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The uses of violence: The Israeli-Hamas war



The Israel-Palestinian conflict, broadly described, has always been bedevilled by selective, and select interpretations of violence. Depending on who is exercising it, and the designated audience, a defender of civilisation becomes a terrorist, a terrorist blooms into a freedom fighter, and a freedom fighter is undressed as a crude militant.

On October 7, militants from Hamas and Islamic Jihad stunned the Israeli security establishment with the ‘Al-Aqsa Flood’, a daring attack during the holiday of Simchat Torah. Within a matter of hours, over a thousand Hamas militants had broken into Israeli homes, killing men, women and young children. Throughout, Hamas fighters filmed themselves raping, executing and immolating citizens, including young people at the Tribe of Nova music festival. Within hours, 1400 Israeli citizens had been killed. Attackers took hostages, with over 200 eventually taken back to Gaza.

Within hours, the Israeli Defence Force struck targets in Gaza, killing hundreds of Palestinian civilians. ‘There is never any justification for terrorism,’ stated US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, ignoring the historical fact that states are often the bloodily born products of terrorist violence. Throughout the 1930s and 40s, Zionist paramilitary organisation Irgun Zvai Leumi, which boasted members including future Israeli Prime Ministers as Menachem Begin and Yitzhak Shamir, faithfully adhered to a terrorist program against both the British administration in Palestine and Arab inhabitants increasingly at odds with their settlement program.

Such violent acts are assessed in a two-fold way. First, it is often done in a historical vacuum, making it seem unprovoked, its victims heralded as noble and unblemished. The second aspect of this is to paint the perpetrator as exceptionally, barbaric. This serves to exonerate the scale and measure of retaliatory force.

To the first point, the children and innocent youths killed while attending a music festival are undoubtedly unblemished and undeserving of slaughter. But to suggest that the October 7 incursions lacked historical purpose is misleading. There is no context of the 16-year-old blockade that rendered Gaza a densely populated carceral space with contaminated water, irregular electricity supply, and wretched health facilities, no context of conditions that international and Israeli human rights organisations have declared as satisfying the criteria of apartheid, nor any mention of the moribund two-state solution that keeps the issue of Palestinian statehood off the diplomatic table.

With a conscious, ahistorical purpose, a global information effort has been made by Israeli government agencies to highlight the humanity of its own citizens, callously murdered, maimed or kidnapped. While not inaccurate, we should be mindful that doing so has the effect of hailing the innocence of the civilian victims while ignoring the consequences of Israeli policy towards Palestinians. 


'The attacks by Hamas were horrific, visceral, atavistically direct, but not necessarily exonerating of Israeli violence.'


On October 12, Prime Minister Netanyahu’s office made an express point to release graphic photos of slain infants on the X platform formally known as Twitter. A PMO spokesperson explained the rationale for doing so to The Times of Israel: ‘So that the world will see just a fraction of the horrors that Hamas carried out.’ The Israeli Ministry for Foreign Affairs followed suit, posting an image accompanied by a ‘graphic content warning’, a corpse with a seemingly perforated skull, and a sanguinary explainer on Hamas’s achievements: ‘More than 1,300 Israeli civilians slaughtered. Women and girls raped. People burned alive. Young kids kidnapped. Babies tortured and murdered. Parents executed in front of their young children.’ 

Such horrors are deserving of our condemnation. But so used, they can further serve to elevate the bravery and achievements of Israel’s citizenry in the face of barbarism. US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, for instance, stated his shock at the ‘depravity of Hamas’ yet felt assured by the exploits of the Israeli ‘grandfather, who drove over an hour to a kibbutz under siege, armed with only a pistol, and rescued his kids and grandkids; the mother who died shielding her teenage son with her body, giving her life to save his, giving him life for a second time; the volunteer security teams on the kibbutzes [sic], who swiftly rallied to defend their friends and neighbours, despite being heavily outnumbered.’

In Australia, the effort to individualise and personalise Israeli suffering was exemplified by the efforts of former Israeli Special Forces lieutenant Avi Efrat, who now lives in Sydney. Keen to ‘educate and explain to Australia that radical Islamic groups are dangerous for modern society’, he printed 16,000 posters featuring the photos of Israelis being held hostage by Hamas. These were duly distributed in Sydney, Melbourne, Perth and Wollongong by ‘an army base of Israelis’.

Drawing attention away from the Palestinian cause serves to negate remarks such as those of Mohammad Deif, leader of Hamas’s military wing who claimed the attacks had been organised in response to Israeli provocations surrounding Jerusalem’s Al-Aqsa Mosque during Ramadan in 2021. At the time, this set off 11 days of fighting between Israel and Hamas.

Provocations became common fare for the most right-wing government in Israel’s history. Israeli politicians such as National Security Minister, Itamar Ben-Gvir, are convinced that rankings in race, religion and culture are obvious. In August this year, he stated in an interview that, ‘My right, the right of my wife and my children to move around Judea and Samaria is more important than freedom of movement for the Arabs.’ Ben-Gvir, himself a member of the internationally unrecognised Kiryat Arba settlement in the occupied West Bank, has received convictions on at least eight charges which include supporting a terrorist organisation and incitement to racism. His source of ideological inspiration remains the late rabbi Meir Kahane, who regarded a ‘democratic Jewish state [as] nonsense’ and called Arabs ‘dogs’ who ‘must sit quietly or get the hell out.’

However, some Palestinian commentators like Azzam Sha’ath present an alternate narrative casting the ‘Al-Aqsa Flood’ as more than just a reactionary response. According to Sha’ath, this went beyond Hamas addressing the immediate grievances of the Al-Aqsa Mosque; it was part of a grander, well-calculated strategy to connect the dots from Jerusalem to Gaza, pushing their ‘unity of the arenas’ doctrine and to challenge the status quo in Gaza. Despite Israel’s 2005 Gaza pull-out, its grip has remained, with the Strip economically strangulated, intensified post-Hamas’ 2006 electoral victory and subsequent Israeli blockade. For Sha’ath, ‘Al-Aqsa Flood’ was in many ways an emphatic rejection of Israel’s patchwork approach to Gaza, particularly the dangling carrot of ‘economic peace’, which although providing short-term relief, was no match for Gaza’s spiralling poverty and unemployment. The Hamas attacks served as a call for a lasting political change.

To the second point, painting acts of terror and the perpetrators as inhuman or sub-human paves the way for the use of retaliatory force that is virtually limitless even as it is described as abiding by the rules of war. Non-humans cannot be said to have the right to self-defence, or to use force, or even to protest, even against an undeclared nuclear power with the world’s fourth largest military. And so we have such comments as that of Israeli Defence Minister Yoav Gallant, declaring that, ‘We are fighting human animals, and we are acting accordingly’. Or the observation by Major General Ghassan Alian lecturing Gazans on October 10 that, ‘Kidnapping, abusing and murdering children, women and elderly people is not human.’

Alian, who serves as Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories, went on to state that Hamas had morphed into ISIS, and took grave issue with ‘the residents of Gaza’ who seemed to be ‘celebrating’ its exploits. ‘Human animals must be treated as such. There will be no electricity, no water [in Gaza], there will only be destruction. You wanted hell, you will get hell.’

Ariel Kallner, a Knesset member of Netanyahu’s Likud Party, unsettlingly frank about what Israel’s purpose was in the aftermath of the October 7 incursion, suggesting an ethnic cleansing through permanent displacement to rival the dispossession of Palestinians in 1948 by the embryonic Jewish state: ‘Right now, one goal: Nakba! A Nakba that will overshadow the Nakba of 48. Nakba in Gaza and Nakba to anyone who dares to join!’ 

With such attitudes, it becomes axiomatic that the targets of such retribution and violence have no names. They are anonymised, unlike the individualised, photographic portraits of Israeli hostages distributed by Efrat. They can perish under rubble, have their homes pulverised. They can be industrially incinerated by jets, missiles and mortar rounds, and dismissed as collateral damage, the detrital justification of self-defence. They can be collectively punished, starved and relocated without a murmur. As the late Robert Fisk remarked in his magisterially hefty The Great War for Civilisation, ‘every effort continues to be made to not only dehumanise [the Palestinians] but to de-culture them, de-nation them, to dis-identify them.’

The attacks by Hamas were horrific, visceral, atavistically direct, but not necessarily exonerating of Israeli violence. At various stages, the Israeli state has, bolstered by a heavy rabbinical, political and administrative discourse, delegitimised the Palestinian claim to land, sovereignty and culture. And, unlike some other Palestinian factions, Hamas has refused to engage with Israel, considering its neighbour an illegitimate state. And along the way, humanity was erased, and a terrestrial hell established. The logical consequence of that fact is a terrifying spectacle of a flattened Gaza and further dispossession.




Dr. Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He currently lectures at RMIT University. 

Main image: A bullet hole is seen in a window and the house plant behind at one of the homes invaded during the attack by Hamas is seen within Kibbutz Be'eri on October 14, 2023 in Be'eri, Israel.(Leon Neal / Getty Images)

Topic tags: Binoy Kampmark, Israel, Hamas, Gaza



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Existing comments

Thank you for your very important article, Binoy.
As you say, the targeting of Israeli civilians as Hamas did is inexcusable.

However, I would also add that the statements by our PM - Anthony Albanese - and our Foreign Minister - Penny Wong - that this was an unprovoked attack and that Israel has a right it defend itself are inexcusable and plainly wrong. They are designed to attempt to justify the unjustifiable history of suffering perpetrated on the Palestinian people after WW2 until now by Israel.

After WW2, Zionist terrorist gangs attacked Palestinian villages killing many people, occupying their houses, businesses and homes. Since the state of Israel was founded in 1948 - albeit on Palestinian land - the Zionist state of Israel has continued to attack Palestinians, violate their human rights, steal more of their lands and establish illegal settlements on them.

Many will probably accuse me of being anti-Jew, however my understanding of this history has largely come from "righteous Jews" who are appalled at what is happening.

Albert Einstein was asked to be the president of Israel in the early days of its existence. He refused because he knew the state was being created on occupied land and would lead to massive bloodshed.

The extreme right wing Netanyahu Government appears to be embarked on a massive act of genocide against the Palestinians in Gaza while the leaders of the US and its allies justify their attacks on hospitals, schools and homes.

The tragedy is that there are not calls for the UN to send in a peace-keeping force to bring about a truce and to ensure that Israel moves back to the borders agreed to in 1948. Only this will bring peace to the ME.

One of the saddest things I see looking at the actions of our leaders is that they will just do what US and Israeli leaders want them to do. Our PM visited the ME many years ago and knows this history, but has opted not to recognise the suffering of the Palestinians.

There is a pattern here. Australian leaders and diplomats supported the overthrow of the Indonesian government in 1965 and then aided and abetted the Indonesian military as it committed genocide in Indonesia, West Papua, East Timor and Acheh.

And now we are embedded in AUKUS and more US instigated wars.

Andrew (Andy) Alcock | 26 October 2023  

Thanks for your article pointing out the deep roots of this deplorable and tragic conflict.
I have further reflected on how power and wealth creation at the expense of others has been has been an original sin at the centre of most empires and civilizations. It is paradoxical that so much of our technology, learning, art and comfort today is a legacy created from an excess, thanks to these past expansionist projects and terrible suffering.
Mythologically, God gave the Promised Land to Abraham’s descendents but was not this land already occupied? We have used this story since to justify many new Promised Lands we have created. It is a salient reminder of the effects of colonialisation, the plight of most indigenous peoples worldwide and the defeated Voice referendum here at home.
Through the Holocaust and Nakba both peoples have been traumatized and dispossessed, with deep longings for justice and peace. Surely this painful situation requires the hand of God’s grace. Of course extremists will always be out to destroy courageous leaders and visionary prophets of peace. Last time the peace process was killed by the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin who momentarily held the confidence and trust of his people.

Ivan Tchernegovski | 27 October 2023  

One of the respondents mentions Einstein; interesting to me, since as a scientist he had come to terms with special and general relativity; he seemed to see no place or have no time for absolutes. Dependently or not, some theologians have developed liberation themes around relativity with less and less reliance on an absolute as per the history in the three great religions of the book. Christians, for example, can see in Jesus of N the exemplar par excellence of the Freedom, Meaning and Weaving that sustains creation in sync with entropy. An appropriate attitude before evil that is born of misconceived absolutes has to be anthropological: that of Jesus of N: into your hands I give my spirit; in promoting his kingdom values he had lived with relative ‘absolutes’ which were the non-negotiables of his anthropological faith, to be verified, or not, in his dying. Seems to me the more that contemporary leaders invoke their Absolute the less humanising their policies become, to put it nicely.

Noel McMaster | 27 October 2023  

A chilling, but accurate, picture of how things currently stand in Israel/Palestine, Binoy. Nations have been annihilating nations in the Middle East for thousands of years. If Israel follows the advice of its Lunatic Right and attempts to annihilate Gaza it will not be without consequences. I hold no brief for Hamas and deplore the massacre of any innocents. That massacre seems to be occurring on both sides after Israeli retaliation. The Occupied West Bank is on fire and is being brutally repressed. As America moves in to support Israel, the Muslim World will not stand idly by. This is a perilous time. I think our leaders in Australia need to stay strictly neutral and call out every atrocity as it occurs.

Edward Fido | 27 October 2023  

Just War does not allow Israel to invade Gaza because of harm to civilians.

Belief in God sometimes means that justice has to be left to God. The actual perpetrators of the raids, and their enablers in the supervisory hierarchy, will be shielded by hostages and local civilians. Perhaps, one day, they may find themselves, and themselves only, in a situation that is physically exposed to an Israeli vengeance that is moral. Israel can watch and wait for that day. Today isn't that day.

The hostages were obviously taken for bargaining leverage. Israel should wait for Hamas to start talking and use its relationships with the other Arab states and Turkiye to influence Hamas to keep the hostages in good health before they are released.

It may be that the attacks succeeded because Israel became complacent in some of its security practices. The lesson should be learned and not forgotten. How the other Arab or Muslim governments interact with Israel during this time (will they be like Job's friends?) will give Israel added insight into the quality of its relationships with them.

roy chen yee | 27 October 2023  

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