Israel’s boosters reason away the hideous collateral damage as an inevitable fact of a conflict in which a rogue enemy operates in zones crammed with civilians. Innocent Palestinians, wrote Robert Satloff, executive director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, are “caught between the hammer of Hamas’ atrocity and the anvil of Israel’s rightful retribution.”
Others in Israel and elsewhere have been even less sympathetic. They cast the more than 2 million people living in the Gaza Strip — a territory subjected to an immiserating economic blockade for the past 16 years — as accomplices to Hamas, which has held sway in Gaza since capturing it in 2007 from rival Palestinian factions.
“It’s an entire nation out there that is responsible,” Israeli President Isaac Herzog told reporters. “This rhetoric about civilians not aware, not involved, it’s absolutely not true. They could’ve risen up, they could have fought against that evil regime.”
A core part of this talking point lies in what happened close to two decades ago. In 2006, the Palestinian political entity operating in the West Bank and Gaza staged elections. Little did observers know that it would be the last vote allowed by the Palestinian Authority, led then, as it is now, by President Mahmoud Abbas. The vote took place in the aftermath of a turbulent series of events: the fiery years of the second intifada, the death of longtime Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, and the 2005 Israeli withdrawal of troops and settlers from the Gaza Strip.
The election yielded a shock victory for Hamas, which won the most seats with some 44 percent of the vote. Lara Friedman, president of the Foundation for Middle East Peace, which advocates for rapprochement and peace between Israelis and Palestinians, recently observed that in no single district in Gaza did Hamas win a majority of votes. At present, children make up roughly half of Gaza’s population, meaning only a fraction of the territory’s current population ever cast a ballot for Hamas.
Given the horror of what Hamas unleashed on Oct. 7, it is difficult for many to imagine the Islamists as genuine democratic actors in a fledgling parliamentary structure. But the faction, which emerged in the 1980s in Gaza (with a degree of Israeli help) as a Palestinian offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood, won the votes of many Palestinians who were tired of the entrenched Palestinian clique of Abbas and his allies in the secular Fatah party.
“Mostly, they were voting for opposition and voting against Fatah — against corruption, against nepotism, against the failure of the peace process, and against the lack of leadership,” Mustafa Barghouti, an outspoken, independent Palestinian politician then and now, told CNN at the time.
That analysis was echoed by a conspicuous onlooker. President George W. Bush had pushed for Palestinian elections, in part as an outgrowth of his administration’s ideological zeal for spreading democracy in the Middle East through whatever means necessary. As Hamas’s victory became clear, Bush said the vote reflected Palestinians’ disenchantment with their prevailing leadership, who had been elected a decade prior in the wake of the signing of the Oslo accords.
“There was a peaceful process as people went to the polls, and that’s positive,” Bush told reporters. “But what’s also positive is that it’s a wake-up call to the leadership. Obviously people were not happy with the status quo. The people are demanding honest government. The people want services.”
Within the Bush administration, there was anguish. A recognized terrorist organization that was refusing to disarm its armed wing or revise elements of its charter that sought the destruction of the state of Israel had secured democratic legitimacy. “Everyone blamed everyone else,” an official with the Department of Defense told Vanity Fair in 2008. “We sat there in the Pentagon and said, ‘Who the f— recommended this?’ ”
As it turned out, Hamas never ended up steering the Palestinian democratic experiment. Western powers temporarily turned off the tap of aid to the Palestinian Authority; Israel clamped down on the Gaza Strip and detained dozens of Hamas officials, including elected legislators. The schism between Abbas and Fatah in the West Bank and Hamas in Gaza exploded in a bloody set of battles that saw Hamas violently wrest full control of the Gaza Strip in 2007, allegedly after the Bush administration tried to foment an anti-Hamas putsch in the territory.
What followed is the tragic course of the past decade, with the Palestinian national movement drifting into crisis, Israel placing siege conditions on the whole Gaza Strip, and periodic eruptions of deadly violence from Hamas and other armed factions in the territory reminding the world of the perennial threat they pose and the disproportionate price paid by Gaza’s civilian population. With U.S. and Israeli blessing, Qatar provides an economic lifeline by helping Gaza’s authorities pay for things like infrastructure and the salaries of public officials. Meanwhile, through more covert, illicit means, Hamas has received Iranian aid and support to retool its military capacities.
In the wake of Oct. 7, even fewer governments will treat Hamas as a normal political operator. But in the years preceding the current war, Palestinians in Gaza had more immediate concerns than finding the means to oust the armed faction in their midst. “Many Gazans would prefer not to be governed by Hamas militants, but they can’t simply start up a campaign to get rid of them — not without grave risks to their lives, livelihoods, and families. For one thing, they are too busy struggling to survive from day to day,” wrote Jonah Shepp in the Intelligencer.
“For another, Hamas cements its hold on power through an outsize role in the Gazan economy: It is the only organization that can reliably pay salaries, it maintains a stranglehold on inflows of foreign aid, and it keeps Gaza dependent on Israel for water and electricity by refusing to build infrastructure instead of rockets,” he added.
Other analysts suggest that the moment may also demand more reflection within Israel. Hamas militants “are arsonists, and we must remember that arsonists seek a world in which everything burns,” wrote Ben Rhodes, a former Obama administration official. “Meanwhile, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s long-standing policy of squeezing Gaza, expanding West Bank settlements, and making deals with Arab autocrats has not delivered security but led Israel to let its guard down while Hamas plotted its attack.”