Discover more from Uncharted Territories
The Gaza Trap
The attacks of Hamas1 on Israeli civilians have been repulsive. If you haven’t seen them, I gathered a few videos from Twitter. They’re very graphic, so skip them if you don’t want to be shocked.
We knew what would come after this: Israel bombs Gaza and prepares for a deeper intervention to destroy Hamas, with the corresponding death of civilians, including women and children.
It’s unclear yet exactly how aggressive it will be, but we can be confident that thousands of Palestinians will die2, Hamas might be decimated, and the Gaza Strip’s economy will slide further into poverty.
Why would Hamas want to trigger this? What does it gain by attacking Israel this way? How does that benefit it or Palestinians?
The most extreme answers on both sides are something like:
Israelis: “They’re just animals, they don’t respect life. They want to eradicate Israel.”
Palestinians: “Palestinians are being eliminated. This is a fight out of despair.” Both of them seem wrong: They assume this was not thoughtful or strategic—some assume Hamas can’t think clearly because they’re immoral, others because they lost all hope. But of course it was strategic. You can’t plan something like this without thinking very clearly:
Indeed, Hamas leaders have confirmed the thoughtfulness of this whole process:
Hamas has a specific strategy. Is it to attract publicity? To free prisoners? To rally Muslim states to its cause? To undo the recent Abraham accords between Israel and a collection of Arab states, and torpedo the hoped-for deal between Israel and Saudi Arabia? But how can these attacks be worth it? Hamas has attacked Israel before, and look where it’s led.3
We can’t understand what’s going on unless we understand the two aspects that define every country: the bits and the atoms, the beliefs and the reality.
The Palestinian Narrative
After reading the history of the region, dozens of articles, and listening to many interviews, this is how I understand that the Palestinians see the situation:
We have been here for over a thousand years.
First, we conquered the land and created our caliphates.
Then, Saladin conquered the land from the Crusaders.
Since then, Muslims have ruled this land uninterruptedly for 800 years.
We were at peace for 500 years during the Ottoman Empire.
Then, some foreign Jews started buying our land.
At the beginning, they were only a few.
But they kept coming. They bought more and more land.
Suddenly, this wasn’t our Arab Muslim land anymore.
We were promised this land by the British during WWI, but then they reneged on that promise.
Instead, the British proposed to create a Jewish state on our land! So we protested. We said: No way, this is our land.
After WWII, the British tried again, and we said no. Why would we give up our land to some interlopers who simply start arriving, buying land, and settling? How would you feel if some Muslim immigrants started buying land around Rome and suddenly declared they wanted their Muslim state in Italy?
So when the UN insisted that we should split our land with them, we said no again.
Instead, we attacked the Jews when they declared their independence.
The result was a tragedy, the Nakba: 700,000 of us were kicked out of our lands, the lands on which our ancestors had lived for centuries!
Our Arab Muslim brothers were with us. They planned on making it right, on conquering back what belonged to us. But we tragically lost again in 1967.
We lost what remained of Palestine, and Jews occupied Gaza and the West Bank.
Many of us fled to neighboring countries. Others remained, knowing that if they left, they could never return.
But our Arab neighbors forsook us. They never gave us any citizenship: Our suffering was a bargaining chip to make sure we’d get a free Palestine. Then, they started signing peace treaties with the enemy. Arab states forgot us, but our Arab and Muslim brothers have not.
We’ve now been occupied for over 50 years. During the occupation, the Israelis have been cravenly establishing facts on the ground. Every day, they build more houses on our Holy Land. They push us away from Jerusalem, one of the holiest places on Earth for us. When we sign treaties, they don’t respect them, like the Oslo Accords.
They commit petty acts of violence against us daily. They humiliate us. They even kill some of us. They treat us like second-class citizens. We live in an apartheid system.
They imprison us in our own lands, like in Gaza! We can’t import many products, we can barely fish, we can’t receive online payments, we can’t fly in or out, we can’t move in or out. How are we supposed to build a future for ourselves?
And while they dispossess us of our land little by little, while they kill us little by little, we’re supposed to stay calm like sheep going to the slaughterhouse?
No, we will resist our oppressor and their apartheid state. We will fight to death to get back what belongs to us: our land, our dignity, our life.
These beliefs, while understandable from their perspective, have led Gaza into its first trap.
The Gaza Trap
The Beliefs Trap
Within the narrative from above, Hamas takes the religious fundamentalist angle. As we discussed in the previous article, it’s an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood, a pan-Islamic group. Its original charter from 1988 reads to me4 like a religious fundamentalist pamphlet, trying to organize all life around Islam and the struggle against Israel. Here are a couple of quotes:
Our struggle against the Jews is very great and very serious.
Renouncing any part of Palestine means renouncing part of Islam.
Israel will exist and will continue to exist until Islam will obliterate it.
There is no solution for the Palestinian question except through Jihad. Initiatives, proposals and international conferences are all a waste of time and vain endeavors.
The Charter claimed to be tolerant of other religions as long as they "stop disputing the sovereignty of Islam in this region".
In other words, Hamas’s original Charter called for the eventual creation of an Islamic state in Palestine, in place of Israel and the Palestinian Territories, and the obliteration or dissolution of Israel.
Hamas has evolved since. In 2017, it issued a new charter. It reads much less like a religious pamphlet, and much more like a political one. It claims it accepts the borders from 1967—that is, it would accept a world where Gaza and the West Bank are independent. It also claims that it has nothing against Jews5, and stops mentioning the Muslim Brotherhood.6
I recognize the evolution of Hamas’s mindset: The overwhelming Islamic content now seems more pragmatic. This is either good PR or the result of massive internal debate.7
Unfortunately, I can’t see a tangible evolution. There are very few actual gestures. The gap from Hamas’s position to peace is still impossibly high:
Hamas would see an agreement with Israel as a truce, not peace.
It doesn’t give up the right to fight.
Hamas still doesn’t recognize Israel, and advocates for the liberation of all of Palestine—that is, Israel, Gaza, and the West Bank.
Hamas claims it doesn’t have problems with Jews, but it can’t stand Zionism—the construction of a state for Jews in Palestine.
Jerusalem must be the capital of Palestine.
All Palestinian refugees would be entitled of both the right to return and reparations for the time they lost their homes.
I’ve put some choice excerpts at the end of this article.
In other words, Hamas doesn’t want peace with Israel. It would try to eliminate Israel as soon as it could. It’s not clear to me what Hamas is willing to give up for peace. I could not find a single tangible, long-term thing.
So Hamas’s beliefs trap it into an eternal conflict with Israel, unless it was able to prevail against it militarily.
The Opinion Trap
If Hamas were to suddenly disappear, maybe a new government could replace it and bring peace? Indeed, 76% of Gazans wanted elections before the attacks, and only 26% believe Hamas deserves to lead the Palestinians.
Why? Gazans are disillusioned with past peace negotiations. 76% believe Israel didn’t implement the Oslo Accords, two thirds think current conditions are worse than in the 1990s.
One of the fears that Gazans have is that this is part of a process of ethnic cleansing. According to their logic:
Palestinians left Israel in 1948 because of the war
Israel took over the West Bank and Gaza in 1967
Israelis continually encroach on Palestinian territory in the West Bank through settlements… which progress faster during peacetime. Violent-minded Hamas then thinks that violence is the answer, since it stops these settlements.
So as of 2021, a majority of Gazans preferred to continue an armed struggle against Israel and didn’t favor peace talks. Just before the attacks, 50% to 58% of Palestinians wanted armed confrontations with Israel.9 57% of Gazans supported Hamas before the attacks (support usually increases after a conflict with Israel).10 68% of Gazans want the formation of new armed groups.
In other words, Hamas doesn’t want peace with Israel, and a majority of Gazans support their policies. Not a great footing for stability and peace.11
This is the second trap: Gazan opinion, although understandable, perpetuates it in an eternal cycle of violence.
The Israeli Trap
Given Hamas’s aggressiveness, and the hostility of Gazans, Israel has kept Gaza’s borders closed for years for security reasons, trapping its population inside.
It has sometimes opened up, but it has repeatedly closed them when Hamas resorts to violence: It argues that every time it opens them, Hamas takes advantage of the situation to increase its power for violence. For example, some Palestinians with work permits were seen afterwards as members of Hamas attacking Israel’s kibbutzim. Another example: Hamas unearthed water pipes to convert them into rockets.
The result is that this cycle of violence physically traps Gazans in an open-air prison.
The Geographic Trap
Gaza is also trapped by its geography.
Gaza is a city.
And it’s on the border between Israel and Egypt.
In other words, Gaza is a maritime city-state.
Through that lens, you can understand many things about it, because you can compare it to other, more successful city-states. Think Singapore, Dubai, Macao, Hong Kong, Monaco, Malta… What do they all have in common?
They are open and international.
They focus on services like trade, finance, and tourism.
They need good governance to attract investors.
They need good relationships with the rest of the world to be stable and attract these services.
They need especially good relationships with their neighbors, because they can’t secure their own defense.
If they lack any of these, they fail, and they are engulfed by their neighbors.13
If these bullet points sound exactly the opposite of everything you’ve ever heard about Gaza, you’re right, and you now understand a big problem it faces.
Gaza needs a government that will make it prosper, but this is not Hamas’s priority. Hamas is not very interested in creating stable, predictable, just policies that international investors can count on. Hamas’s main priority is to fight Israel. This negates every economic asset is has.
The Geopolitical Trap
What if it got a new government? Of course, support inside of Gaza for Hamas is not universal. As I mentioned, if 26% believe Hamas deserves to lead the Palestinians, 74% don’t think it should! 68% of Palestinians want new elections. 44% think neither Hamas nor Fatah14 should lead Palestine. It does look like Palestinians want political change.
Here we find another trap: As a compact, crowded city-state, the fate of all Gazans is bundled together. They live too close to each other to allow for political diversity. Their networks are enmeshed. Their public works, water, electricity, education… All must be managed by one political force, and the emergence of another force is extremely hard, as Hamas can just suppress them militarily. When Israelis attack Gaza, it’s mightily hard for them to only eliminate Hamas—this is illustrated by the surprising idea of sending all northern Gazans to the south of the strip.
So Gazans are trapped in this journey with Hamas together.
The Economic Trap
OK, but let’s imagine that a new government magically appears in Gaza, and Gazans decide to reconcile with Israel. How can Gaza use its assets for prosperity?
The only assets that Gaza has are its central location, its beaches, and its population. Thankfully, its population is reasonably well educated.
Arguably, a stable Gaza could start building up its services and become a regional magnet for economic development. But how long would that take?
There’s already a coastal city in the area with great beaches, financial services, and open to the world—Tel Aviv. And the Arab world has its own—Dubai. So there’s going to be competition, and it would take time for Gaza to build up its economy. What would its 2M Palestinians do in the meantime, with a GDP per capita of $1,250—a quarter of the West Bank’s $4,50016, and about half of Yemen’s, the poorest Arab country?
30% to 40% of Gazans would leave if they could—that’s about 700k of the 2M population. Palestine has been exporting workers for generations. They would leave as soon as the borders opened. So where would these hundreds of thousands of Gazans go?
Not to Arab states. As we saw, they already have more Palestinians than they want. And if other countries haven’t taken in the existing Palestinian refugees, do you think they would welcome more from Gaza?
The obvious place for them to go work is… Israel.
It’s already there. It already employs 2M Arab Israelis and some Palestinians.17 It could probably metabolize a few hundred thousand peaceful workers.
Naturally, if enough Gazans start working in the Israeli economy, what would happen is that Gaza would become… fully dependent on Israel.
This is the Gazan paradox: While the current situation in Gaza allows a degree of autonomy amid social, economic and military catastrophe, signing peace would dramatically undermine Palestinian autonomy by creating Palestinian dependence on Israel.18
So Gazans are trapped.
They are trapped by the religious goals of Hamas.
They are trapped by their bitterness against Israel and the losses of the last century.
They are trapped by a public opinion at odds with the very peace they need to prosper.
They are physically trapped in Gaza by Israel and Egypt.
They are politically trapped by an Israel that keeps encroaching on West Bank land.
They are internationally trapped by their Arab neighbors, none of which wants Palestinians or are committed to a Palestinian state.
They are trapped in a terrible humanitarian situation.
They are trapped by a geography that forces them to be a city-state.
And they are trapped in this together.
Gazans have two ways out of this conundrum: embracing Israel or trying to destroy it. One is pragmatic but unpalatable to many. The other is idealistic to them but impossible in practice. So far, Gazans have chosen the latter.
Why Hamas’s Attacks
So why did Hamas attack now?
Because Israel was internally divided by politics.
Because it’s becoming more uncompromising.
Because the US was perceived as more accommodating lately.
Because Israel and Saudi Arabia were about to sign a peace treaty.
Why so violent? Of course, the traditional explanations are valid:
Because Israeli hostages are bargaining chips to liberate Hamas prisoners.
Because violence increases internal support, which has been low lately.
Because violence creates headlines and draws attention to the situation to unblock it.
Because violence creates fear, and fearful Israelis might leave Israel for other countries that welcome them, like the US.
Because violence begets international attention, which stops settlements.
But notice that Hamas does not want to give up anything to Israel. Which means the audience of the attacks is not the State of Israel.19
The first audience for Hamas is Gazans. They wanted armed struggle, Hamas gave it to them. This strengthens Hamas in the face of other groups.
The second audience for Hamas is other Arab nations. If Hamas can prove it can beat Israel, Arabs will rally behind it, and maybe Arab states will support them more?
What type of support? Money, for sure. Anything else? Remember, they want a truce with Israel to get more resources, but they’re not willing to do anything else for Israelis. So they must want military support from other Muslim countries. Indeed, Hamas knows it can’t beat Israel alone. But if other Muslim countries join, maybe this time it could win? If they hope that, it’s a pipe dream, because now Arab countries are military allies of the US, and depend on it for money and weapons.
This is the context in which to understand the Israel–Saudi Arabia talks. Saudi Arabia is the last powerful Arab country that doesn’t have a peace treaty with Israel. Lose that, and Gaza loses the money and any other support. It will make the dream of prevailing over Israel harder to achieve—and the reality of becoming a vassal state to Israel more tangible.
Why this level of violence and sadism? Because Hamas is a de facto government of Gaza, but also a 21st century terrorist organization. They record videos of assassinations on their GoPros, as we saw above. They are fighting a social media war.
Palestinians have been losing for decades. They’ve been oppressed, they’ve been suffering, and nobody cares. Power and their dream of a whole Palestine are slipping from their hands. From Hamas’s perspective, the only way they can keep the dream alive is if they capture the attention of the world, make people feel pity for their martyrdom. They need the images of successful fighting to prove to Arab states they can fight, and they need the brutality of Israel’s violent reaction to give other Arab states and the world in general a reason to support them.
In other words, Hamas has attacked Israel so viciously, because it and the Palestinian people are at an existential impasse: They either stir the fire to get attention and support, rekindling their dream of an Arab, Muslim Palestine, or they accept the fate of becoming a vassal state to Israel.
I hope this article helps put the situation in Gaza in context. We’re getting closer to proposing full solutions, and to touching the hottest topics in this war: settlements, the right to return, the fate of Jerusalem… But to do that, we need to do the same thing for the West Bank and Israel as we just did with Gaza. Those will be our next articles.
This series on Israel & Palestine are free. If you want to follow, subscribe. If you want to support me, subscribe to the premium version.
Appendix: Choice Excerpts from the New Hamas Charter
I edited as much as I could to go to the core of how Hamas’s articles are incompatible with the existence of Israel. You can read the full thing here.
From the preamble:
Palestine is a land that was seized by a racist, anti-human and colonial Zionist project that was founded on a false promise (the Balfour Declaration), on recognition of a usurping entity and on imposing a fait accompli by force.
Palestine [note from me, Tomas (NT): This means Mandatory Palestine, Israel, Gaza, and the West Bank] symbolises the resistance that shall continue until liberation is accomplished, until the return is fulfilled and until a fully sovereign state is established with Jerusalem as its capital.
From the articles:
1. “Hamas” is a Palestinian Islamic national liberation and resistance movement. Its goal is to liberate Palestine and confront the Zionist project. Its frame of reference is Islam.
2. Palestine extends from the River Jordan in the east to the Mediterranean in the west and from Ras al-Naqurah in the north to Umm al-Rashrash in the south [NT: This is basically present-day Israel, Gaza, and the West Bank, excluding the Golan Heights]
3. Palestine is an Arab Islamic land.
8. Islam provides a comprehensive way of life and an order that is fit for purpose at all times and in all places.
10. Jerusalem is the capital of Palestine. Its Islamic and Christian holy places belong exclusively to the Palestinian people and to the Arab and Islamic Ummah. Not one stone of Jerusalem can be surrendered or relinquished. The measures undertaken by the occupiers in Jerusalem, such as Judaisation, settlement building, and establishing facts on the ground are fundamentally null and void.
12. The Palestinian cause in its essence is a cause of an occupied land and a displaced people. The right of the Palestinian refugees and the displaced to return to their homes from which they were banished or were banned from returning to – whether in the lands occupied in 1948 or in 1967 (that is the whole of Palestine), is a natural right, both individual and collective. It is an inalienable right and cannot be dispensed with by any party, whether Palestinian, Arab or international.
13. Hamas rejects all attempts to erase the rights of the refugees, including the attempts to settle them outside Palestine and through the projects of the alternative homeland. Compensation to the Palestinian refugees for the harm they have suffered as a consequence of banishing them and occupying their land is an absolute right that goes hand in hand with their right to return. They are to receive compensation upon their return and this does not negate or diminish their right to return.
14. The Zionist project is a racist, aggressive, colonial and expansionist project based on seizing the properties of others; it is hostile to the Palestinian people and to their aspiration for freedom, liberation, return and self-determination. The Israeli entity is the plaything of the Zionist project and its base of aggression.
15. The Zionist project also poses a danger to international security and peace and to mankind and its interests and stability.
16. Hamas affirms that its conflict is with the Zionist project not with the Jews because of their religion. Hamas does not wage a struggle against the Jews because they are Jewish but wages a struggle against the Zionists who occupy Palestine. Yet, it is the Zionists who constantly identify Judaism and the Jews with their own colonial project and illegal entity.
18. The following are considered null and void: the Balfour Declaration, the British Mandate Document, the UN Palestine Partition Resolution, and whatever resolutions and measures that derive from them or are similar to them. The establishment of “Israel” is entirely illegal.
19. There shall be no recognition of the legitimacy of the Zionist entity. Whatever has befallen the land of Palestine in terms of occupation, settlement building, judaisation or changes to its features or falsification of facts is illegitimate. Rights never lapse.
20. Hamas believes that no part of the land of Palestine shall be compromised or conceded. Hamas rejects any alternative to the full and complete liberation of Palestine, from the river to the sea. Hamas considers the establishment of a fully sovereign and independent Palestinian state, with Jerusalem as its capital along the lines of the 4th of June 1967, with the return of the refugees and the displaced to their homes from which they were expelled, to be a formula of national consensus.
There shall be no recognition of the legitimacy of the Zionist entity
[NT: This article is the most progressive one. It’s basically saying that it would accept an independent Palestine in Gaza and the West Bank as they were before the war of 1967—which means Palestine would also include the Israeli settlements built since, as well as East Jerusalem. I’m torn about it, because on one side it means they would be partially placated by it. From the other, since they’re not giving up anything, it sounds like just trying to take without giving. What I wonder though is if this is a Trojan Horse by a more progressive side of Hamas. Maybe if they do get a state, this will placate most of their needs, opening a door for the acceptance of the state of Israel in the long term. But this is me reading into it and hoping. This is not what the document is saying, and if the release of Gaza is any indication, Palestinians won’t be placated.]
21. Hamas affirms that the Oslo Accords and their addenda contravene the governing rules of international law in that they generate commitments that violate the inalienable rights of the Palestinian people. Therefore, the Movement rejects these agreements.
23. Hamas stresses that transgression against the Palestinian people, usurping their land and banishing them from their homeland cannot be called peace. Any settlements reached on this basis will not lead to peace. Resistance and jihad for the liberation of Palestine will remain a legitimate right, a duty and an honour for all the sons and daughters of our people and our Ummah.
24. The liberation of Palestine is the duty of the Palestinian people in particular and the duty of the Arab and Islamic Ummah in general.
25. Resisting the occupation with all means and methods is a legitimate right guaranteed by divine laws and by international norms and laws. At the heart of these lies armed resistance, which is regarded as the strategic choice for protecting the principles and the rights of the Palestinian people.
26. Hamas rejects any attempt to undermine the resistance and its arms.
27. A real state of Palestine is a state that has been liberated. There is no alternative to a fully sovereign Palestinian State on the entire national Palestinian soil, with Jerusalem as its capital.
There’s a total of 42 articles and they’re easy to read. Here I focused on the passages that make peace more difficult, but of course this is not the entire picture. I encourage you to read the entire thing if you’re interested in a full picture of Hamas.
Hamas is the organization that has held power in the Gaza Strip since it won elections in 2006. It has not held elections since, and has focused on attacking Israel during this time, including carrying out terrorist attacks.
The majority of which will be civilians
Usually, the cycle is the following: There’s some brewing violence against Palestinians, like home evictions and deaths in daily violence. Then Hamas attacks Israel with a big splash. Israel counterattacks, things escalate, people die. Hamas increases its standing in Palestine and the Arab world, while Israel’s lowers and Israelis become more radicalized. Gaza is more secluded, loses economic support, and Gazans end up poorer and deader.
I had a semi-religious upbringing and am now spiritual non-religious.
The Arab Muslim world used to be much more tolerant of Jews, but through the 20th century, antisemitism increased dramatically. As we discussed, many Jews had to leave the Arab countries where they lived. I would be surprised if a Hamas government was very welcoming of Jews.
But don’t break ties officially, so they are ambivalent about this. Generally, when these documents are ambivalent, you should interpret them in the most unfavorable way to the enemy, because they will want to send different messages to their partisans and the broader world. We will see examples of this duplicity in the future. In this case, I’d assume the ties remain unless explicitly denied.
In case you don’t want to click the link: in 2014, 68% of Gazans wanted all of Palestine (that is, Israel, Gaza, and the West Bank) to be reunited in an Arab Muslim country.
I’ve looked at polls from at least a couple of organizations. The Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research is based in Ramallah, in the West Bank, and is funded by several international organizations. I couldn’t find bias from their Wikipedia page or asking ChatGPT—but obviously it’s from Ramallah, so there’s that. The Washington Institute for Near East Policy is US-based, its Wikipedia page says it’s pro-Israeli, and it’s funded by the pro-Israeli AIPAC. So I’ve weighed both similarly, maybe a bit more the Palestinian one. The last survey also happens to be more recent, from September 2023, just before Hamas’s attack.
To be clear, it’s understandable. Nearly half of Gazans are below 20 years old. They’ve only known Hamas’s rule. Hamas controls education. How can they have any different perspectives? I will cover the internal Palestinian narrative that explains this in another article.
It is a 365 km2 region with the density of a city.
For example, Hong Kong did not have good relationships with its Chinese neighbor and ended up eaten by it. Lebanon was close to a city-state, but its bad governance led to a civil war and a complete loss of its wealth. Venice and Genoa lost trade when the Ottoman Empire took over Constantinople and blocked the Silk Road, and was eventually absorbed by Italy.
The party with the most power in the West Bank.
Note that Hamas is happy with this: They want the Palestinians to stay and suffer, as it increases the pressure on Israel.
I believe this number includes Israeli settlers. I have a hard time finding the data for the West Bank’s Palestinians only, excluding the Israeli settlers. This source claims that GDP per capita in Gaza was $900 10 years ago, and the West Bank’s was $2,000. Assuming a 50% growth since, that would put it at $3,000. Gaza’s economy probably didn’t grow by much with the blockade. The point is not to give accurate numbers of GDP per capita, but rather a sense that the West Bank is much richer than Gaza, when their geographies suggest it should be the other way around.
Remember the Gazans with working permits. The West Bank’s economy is even more intertwined with Israel’s, as we’ll see.
Assuming this is even possible. After some Gazans with worker permits in Israel were seen as Hamas terrorists during the attack from early October 2023, hiring Gazans again will require a serious trust rebuild.
Aside from the hostage negotiation.