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Us or them: understanding the Israeli-Palestinian war

Firas Modad attempts to offer an objective, ‘steel-man’ perspective of the position of each side in the Israel-Palestine conflict, without endorsing either.

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is not a dispute among people with shared values over who governs which territory. It is not a civil war within a single nation. It is total war between two peoples, only one of whom can fulfil its ambitions. Victory is necessary because defeat could lead to annihilation. 

Simply, it is a pre-modern conflict intended to eliminate the other side as a fighting force. If the other side is seen as a people, rather than a military, then victory may require destroying the other side as a people. Therefore, mass killings, attacks on civilians and ethnic cleansing may well be necessary and are considered acceptable. It is not an ‘us versus them’ conflict. Rather, there will be an us, or there will be a them, but not both.

Israel’s view

Hamas claims that its legitimacy stems from Islam, and from the fact that it is a people’s movement launching a people’s war (like many other Islamic militant movements, Hamas features an amalgamation of left-wing and traditional Islamic discourse). An Islamic people’s movement will never accept the existence of a Jewish state.

Contrary to most narratives which cast Hamas as extremists within a Palestinian national liberation movement, Hamas was the party that most recently won an election in Palestinian territories, and would likely win once again hands down. Schools and hospitals in Gaza are run by Hamas, and Gazans allow Hamas to have tunnel openings in their own homes.

The civilians, from Israel’s perspective, are complicit.

Hamas media constantly emphasises that it has full public support. Anyone who does not support Hamas or the resistance to Israeli occupation is cast as a traitor, and the average man on the street probably agrees that siding with Israel is treason. The Resistance Axis – the militant forces led by Iran, which supports Hamas – boasts that its civilians are the sea in which they swim, and that civilians embrace their ideology. Criticism of Hamas’ militancy is extremely rare, in part because Hamas would repress any criticism in Gaza, but also because Hamas is seen as a genuine popular resistance movement. 

Moreover, Hamas and pro-Palestinian propaganda more generally keep insisting that, no matter how many battles Israel wins, in the end the war will be won with demographics. Palestinian women will produce more men than Israel is killing. Those civilians who are killed by Israel will be avenged by their relatives, born and yet to be born. Israelis are being told that they will be outbred and subjugated if they use force sparingly. 

Furthermore, Israel has tried peace, only to end up confronted by a Second Palestinian intifada and a wave of terrorism from Hamas that targeted Jewish civilians and in which the Palestinian Liberation Organisation – which had signed a peace treaty with Israel – was complicit. 

This was not the first time the Arabs had rejected peace, or so claim the Israelis. Rather, it is common for the Arabs to reject peace, fight a war, lose, then demand that the earlier peace offers be placed on the table. Is this not the logic animating the Arab demand for Israel to return to its 1948 borders, after having attempted to invade Israel in 1948 and 1967? 

Even withdrawing from Gaza in 2005 did not appease the Arabs. Rather, Hamas used the absence of Israeli ground forces to build up its war fighting capabilities. Therefore, if the Arabs and Hamas will never be appeased, if Hamas has launched a people’s war against Israel, and is indeed backed by the Palestinian people, then, from Israel’s perspective, it is justified and rational to launch a war against the people of Gaza, to force them into neighbouring states or abroad, so that the Jews may finally have peace.

Additionally, Israel’s combat style of bombing civilian areas, using overwhelming force and forcing civilians to flee is the norm in the Muslim world. Muslims rarely protested Syrian President Bashar al-Assad killing Syrian civilians. They certainly did not protest Saudi Arabia killing and starving hundreds of thousands of Yemenis. No one protested Iran ending unrest by shooting a thousand protesters. Only a few Christian groups have protested the ongoing mass murder and ethnic cleansing in Darfur. Muslim countries have even sided with China despite the alleged human rights abuses against Muslims in Xinjiang. Why show pity to Muslim civilians if Muslims are so pitiless to one another? Is it fear of the public’s reaction? 

It is clear, to Israelis, that the world’s reaction is driven by anti-Jewish sentiment, as evidenced by its comparative silence about other more bloody conflicts. 

Muslim anger is driven not by any particular atrocity, such as besieging civilians or shooting protesters, but by the identity of the party committing it. Muslims ignore Saudi and Iranian atrocities but focus on Israel. And in any case, Muslims will never become Zionists. They must be forced to accept Israel through the threat of force, as that is the only language that they understand. Even in countries like Egypt and Jordan, which have a peace treaty with Israel, there is no public acceptance of the Jewish state whatsoever.

Moreover, from Israel’s perspective, its demographics do not permit it to fight long wars of attrition. There is no way the world’s 20 million Jews can win a war of attrition against the world’s 1.5 billion Muslims. Therefore, Israel must fight viciously and swiftly, inflicting enormous damage on its enemies quickly to impose deterrence. Anything else would play into its enemies’ numerical strength.

Crucially, from Israel’s perspective, Jews have nowhere else to go. If they do not win, they would return to being stateless wanderers, vulnerable to expulsion due to the cruelty and caprice of locals who never view them as true compatriots. There is nowhere better to be a Jew than among other Jews. And so, the Israelis believe, the modern nation state of Israel must survive at all costs. Never again will there be a genocide or pogrom against Jews, so long as Israel survives. 

Finally, and to some, most importantly, God gave this land for the Jewish people to occupy. It was God’s will that they return to it after their great suffering in exile. The Jews’ presence in this land is not an act of colonisation, but of decolonising the land from the Muslims who had usurped it. The land God promised to Israel was from the Euphrates to the Nile. Modern Israel occupies only the land from the Jordan to the Mediterranean – the Arabs can have the rest of the land if they let the Jews live in peace.

Hamas’ view

For Hamas, there are no Israeli civilians. Israeli civilians, male and female, are all in theory reservists, and many are armed or have access to arms. Therefore, killing a civilian, any civilian, is killing a potential soldier. 

Furthermore, as settlers and occupiers of Palestinian lands, the very presence of Israeli civilians is the reason why Israeli military forces are attacking Palestinians. Therefore, actions taken to target Israeli civilians and force them out of the land are a legitimate means of ending the occupation. After all, Israel isn’t supposed to be a safe haven for Jewish people? If Israel is not safe for Jews, then the raison d’etre of Israel is undermined. Attacking the idea that underpins the state is a means of ending the state. 

Additionally, there is no difference, from Hamas’ perspective, between killing civilians in airstrikes, as Israel does, and killing them in face-to-face attacks, be these stabbings, car rammings, shootings or suicide bombings. The result is the same, regardless of the means. 

If Israel kills civilians, then Hamas is justified in killing civilians, it claims, be that in suicide bombings or rocket strikes or any other method. 

Calling Israel’s killing of civilians collateral damage, while describing Hamas’ killing of civilians as terrorism, is just another example of Israeli media manipulation and Western hypocrisy.

The Israelis, from Hamas’ perspective, are cowards, as expressed in the Qur’an, and they dare not fight face to face. They remain in their armoured vehicles or in their jets, rarely risking their lives. Therefore, to defeat them, it is necessary to frighten them enough to get them to migrate to the West, or to anywhere else. 

Besides, the Jews themselves launched a series of massacres at the inception of the state of Israel in 1948 to put the Palestinians to flight. How can using the same terrorist tactics which Israel used be immoral? 

After all, the Qur’an says that God commanded the Jews to take a life for a life and an eye for an eye, and indeed the command is there in the book of Exodus (Ex 21:23-24), a sacred text for Jews. Besides, the Jews can easily be made to leave, or so Hamas believes, and thus, all Hamas must do to win is to weaken Israel enough to make the prospect of leaving more enticing to Jews than the prospect of staying.

There is no moral or religious reason for Hamas and other Palestinians to give an inch of Palestinian territories. Jewish migration to Palestine was imposed on the Palestinian Arabs through the British mandate – the Palestinians were never consulted. 

The legal legitimacy of Israel rests on the Versailles Conference, the League of Nations and the United Nations, where Arabs and Palestinians were either not represented or not represented adequately. 

And anyway, the point is moot. The land is holy, and God only accepts Islam as the true religion (Quran 3:85). It is not up to men to reverse God’s commands and to give away the Holy Land. God may have given the land to Israel in the Old Testament, as affirmed by the Qur’an, but Israel disobeyed and did not follow God’s prophets Jesus and Mohammad.

Thus, the argument goes, modern Jews forfeited their claim to the land.  

The descendants of ancient Jews who converted and mixed with other Muslims are now the rightful heirs to God’s promise. 

Whatever suffering must be endured on the path of God is a blessing, for suffering to defend truth, justice and morality is how believers affirm their faith. Martyrdom, of combatants and of civilians, while tragic on the personal level, is of no concern in the great scheme of things, if this fight is for God. Resistance Axis leaders’ wives and children have been killed in this fight, as have the leaders themselves. Israel’s ability to kill civilians and combatants is no reason for surrender.

In addition, from Hamas’ perspective, the alternative to war has been tried. Hamas offered a long truce, but Israel rejected it. The PLO signed a peace agreement with Israel, but Israeli militants killed former Prime Minister Itzhak Rabin, and did their best to settle the West Bank after the Oslo Peace Accords to make sure a two-state solution would not be viable, even though they had signed up to it. 

The Israeli public voted repeatedly for right wing politicians who rejected the two-state solution and promised to expel the Palestinians. Why should Hamas do anything other than fight back? Israel took this land by force, and it will be taken back by force.

From Hamas’ perspective, it must launch a people’s asymmetric war, because Arabs tried to fight in conventional military formations and failed. Furthermore, the West dominates modern military technology, and therefore it is pointless to try to compete in high tech modern warfare. 

Israel must be beaten through a lengthy war of attrition, in which each battle ends in a truce, and each truce is used to prepare to enter the next war with greater strength than the one before. 

And the war must be fought – the alternative is for people to accept Israeli dominance and learn to live under it, as happened in the West Bank from 1967 to 1987. This would cause a loss of momentum and make the struggle for liberation from Israeli occupation harder. It is pointless to focus on anything other than war, as war is inevitable until Israel is destroyed. That war impoverishes the Palestinians does not matter – those who are rich and weak, like Israel and the West, will not be rich for long, but those who are strong and poor can quickly become rich.

For all these reasons, it is right for Hamas to use every advantage that can be had, including hiding among civilians or in schools or hospitals, wearing civilian clothing during combat or using civilian infrastructure, to overcome Israel’s technological advantages. 

If Israel responds by targeting civilian areas, Hamas can use international outrage against Israel to force a ceasefire and prepare for the next round.

Israeli acts of carnage can then be used to rally support in the Muslim world and secure funding and arms to keep up the fight. 

If Israel, as the stronger party, acts as it does, then the Palestinians, as the weaker party, will do whatever they must to defeat Israel, regardless of the rules of war. This is not cynicism, but rather a demonstration of Hamas’ patience, popularity and resolve. If the West and the Jews do not like it, the Jews can go back to wherever they came from.


The modern rules of war, that civilian lives should be protected, that civilian targets are to be spared, that civilian suffering should be minimised, are a modern and unusual construct, based largely on Christian values, the trauma of the Second World War and the perception that the Christian West would forever dominate the world, and that therefore earlier cruel practices were no longer necessary. They reflect utopian thinking.

But it is hard to accept the modern rules of war when the two sides in a conflict are evenly matched, and when the value systems and identities of the two sides are irreconcilably at odds. 

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a people’s war. Both sides have legitimate grievances, display intense nationalism and hold deep religious faith. If one side were clearly and completely wrong, there would be no tragedy, only a call for justice, and the conflict would be easy to resolve.

The two-state solution is unattainable. An Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank will go as well as the 2005 Israeli withdrawal from Gaza went. No Palestinian government can recognise Israel and maintain its legitimacy, as Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has learned. The Muslims will never accept Jewish sovereignty over the Holy Land.

The conflict could end with either a Muslim victory and the subjugation and expulsion of Israel’s Jews, or with the Israelis annihilating enough Muslims to force them out of the Jewish ethno-state. 

However, even in the latter scenario, Israel’s lack of strategic depth and small population size would not make this a stable outcome. As the Bible says, “all who take the sword shall perish by the sword”. And as the Athenians said to the Melians: “We did not make that law nor were we the first to act on it”.

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I became a political analyst because, as a teenager in Lebanon, I remember waking up to an airstrike in the middle of the night and cursing Israel, and because I remember fighting Muslims and Christians who hated me for being Druse

I wanted to understand why. And I did understand, as I hope my writing above shows. After studying the Middle East for nearly two decades, with all its conflicts, I realised that Original Sin is real, and that the Devil is real. Because I understood, I became Catholic. Now I pray for peace through the conversion of both houses, Hebrew and Arab, Jewish and Muslim. 

Peace, true peace, as opposed to both the Muslims and Jews being subjugated by a foreign power, or one of them successfully ethnically cleansing the other, requires at least one of the two sides to love its enemy. And that concept is alien to both religions, yet it is a prerequisite for peace.

Join me in praying for peace, for it appears that there is little else that we can do.

This is an abridged and slightly edited version of an article which first appeared on Firas’ Love Thy Enemy site. It is republished here with permission. For other posts by Firas Modad, see here. Firas tweets at @modadgeop 

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Firas Modad is a Middle East political and security analyst, serving clients in the security, finance, insurance, media and investment industries. He is the founder of Modad Geopolitics.

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