A clandestine bombmaker places explosives in the handbags of three young Algerian women. They each wear fashionable clothes and haircuts and disperse into the crowded city to place their deadly wares. Their upscale destinations — a cafe, a dance club and an airport lounge — are full of civilians. As the minute hand on the wall clock in the cafe marches toward the zero hour, the camera pans over the unsuspecting victims — friends hunched over a table in conversation, a baby licking an ice cream cone, young people dancing to merengue music. The camera doesn’t judge. It invites viewers to ask themselves under what circumstances, if any, they could justify such an act.
The Europeans who pack these venues can enjoy themselves because ruthless security forces insulate them from the wrath of the colonized native population. The soon-to-be victims are complicit, but do they deserve to die, especially the young people with their whole lives ahead of them?
I thought of this scene from The Battle of Algiers, Gillo Pontecorvo’s classic movie about the brutal guerrilla war that took place in French Algeria from 1954-1957 last Saturday as details of Hamas’ incursion into southern Israel emerged.
Hamas’ bloodiest massacre occurred at the Supernova music festival held in the desert three miles from the Gaza border. In a case of life imitating art, an estimated crowd of 3,000 Israelis danced through the night and greeted the sunrise. At that very moment, Hamas fighters were breaching the high-tech security fence complete with surveillance cameras and remotely-controlled machine guns that keeps the 2.2 million residents of the Gaza Strip confined in what Human Rights Watch calls an “open-air prison.”
The Gaza Strip is filled with the descendents of Palestinians who were driven from their homes in the ethnic cleansing campaigns that marked the creation of the state of Israel in 1948. The unemployment rate there is 50%. Water and power are available only a few hours per day, at the best of times. Their Hamas rulers answer to no one. And, worst of all, there is no exit as they are blocked by Israel on three sides and by Israel’s ally, Egypt, to the south.
While the Gazans remain trapped in squalor and despair, their Israeli neighbors are able to move freely and pursue comfortable middle-class lives in nearby towns, or on rural kibbutzim, many of which date back to Israel’s founding era.
With a powerful military, their mastery of technologies that can be used to surveil and control restless populations and warming relations with several Arab states under the U.S.-backed Abraham Accords, Israelis in recent years have come to think of the “Palestinian problem” as a thing of the past. Out of sight, out of mind.
For many of the Hamas fighters who descended on the music festival via paragliders, pick-up trucks and motorcycles, this may have been their first journey outside of Gaza’s confines in almost two decades (Gaza’s security fence dates back to 2007), if not their entire lives. In the moment when they encountered the young Israelis whose freedom and happiness required their immiseration, Hamas gleefully killed as many of them as they could and took others hostage. Given the chance, the victims of Israeli apartheid became the victimizers and acted with a vengeance.
The scenes from the music festival massacre are heartbreaking. Young people fleeing for their lives, shrieking and falling to the ground fatally wounded. Like their French Algerian counterparts in Battle of Algiers, they accepted the benefits of living in an unjust society they neither created nor questioned. But, does that mean they deserved to be summarily executed by Hamas? And their semi-naked bodies paraded through the streets of Gaza City afterward?
In the bombing scene in Battle of Algiers, the camera glances around the room a second time. We see the wounded staggering outside to a chorus of wailing police sirens and the broken, bloody corpses lying amid the rubble that were living human beings a few moments before. If you think this is justified, Pontecorvo seems to say, then be willing to look at the results.
We will need more of that unflinching honesty in the days and weeks ahead.
The right to do what?
Palestinians and their most devoted supporters emphasize the “right to resist” with no qualifications. This blindness took an ugly form at Sunday’s pro-Palestine rally at Times Square where participants celebrated “the glorious victory of the resistance.” Meanwhile, Israel and its backers insist, with the same certitude, on the “right to defend” their country even as Israel’s leaders prepare a genocidal war on Gaza. Both of these slogans are highly effective because they masquerade as common sense while telling doubters to shut up and fall in line. They give each side carte blanche to carry out unspeakable atrocities without having to acknowledge what they are doing.
When 3,000 Americans were killed on Sep. 11, 2001, there was a near-universal outpouring of sympathy for the United States. That goodwill was squandered by March of 2003 when the United States invaded Iraq over the objections of millions of protesters around the world. Israel is now consumed by the same blind rage that coursed through post-9/11 America. It appears intent on forfeiting the world’s post-Oct. 7 sympathy in record time. Just as the shocking events of 9/11 turned out to be a mere prelude to far greater calamities, it looks almost certain to also be the case with 10/7.
Six days into its latest war with Hamas, Israel is pounding Gaza from the air with unprecedented fury. More than 1,500 Palestinians have been killed including 500 children as of today, according to the Palestinian Ministry of Health. Those numbers will soar much higher as Israeli warplanes continue to bomb schools, hospitals and large apartment complexes. Rescuers from the Palestinian Green Crescent lack the equipment to dig through the rubble for survivors. Food, water and fuel supplies are already running low after Israel’s Defense Minister vowed to carry out a “complete siege” of Gaza, denouncing its people as “human animals.” A months-long ground invasion by Israeli troops of Gaza’s crowded urban areas to root out Hamas may not be far behind, with casualties that are hard to fathom.
A History of Terror
It is ironic that Israel justifies its brutal occupation and repression as being a part of a “war on terrorism” when Israel was born of terrorism. In 1946, Irgun, a right-wing Zionist militia led by future Prime Minister Menachem Begin, bombed the King David Hotel in Jerusalem, killing 91 people. The hotel was home to the British administration that oversaw Mandatory Palestine. Much worse would follow. From 1947-49, more than 500 Palestinian towns and villages were depopulated amid massacres and the threat of more massacres by Irgun and other Zionist militias. A total of 700,000 Palestinians fled or were expelled from the newly-formed nation of Israel. They and millions of their descendents have never been allowed to return to their former homes.
Since its founding, Israel has seized more land — the West Bank, Gaza and the Golan Heights — from its Arab neighbors. The West Bank, where more than two million Palestinians live, has been under military occupation for 56 years while Israel’s government moves ever further to the right.
Many early Israelis identified as socialists and were active in the kibbutz movement — rural communes that were run on collectivist principles. This early idealism has long since vanished, foreclosed by the exclusionary nature of the Zionist state they created. A socialism that systematically favors one group of people at the expense of another isn’t worthy of the name.
The Most Important Thing
The main driver of the conflict in Israel is the dispossession of the Palestinians and the apartheid system that was built to enforce their subjugation. For lasting change to occur, Israelis will have to embrace the idea that the Palestininas also deserve safety and dignity. After Hamas’ killing spree, that’s now even less likely than before. Instead, the same Israeli leaders who insisted that violence and repression could deliver security are doubling down on more violence as the solution.
The most important thing we can do at this time is try to stop the bloodletting still to come in Gaza. The Biden administration is backing Israel to the hilt. It can be pressured into reversing course and, at a minimum, rein in Israel’s most violent impulses and ensure that humanitarian supplies reach Gaza and that non-combatants are not targeted.
In the meantime, regardless of where your sympathies may lie in this conflict, don’t be on the side of the executioner, whatever guise they may adopt.