When Victims Become Executioners

Converging shifts in the Middle East erupt in the Israeli-Hamas war.

Ibrahim Rayintakath for Noema Magazine

Nathan Gardels is the editor-in-chief of Noema Magazine.

The threads of conflict go back ages in the Middle East and never seem to end. Antipathies gestating from long-ago wounds are triggered by some current set of circumstances into fresh bouts of violence and war that conjoin with and compound past harms.

What’s worse is that the impassioned hostility arising from existential stakes has intensified over the years into the horrifically unspeakable face-to-face brutality witnessed in the Hamas attack followed by the collateral toll from Israeli retaliation on terrified civilians in Gaza.

The convergence of a series of shifts in the region over recent decades that are a consequence of previous conflicts lay behind the outbreak of this war.

The 1982 Invasion Of Lebanon

In my personal experience, there is a sense of déjà vu today with the terrorism of the Palestine Liberation Organization and the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982. In response to back-and-forth raids across the border and the attempted assassination of the Israeli ambassador to the U.K. by the offshoot Abu Nidal faction, then Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin launched “Operation Peace for Galilee” aimed at expelling Yasser Arafat and his PLO from their safe operating base in Lebanon.

The onslaught was already raging when I arrived by ship from Cyprus with a delivery of emergency medical supplies for the hospital at the American University of Beirut. I checked into what I was mistakenly told was the only safe place in town, the Alexandre Hotel in East Beirut. All the windows had been blown out the day before by a car bomb intended for Ariel Sharon, then the Israeli general leading the military operation who had held a meeting there.

Whenever gunfire erupted somewhere nearby, as it did regularly, everyone hit the ground for cover. Crossing into besieged West Beirut, controlled by a patchwork of PLO and local militias, each contesting the other’s arbitrary authority, was a perilous exercise. If you turned into a wrong intersection, those controlling their sliver of space would fire machine guns mounted on the back of pickup trucks in your direction.

Israeli tanks and artillery constantly shelled from the hills, leaving plumes of dark smoke rising high into the sky. The neighborhood around the Green Zone crossing line between East and West was obliterated into piles of rubble. The PLO leadership cowered in safe-house bunkers, waiting out the siege, plotting escape routes and trying to negotiate their survival. The turmoil toppled the Lebanese government and brought the Christian Phalangists and their militia, allied with Israel, to power.

Just as now, American warships were sent off the Mediterranean coast, at that time to assist the evacuation of the trapped and defeated PLO, which embarked for Greece and on to exile in Tunisia. With the PLO gone, Phalangist fanatics entered the Sabra neighborhood and adjacent Shatila refugee camp in Beirut and massacred hundreds of civilians, including women, children and the elderly.

I drove down to the northern Israeli border through southern Lebanon, passing columns of massive Merkava tanks trailing menacing dust clouds as they headed north. Beyond Sidon and Tyre, I encountered the wholesale wreckage of village after village, like Ain al-Hilweh, where Palestinians had taken refuge as far back as 1948.

In an effort to stabilize Lebanon and act as a buffer between warring parties, U.S. and French forces were stationed in Beirut. In October 1983 suicide bombers blew up their barracks, killing 241 American and 58 French troops. Then U.S. President Ronald Reagan ordered an end to the mission.

It was out of the ruins of Lebanon and the ensuing political vacuum that the Shiite Hezbollah arose as a major force in the country. Instead of the “40 years of peace” Menachem Begin sought with his invasion, what remains today is an Iran-sponsored, well-armed and battle-hardened threat on Israel’s northern border aligned with Hamas in its determination to destroy the Jewish state.

The 1982 war was the beginning of the end of the PLO as an effective enemy of Israel. It became so weak as time went on that present Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his extremist cabinet felt little need to take the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank, which morphed from it, seriously. For the PLO’s part over the years, it never seemed to miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity, as Israeli statesman Abba Eban famously quipped, with each successive failure of leadership strengthening the desperate sentiments that fueled the rise of Hamas.

When the PLO did seize an opportunity during the Oslo process, it never gained traction in the face of intransigent constituencies in Israel. As long ago as 1996, Netanyahu flatly told me in an interview that a two-state solution as envisioned in that accord would never happen. “The fledging Palestinian state that Arafat and the PLO are trying to establish is not what the Israeli people want,” he declared summarily.

The U.S. Invasion Of Iraq

When the U.S. ousted Saddam Hussein in 2003 in the name of expunging post-9/11 terrorism once and for all in the Middle East, King Abdullah of Jordan was alarmed by what he saw as the inexorable end result. He warned that by removing the Iraqi dictator, the mostly Shia population of a liberated nation would turn their sympathies toward Iran, shifting the entire balance of power in the region and creating a “Shia crescent” that stretched from Bahrain to Hezbollah in Lebanon.

When I raised this concern at a lunch with then-U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney at the World Economic Forum in Davos in 2004, he just stared back uncomprehendingly as if the thought never occurred to him, or just merely assuming that enduring American influence in Iraq allied with Saudi Arabia would somehow checkmate Tehran forever.

Two decades on, radical Iran-aligned and supported forces, including the Sunni Hamas, which deny the very legitimacy of the Israeli state and oppose any reconciliation with it by the Arab world, are showing their vicious mettle in yet another round of eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth meting out of desert justice.

Not A Black Swan Event

In short, as Noema editorial board member Fareed Zakaria correctly analyzed on his CNN show, GPS, the Hamas attack may have erupted unexpectedly for those looking elsewhere, but it was not a black swan event appearing from nowhere. It was a “white swan” event that can be readily traced back to a wave of developments over the last half-century in the Middle East that are the unintended outcome of manifold mistakes, missteps and misapprehensions. It is worth watching Fareed’s commentary here.

Another commentary worth listening to is that of Yuval Noah Harari, the Israeli author of “Sapiens” and other works on human nature. As a historian, he always looks at how seeds planted by actions at one time can foster unforeseen repercussions later on.

He also draws a general observation from the recent civil strife in Israel over the rule of law and role of the Supreme Court in checking the power of the executive and the parliament, which the Netanyahu government has sought to diminish on behalf of a theocratic fringe. Speaking of the failed defense of Israel’s borders when Hamas struck, Harari argues that when populists destroy state institutions, they are not there when you need them.

One wracks the fair soul for ways to disentangle the long threads of animosity that nurture an endless cycle of retribution in the Middle East where all atrocities are equally atrocious. Everybody knows, to paraphrase Albert Camus, that when victims become executioners, soon only the dead will be innocent.