Analogy and Tragedy in Israel’s War on Gaza – Michigan Quarterly Review
Devastation After Israeli Airstrikes on Khan Younis, southern Gaza Strip, Oct 26, 2023 (AP, photo by Mohammad Dahman)

Analogy and Tragedy in Israel’s War on Gaza

At the outset of Israel’s war on Gaza, the Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, as if lured by what the French poet Stephen Mallarmé termed “the demon of analogy,” likened Hamas to ISIS, a comparison that was subsequently echoed by the American President Joe Biden. And for good measure, Netanyahu also identified Hamas with Nazi Germany, and contrasted it with the “civilized” Israel and those “Western” states who rushed to boost its morale and already-massive weapons arsenal, and who from then on would diplomatically guarantee the prolongation of its genocidal campaign against the Palestinians. Thus bolstered, Israeli leaders and soldiers have been gripped by hubris, a feeling of omnipotence, that they could destroy, occupy, ethnically cleanse, do as they wish with impunity. Just like tragic characters in myth and literary drama, their hubris was fueled by a tragic flaw, hamartia, enframed by brands of Zionism that transfigured Jewish historical memory in Palestine into an exclusive claim to the land, and pictured Israel as a forward post of Western civilization against the barbarism of the East. This combination of exclusion/ supremacism spiraled over time from an originally secular belief to take the form of extreme secular right wing and messianic ideologies that propel the war on Gaza. Although the last chapter of the tragedy has yet to be enacted, hubris has invited nemesis, the agency of retribution, and turned the analogies topsy turvy in the courts of international law and of world public opinion. (See Note)

The Invasion of Iraq a Cautionary Tale

Analogy can have utility in politics if it assists in drawing proper conclusions about the entity being compared and that can be tested empirically, and so aid in understanding reality. Otherwise, it may lead the “analogist” astray and produce undesirable outcomes. The United States’ conduct during its invasion of Iraq more than two decades ago is instructive in this regard. The U.S., then the single pole in a unipolar world, took it upon itself, as part of its global “war on terror” to invade Iraq, force regime change and do “nation building,” including the introduction of democracy to Mesopotamia. The conquest and nation-building were compared to the occupation of Germany and Japan after WWII, and the Iraqi state was reduced to its president “Saddam Hussein,” or just “Saddam.”

Soon after the American army occupied the country, its commissars in Baghdad swiftly undertook to dismantle the three pillars of the Iraqi state— the army, the bureaucracy and the Baath party – and devise a sect-based political system and constitution, despite the fact that there were no indications from experts on “democratic transitions” that foreign military invasions or promoting sectarianism were sound strategies for creating democratic orders. Political agendas had trumped intellect. 

Once the state apparatus was dismantled, a series of “unintended consequences” followed: political sectarianism flourished, and democratic bloodletting and corruption reigned; Iran, the principal regional US adversary, established a strong foothold in the country; American prison warders committed the unspeakable abuses of Iraqi inmates in Abu Ghraib that smeared America’s moral pretensions and became an iconic reference for like future viciousness.

You’d think that the invasion of Iraq would have served as a cautionary tale against marching into another country’s territory and evaluating the adversary through a prism of contrived metaphors. 

Analogy as Prelude to Israeli Atrocities 

The demon of analogy did not need to work hard to draw in the longest serving Israeli prime minister and veteran spin doctor: “Hamas is ISIS,” declared Netanyahu, at the outset of the war, an assertion that was repeated by President Joe Biden and other U.S. officials. States designate terrorists those they consider enemies, and freedom fighters their allies, and arrogate for themselves a “monopoly on violence.” The terrorist appellation had been notoriously thrown around by Western powers against anticolonial national liberation movements in the Global South (in Algeria, Kenya, South Africa, Vietnam, and Ireland, among others).

On the other hand, in the 1980s the Afghani anti-occupation fighters were celebrated as mujahedeen by the United States government and mainstream media while they fought the Soviet invaders, and then the labels were turned on their heads after the U.S. itself conquered Afghanistan in 2001. The Yemeni Houthis were initially deemed terrorists by the United States because backed by Iran, and then removed from the “list” (Americans are fond of lists) when the U.S. government sought to help reconciliation in Yemen. They now have been plopped back on the list as they try to block vessels navigating through the Red Sea from reaching Israel while it pummels Gaza. The arbitrariness of tacking on the terrorist label would be entertaining were it not deadly.

That Netanyahu could use the Hamas/ ISIS analogy has nothing to do with reality, only with his penchant for incitement. It is good to keep in mind that the shadowy organization, ISIS, was made possible by the U.S. war on terror, killed more Muslims than members of any other group, and seldom attacked Israeli targets. Hamas itself has never carried out a violent act outside of Israel/ Palestine; in contrast, Israel over the years extraterritorially targeted Palestinian intellectuals and leaders, trampling at the same time the sovereignty of other states. 

For the Palestinians, Hamas became part of their National Movement once it joined the resistance to the occupation during the first uprising, intifada. (1987-1992). Without belaboring the issue, it is sufficient to note that for the United Nations Hamas is a political movement; the only international body that has the authority to designate an organization terrorist is the Security Council. Neither the U.S. nor Israel are qualified to label Hamas as “terrorist” organization. The U.S. treats international law as “purely a tool;” and invokes its obligations only when they serve its own interests or those of “an ally like Israel,” not when they benefit those it deems enemies.  Israel has an extensive archive of U.N. resolutions that it completely disregards, including  two recent ones passed by big majorities in the General Assembly calling on Israel to observe a ceasefire in Gaza; and the U.S. veto has become its sole shield against censor by the Security Council. Its violence against the Palestinians is continuous and encompassing, and it is what instigates Palestinian counter-violence. Any fair-minded comparison of Israeli and Palestinian scale and forms of violence, would conclude that Israel is a “great terrorist state.” And it is not by accident that neither Israel nor the U.S. are members of the International Criminal Court ICC); whereas the State of Palestine is.

The Nazi analogy is vintage Israeli hype, bereft of context, and even more specious than that of ISIS. Menachem Begin, Israel’s prime minister (1977-1982) and former leader of the Zionist terrorist organization, the Irgun, was, according to Pankaj Mishra, the first to deploy it “routinely while assaulting” Palestinians and “building settlements.” Earlier the state, “had an ambivalent relationship with the Shoa and its victims.” Since then, the “…weaponization of Holocaust,” writes Raz Segal, historian of modern genocide, began to run “deep” among Israeli politician and to resonate with Jews as well as with Europeans and Americans in general.  Yet Raz and other Jewish scholars of the Holocaust, following a long line of Jewish intellectuals, reject the misuse of the Shoa to justify Israel’s occupation and repression of the Palestinians. Apart from the moral injunction that being wronged does not license a person or a group to wrong others, the analogy totally inverts the material and political positions of Israel and the Palestinians. For who controls the entire geography between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea? Who has been besieged by whom for many years? Who commands the huge military capability and economic prowess? Who dwells in the ghetto? 

Netanyahu did not conjure these metaphors as an aid in understanding Hamas; he did it to incite against it, to project a malevolent image of it similar to that of ISIS and the Nazis, all in the service of his government’s political agenda: “And just as the forces of civilization united to defeat ISIS, the forces of civilization must support Israel in defeating Hamas,” he asserted. The forces of civilization needless to say are Israel and its Western sponsors. Once the binaries of savage/ civilized, terrorism/ state violence, and evil/ good were fixed, the civilized ones, who also happen to be the exceedingly powerful, unburdened themselves of any rules of war and moral checks. Defense minister Yoav Gallant, exemplifying a long line of Israeli officials  was emphatic, “I have ordered a complete siege on the Gaza Strip. There will be no electricity, no food, no fuel, everything is closed…We are fighting human animals and we are acting accordingly.” A few days later, this homo-sapiens, homo-erectus, hominid, this mammal, primate, chordate, this citizen of the animal kingdom, fired even more fanatically: “We will eliminate everything” in Gaza. And his munificently U.S.-supplied soldiers proceeded to do just that. 

What You Distaste the Most You Become

Thanks to spaces opened up by social media, millions of people around the world witnessed the Israeli army reify Hamas, rendering everything in Gaza Hamas and Hamas everything in Gaza, and so everything became a legitimate object of destruction. The cyberspace, despite censorship, has been crucial in showing the horrors of the invasion. Western mainstream media by and large refused/ or was refused by Israel to field correspondents in Gaza, except as “embedded” in the company of the Israeli army, and deployed administrative measures and discursive strategies to obscure the viciousness and scope of Israel’s violence, while concealing the depth of Palestinian suffering. People witnessed through social media venues the sacking of Gaza by a military machine run amok, equipped with an American arsenal and arrayed against fighters with home-made, hand-held weapons, operating from tunnels in a tiny, flat territory. They witnessed the occupation army kill and bury under the rubble tens of thousands of children and adult men and women, and wound double that number, all while violating the sacred space of hospitals and taking them out of service. They witnessed missiles from fighter jets, artillery from tanks and explosives planted by Israeli soldiers pulverize towers and other residential buildings and public institutions—schools, universities, libraries, historical sites and mosques, and all but erase the natural and cultural heritage of the place.

People witnessed the Israeli military cut off water and food, fuel and medical supplies, leaving the starving crowds struggling to get barely adequate morsels of food. One after another trash heaps mushroomed everywhere in Gaza. All while giddy soldiers celebrated their malicious feats, and Western politicians and billionaires danced with Israeli soldiers and signed their names on rockets meant to kill people. And, as if slaughter and starvation and destruction by the army were not enough, the Israeli military drove at gun point half of the population into concentration camps in Rafah area in a small southern corner of Gaza, facing the prospect of a mass exodus, as happened in 1948 and again in 1967, this time into the Sinai Desert.

Meanwhile the Hasbara engines kept churning out lies and half-truths to obfuscate and deflect attention from the atrocities, accusing Hamas fighters of beheading babies, dispatching UNRWA employees to take part in the attacks of October, and operating from tunnels under hospitals—all with nary any evidence. And the main Western powers participated in the charade by repeating the drivel. The U.S. government even testified that its own intelligence located tunnels under hospitals (but withheld evidence as classified material!). It rushed, with other allies, to block aid to UNRWA, which Israel has been trying for years to abolish because it sees the agency as the instrument that keeps the Palestinian refugee claims in Palestine alive. But, as if by a just dialectic, the representations and analogies turned topsy turvy, and the arrow of barbarism curved and boomeranged, pointing at Israel and its guarantors, when the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in the Hague agreed to take up the charge of genocide against Israel presented by South Africa

In the days preceding the invasion of Iraq in 2003, I wrote an article critical of the planned campaign in the English-language newspaper Al-Ahram Weekly (Issue 619, Opinion, Jan 2-6, 2003). In it I compared (the demon of analogy) President George W. Bush to Gilgamesh heading with his companion, Enkidu, to cut the trees of the forest (oil) to build a gate for the city of Uruk to immortalize the tyrant ruler.  That task first required decapitating the head of the gods-appointed forest guardian, Humbaba, who was pictured by Gilgamesh as a terrifying, evil monster.  I warned against hubris: “Only after unforeseen tragedies and soul-searching in the wilderness did he [Gilgamesh] come to appreciate the cost of hubris and accept the limits of human reach.” 

Hubris, an Ancient Greek notion, is the belief in omnipotence, of being above the law, and beyond consequence. In our times, hubris is partly captured by expressions like the “arrogance of power,” and “power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” Hubris, combined with hamartia— to “miss the mark” in the original Greek usage, and “fatal flaw” in contemporary literary studies— propel the conduct of those who, despite warnings, are caught in their vise. There are the figures who violate taboos (Oedipus) or the laws of nature (Icarus), pursue power ruthlessly (Macbeth), or are too possessive (Othello)—and get punished for acts they realize only too late involved overstepping the limits. 

But the sense of omnipotence of violators, murderers, and tyrants is often underlain by fear. “Uneasy lies the head that wears the crown,” says King Henry in Shakespeare’s King Henry IV. And this is the fear that Gallant, in a variation of Netanyahu’s insistence on “total victory,” often expresses when he says that this is a war about Israel’s “existence.” This fatalism persists despite the peace treaties and promises of more normalization of relations with key Arab states. It is an absolutist quest, to be or not to be, rather than to be and let be, that raises the level of anxiety of the Israeli public and underlies the sadist violence that its army has perpetrated 24/7 since October 7. 

Israel’s “character(istic) flaw” lies in its exclusionary vision of the land of Palestine, and the sense of Jewish supremacy, which has eventually been codified in the 1918 Jewish Nation-State Basic Law. It is rooted in both the “organic nationalism” of the part of Europe where the Zionist movement began, and the racism in that continent which it inherited as it became entangled with colonialism. In so far as the Palestinian population was concerned, these two core tenets of Zionism were summarized in two well-known quotations from Theodore Herzl, founder of the Zionist movement and author of Judenstaat. The first quote asserts that the state would be for Jews only, “We must expropriate gently the private property on the state assigned to us. [And] We shall try to spirit the penniless population across the border….” The second foretells of its racial orientation and its view of itself as a beachhead of Europe: “We should there [in Palestine] form a portion of a rampart of Europe against Asia, an outpost of civilization as opposed to barbarism.” Thus when Netanyahu and virtually the entire political establishment speak of civilized nations fighting the barbarism of Hamas, and at the same time reject coexistence with the Palestinians and work to drive them out of the country, they are being true disciples of a long line of Zionist leaders, from Herzl himself through Ze’ev Jabotinsky, and David Ben Gurion. Jabotinsky, whose advocacy for the deployment of military force⎯ “the iron wall,” as he metaphorically phrased it⎯ to achieve Zionism’s objectives were also influential among other factions, including Ben Gurion’s “Labor Zionism,” which led the ethnic cleansing of Palestinians in 1948 and prevailed in Israeli politics until the late 1970s. Netanyahu’s Likud Party is heir to Jabotinsky’s right-wing “Revisionist Zionism,” which argued for a Jewish state on the two banks of the Jordan River; Netanyahu’s insistence on “total victory,” and on a Jewish state from the River to the Sea, can to a great extent be understood in this ideological tradition, not as merely an outcome of his legal troubles.  

Crucially also, the Zionist quest for a Jewish-only political entity ran counter to the modus vivendi in the Middle East region under the Ottoman Empire during the 19th century, which historian Usama Makdisi calls the Age of Coexistence, the eponymous title of his book on the topic. That age was distinguished by functional forms of coexistence that saw countless religious communities maintain their heritage and engage in exchange in various domains of life. Yet Herzl rejected an offer from an Egyptian government under British colonial rule to settle European Jews in the Sinai Desert because it stipulated that the settlers, like everybody else, hold Ottoman citizenship; he wanted the potential settlers to “enjoy foreign citizenship.”

This racist, exclusionary mindset, coupled with the American-fueled feeling of omnipotence, thrust Israel since around mid-October 2023, into an all-out campaign devoid of any moral or political constraints against the vulnerable Palestinian civilian population and habitat. And today it is Israel’s carnage in Gaza that is being compared to Nazi Germany’s liquidation of the Jewish ghettos by scholars of genocide, including Jews, and by millions of people around the world. Most recently, Lula da Silva, President of Brazil, who in 2022 defeated the racist Jair Bolsonaro— buddy of Donald Trump and Viktor Orban of Hungary and Benjamin Netanyahu— repeated the accusation. 

Critical in this regard also is the ICJ’s agreement to take on the case charging Israel with genocide, after citing a litany of statements by Israeli officials and acts by its army as documented in South Africa’s Application. The ICJ’s case has been buttressed by the pursuit of International lawyers and human rights organizations of individual Israeli leaders at the ICC—of which neither Israel nor the U.S. are members, as mentioned earlier⎯ for committing genocide and crimes against humanity. Hubris calls hamartia and the combination summons nemesis and, in the words of the song, Funeral for Alex Rex, “what you detest the most you become.”

Going Over the Top and Total Victory 

That Israel has donned the mantle of the exterminators of the Jews is only the ethical, moral burden of tragedy, but the villain is still scot-free and continues the war on the people of Gaza and what little remains of its infrastructure. In tragic literature, the principal characters usually perish– Achilles, Icarus, Macbeth, Othello, among others. Those who don’t, like King Lear, come to feel remorse, acknowledge their excesses and lament their fate; they become object lessons for readers and viewers. But this is what fiction, with its focus on individual characters, can deliver. It is hard to “scale up” when it comes to real wars that engulf entire societies. The moral downfall of a state, especially a powerful one, does not guarantee that the state and its villainous leaders pay a price. It only happens when it is defeated by a superior power, as was the case with Germany and Japan; the Allies themselves, who committed a genocide of their own, especially in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, were not held accountable because they were the victors. 

President Biden has after months of the start of the sacking of Gaza acknowledged that Israel had already gone “over the top,” in its military assault on Gaza. The moral and “politically correct” conclusion which a reasonable person, if not leader, would draw is that the assault must be stopped. But, no. The U.S. government, which shares with Israel the goal of “defeating Hamas,” and in part because of it, continues to flaunt the wishes of the majority of its own citizens and the international consensus for a ceasefire by simply casting vetoes against UN Security Council resolutions calling for immediate ceasefire, exposing the imbalance of the international political order in its vulnerability to the monopoly of a single power. What the U.S. in effect aims for in Gaza is a “humanitarian genocide,” as it partners with Israel in pursuit of “total victory.”

What is total victory? It is better if kept a mystery, a promise, like the Holy Grail, to maintain the fascination and the clamor of the Israeli public for achieving it. Is it another occupation? It appears so, from both statements and concrete steps on the ground. Israel had done this before in Gaza and was forced to pull out. Another Nakba, catastrophe, would definitely do for Netanyahu; but it may be hard to expel everybody, and the Palestinians will multiply, as they did in the last 75 years. In any case, Israeli bombs and demolition gear have already visited a catastrophe on Gaza, created a ghost-land, as it did with the virtual erasure of more than 600 localities in the aftermath of the 1948 exodus. It has rendered Gaza a succession of dystopian vistas, unfit for human life— precisely as Gallant pledged from the start. 

In the meantime, it is imperative to find a palpable token to market as the sought-after victory. Israel has found it in the person of Yahya Sinwar, the civilian leader of Hamas in Gaza. It has almost reduced this mass organization to this one person, as the U.S. had done with Saddam Hussein (the big man theory of history). Israel mythologized Sinwar (last name not first, unlike Saddam)— his knowledge of Hebrew, his shrewdness, charisma, stubbornness and the like— and priced his head at $400,000.  To add to the mystery, its spokespeople say he is hiding in some tunnel, behind Israeli captives (as opposed to a destroyed public building?). And the narrative becomes a demonic page turner. Without a doubt, if Sinwar is killed, the Israelis will feel jubilant and dance in the streets and scream for the assassination of more Hamas leaders. 

But Sinwar, unlike Yasser Arafat, does not hit much of an affective chord in the Palestinian political imaginary; he is fairly new on the scene and has been largely invisible. While he would be mourned by many Palestinians, his death won’t be taken as the blow that Israel makes it out to be. “The cemeteries of the world,” Charles de Gaulle is quoted as saying, “are full of indispensable men.” Sinwar, who spent twenty-three years in Israeli prisons and saw many Palestinian leaders assassinated, probably understands this more than his jailers. And, as political scientist Walid Kazziha wrote, the despairing Palestinians could be creating “in some twenty years’ time Sinwar Brigades.” What is total victory then if it reproduces the same conditions it seeks to eliminate? 

A figure who is also on Israel’s list of symbolic leaders is Abu Ubaida, the masked military spokesman of Hamas. With his defiant words and the expert cadences of his delivery, Abu Ubaida resonates with millions of viewers in Palestine and the Arab world; he reassures them that the resistance to Israeli aggression goes on (Israel doesn’t seem to have priced him yet). The only problem with Abu Ubaida as a prize is that he is already a legend, and his visage would only become more iconic dead than alive, with his face uncovered and an ordinary mien. His assassination wouldn’t bring total victory either.

With a carnage unprecedented in recent warfare, Israel in a macabre fashion has already won the war. Hamas, if it can still govern Gaza, would be too preoccupied with the monumental task of rebuilding and healing the untold wounds to engage Israel in any military confrontation, all while under siege with Israel acting as the gatekeeper of the entry of people and goods to Gaza. Israel doesn’t “need” to invade Rafah to achieve total victory as Netanyahu and his war cabinet allege, pretending that Israel is the United States attacking ISIS in Mosul. By insisting on total victory, rather than calling back its soldiers and suing for peace and coexistence, Israel refuses to let go of history. Together with its American patron, it persists, in the original Greek sense of hamartia, in missing the mark. 

Anything You See Will Be Used Against You

During Israel’s military siege of the West Bank and Gaza in 2003, which was nowhere as devastating as the present war, Mahmoud Darwish in his poem “State of Siege” presented the Israeli soldiers themselves with a generous, mutually-therapuetic, if not liberating, bargain: 

Come in, drink Arabic coffee with us
So you may feel human as we do
Get out of our mornings
So we may feel human as you do 
(My translation.)

I doubt that were Darwish alive today, he would feel this benevolent. Neither would many Palestinians. A more fitting gesture for the moment, I think, is something akin to the upper-case curse that British poet Hugh Sykes Davies hurled at the Spanish Fascists in his 1938 “Poem,” and has echoed in my mind since I read it many years ago. The curse caps a crescendo of incantatory lines in which one thing gets eerily transformed into another to create a spectral atmosphere of death and ruination, admonishing the Fascists that their vile deeds will always be held against them by people of conscience:

It doesn’t look like a feather it looks like a finger of broken glass 
It doesn’t look like something to eat it looks like something eaten
It doesn’t look like a broken cup it looks like a cut lip
It doesn’t look like yours it looks like mine

NOTE: Since the writing of this article, the ICC prosecutor Karim Khan submitted “applications for arrest warrants” against Benjamin Netanyahu and Yoav Gallant, as well as three senior members of Hamas, Yahia Sinwar, Mohammad Deif and Ismail Haniyeh for “bearing criminal responsibility for… war crimes and crimes against humanity.” The ICJ, in turn, issued an order for Israel to “immediately halt” its offensive against Rafah which it commenced around May xx, to “comply with its obligations under the Genocide Convention.”  These moves by the two courts buttress the essay’s conclusions about the boomerang of the analogies employed by Israel. President Biden described the ICC’s arrest warrants of Israel’s top leaders as “outrageous,” and the U.S. remained “conspicuously silent” about the ICJ rulings, in sharp contrast to the effusive praise of the same court’s order for Russia to suspend its operations it had just begun in the Ukraine, again confirming its opportunistic perception of international law.

Sharif S. Elmusa is a scholar, writer, and poet. His recent research focuses on environmental politics and culture, including in Palestine. His academic work includes two books and two edited volumes, in addition to many articles. Elmusa is author of the poetry collection Flawed Landscape, and coeditor of the first anthology on Arab-American poetry, apart from poems in numerous magazines and anthologies. His essays and op-ed pieces appeared in many publications, in the U.S. and internationally. Elmusa, who holds a Ph.D. from M.I.T, taught for many at the American University in Cairo (Political Science) and as visitor at Georgetown University in Qatar, and at Yale.

Featured Image: Devastation After Israeli Airstrikes on Khan Younis, southern Gaza Strip, Oct 26, 2023 (AP, photo by Mohammad Dahman) Source

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