Israel, Palestine, Gaza and what's happening

The violence has continued.
Isaac Saul May 19, 2021
I’m Isaac Saul, and this is Tangle: an independent, ad-free, subscriber-supported politics newsletter that summarizes the best arguments from across the political spectrum — then “my take.” You can read Tangle for free or subscribe for Friday editions, and you can reach me anytime by replying to this email. If someone sent you this email, they’re asking you to sign up. You can do that by clicking here.

Today’s read: 12 minutes.

By overwhelming reader request, we’re going to update you all on what is happening in Israel and the Gaza Strip today. I’m also going to try to define some terms and offer a foundational understanding of the latest conflict.

In 2014, Palestinians search through the rubble of their destroyed homes hit by Israeli strikes in the northern Gaza Strip. Photo: United Nations

Thank you.

Yesterday, I wrote about abortion. As you can imagine, this was a subject I was pretty nervous to write about, and especially to stake out my own position on (rather than just punting). I leaned into my honesty and transparency about my biases, and I was rewarded. I’ve looked through all the responses that came into that edition so far, and I was surprised — shocked, honestly — to see nothing but well-reasoned, thoughtful, passionate arguments about what was in the newsletter. No accusations, no all-caps, no screaming, no name-calling — just people on both sides trying to make their cases to me. So I just wanted to thank all of you. I’m continually impressed and moved by our Tangle audience. You are special.


Quick hits.

  1. The New York attorney general said the civil investigation of the Trump organization is now exploring possible criminal conduct. (The Washington Post, subscription)
  2. The House of Representatives will vote on whether to create a commission to investigate the January 6th Capitol riots. (The New York Times, subscription)
  3. Tech stocks and cryptocurrency had a major sell-off today, with stakeholders losing their appetite for risk. (The Wall Street Journal, subscription)
  4. Liberals are calling on President Biden to ditch negotiations with Republicans on his infrastructure bill. (Politico)
  5. Progressive activists in the United States pronounced support for Palestine and protests occurred across the West as the conflict in Gaza rages on. (Fox News)

What D.C. is talking about.

Israel, Palestine and the Gaza strip. Before we jump in, I want to satisfy some reader requests by defining a few glossary terms. I’m trying to keep this short, so these definitions are not complete (there are literally books written about each one).

Mahmoud Abbas: The president of the state of Palestine and the Palestinian National Authority. He is the leader of the Fatah party, whose main rival is Hamas. He was elected in 2005 to a four-year term, but has stayed in power indefinitely. In April, there was supposed to be a new election for the first time in 15 years, but Abbas called it off amid allegations of corruption and mismanagement.

Hamas: The Islamist group whose goal is to liberate Palestine from Israeli rule and turn it into an independent Islamic state. Hamas is literally an Arabic acronym for “Islamic Resistance Movement,” and it is fighting for the support of the Palestinian people. Hamas militants are largely responsible for rocket attacks from Gaza.

Gaza Strip: Denoted with the red arrow in the map below, the Gaza strip is a self-governing Palestinian territory that sits between Egypt and Israel.

West Bank: Denoted with a blue arrow below, the West Bank is under partial Palestinian authority but has been occupied by Israel since the War of 1967.

Benjamin Netanyahu: The prime minister of Israel since 2009. Netanyahu is a former member of the Israeli Defense Force and a decorated war hero. In Israel, leaders need to form coalitions in order to control the government. Netanyahu has struggled to form a coalition in the latest round of four inconclusive elections in just two years. He has also been embroiled in a corruption scandal.

Israeli Defense Force: Also known as the IDF. This is Israel’s standing army, which has no jurisdiction inside Israel but acts as an army, navy and air force. Most Israeli citizens over the age of 18 serve three years in the IDF, including the mandatory conscription of women, which makes it unique.

The Iron Dome: A missile defense system used by Israel to intercept rockets in the sky and shoot them down before they can make landfall.


Since we first wrote about this issue eight days ago, the clashes have only escalated. 219 people have been killed since May 10 in Gaza, including 63 children, according to Reuters. 12 people have been killed in Israel, including two children. Diplomats from across the world have been urging a cease-fire.

Last night, the IDF bombarded targets it says were tunnels used by Hamas in Gaza. Some 450 buildings have been destroyed by Israeli forces, including six hospitals and nine primary health care centers, with more than 52,000 Palestinians displaced, according to the U.N. Hamas has reportedly used hospitals, schools and other densely populated areas as sites from which to shoot rockets into Israel. Israeli military officials say they are targeting military locations and issuing warnings to evacuate buildings before firing on them.

Another 50 rockets were fired overnight from Gaza into Israel. In the past week, Israel’s Iron Dome defense system has intercepted approximately 1,200 rockets fired from Gaza. In the 10 years it has been operational, before this latest spate of fighting, the defense system had intercepted 2,500 rockets. It’s estimated that over 3,000 total rockets have been fired from Gaza in the last week, though some were either not intercepted, did not make it out of Gaza or landed in rural areas out of harm’s way.

Today, President Biden told Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu he expects a de-escalation as demands for a cease-fire grow.

The current conflict started nine days ago when Hamas began firing rockets into Israel over the treatment of Palestinians in Jerusalem who were worshipping during Ramadan. A property rights dispute, along with clashes between Muslim worshippers and Israeli police at the al-Aqsa mosque, were also part of the origins of this renewal of conflict. We covered that more in-depth here.

Below, we’re going to look at some reactions after nine days of fighting.


What the right is saying.

The right is supporting Israel, claiming that it is acting in self-defense and America must stand with its ally.

In the conservative Israeli news outlet Ynet, Ben-Dror Yemini said one should be able to understand sympathy for Hamas because of the images of destruction in Gaza — but also understand that such sympathy is born out of ignorance of the truth about the “terrorist organization.”

“In 2007, Hamas violently seized control of the Gaza Strip, eliminating in the process hundreds of members of the rival Fatah movement that is headed by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas,” he wrote. “Some were even murdered by being thrown off the roofs of tower blocks. The Hamas — an organization affiliated with the radical Muslim Brotherhood — has a senior spokesman who calls not only for the destruction of Israel and the Jewish people as a whole, but also seeks to conquer Rome, and ‘the two Americas.’ Hamas also publicly and officially calls for the ‘extermination of Jews and Christians to the last.’ Hamas teaches these destructive worldviews as early as kindergarten.

“Hamas does not want prosperity, it wants terrorism,” he added. “Even so, again and again for humanitarian reasons, Israel allows the flow of hundreds of millions of dollars into the Strip along with hundreds of trucks carrying supplies into the Gaza Strip on a daily basis. It did not help. Hamas used the money to fund the terrorist tunnels that go beneath Gaza into Israeli territory.”

In The National Review, former Vice President Mike Pence put the blame squarely on Joe Biden.

“Under the Trump-Pence administration, we made it crystal clear to the world that America stands with Israel,” he said, listing the administration’s moves in Israel. “President Biden has emboldened anti-Semitic terrorist groups such as Hamas by shunning Israeli leaders and restoring more than $200 million in aid to the Palestinians that had been canceled by the Trump-Pence administration. He unilaterally took the Iranian-backed Houthis off the list of designated terrorist organizations. And worst of all, he has announced his intention to rejoin the Iran nuclear deal, destabilizing the entire region.

“Every tepid statement uttered by the Biden-Harris administration is built on a false equivalency between Israel and Hamas,” he wrote. “One is a sovereign nation with a legitimate government, and a trusted ally. The other is an internationally recognized terrorist organization that has fired more than 3,000 rockets at Jewish families and businesses in the past week. There is no moral equivalency between Israel and the terrorist group Hamas. President Biden and every American leader should uphold Israel’s right to self-defense and condemn the terrorists of Hamas — as well as their supporters and apologists — in the strongest possible terms.”

In The New York Times, Bret Stephens said Israel must rout Hamas for the sake of peace.

“The tactics of Hamas are to house its arsenals in schools and mosques, set up headquarters in the basement of hospitals and fire its missiles from sites next to crowded apartment buildings and hotels housing foreign journalists,” he wrote. “The idea is either to keep Israel from returning fire or, if it does, reap the propaganda benefits from televised and tweeted pictures of wrecked buildings and human casualties and ‘disproportionate’ Israeli-Palestinian death counts that obscure the fact that one side is doing what it can to protect civilian lives and the other side is doing what it can to endanger them.

“The cynicism is breathtaking,” he added. “It ought to be widely condemned as a form of terrorism against ordinary Palestinians, whose visible suffering is as central to Hamas’s global purposes as is the suffering of Israeli civilians to its domestic purposes… If you want a Palestinian state to exist and succeed, you must also want Hamas to be humiliated and defeated. Hamas’s sole aim for over 30 years has been to turn a difficult, but potentially negotiable, conflict into a non-negotiable, zero-sum holy war. That strategy has to be proved a loser before Palestinian politics can move in a better direction.”


What the left is saying.

The left is divided on the issue, with some calling for Palestinian liberation from Israeli rule and others urging Israel to use restraint.

In The New York Times, Yousef Munayyer wrote that this moment may seem familiar, but it is different.

“Reacting to growing Israeli restrictions in Jerusalem and the impending expulsion of Palestinians from their homes in the Jerusalem neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah, Palestinians across the land who identified with the experience of being dispossessed by Israel rose up, together,” he wrote. “Even now, as bombs fall on Gaza, they continue to do so. Palestinians are protesting in huge numbers in cities and towns throughout the land; hundreds of thousands took part in a general strike. With this unified movement, Palestinians have shown Israel that they cannot be ignored. For years, Israelis have made peace with the notion that they can manage, however brutally, their relationship with Palestinians instead of resolving it. This has been aided by a process of walling off the ugliness of their rule: Gaza, caged and besieged, might as well have been on a different planet; Israelis could drive throughout the West Bank practically uninterrupted by the sight of Palestinians; Palestinian citizens of Israel have largely been relegated to neglected, concentrated areas.

“Many diplomats and analysts around the world I have spoken to in recent years understand that the two-state solution is dead. Israel has killed it,” he said. “When I ask why they don’t call for equal rights for Palestinians to end what is increasingly obviously a de facto apartheid system, they point out the official Palestinian position remains for a separate state. When they ask me what the Palestinian leadership is waiting for, I have no good answer. The two-state peace process has acted as a convenient excuse for third parties who would rather pretend it presents a viable path to peace — no matter how clear its failures have been — than ever hold Israeli leaders to account. But the curtain is falling: The Palestinians have moved on, and many people in America and around the world are ready to do so, too.”

The Washington Post editorial board said a ceasefire is in Israel’s interest, too.

“Israel did not start the war that now rages between it and Hamas,” the board wrote. “The Islamist movement began launching missiles indiscriminately at Israeli cities a week ago, using as a pretext several days of unrest in Jerusalem. Israel’s subsequent bombing of targets in the Gaza Strip, which has been aimed at killing commanders of Hamas and the Islamic Jihad, eliminating rocket launchers and destroying the tunnel network used by the militant groups, is not morally or legally comparable to the rocket launches, which are war crimes.

“As the campaign continues, however, Israel is pushing the boundaries of legitimate military targeting, at the expense both of Palestinian civilians and the international media,” they wrote. “Over the weekend an airstrike on a tunnel caused neighboring apartment buildings to collapse; 42 people, including 10 children, were killed… By early Monday, the Palestinian death toll had reached 200, including at least 58 children, some of whom may have been killed by the more than 400 rockets fired at Israel that fell in Gaza itself. Ten Israeli residents had died, including elderly and disabled people and a 5-year-old; were it not for the effectiveness of Israeli antimissile batteries, hundreds would have been killed.

“More bombing will inflict only incremental damage on Hamas, which cannot be destroyed by military means,” it added. “But it could cause harm to Israel’s relations with the United States, and it could tear at the social fabric of the country. Since the fighting began, the worst riots in 20 years have broken out in several Israeli towns, fueled by Jewish as well as Arab mobs. In a week the Israeli military has inflicted, by its account, extensive losses on Hamas, including the killing of numerous leaders and the destruction of miles of tunnels. It’s time to call a halt.”


My take.

There is a pretty consistent rhetorical strategy being used by both sides in this debate. On the right, the issue is consistently framed around Hamas, and around terrorism, and around the way the militant group has treated Jews and even its own people. On the left, the issue is framed around the power imbalance, the strength of Israel, the allegations of apartheid, and the Palestinian citizens who are harmed during these conflicts.

Hamas’s own history is complex. Writers who want to frame them as negatively as possible often cite a 1988 charter released by Hamas that is latent with antisemitic views and calls for wiping Jews off the planet. They also point to the sermons of Hamas members and clerics delivered to Arab audiences, where they say things like “We must attack every Jew on planet Earth! We must slaughter and kill them, with Allah's help,” or “we are sure that the Holocaust is still to come upon the Jews” or, most recently, “People of Jerusalem, we want you to cut off the heads of the Jews with knives.”

As a Jew, I’m not going to sit here and pretend those statements don’t erode my sympathy or impact me. But it’s also true that Hamas itself is divided, at times has sought out peace, and does not enjoy total support of the Palestinian people. In fact, support for Hamas is quite divided, and the group even released a new policy document in 2017 that softened its position and accepted the creation of an interim Palestine in Gaza, the West Bank and East Jerusalem (while simultaneously not acknowledging Israel). It is, right now, in a power struggle with Abbas and Fatah for the support of Palestinians.

Meanwhile, the images from Gaza are beyond words. Dead children are being pulled from rubble, mothers crying over their dead bodies, anguished faces and bloodied heads. The Israeli military has bombed hospitals, bombed refugee camps, killed dozens of children, obliterated a building that housed legitimate international reporters (and is yet to justify the bombing with evidence it also housed terrorists). The Washington Post editorial board could only muster that it’s “pushing the boundaries of legitimate military targeting.” But these are war crimes by any sane definition. Israel is clearly in control of this battle, as it has been of past battles, and there’s little sympathy globally for a nation with superior military might and political power battering a people that are throwing rocks at police and indiscriminately shooting rockets in its direction.

Again: I’m not going to sit here and pretend the images from Gaza don’t haunt me, both as a Jew and as a global citizen. But it’s simultaneously true that Israel is under attack. If the Israeli military removed its Iron Dome or put down its weapons, what would happen then? The body count in Israel would be exponentially higher, and the fact fewer Israelis have died shouldn’t obscure the reality of the 3,000-plus rockets Gaza has sent into Israel in a week. Nor that many members of Hamas would gladly wipe Israelis off the face of the earth. They’re executing a strategy to overwhelm the Iron Dome, and it appears to be working.

I don’t have a solution. My heart aches. The Palestinian people are stuck between two terrible choices: the lure of vengeance for the suffering they’ve endured and the promise of prosperity, or the lurid prospect of swallowing decades of being harmed by their own leaders and their military foes in Israel. Imagine the options: fight for your dead mother or brother or sister, or choose to accept their deaths from an Israeli strike in an effort to embrace hope for a more stable and diplomatic future — one few observers even view as plausible at this moment. There are teenagers in Palestine making that choice right now, and every new bomb dropped in Gaza, or rocket that makes it through the Iron Dome, creates new radicals on each side. I’m a grown man and I can’t say confidently what I’d do if I were in their shoes.

Israel, meanwhile, is surrounded by potential threats. Hezbollah, the terrorist group in Lebanon (which borders Israel to the north) appears to have gotten into the mix. Attacks on random Jews in the streets of Jerusalem have ramped up. Thousands of rockets have rained on Israel in a week. Put down your arms and act defensively or try to use maximum force?

I don’t know the way out. Hamas’s political appeal is likely rising, given Israel’s lack of restraint. Abbas is holding onto power by a thread. Netanyahu is losing many Americans and global observers in the center or on the left, and may lose his office as well. Maybe a one-state solution with equal rights is the only feasible solution that’s left — the end of the Jewish state. Maybe a two-state solution is salvageable. Maybe we’re at the beginning of another holy war. No resolution seems near, and pretending otherwise is ignoring the reality of what’s happening on the ground.


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A story that matters.

Rep. Sean Maloney (D-NY) was given the task of completing an autopsy of the 2020 election for Democrats. Maloney, the chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, put together a 52-page report on why Democrats underperformed in the House while winning the presidency. He told Democrats that they “simply underestimated the number of hardcore Trump voters and, with more Trump voters in the voting booths, the Republican attacks against the ‘defund the police’ movement proved more potent than Democrats ever anticipated.” He also pointed to bad polling. Democrats will use the autopsy to inform their strategy in 2022. (The Washington Post, subscription)


Numbers.

  • 36%. The percentage of Democratic voters who are equally sympathetic to Israelis and Palestinians in the conflict.
  • 12%. The percentage of Democratic voters who are more sympathetic toward Israelis.
  • 18%. The percentage of Democratic voters who are more sympathetic toward Palestinians.
  • 19%. The percentage of Republican voters who are equally sympathetic to Israelis and Palestinians in the conflict.
  • 51%. The percentage of Republican voters who are more sympathetic toward Israelis.
  • 3%. The percentage of Republican voters who are more sympathetic toward Palestinians.

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Have a nice day.

For the first time in months, several states in the United States have reported zero COVID-19 deaths. Texas, Arizona, Minnesota and Massachusetts all hit the milestone in the last few days. In sum, COVID-19 deaths have fallen to their lowest rate in 14 months, and evidence continues to grow that the U.S. is leaving coronavirus behind as its efforts to help deliver more vaccines abroad continue to ramp up. (Axios)

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Isaac Saul

I'm a politics reporter who grew up in Buck County, PA — one of the most politically divisive counties in America. I'm trying to fix the way we consume political news.

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