without a resolution of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.

The silver lining is that a minority of voices on both sides of the divide are distancing themselves from the atrocities committed in the fighting and the bombings. That was always true for Israel, even if moderate voices have been pushed to the margins over the years.

What is new is that moderate voices elsewhere in the Middle East have emerged at a time of heightened emotions and rallying around the flag. In some cases, like Iran, Israel, rather than being the punching bag and boogeyman, has become a sword wielded against an unpopular and repressive regime.

Over the weekend as Hamas invaded Israel, Iranian soccer fans denounced the presence of a Palestinian flag at a match in Tehran’s Azadi Stadium between Persepolis and Gol Gohar.

“The Palestinian flag — shove it up your ass!” the fans chanted.

By the same token, an "IraniansStandWithIsrael” trended on Twitter, seemingly dominated by the Iranian Diaspora rather than Iranians in Iran. It was not clear whether this represented a demographic divide or increased caution among segments of society in the Islamic republic.

Similarly, breaking taboos, Arab voices on social media are taking Hamas to task for its unwarranted brutality and sparking a rare discussion in the Arab world.

“I am a Kuwaiti and I stand with Israel. Any Kuwaiti who has forgotten the treachery of the Palestinian leadership is ignorant. My solidarity is with the Palestinian and Israeli people. We want to uproot Hamas and the PLO. These people have lost their competence to manage the interests of the Palestinians,” tweeted prominent Kuwaiti journalist Jasem Aljuraid with 86,000 followers on Twitter.

Opposed to autocratic rule, Mr. Aljuraid has left his native Kuwait but remains a voice in social media discussion. His tweet sparked thousands of contradictory and mixed responses, including more than 2,000 likes.

“They killed an Israeli woman, took off her clothes, smashed her, and marched her around in victory...but victory for what?! Are these the principles of Islam?! Mr. Aljuraid asked in a separate tweet featuring the Israeli flag.

London-based Kuwaiti Shiite Muslim religious scholar Yasser al-Habib with 22,000 followers tweeted: “Who among us does not enjoy retaliation from the Zionist enemy? We were all excited by this news when it first arrived. But as the hours passed, my feelings deteriorated after these atrocities committed by the Hamas group, including mutilation, rape of women, random killing, and similar atrocities. Where did the ethics of war go in Islam?!"

Yasser Al-Habib. Photo: Screengrab from Youtube/YaMuhdi18

To be fair there is no independent confirmation of reports that Hamas captives have been raped.

Adding his voice, Bahraini activist Shaheen Aljenaid charged, “This is a terrorist act and a distortion of the image of Islam and Muslims… Watch how they trade in photographing a dead woman without clothing, without morals or humanity. This is clear evidence that they have no connection to Arabism and religion.”

The importance of voices like Messrs. Aljuraid, Al-Habib and Aljenaid is less their denunciation of Hamas and more the suggestion that the historic Pavlov reflex to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, long challenged by Israeli doves, even if they currently threaten to be drowned out in the cacophony of anger, shock, and a desire for revenge among Israelis, is for the first time being questioned in other parts of the Middle East.

Dr. James M. Dorsey is an award-winning journalist and scholar, a Senior Fellow at the National University of Singapore’s Middle East Institute and Adjunct Senior Fellow at Nanyang Technological University’s S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, and the author of the syndicated column and blog, The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer.

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