The event: September 11, 2001, al-Qaeda terrorists fly two planes into the World Trade Center, killing nearly 3000 people.
The context: In 1991, the US tricked Saddam Hussein into invading Kuwait. As a payback for fighting on their side, the Saudis allowed the US to station its troops in Saudi Arabia for the first time. From the US perspective, it was a way to keep oil flowing by being ready to invade any country in the region at any point. Implementing this policy (the 1974 Kissinger Doctrine) had been impossible because of the four original pillar countries willing to host US troops, only Israel remained willing to do so. Now, Americans were in Saudi Arabia, the location of Mecca and Medina, the two holiest cities of Islam.
The United States had funded Osama bin Laden when he commanded the mujahadeen fighting against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan. Putting non-Muslim troops near the Muslim holy sites—with women in military uniform driving jeeps (Horrors!)—caused bin Laden to turn against the US.
The political result: In what could have been a straightforward police action, given the disparity of forces, the US invaded Afghanistan to topple the Taliban, who had sheltered bin Laden. He fled to Pakistan. The US did its best to bomb both countries into the Stone Age.
The psychological result: The confidence of the Clinton era, during which the US viewed itself as the world’s only superpower, collapsed. President Bush addressed a joint session of Congress as follows: “Every nation, in every region, now has a decision to make. Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists.” When France refused to go along in lockstep, the potato side dish in the Congressional cafeteria was renamed “freedom fries.” Congress passed the Patriot Act, which so drastically curtailed civil liberties that it even repealed part of the Magna Carta. The yellow ribbons of the first Gulf War segued into magnets for the back of cars. Crowds screamed support for the troops (and thus perpetual war) at sporting events. The Department of Homeland Security was founded, and persecution of immigrants and refugees ramped up.
I begin here, as in the era of asymmetric warfare, if the weaker party wants to push the stronger one toward authoritarianism and fear-based oppression of its own population, hoping to weaken the country and decrease its ability to wield soft power, terrorism works. Scare people, and they will retreat into a fortress mentality. Then, maybe, the society will collapse from its own internal dissent, overspending on the military, and loss of allies. At least, that’s how the thinking goes. This part doesn’t generally work, but the fortress mentality persists.
The American terrorism-to-fortress-mentality experience isn’t unique. In particular, I see it happening throughout the history of the Israel/Palestine conflict. Analyzing these events yields insights into the near future of this region. This blog post is not aimed at anyone living in Israel/Palestine, as aside from the willfully ignorant, most will be conversant with what I relate. It is my contention, however, that most Americans (and most of the rest of the world, but as an American, I focus my criticism here) don’t know jack shit about what’s coming in this post and, as a result, behave politically in ways that are, at best, irrelevant and at worst, detrimental to a goal of lasting peace. I seek to inform, not to polemicize; I hope what I say helps my audience to understand what is happening today.
The event: August 24, 1929, Palestinians massacre Jews in Hebron and elsewhere within the British Mandate over what used to be the southern part of the Damascus Ayelet of the Ottoman Empire.
The context: As with their practice elsewhere, the British played one side against the other, fanning conflict to remain in control. In 1915, 1916, and 1917, respectively, they made three contradictory pledges about the fate of Palestine. In the McMahon Pledge, Sharif Hussein, a tribal leader in the Hejaz region of what’s now Saudi Arabia, was promised support for an independent Arab nation stretching throughout North Africa and the Levant, the goal of the Arab nationalist movement, in exchange for his fighting on the side of the British in WWI. The war’s aftermath left his sons as kings of the Hejaz, Syria, and Transjordan. Then, in the secret Sykes-Picot agreement, the British agreed to split the region with France. With France controlling Syria (including today’s Lebanon), King Faisal Hussein was relocated to Iraq as monarch in 1920. In the third agreement, the Balfour Declaration pledged British support for a Jewish homeland within their Mandatory territory.
A small Jewish community had lived in Palestine since Biblical times. Some Jews joined them in Palestine in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, but significant immigration did not occur until the mid-1920s. The region had been a backwater in Ottoman days, with family-based clans holding power locally. The most powerful family, the el-Husseinis, led by Haj Amin el-Husseini, took a staunch anti-British position. The second-most important family, the Nashashibis, and other clans were more willing to work with the British.
Attitudes toward Jews varied. In Gaza, Jewish immigration was welcomed as helpful to the local economy. Elsewhere, Haj Amin el-Husseini organized armed attacks against Jews. At first, recruiting drew primarily upon religious rather than nationalist motivations, presenting Jewish worship at the Western Wall in Jerusalem as threatening to Muslim holy sites. Indeed, the Jewish communities attacked were largely the centuries-old ones. However, Colonel Waters Taylor, the financial advisor to the British military administration, met with el-Husseini and convinced him that if attacks were sufficiently violent, the British would abandon their pledge to support a Jewish Homeland. Post-massacre, el-Husseini was forced into exile in Jordan, but he was later pardoned, made the Mufti (leader) of Jerusalem, and allowed to consolidate power such that he personally dominated Palestinian institutions.
A particularly bad pogrom in Poland led to the first significant wave of Jewish immigration to Palestine, with approximately 70,000 Jews immigrating between 1926 and 1927. Now able to argue that Jewish immigration would displace local Palestinians (in addition to anti-Semitic, Islamic fundamentalist, and Arab nationalist arguments), el-Husseini led massacres of Jews in Hebron and numerous other cities. But not everywhere. The al-Shawwa family, the leading clan in Gaza, defended the Jewish community and helped the British to evacuate them such that not a single Jew was killed there by el-Husseini’s forces.
The political result: British “Arabists” shifted government policy toward strict limits on Jewish immigration, just as the Nazis were rising to power. Anti-British sentiment increased in both the Arab and Jewish communities. The Jews suspended their conflict with the British at the advent of WWII; the Arab community did not. Haj Amin el-Husseini spent WWII in Berlin as the chief Arab propagandist for the Nazi cause. At the end of the war, he was arrested in France as a war criminal, having played a major role in the slaughter of Jews and Serbs in Bosnia. By the time of the UN vote to partition Palestine, the local Arab leadership had been thoroughly discredited and weakened.
The psychological result: Pre-1929, a broad spectrum of opinions existed within the Jewish community regarding the path forward for their homeland. Prominent Jews advocated for a binational democratic state rather than a Jewish state. These massacres convinced the vast majority of Jews that no such arrangement would work. Moreover, the situation in Europe was reaching a crisis point: it was clear that European Jews would be slaughtered, and no country in the world would be willing to save them. The Jewish community organized for self-defense, smuggling of Jewish refugees into Palestine, and opposition to British rule. As with the US post-2001, the fortress mentality took over: in their eyes, only a Jewish state would protect Jews. The immigration to Israel of Jews from the Arab world, largely forced or coerced, started in the 1950s and proceeded to the point that the majority of Jews living in Israel today trace their roots to migrants from these countries. Israel’s changing demographics only intensified the fortress mentality.
As Arab terrorism begot a Jewish fortress mentality, Jewish terrorism during the 1948 War did the same with Palestinians, foreclosing opportunities for co-existence other than a state of war between Israel and the entire Arab world that lasted into the 1970s.
The event: April 9, 1948, at Deir Yassin, the Jewish terrorist groups Irgun and Lehi slaughter villagers who had signed a peace pact with the pre-state Jewish government.
The context: On November 29, 1947, the UN adopted a General Resolution supporting the division of the British Mandate territory of Palestine into two nations, one Jewish and one Arab. Fighting broke out almost immediately. The most important paramilitary forces included the Arab Liberation Army (created by the Arab League—at the time, seven Arab states: Transjordan, Syria, Egypt, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, and Yemen); the Army of the Holy War (led by a member of the Husseini family—see above); the Haganah (organized to defend Jewish settlements against attacks in the 1920s—see above; outlawed by the British, operating underground, only acting openly as the army of the Jewish people in Palestine after the partition resolution; and becoming the IDF following Israeli independence); and two small, Jewish irregular forces—the Irgun and Lehi—that opposed the Haganah and emphasized the use of terrorist violence against the British (and local Arabs). Some Palestinians, notably the wealthy, had left the territory, expecting the fighting would worsen, but most had not at this point.
The political result: Word of the massacre spread rapidly. Although the Haganah, the local Jewish political leaders, and the major Jewish organizations worldwide uniformly condemned these killings, there were isolated uses by Jews of these events to instill fear among the local population. There were also reports of local Arab leaders greatly exaggerating these events (in particular, fabricating stories of rape that were later admitted to be false) in the hope of inspiring support for the Arab paramilitaries. Instead, these rumors contributed to decisions to flee to safety in the surrounding Arab states. Later analyses indicated that most of those leaving thought the Arab states’ armies would invade, conquer the territory relatively quickly, and allow all refugees to return to their homes.
On May 14, 1948, the British ended the Mandate, and Israel declared independence. The next day, five of the Arab League states (Saudi Arabia also put a military division under Egyptian control) declared war and invaded. This day would be commemorated in the Arab World as Palestine Day starting in the late 1950s, with the name changed to Nakba Day by Yasser Arafat in 1998.
The Arab-Israeli War resulted in approximately 750,000 Palestinians becoming refugees. Two-thirds ended up in Gaza or the West Bank, another 300,000 remained in Arab countries surrounding Israel, and 160,000 stayed in Israel.
The refugees’ analysis of the situation failed to take into account the core interests of the Arab states they had expected to fight on their behalf. King Abdullah of Jordan had conducted secret negotiations with the Jewish political leaders, offering peace in exchange for the West Bank. During the war, the Jordanian military refrained from attacking targets outside this area. On April 24, 1950, the King annexed the West Bank, but before he could formalize a peace deal, he was assassinated in Jerusalem on July 21, 1951, by an ex-member of the Army of the Holy War.
King Abdullah professed an interest in reuniting all of “Ottoman Syria,” an Arab nationalist sentiment that conveniently justified the rule of a clan from part of what by then was Saudi Arabia (see above) over a kingdom composed mostly of local Palestinians. By contrast, King Farouk of Egypt entered the war against the wishes of his advisors (who thought their military was weak) to pacify the Muslim Brotherhood, whom he viewed as a threat to his rule. The Muslim Brotherhood were Islamists, uncomfortable with the playboy ruler and his close ties to Western imperial powers. Their popularity in Egypt expanded tremendously when Haj Amin al-Husseini arrived, having escaped from France before he could be tried for war crimes. A close associate of Brotherhood leader Hassan al-Banna, al-Husseini influenced the organization to demand Egypt enter armed opposition to the Jewish state. Prior to this point, the events in Palestine had not had much influence over Egyptian politics. Reclaiming all of Palestine and expelling the Jews as a religious imperative did not bode well for cooperation with King Abdullah, and there was little coordination.
After the Egyptians conquered Gaza, General Mustafa Hafez, head of Egyptian military intelligence, began organizing “fedayeen” irregular units to carry out cross-border attacks against Israel. Irredentist opposition to Israel could co-exist with stability in Egypt because resistance was kept far away from Egyptian population centers. For Nasser (leader of Egypt soon after the overthrow of King Farouk), compromise with Israel was a betrayal of Arab nationalist principles. In one particularly well-reported speech in 1955, he put it as follows: “There will be no peace on Israel's border because we demand vengeance, and vengeance is Israel's death.”
The psychological result: The fortress mentality manifested as subsuming Palestinian politics into broader causes with larger goals. The refugees trusted the seemingly powerful Arab states to win back Palestine for them and, post-defeat, supported the interests of the Arab states even as they failed to prioritize the Palestinian cause. Independent Palestinian politics did not re-emerge until the late 1950s with the formation of fedayeen units not controlled by an Arab state, in particular, Yasser Arafat’s Fatah. These groups were tiny and relatively uninfluential until after the 1967 War, with the emergence of the modern PLO, dominated by Fatah.
This post is already my longest ever. By necessity, I have been selective in citing history. My goal was to show how terrorism can lead to a fortress mentality. If you buy my thesis, the present is cause for concern, as I see something similar happening today. Before October 7 of this year, Israeli society was in turmoil. Half of the country was protesting against the government. Although attempts to curtail the power of the judicial system—the primary check on government power in Israel, as the prime minister leads the parliamentary coalition and the presidency is ceremonial—prompted these demonstrations, a conversation of how Israeli democracy (a flawed democracy within Israel proper and not democratic at all within the occupied territories) would not persist if Palestinian national rights were denied in the West Bank and Gaza paralleled these protests. To stay in power and avoid jail on corruption charges, Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu had, for the first time, brought overtly racist political parties into the governing coalition and given their ministers prominent positions. Violence by Israeli settlers in the West Bank was rising, often with the collusion of Israeli military personnel.
The Second Intifada (2000-2005), with its suicide bomber attacks, had discredited the “Peace Camp.” In the most recent legislative elections (2022), the Labor Party (the most powerful faction from 1948 through the 1970s and the party that negotiated the Oslo Accords when in power in the 1990s) won only four seats (of 120) in parliament, and the second-most important left party did not receive any seats.
In 2023, however, for the first time since 2009, when Netanyahu returned to the office of prime minister, the Israeli left was expanding its influence. A grassroots movement uniting Israeli Jews and Israeli Palestinians appeared certain to continue increasing in political power.
And then came the Hamas terrorist attacks against southern Israel. As the aftermath has dominated traditional and social media since that point, I need not summarize details. I merely point to several consequences: 1) Netanyahu was blamed even by members of his own party for putting so much of the military in the West Bank to defend Israeli settlers in their ever-more-emboldened acts of violence against Palestinians that defense of the south was neglected. He is unlikely to remain the leader of his party after the war. He may finally go to jail. However, 2) Support for the right in Israel is rising. Recent polls show that only 1/3 of Israelis still support a two-state solution to the conflict. And 3) Support for continuing the war until Hamas is eliminated is near-universal in Israel.
A fortress mentality.
Israel has pursued this war differently than any in its history. Recent reporting has exposed the shift in military tactics. Artificial intelligence based on data such as cell phone records and aerial photography identifies upwards of 100 targets per day in Gaza of which a bombing could kill Hamas militants. Israel now also knows precisely how many civilians are likely to die from each attack. The reporting indicates the tolerance for civilian deaths was intentionally increased. Moreover, although it is not the first time Israel has done this, the selection of “power targets,” non-military infrastructure whose destruction is meant to demoralize and nullify opposition among the Gazan civilian population, have dramatically increased in prominence.
Why is Israel doing this? Fortress mentality. Please follow my attempt to mimic current Israeli logic, meant to reflect the pattern of thinking I’m observing:
The world’s compulsion for “two foot bad; four foot good” (to reference Orwell), bumper sticker politics casts Israel in the role of “white colonizer” and the Palestinians as “oppressed brown people” because otherwise, it is impossible to view the conflict from a North/South lens. This is ridiculous, as there is no colonial power stationing its Jewish citizens in this region as a way of maintaining imperial control; there is no colonial power to which the Jews could return (like the French Algerians were able to do). Jews have had a continuous presence in Israel since Biblical times and a cultural imperative to return. The majority of Jews in Israel descended from those who fled Arab countries post-1948; 20% of Israeli citizens are Palestinians; and Israel includes Black Jews from Ethiopia and very dark-skinned Jews from India. There is no white/brown dichotomy. There were two indigenous peoples, each of mixed racial composition, claiming the same land, not a colonizer/colonist situation. (Note: the situation in the West Bank is a colonizer/colonial settler situation; and Gaza, even before the war, was something worse, but this distinction from the establishment of Israel proper is often lost on social media.)
Still, the world is going ignore these facts, distort the situation propagandistically, and oppose Israel’s war against Hamas because the world only loves Jews when they’re dead. Again, fortress mentality: the world hates Jews, so Israeli defense is up to Israel. As such, the war needs to be as intensive as possible because, eventually, the world will shut it down.
The truth here: had the Israelis stuck with previous norms for the prevention of civilian casualties, fewer Gazans would have been killed. However, with how embedded Hamas made itself within the civilian population, there would still have been a lot of deaths. Even if the number of casualties had been halved, it wouldn’t have kept most of the world from opposing this war.
By last week, the Israeli military said they had killed 8000 Hamas fighters. A few more have surrendered. This is out of 30,000. Conclusion: if the goal of the war is to eliminate Hamas, it isn’t even 1/3 finished.
Last week, international agencies said 25% of Gaza was starving, and if trends continued, it would soon be 100%. If genocide had been the goal, the Israeli war strategy would have been a stupid way to pursue it. Indiscriminate bombing to kill everyone was possible—that 99% of Gazans are still alive proves genocide hasn’t yet occurred. A designation of genocide also requires proof of intentionality.
I would postulate that Israel assumed it would lose the support of every government in the world except the United States, but the US would shield Israel from any consequences of its actions. They would have been correct up to this point. However, reactions I see from Israelis have convinced me that they underestimated the extent to which the US population would care. It has cut significantly into Biden’s popularity in a way that I don’t think the Israeli leaders took into account.
Most importantly, it’s become patently clear that Israel can’t eliminate Hamas without switching to a strategy that will make the currently inaccurate (according to accepted definitions) charge of genocide into a reality. Biden won’t allow that. And right now, Biden’s voice matters in determining what happens on the ground.
Biden could not have prevented the war against Hamas. True, the US provides 16% of funding for the Israeli military (mainly for its own geopolitical aims), but even had Biden cut off every penny, the Israelis would still have had the resources to pursue this war. So, if Biden is to have any chance of overcoming the fortress mentality underlying continuation of this war as it is currently being pursued, he needs to be strategic about it.
And he is. Biden and his proxies have said the following: 1) The war must very soon shift to a low-intensity phase in which hits can be carried out against Hamas leaders and tunnel destruction can continue, but slaughter of Gazans needs to stop and aid has to reach them; 2) Israel cannot reoccupy any part of Gaza once the war is over; 3) Gaza will come under the rule of the Palestinian National Authority with support from international forces; 4) Israel needs to freeze West Bank settlement and protect Palestinians there while progress is made toward a two-state solution that remains the ultimate goal; 5) Future aid to Israel will be contingent on going along with Biden’s demands.
My confidence that Biden will succeed is tempered by the following: 1) When the war ends, Netanyahu’s political career is over, and he’ll likely go to jail, so he has a vested interest in keeping the war going as long as possible; 2) The corruption within the Palestinian Authority is severe, and the level of trust for it among Palestinians is low; 3) The budding Israeli left is once again in disarray, and the support for right-wing parties is soaring; 4) Biden faces a difficult re-election campaign in 2024, and Trump opposes the two-state solution; and 5) The aftermath of the war will require a shitload of money. Gaza reconstruction is the obvious place where money will be spent; however, assuring peace in the West Bank also requires funds. Most Israeli settlers moved there not from ideology but because government subsidies made housing cheap. The only way to make a Palestinian state possible is to move at least some of the Israeli settlers out. Making part of that voluntary by offering affordable housing to the settlers within Israel proper will take money.
Will Americans continue to allow the spending of lots and lots of their money on peace in the Middle East? Will the Gulf States, the EU, and other nations kick in significantly?
I have serious doubts. A future of chaos in Gaza, repression in the West Bank, and a fortress mentality among Israelis, reinforced every time Hamas launches a missile into Israel, is likely.
A better outcome, in my opinion, depends on Biden acting upon and American support for his currently stated policy. So, those of you who’ve read this far, including those who keep putting likes on social media posts of either the “Ceasefire Now” or the “I Stand with Israel” variety and those who have avoided any public comments because of the situation’s complexity, when the war ends, will you care enough about peace and stability in the Middle East to support the amount of spending Biden’s stated objectives will require?
The Democracy Index puts the US in the same category as Israel: a flawed democracy. Nonetheless, if the Israel/Palestine situation concerns you, your vote in the 2024 election matters, as will your public expression of support for using our tax dollars to fund peace and justice in the Middle East.