Maybe There's No Plan
Does Anybody Know What They Are Doing?
We have a tendency to imagine evil people, especially those in high office, to be as competent as they are devious. This is encouraged by T.V. and movie villains, the writings of Machiavelli, which give the impression of politics as the domain of supremely cunning manipulators, and ultimately probably the idea of Satan himself. In the present catastrophe unfolding in Gaza, my assumption has been that each side has some kind of strategic purpose and intent in their actions, and as brutal as they might be, there is a cold logic to them, a clear and feasible endgame in sight. For Hamas, they wanted to make Israel feel and look vulnerable, setback their efforts to broker deals with Arab states, and damage Israel’s international image when the inevitable terrible reaction came. They may even have some hopes that the situation would devolve into a regional war and a general political crisis in the Arab world, leading either the acquiescence or collapse of the surrounding states as outrage on the streets against Israel became impossible contain. Just as the displacement of Palestinians in 1948 provided casus belli for the dithering and divided Arab countries, if things got bad enough maybe, just maybe, they’d all be forced to take another crack at a weakened and divided Israel, except now they have arms generously provided by the United States. In this scenario, the hasty dispatch of two aircraft carriers to the region was not just to deter Iran and Hezbollah, but saying, in effect, “Alright, nobody get any ideas now.”
For its part, Israel says it wants to destroy Hamas, but it also probably wants signal “resolve,” basically showing the surrounding Arab dictatorships that they are still tough guys, too, that they can fight in the same horrible way as their neighbors do in Syria and Yemen, and don’t feel much compunction about killing lots of people. There’s also the possibility that the settler far-right, fully ensconced in Netanyahu’s government is taking advantage of the situation to accomplish their own dire plans: mass terror directed Palestinians in an effort to finally break the resistance of that people and accomplish another round of permanent territorial expansion. They also might get the U.S. to take on Iran, which Israel views as the primary threat to its existence and who they claim, somewhat dubiously in my view, was the real power behind October 7th. In this version of events, Hamas and the Israeli far right are kind of perverted collaborators, both desiring a final, apocalyptic showdown.
The fact is I have no real insight into the motivations and strategies. These are all speculations—somewhat educated guesses—about the intentions and plans of the actors involved. In circumstances of extraordinary crisis, when world-shaking events are taking place, we naturally tend to imagine that their underlying designs must be great, and their authors also great, if usually very bad, men or women. But let’s take another speculative angle: Let’s suppose no one knows what they are doing, that this is a mess, driven by improvisation and guesswork.
I’ve been trying to focus on reading the newspapers rather than social media posts, which are either emotional outpourings or plain old propaganda. What I’ve noticed reported in the papers is that there’s a lot of uncertainty. The first thing that struck me was a piece on October 23 in the New York Times, “U.S. Raises Concerns About Israel’s Plan of Action in Gaza, Officials Say.” Here’s the first line: “The Biden administration is concerned that Israel lacks achievable military objectives in Gaza, and that the Israel Defense Forces are not yet ready to launch a ground invasion with a plan that can work, senior administration officials said.” That’s a very significant piece of news: “senior administration officials” can mean the Secretaries of Defense, State, and even the President. Then on, October 27, in the Financial Times: “Hamas leaders surprised by US ‘going into battle’” Apparently the political leadership of Hamas did not expect such a forceful United States response. If that’s true it shows a shocking lack of foresight on their part. But this piece really buries the lede in my opinion:
[Ali Barakeh, a senior member of Hamas’s political leadership in exile] acknowledged Hamas’s assault “would not have been successful without the help of our allies Iran and Hizbollah” but said no one beyond Hamas’s military wing knew about the attack, not even the most senior political leaders.
Wait one moment, please. The political leadership of Hamas did not know about the attack? Now, this could be a lie, designed to insulate the political leaders of Hamas from responsibility and aid in some further negotiation, but what if it’s true! That’s pretty astonishing. That means this all could have been done without any sort of political or strategic thinking whatsoever. There has been rumbling since the beginning that this was the work of a radical faction of Hamas unhappy about being sidelined. So, again, this all may have had much to do with the infighting within Hamas as any grand strategy. Here’s another interesting statement from Barakeh:
“Originally, the goal was only to grab 10-20 hostages,” Barakeh said, noting the captives were depleting the group’s supplies in Gaza. So far, Hamas has released four civilians unilaterally.
Again, this could very well be a lie. But it could also be a lie told internally within Hamas itself: what the military leadership convinced the political directorate it was up to.
Back to Israel and the United States. Since Netanyahu and his gaggle of fascist goons are evidently incompetent, it’s perhaps not wise to attribute them any capacity for longterm thinking, even in its most evil form. And although Biden seemed to embrace Israel without any qualifications or caveats, now it seems like there might be some hesitation on the administrations’ part: calling for a “Humanitarian pause” is just a diplomatic reframing of “ceasefire.” Biden is a creature of another era: he was embracing the Israel that was governed by Baraks and Rabins, not Ben Gvirs and Smotriches. As Alon Pinkas writes in Haaretz, there are growing indications of divergence between Washington and Tel-Aviv:
U.S. National Security Council spokesman John Kirby was asked Monday whether the United States believes Israel is making an effort to minimize civilian casualties. “We have seen some indications that there are efforts being applied in certain scenarios to try to minimize, but I don’t want to overstate that,” he said in impressive “diplospeak,” barely veiling U.S. criticism.
Sunday’s Washington Post reported, “White House frustrated by Israel’s onslaught but sees few options.” Again, this seems like a remarkable lack of foresight: just about every person I know— that is to say, no one in the upper echelons of state, just people who follow the news somewhat diligently — absolutely knew that Israel’s response would be terribly violent. I also think the political leadership of Israel and the United States is surprised by the expressions of public outrage over Israel’s conduct. This is not the same world they were accustomed to operating in.
There are also clearly forces animating this conflict beyond cold calculation: this is a highly emotional situation for both peoples and the world at large. The hatred runs deep. Sheer desire for revenge and the need to rectify historical wrongs hang over the heads of both populations. Israeli society is furious and reeling, the memory of the Holocaust and all the terrible ghosts it brings with it is inevitably conjured by a massacre like October 7th; Palestinians have long suffered under the yoke of oppression and feel growing despair, and are prepared to lash out in any direction whatsoever. And this is an underrated factor that sounds childish but shouldn’t be discounted: Both sides just really want to kill each other. After all, atrocity, reprisal, atrocity, reprisal has been the pattern of the conflict from the very beginning. For example, here’s an episode, recorded in Ian Black’s Enemies and Neighbors, from before the formation of the state of Israel:
Haganah men like Dayan and Yigal Allon joined a new British unit called the Special Night Squads (SNS), set up after the Iraqi oil pipeline had been sabotaged. It was commanded by an eccentric officer named Orde Wingate, who was described by Weizmann as ‘strange and brilliant’.54 Operating under cover of darkness in Galilee, the SNS took the war to the Arab rebels in a brutal counter-insurgency campaign. Wingate was known as haYedid (the Friend) by the Jews. Little was said in public at the time about the harsh” “methods he employed, which were described as ‘extreme and cruel’ by one official and which included abuse, whippings, torture and executions. On 2 October 1938, nineteen Jews, including eleven children, were killed in Tiberias by the mujahideen in a well-planned attack that was compared to the Hebron massacre of 1929.55 In its wake Wingate and his men rounded up ten Arabs from the nearby village of Hattin and summarily shot them.56 Under Wingate’s influence Allon and Dayan helped develop a bolder Jewish military doctrine that was referred to in Hebrew as ‘going beyond the fence’, i.e. moving from static defence to offensive operations against the enemy. ”
It’s worth noting that Moshe Dayan and Yigal Allon are important figures in the founding of the Israeli Defense Forces. This kind of tit-for-tat killing is just sort of what these people do, except now they have rockets and F-16s.
Of course, I’m not an expert in the politics of the region, or diplomacy, or geopolitics, or military strategy, but it’s worth wondering sometimes if anybody really is either. In any case, as it says in the I Ching, “the situation is evolving.”