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Palestinians, evacuate, victim, Gaza
Palestinians evacuate a victim following an Israeli airstrike on Deir al-Balah, a city in the central Gaza Strip on October 21, 2023. Photo credit: © Majdi Fathi/NurPhoto via ZUMA Press

The Hamas atrocities and the relentless Israeli response mask a reason for hope.

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Is there a way out of the sickening cycle of revenge currently engulfing and dividing us all in the aftermath of Hamas’s savage lightning attack, and Israel’s deadly response? We think we see one — and it may surprise you. 

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It’s clear that Hamas, in its present form, has to go. In fact, some members of its political leadership have already started distancing themselves from the atrocities committed by the organization’s military wing. Others are running for cover. One leader has claimed that the Hamas fighters were explicitly told not to harm civilians — that those murderous attacks were perpetrated by other groups. (Though evidence, including videos shot by Hamas’s own people, proves otherwise.) 

It is also abundantly clear in today’s climate that no organization — especially a political one — will be without significant fissures. Some members of Hamas’s political wing desperately want to stay relevant and see this attack as an existential threat to their relevance. Leaving a hole where Hamas was will most likely lead only to an even worse outcome. 

When and if Hamas is destroyed, there will be a dangerous vacuum — as history has repeatedly proven. We know the US made a disastrous mistake after its 2003 invasion of Iraq when it banned the long-standing Baathist party from any involvement in Iraq’s government (remember ISIS?). 

Everything we have witnessed up to now suggests that using the same tactics just produces the same toxic results and typically makes the situation worse. That is not a solution. 

In the end, we will have to parse all the opposing elements and conflicting parties to find a political solution.

More than a few Middle East experts see Israel’s weakening of the Palestinian Authority as a miscalculation that was responsible for Hamas’s original rise to power in Gaza. 

Although the US has long given lip service to promoting a two-state solution that would give the Palestinians autonomy over the occupied territories of the West Bank, Israel — under Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu — has done everything possible to delay any decision on the issue. Which is tantamount to making sure it never happens. And in the meantime, he encourages expanding West Bank settlements,

Palestinians have been left in limbo, while the US has turned its attention to other matters, such as the war in Ukraine and its competition with China. 

Palestinians and their supporters realize they risk being forgotten, and are in danger of becoming like the Kurds, an ethnic group of 30-45 million people without a nation home. 

Even with a special refugee designation and UN organization assigned to them, the future looks grim for Palestinians in both Gaza and the West Bank. For the Gazans that would mean permanent exile in inhumane, unsanitary, soul-crushing refugee camps; for Palestinians in the West Bank, a rapidly expanding population squeezed into an economically and socially untenable existence under pressure from aggressive Israeli settler groups backed by Netanyahu’s far-right government. 

The Abraham Accords, which sought to eventually establish a working arrangement between Israel and Saudi Arabia, would — at least in Palestinian eyes — have consigned the whole issue of the occupied West Bank to the dustbin of history. 

It suggested the possibility of a loose alliance eventually being formed between Israel, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey. Not only would this have put the Palestinian issue on a back burner, but it would also have challenged the ambitions of Iran — an enemy of Saudi Arabia — to establish itself as the major power in the region. No wonder Iran backs Hamas, Hezbollah, and any other elements that might undo this alliance. 

Hamas’s Hunted, Haunted Leader

The commander of Hamas’s military wing, Mohammed Masri, has a good idea of what the future foreseen by the Abraham Accords would mean for his people.

Masri, who is now 58 years old, was born in a refugee camp in Gaza’s Khan Yunis. Masri’s wife, his three-year-old daughter, and his infant son were killed in an Israeli airstrike in 2014. 

He has survived seven assassination attempts, the most recent Israeli attempt to kill him was in 2021, during Operation “Guardian of the Wall.”

The pseudonym that Masri uses these days, “Mohammed Deif,” translates as “Mohammed the Guest.” Masri knows what it means not to have a home you can call your own. None of this excuses the acts of barbarism that took place during Hamas’s murderous incursion, but it does explain why Masri and his fighters felt no hesitation at killing women, children, and even babies in their assault on southern Israel. 

The question is: What can anyone do to defuse the tensions and save lives going forward?

The Looming Post-Abbas Era 

The one figure on the Palestinian stage who has enough status as a statesman to be acceptable to other world leaders is Mahmoud Abbas, president of the State of Palestine and the Palestinian National Authority. Abbas is both the longtime chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organization and head of Fatah, one of the PLO’s leading parties. 

But Abbas, although respected for his humanity and intellect, turns 88 next month, and his moderating influence has counted for next to nothing in the current climate. That is largely because Netanyahu’s administration did pretty much everything in its power to weaken the Palestinian Authority.

More than a few Middle East experts see Israel’s weakening of the Palestinian Authority as a miscalculation that was responsible for Hamas’s original rise to power in Gaza. The current reasoning holds that if Israel wants to deal with the Palestinians, it will have to find someone whom the majority of the Palestinians can identify with, and who has public support to stand up to extremist organizations like Hamas.

In explaining the motivation behind Hamas’s slaughter, The Economist quoted a Hamas official as saying, “Either we die slowly, or we die taking the occupation with us.” 

All these considerations may come down to a single point: Who can replace Mahmoud Abbas? Hamas has a political wing as well as a military wing. Could Hamas’s political structure disregard the military arm and negotiate with Israel? In light of the atrocities committed by Hamas’s military wing, it doesn’t seem likely. 

Israel insists that it can accept nothing less than the complete elimination of Hamas. 

But that doesn’t preclude the leaders of Hamas’s political wing from forming a new party outside of Hamas, which would begin to pivot from the ultimately futile military struggle against Israel to some form of mediated negotiations instead. Of course, that could only work if a significant party arose in Israel that was willing to join in the dialogue.

Admittedly, current conditions in the region make such an idea sound crazy, but there are precedents in history. 

In the mid-20th century, the Irish Republican Army fought one of the most brutal insurrections in history and was responsible for countless incidents of terrorism in England; yet the political arm of the IRA was eventually able to establish a dialogue with the British government that led to a relatively stable peace. It can be done. 

Another example: During the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks (SALT) between the US and the former Soviet Union (from 1969 to 1979), mediators discovered that each side feared things that the other side didn’t really care about. By reaching agreement on these issues, the two sides were able to focus on the issues that both considered critical. Once that was done, it was possible to begin working on a solution. 

Hamas has succeeded in getting everyone’s attention, at a tragically bloody cost paid by thousands of civilians on both sides. Yet now that Hamas has our attention, it would be doubly tragic not to try to avert a traditional Middle Eastern downward spiral of piling atrocity on top of atrocity until all hope for restoring even a minimally civilized order is lost. 

In explaining the motivation behind Hamas’s slaughter, The Economist quoted a Hamas official as saying, “Either we die slowly, or we die taking the occupation with us.” 

Further suppression of millions of Palestinians, or pretending that they are not there, can never bring security, much less peace, to the region. As for revenge, we would do well to listen to the advice that St. Paul gave in his Letter to the Romans (Romans 12:19): “Leave vengeance to God.” 

Or, even better, forego vengeance altogether — and prevent more senseless suffering down the road. 

RELATED:

 Israel-Gaza War: Who Benefits?

Biden’s Visit May Have Kept Gaza From Boiling Over

The Shifting Sands of the Middle East: What’s Next for Israel, Hamas, and Iran? 


Authors

  • Russ Baker

    Russ Baker is Editor-in-Chief of WhoWhatWhy. He is an award-winning investigative journalist who specializes in exploring power dynamics behind major events.

  • William Dowell

    William Dowell is WhoWhatWhy's editor for international coverage. He previously worked for NBC and ABC News in Paris before signing on as a staff correspondent for TIME Magazine based in Cairo, Egypt. He has reported from five continents--most notably the War in Vietnam, The Revolution in Iran, the Civil War in Beirut, Operation Desert Storm, and Afghanistan. He also taught a seminar on the Literature of Journalism at New York University.

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