Israel’s War on Gaza Is a Campaign of State Terrorism to Crush the Palestinian People

Bashir Abu-Manneh

It is farcical for US politicians to suggest that Israel is trying to avoid killing civilians in Gaza. Mass destruction and intentional killing is an integral part of the Israeli campaign, intended to break Palestinian resistance to occupation and apartheid.

People mourn victims of the Israeli bombardment in central Gaza on December 11, 2023. (Xinhua via Getty Images)

Interview by
Daniel Finn

The estimated number of Palestinians killed since early October is now over eighteen thousand people, with thousands more missing. US government officials claim to have privately told Israel that it “must do more to limit civilian casualties” as the focus of the operation moves south. However, there is no evidence of any change in Israel’s approach as the focus shifts from northern to southern Gaza and the relentless bombardment of civilian targets continues. This is an edited transcript from Jacobin’s Long Reads podcast. You can listen to the interview here.

Daniel Finn

How do you understand and make sense of Joe Biden’s position toward Israel, especially in the light of news reports that have appeared about internal divisions within the Biden administration over Gaza?

Bashir Abu-Manneh

There is something very personal and eccentric when you look specifically at Biden’s response and compare it to the tone that you get from Antony Blinken, Kamala Harris, or Lloyd Austin, which is different from Biden’s, although we could not call it “critical.” Biden has offered a vocal, carte blanche, unconditional commitment to Israel.

Seventy percent of Democrats aged between eighteen to forty disapprove of Biden’s position on Gaza. In view of statistics like that, and given the discomfort that has been shown even by Barack Obama himself in relation to this unconditional support for Israel, how do you explain Biden’s position?

There is good reason to be cautious, especially with someone like Benjamin Netanyahu, because there appear to be divergent plans or end points for the postwar situation in Gaza. The Americans have a particular set of red lines around this, which are not the same as Israel’s.

US government officials want there to be no changes to Gaza’s territory and borders and no forcible displacement of Palestinians outside of Gaza. They don’t want a reoccupation of the Strip by Israel or an ongoing, permanent siege of Gaza. They share Israel’s aim of eradicating Hamas, but there are clear differences between Israel and the US over Gaza in terms of policy.

The Americans also have an eye on the regional situation. There was clear evidence from the beginning that Israel wanted to regionalize the war and open a front against Hezbollah. Netanyahu’s defense minister, Yoav Gallant, wanted to do that. The Biden administration, by moving its ships to the eastern Mediterranean, acted to restrain them. It is very worried about regionalizing the conflict, especially because of questions around Iran and Hezbollah.

This is what makes Biden’s particular position strange. On one level, America is arming Israel to the teeth, sending them bunker-busting bombs. That aligns with the idea that America supports Israel in eradicating Hamas. However, on another level, this unconditional support is worrying other voices in the administration.

One way of thinking about this is that it’s eccentric. Another way of thinking about it is that Biden is worried about being outflanked by the Republicans in their support for Israel. But this is a narrow electoral strategy, and it might actually sink his chances of reelection next year.

He’s not winning votes by using this strategy — he’s actually losing votes. He’s not winning Republican votes, and he might lose many votes in states that have a significant Arab or Muslim presence. It’s hard not to dub Biden as “Genocide Joe” as a result of the position he’s taken.

I suspect that US support will begin to change. The tone is gradually changing, and it will have to account for this new generation of Democratic voices that fundamentally disapprove of this policy. I think there is a very slow, long-term adjustment that is taking place here.

Daniel Finn

The Israeli magazine +972 published a very detailed article during the truce based on conversations with current and former members of the Israeli intelligence service, which described a strategy of deliberately targeting civilians in Gaza, using the idea of going after Hamas or Islamic Jihad members as a pretext for bomb attacks that are intended to devastate civilian targets and kill large numbers of people — in other words, a strategy of terrorism, in the only objective sense of the term.

Bashir Abu-Manneh

The nature of the weapons being used is reminiscent of World War II or the Vietnam War — nothing that has been seen in the conflicts of the last thirty years. The pace of the killing is huge and unprecedented in that period. The scale of the destruction is massive.

There is a systematic policy of targeting civilians and residential homes. You can see it in the news reports. Families are being totally wiped out as a result of this. The idea of harming civilians is intentional and calculated — it is baked in. They know exactly how many people are going to be wiped out when they try to attack alleged military targets.

It is a very permissive policy with total disregard for Palestinian life. They are also using artificial intelligence to generate many more targets than in previous wars, which is an extremely worrying development. The scale of the destruction and the impact on the Palestinian population is massive.

The majority of Gaza’s population has been displaced. There are at least fifty thousand homes and residential blocks that have been destroyed — probably more, probably around a hundred thousand. Where are those people going to return to? Are they going to live in tents permanently? This is active punishment of the Palestinian population.

Richard Goldstone previously spoke about a deliberate policy of disproportionate force in Israel’s earlier war of 2008–9 that was designed “to punish, humiliate, and terrorize the civilian population.” The same thing is happening here, with the destruction of hospitals, mosques, roads, and other civilian infrastructure.

This is collective punishment, with intentional, indiscriminate killing and destruction. The rhetoric that you can see coming out of Israel is genocidal. When you displace the majority of the Gaza population — almost two million people — and you cut off supplies of gas and electricity while blocking the provision of aid — the amount of aid coming in is minuscule compared to the normal needs of people in Gaza, let alone their needs during wartime — you are talking about an event of genocidal proportions.

This is a human catastrophe that is unfolding every day without stopping. Nobody seems to be able to stop Israel — or wants to stop Israel. This policy of deliberate killing has previously been formulated in terms of the Dahiya doctrine, which came out of Israel’s bombing of Lebanon in 2006. The Dahiya doctrine committed Israel to use disproportionate force against civilian areas from which a missile was allegedly launched.

The article by Yuval Abraham from +972 that you mentioned included a quote from an Israeli source who spoke about destroying buildings and attacking the civilian population intentionally in order to undermine Hamas and show that Hamas is not sovereign. He said that he felt that this was “a form of terror tactic.” Ultimately, the Dahiya doctrine is a form of state terrorism.

A group of academics from Oxford University addressed an open letter to the British prime minister, Rishi Sunak, and the opposition leader Keir Starmer in late October. They stated that “to think that the atrocities perpetrated by Hamas justified the humanitarian crisis currently unfolding in Gaza is to indulge a central tenet of terrorism — that all citizens must pay for the misdeeds of their governments — as well as terrorism’s central practice — collective punishment.”  I think we should start talking about state terrorism in relation to Israel’s policy of targeting and killing civilians. There’s no other word that would describe what Israel is doing on a daily basis.

Even Israeli sources themselves say that this is a terror tactic to collectively punish a population in order to push it politically and to sear a sense of defeat into its consciousness — to show that this population should never resist what Israel wants. The ultimate aim of this destruction is political, not military in any way. It is to tell the Palestinians that they should never be in a position to resist Israel in any shape and form.

If you tie that with the political changes that are happening in Israel — the country’s fascistic culture, the genocidal rhetoric, the idea that only the Jewish people are sovereign in Israel/ Palestine — this amounts to an attempt to wipe out the Palestinians, not only physically and existentially, but also politically. It is a campaign of politicide, which is now compounded by the genocide taking place in Gaza.

It has other effects, of course. In the context of the Hamas attack of October 7, the fundamental aim for Israel in punishing the Palestinians collectively is to restore its deterrence, which has been totally shattered. It also has political aims as a state, not just when it comes to the Palestinians, but regionally as well. The Israeli state has unleashed its power with full American support in order to achieve those political aims.

Daniel Finn

I believe that you wanted to speak about an article that was published recently by Tareq Baconi for Al-Shabaka, the Palestinian Policy Network, as part of a wider conversation about the strategy of Hamas and the Palestinian national movement as a whole.

Bashir Abu-Manneh

The article is titled “An Inevitable Rupture.” It argues that what happened on October 7 was inevitable in view of what Israel has been doing, with the sixteen-year blockade of Gaza and its aggressive settler-colonial policies of displacing Palestinians while separating the West Bank from Gaza. The argument is that the violence was happening anyway, and the rupture was as a result inevitable: Hamas had to overturn this reality, based on the liquidation of the Palestinian question.

But you have to ask: Did this action pay off? What was the political calculation for Hamas, and was the cost that the Palestinians are now paying worth it? It’s important to think about the reality of a leading political agent on the Palestinian scene initiating a process that created a huge opportunity for Israel to act.

The level of the Israeli response, given the nature and scale of the Hamas attack, was entirely predictable, so you have to ask again about the rationality of the act itself. In terms of killing and destruction, the impact of the Israeli response to October 7 is now much worse than the Nakba. Was the cost worth it?

We have to remember that it is the Palestinians themselves who are ultimately paying the cost. Hamas has constructed tunnels three floors under Gaza to protect its fighters. It is the civilians who are bearing the brunt of this. It is Gaza that is being destroyed. Hamas, for the moment, remains intact and operative.

It’s a very difficult question to ask in these decolonizing struggles, but you have to ask it. When Palestinians look back at the October 7 attack and the predictable response that Israel was going to roll out, you have to ask yourself whether this cost is acceptable in a national liberation struggle. You have to think about the tactics of Hamas and its militarization of the resistance — the reduction, if you like, of the Palestinian cause into a military confrontation with Israel, which has a vastly more powerful army, the fourth strongest in the world.

There is an agency on the part of Hamas that needs to be accounted for and reckoned with when we think about this historic event. Who suffers in this? Who bears the brunt? These are important parameters to consider.

I don’t think the nature of this attack was inevitable. I think resistance to the Israeli occupation is inevitable, because the occupation is violent and it breeds a form of violence in response. But I don’t think there was anything inevitable about the nature and the scale of the attack on October 7. However, I think the response to something like that on the part of Israel would have been totally predictable for Hamas.

Israel is now trying simply to eradicate Hamas. With the West giving Israel as much time as possible, it might achieve this goal. It is blowing up the tunnels bit by bit and is now moving into southern Gaza to try and do the same things it has been doing in the north. You have to think about the militarization of the conflict under such a catastrophic balance of forces against the Palestinians.

We now see whole generations being traumatized. Eighty percent of those killed are civilians — women, children, old people. These people are victims of war and victims of Israel. They are not in any way agents that this opportunity has created. Rather than the Palestinian population being empowered, they are totally disempowered.

I can’t see any political agency here. Palestinians cry out in helplessness as they are being starved and besieged by Israel and as they are being punished and killed. Whole families are being wiped out. There is a new category of children now who have no family members surviving. This is a catastrophic innovation in Palestinian history.

I think this is the beginning of another historic catastrophe for the Palestinians, which is going to take decades to roll back — not only in terms of public opinion, not only in terms of the politics of the West and trying to stop Israel from executing a policy of permanent war against the Palestinians, but also in terms of the achievements of the Palestinian cause. What Hamas has done is a form of military adventurism that has exposed Palestinians to mass destruction. I don’t think it was inevitable to make that decision.

Israeli state managers see this as an opportunity to eliminate any sense of Palestinian resistance for decades to come. Israel likes to say that the response to October 7 is about its existence and that it is fighting its second independence war, but this is not true at all. The response is about eliminating the basis of Palestinian existence in Palestine. That is what Israel is doing, not only in Gaza but also in the West Bank. Hundreds of people have been killed in the West Bank since October 7 and more than two thousand people have been put in prison.

There was an exchange of hostages during the truce between Israel and Hamas. But at the same time, Israel imprisoned more Palestinians than it released. Hamas is talking about holding on to the remaining hostages until it gets to a point where Israel will release all the Palestinian prisoners in one go, as it did with the exchange of more than a thousand Palestinians for Gilad Shalit.

But the fate of the hostages has not been in any way a constraint on Israel’s conduct of the war — not at all. According to the hostages who have been released, the Israeli military didn’t stop the bombing in the areas where they were being held. At some level, this is not a priority for Israel when set against the goal of restoring its deterrence and eradicating Hamas. If it can release more hostages, it will, but it’s not a priority.

Israeli state imperatives have always been much more important than what the Israeli population wants, and that’s what we see unfolding here. Again, you have to ask the question about the rationality of what Hamas has done, and I can’t see it. I know it’s extremely hard to talk about these questions during a moment like this, when we are witnessing mass ethnic cleansing of the Palestinians. But there has to be a rational discussion about whether certain tactics are working or not, considering the costs that you see on the ground.

Daniel Finn

There have been conflicting reports on the time frame we are looking at for Israel’s war. On the one hand, there have been several articles suggesting that US officials have told the Israeli government that they have weeks, not months, to complete what they are doing and that there will be a deadline in early January. On the other hand, Israeli government sources themselves have spoken in bullish terms about continuing well into the second half of 2024 and even extending the war into Lebanon. What do you think is the more likely scenario as things stand?

Bashir Abu-Manneh

From an Israeli perspective, it’s a long war. Israel needs to be able to show a military victory and it needs to be able to say that it has either decapitated the Hamas leadership or substantially degraded its forces militarily so that the only functions it can still maintain are civilian ones. Israel will take a long view in this and will try to take as much time as possible in order to achieve this goal.

There is also a personal element with Netanyahu himself, who is facing a court case. Sustaining the war delays any kind of political reckoning with the mistakes he has made in the past and with the fact that he was asleep at the wheel and could not prevent the October 7 attack. In fact, his policy before October 7 was to boost Hamas and empower it at the expense of the Palestinian Authority (PA).

Netanyahu is very good as a petty tactician, and he will try to play this out for as long as possible to avoid that moment of reckoning. There are other voices against him, of course — the families of the hostages are targeting him politically and they want him to resign — but it’s in his interest to stay.

There’s also a wider interest for the Israeli government as a whole, not merely Netanyahu. They don’t like what they are hearing from the US about the postwar situation. They don’t like the idea of Mahmoud Abbas and the PA returning to have a role in governing Gaza, because that would go against Israel’s plan of dividing and fragmenting the Palestinian camp so they can deal separately with different parts of it. The American plan also appears to suggest that Israel will have to restrain settler terrorism in the West Bank.

For several reasons, it is in the Israeli interest to prolong the war. But the question of how long it will last depends on many factors that Israel doesn’t control, especially when it comes to European and American support. The US elections are coming soon: depending on the situation and his prospects of winning or losing, Biden will have to think about tactical considerations. But there is no question that the Israelis want as much time as possible, and they will take as much time as they can extract from the West in the absence of political pressure.

In the meantime, what they are doing in Gaza is genocide. The West is complicit, and the US is actively supporting a genocidal policy in Gaza. “Genocide Joe” is an apt description.