As death, collective punishment, and displacement wreak havoc on Gaza, at a time when politics seems nearly impossible, there is no harm in taking a moment to imagine developments as they did not take place to understand the events unfolding today. In reality, what is taking place is the worst possible scenario in every respect and everywhere, especially in that small piece of territory whose inhabitants and many children face an injustice that tempts us to disavow the world, values, and everything else we've held up high.
Allowing our minds to wander, let us imagine, for instance, that Israel had struck specific Hamas targets and adopted a strategy of assassinating its leadership, as it did in response to the Munich operation in 1972. That is, the rule was targeting Hamas officials and fighters and avoiding harming civilians in the Gaza Strip.
Let us also imagine that “Al-Aqsa Flood” confined the targets of both its killings and abductions to military personnel and armed individuals, without targeting civilian men and women...
Either of these two hypothetical courses of action would have created empathy for the party in question. That empathy would have been shared by large segments of society on the opposing side. Either hypothetical, if it had transpired, would have deepened the internal political divides within the other camp, to say nothing about the bitter agony of human loss it would have averted.
A Hamas operation of the sort that did not unfold could have widened the circle of Israelis sympathetic to the plight of Gaza's residents, and it would have heightened global concern for their cause, as well as underlining its righteousness and the urgent need to resolve it. This kind of operation would have heightened the contradictions within Israeli society and the divergences between its religious and secular elements, and between nationalists, leftists, and liberals; these already mighty contradictions would have been pushed further.
A similar outcome would have been seen on the other side, in both Palestine and the Arab world, if an Israeli operation of the sort that did not transpire had unfolded. A larger number of voices would have distinguished themselves from Hamas, and they would have done so more loudly. Hamas’s actions would have been seen as dangerous, harmful, and avoidable...
However, both courses of action, whether real or hypothetical, stem from a particular conception of politics and humanity.
The mindset that drove what has happened, in both its Israeli and Arab manifestations, dismisses the notion of politics being a means for reaching a compromise between two conflicting groups, as well as that of equal partnership founded on the two sides’ shared humanity. “We” (every one of us) are always superior to "them" (every one of them). When the other is seen as a total monster, inflicting death upon it indiscriminately becomes a duty. Such a conflict is inevitably framed as a “clash of civilizations,” “clash of religions,” or “clash of tribes.”
Similarly, the primary measure of one's patriotism (and honor, dignity, etc.) becomes how aligned one’s view is with the collective’s declared position, and how willing one is to overlook its flaws, composition, and consciousness, and to avoid expressing any opinions that deviate from the prevailing narrative. The ideal of virtue is the soldier, reservist, or those who cheer for the soldier or militant.
It would not be difficult to find the roots of this stance in fanatical Zionist nationalism and the radical Islam of Hamas, as well as their tumultuous histories. They can also be found in the colossal failures of Benjamin Netanyahu and his miserable coalition, as well as the rule of Hamas over the Gaza Strip.
Politics, humanism and reason are the invisible casualties of protracted conflicts, in which other human beings are rendered legitimate targets, all forms of bigotry become universal, and the avoidance of self-criticism becomes a virtue.
In such a climate, Islamophobia and anti-Semitism are both kindled universally, reaching the most remote corners of the globe. In parallel, "our religion and values" are elevated to become the exclusive reference for our actions and judging them. A discourse pushing for a separation in values and within knowledge, classifying these values in categories as the peoples, will take center stage going hand in hand with calls for the deployment of the deadliest weapons, because a "monster" can only be defeated through monstrosity.
Moreover, a "civilizational war," which some claim is unfolding, is precisely what we should be seeking to avoid. The balance of power between "us" and "the West" is very much not in our favor, and that is not only true for each side’s military capacity, but every conceivable metric. We should not allow our anger and the "civilizational war" to close our eyes to the fact that our region is grappling with devastating "wars among brothers" in Syria, Yemen, Libya, and Tunisia.
On the Israeli front, this ranting and raving about civilizations might not merely split the world into Muslims and Jews, it also risks taking us backward and rekindling an older Christianity that did not forget its feud with the Jews, as well as the Muslims.
The religious undertones of this conflict have become deeply entrenched, making it increasingly challenging to recenter politics in what is a political dispute in principle. This trajectory is being accelerated by the lack of a political horizon for ending the hostilities. As Gaza is destroyed and the broader region spirals, the entire world is being pushed back. One manifestation of this setback is the overwhelming global alignment behind Israel, which comes against the backdrop of a rising wave of populism that cuts across continents, as well as deteriorating economic conditions that will probably become far worse as a result of this dire conflict.
The warranted fear today, founded as much on the blind violence as it is on ominous rhetoric, is that what “is happening" might evolve to become a way of life and mindset that goes beyond the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, stretching to other regions of the world and other corners of its mind.