Even before Hamas’s brutal attack on October 7, the Israeli state knew it couldn’t subject Gaza to an unlivable siege forever. Now Israel’s rage has turned huge swathes of the densely populated territory into a howling wasteland.

Search and rescue efforts for those trapped under rubble continue after Israeli airstrikes hit a civil residential area in al Maghazi refugee camp, Gaza, on December 25, 2023. (Ashraf Amra / Anadolu via Getty Images)

On October 7, 2023, more than 1,500 Palestinian militants burst the gates of Gaza, overwhelmed multiple military bases, then rampaged across southern Israel. The operation was shocking in its boldness, the ensuing massacre for its brutality. But the conditions that led to the Hamas attack were long-standing. Gaza is a speck of coastline that is among the most densely populated areas on earth. Some 75 percent of its inhabitants are refugees driven from their homes to make way for the State of Israel in 1948, and their descendants. Israel occupied the strip in 1967 and de facto annexed it without extending rights of citizenship to the inhabitants. After Palestinians revolted against Israeli military rule, in 1987 (the first intifada), Israel crushed the uprising and then strengthened its grip on Gaza through various forms of confinement. By 2004, the head of Israel’s National Security Council could describe Gaza as “a huge concentration camp.” In January 2006, the Islamic Resistance Movement, Hamas, won democratic elections in Gaza and the West Bank. Israel and its allies responded by subjecting the occupied Palestinian population — already enduring the “worst economic depression in modern history” — to “possibly the most rigorous form of international sanctions imposed in modern times.” After Hamas consolidated control in Gaza the following year, Israel tightened the screws further as it put Gaza under a siege that has been enforced with varying degrees of intensity ever since.

The siege extinguished Gaza’s economy and reduced its people to penury. “The idea is to put the Palestinians on a diet,” a senior Israeli official explained, “but not to make them die of hunger.” The unemployment rate soared to “probably the highest in the world,” four-fifths of the population were forced to rely on humanitarian assistance, three-quarters became dependent on food aid, more than half faced “acute food insecurity,” one in ten children were stunted by malnutrition, and over 96 percent of potable water became unsafe for human consumption.

The head of the United Nations (UN) agency for Palestinian refugees, UNRWA, observed in 2008 that

Gaza is on the threshold of becoming the first territory to be intentionally reduced to a state of abject destitution, with the knowledge, acquiescence and — some would say — encouragement of the international community.

The UN warned in 2015 that the cumulative impact of this induced “humanitarian implosion” might render Gaza “unliveable” within a half-decade. Israeli military intelligence agreed, whereas a subsequent UN analysis judged the projection overly optimistic.

Long before October 2023, then, Israel had turned Gaza into what the Economist termed a “human rubbish heap,” the Ha’aretz editorial board — a “ghetto,” the International Committee of the Red Cross — a “sinking ship.” It had reduced Gaza to what the UN high commissioner for human rights called a “toxic slum,” in which above two million people were “caged . . . from birth to death.” An Israeli officer stationed on the Gaza border distilled his mission there: “no development, no prosperity, only humanitarian dependency.” He might have added, forever.

Many in Gaza did not share this vision for their future, and so Israel found it prudent to periodically massacre them — what Israeli officials termed “mowing the lawn.” Some of these onslaughts responded to resistance emanating from Gaza; armed, as when Hamas fired projectiles into Israel in May 2021 following settler encroachments in occupied East Jerusalem, or unarmed, as in early 2018, when Palestinians demonstrated nonviolently along Gaza’s perimeter fence — scores were killed and thousands injured by Israeli snipers arrayed on the other side. But Israel’s most devastating offensives, in 2008, 2012, and 2014, were motivated by broader political objectives: to inspire fear in the Arab world and to thwart Hamas “peace offensives” that threatened to make Israel’s rejectionist diplomatic posture — its refusal to withdraw from Palestinian territory in exchange for peace — untenable. In the 2014 assault alone, approximately 1,600 civilians in Gaza were killed, including 550 children, and fully eighteen thousand homes were destroyed.

Expulsion. Annexation. Siege. Massacre. Injustice layered on injustice, atrocity compounding atrocity, sedimented savagery amounting in sum to a colossal crime against humanity — culminating in the blockade and bombardment of a refugee population, confined in a concentration camp, one-half of whom were children. It would surprise if suffering of this severity were a recipe for long-term stability. Israeli officials knew that the “humanitarian condition in Gaza” was “progressively deteriorating” — this being the intended outcome of Israeli policy — and could predict that, “if it blows up, it’ll be in Israel’s direction.” But they apparently believed that by oscillating “between [military] operations and providing that level of aid to Gaza” sufficient to prevent its complete “collapse,” Palestinian eruptions could be contained within tolerable limits. Hamas will “rise up from time to time and hit us,” Israel’s former national security advisor acknowledged in 2018, but “[i]t can’t cause us any real damage.” If the timing, scale, and character of the October 7 attack came as a shock, the fact that people in Gaza would strike out at some point and in some fashion was not just predicable but priced into Israel’s conflict management policy. Indeed, a former deputy to Israel’s national security adviser found in the Hamas-led assault, not proof of Gazans’ irrational barbarism, but confirmation of a historical universal: “Eventually the oppressed will rise against their oppressor.”

If the “root causes” of the Gaza catastrophe are familiar, and if the resort to terrorism by Israel as well as Hamas has ample precedent, still, four critical aspects of the present crisis mark a departure:

First, there has been a radical intensification in the magnitude of death and destruction inflicted. The authorities in Israel report that Hamas-led militants killed some 1,200 people on October 7, including more than eight hundred civilians, and took 250 more hostage. This means Palestinian militants killed more Israeli civilians in one day than Israelis in the entire Second Intifada (inclusive of the bloody suicide bombings).

In retaliation for the Hamas operation and massacre, Israel has turned Gaza into a howling wasteland. Since October 7, Israeli forces killed more than 21,000 people, including more than 7,700 children. That’s almost as many children as were killed across all the world’s conflict zones over the previous three years combined. Gazan hospitals developed the acronym “WCNSF” — Wounded Child No Surviving Family—as hundreds of extended family units were wiped out. Nearly 85 percent of the population is internally displaced. More than 60 percent of homes are damaged or destroyed. Northern Gaza is now “an uninhabitable moonscape” after broad swathes of the territory were erased. “Beit Hanoun is not only dead,” a correspondent for Le Monde reported in November, referring to a northern town. “Beit Hanoun no longer exists.” In what might have been a first in the annals of modern warfare, Israeli forces have systematically targeted hospitals as they “completely obliterated” Gaza’s “healthcare infrastructure.” At the same time, Israel targeted water and sewage facilities and employed “starvation of civilians as a method of warfare” as it prevented deliveries of food, fuel, water, medicines, and electricity to the battered enclave. Inevitably, half the population of Gaza now faces “severe hunger” while disease and lack of medical treatment threatens to increase the death toll by “multiples.”

Second, this ramping up of violence reflects a shift in Israel’s strategy. Before October 7, Israel sought to manage its conflict with the Palestinians by deploying economic “carrots” alongside military “sticks” to co-opt as well as deter Palestinian resistance. In the West Bank, many Palestinians came to acquire a material investment in the status quo. The emphasis in Gaza lay more on the “sticks” — those periodic bloodlettings — but there, too, a class of profiteers had congealed, even under the harsh blockade. Crucially, in the years leading up to 2023, Israeli planners thought that Hamas would prioritize control of a territory and ability to govern it over resistance. Hamas’s responsibility for providing public services in Gaza, together with its dependence on Israel for access to the resources needed to discharge this obligation, would induce the movement to abandon armed struggle and acquiesce in Israel’s overarching control.

Apocalypse Now

The October 7 attack was an emphatic refusal of this role. Hamas would not become another Palestinian Authority, policing unlawfully annexed Palestinian territory on Israel’s behalf. Even as the Hamas assault made Israel’s “conflict management” approach a dead letter, the unqualified support extended to Israel by the United States and EU in its wake gave Israel a window of opportunity to “change the . . . strategic reality” in Gaza. Israel’s strategy accordingly shifted from mowing the lawn in Gaza to salting the earth; from perpetually deferring the Gaza question to definitively resolving it. To this end, Israel has systematically destroyed the prerequisites for civilization in Gaza and sought to render the territory uninhabitable, while mobilizing US influence to persuade Egypt to accept masses of Gazan refugees. The refusal of Egypt and other Arab States to cooperate, together with mounting international pressure to limit the humanitarian disaster, may have precluded Israel from achieving these maximal objectives. But with half of Gaza reduced to rubble, half the population crammed into an ever-shrinking southern sector, and Hamas not yet militarily vanquished, it remains wholly unclear what a viable “day after” might look like.

Third, the conflict may now have entered a zero-sum phase. The mainstream Palestinian leadership has for decades sought a two-state settlement of the conflict, while Hamas also attempted, after its election in 2006, to achieve this. Meanwhile, previous escalations in Gaza ended with the prospect, albeit never fulfilled, that the siege would be lifted and the possibility, however remote, that some kind of modus vivendi might be found. But after October 7, it is hard to foresee any Israeli government negotiating with Hamas on anything more substantial than a prisoner exchange. Hamas, for its part, may no longer be prepared to coexist with the State of Israel. On the one hand, Israel’s war of extermination will have multiplied tenfold the bitterness and rage in Gaza, which was already substantial. On the other hand, if Hamas had previously reconciled to Israel’s existence as an immutable reality, the gravity of Israel’s operational and intelligence failures on October 7, together with Hamas’s impressive military performance, may have convinced them that Israel’s defeat is an option.

Finally, if there appears little short-term prospect of peace taking root in Gaza’s scorched soil, seeds of hope have sprouted elsewhere, as a solidarity movement of unprecedented size and vigor sprang to Gaza’s defense. In Western Europe and North America, massive demonstrations have mobilized for week after week opposing Israel’s onslaught. Progressive Jews are in the militant vanguard. In the United States and Britain, public opinion backs an immediate cease-fire in Gaza, even as not one major political party endorsed this position. And right in the heart of the political establishment, from the European Union to the US State Department and White House, hundreds of officials have risked their careers to demand an end to complicity in Israel’s war crimes. Gaza has become a symbol for injustice, inequality, and the hypocrisies of power writ large, and around this symbol, the glimmer of a New International can be espied. If the Gaza cataclysm resonates so widely, especially among the young, it might be because, in this age of yawning inequality, hollowed-out democracy, and a futureless future circumscribed by economic stagnation and climate crisis, the global “99 percent” see in Gazans’ plight an extreme version of their own.

Adapted from the forthcoming book, Deluge: Gaza and Israel From Crisis to Cataclysm, edited by Jamie Stern-Weiner and published by OR Books, 2024.

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