After 18 days since Hamas fighters carried out a surprise attack on southern Israel and 11 days of relentless bombing of Gaza by Israel at the time of writing, the humanitarian crisis in Gaza is growing day by day, with aid agencies warning of a “catastrophic” shortage of medical supplies in the besieged enclave.
In light of the above, and all the debates that unfolded since then, Dr. Benoit Challand agreed to answer our questions.
Benoit Challand is Associate Professor of Sociology at The New School for Social Research, where he teaches social theory, historical sociology and political sociology. He has previously taught at New York University, the University of Fribourgh (CH), and at the Scuola Normale Superiore in Florence (Italy). He is the author of many books and publications on civil society in the Middle East and Palestinian politics, among which: Palestinian Civil Society: Foreign Donors and the Power to Promote and Exclude (Routledge 2009); The Arab Uprisings and Foreign Assistance (co-edited with F. Bicchi and S. Heydemann, Routledge 2016), "A Nahda of charitable organizations? Health service provision and the politics of aid in Palestine", on the International Journal of Middle East Studies, "Coming too late?: The EU's mixed approaches to transforming the Israeli-Palestinian conflict through civil society", on the journal The European Union, Civil Society and Conflict. He is also interested in settler colonial formations, democratic theory, Western European Marxism, and 19th & 20th European history seen from the perspective of the colonies.
To set the stage and clarify some points, how would you define what is happening now, and, if we place it within the broader picture of the Palestinian issue, where do we stand?
Benoit Challand – Defining what is happening depends on where one is located. We are in Europe, and the lens we look through is imbued with emotionality, which is the result of a specific history, that of the systematic persecution of European Jews during the last century and a certain degree of political guilt that exists in Europe toward the state of Israel. Such emotionality has marked the reaction to the 7th of October and the following discussions and analyses in Europe. Palestinians, on their hand, see a different history, that of the systematic dispossession of their land and identity.
We need to set a clear frame that allows us to unfold the relational dynamics of violence that have taken place since the vicious attacks by Hamas on 7th October 2023. We often hear that what we are witnessing is a cultural type of violence, a civilization kind of violence, that of Islamic violence, a new form of pogrom against Jews, etc. These are types of violence that Hebrews from central-eastern Europe suffered, as victims of the antisemitism unfolding in Europe in the 19th and 20th centuries. This interpretative frame, that of a cultural violence, a wholesale rejection of Jewishness, is now being projected onto the acts of the Palestinians, hence generating deeply emotional reactions. Now, to answer your question, what has happened since October 7 cannot be defined only through this lens. Gaza, like the rest of the West Bank and East Jerusalem, has been under military occupation since 1967, it has been the object of a thorough blockade, a real siege, since 2007, and has been repeatedly bombed by Israel in 2008, 2012, and 2014. The acts of violence that Hamas launched on 7 October, from the Palestinian side, are read uniquely in those terms. The violence that emerged is related to the structure of the occupation of Palestine and to the disproportionate and collective punishment that the population of the Gaza Strip has been facing since 2007.
BC – Think of the name that Hamas gave to the operation: “Al-Aqsa Flood”. As you know, Al-Aqsa Mosque, in East Jerusalem, is the third holiest site for Muslims, situated on the Temple Mount, a site that has been the object of recent attempts of re-appropriation by Jewish religious nationalists. For Palestinians, the reference is clear: facts have been changing on the ground in the last few months around Jerusalem and in the West Bank in general, where the Jewish settlers, living in illegal settlements, have committed acts of aggression on Palestinians. I happened to be in Palestine this past summer and when I visited the Haram al-Sharif, or Temple Mount, I was shocked to see Jewish settlers with heavy military guards there. I had not been there since 2000, just before the second Intifada, but usually, you would not see Jews on the Muslim parts of the Temple Mount. For Muslims, this is an open provocation by Netanyahu and his ultranationalist allies. This is happening now because the government of Netanyahu has encouraged, empowered, and emboldened religious extremists who have stocked fear and committed all sorts of violence against the Palestinians, for example, a deadly attack against Palestinians in Huwara in March 2023. Now Palestinians are saying “enough is enough”. Let’s not forget though that the most recent provocations by settlers are to be added to the 2007 siege of the Gaza strip, to the military operations in 2008, in 2009, then again in 2014… We see short-term triggers, but Hamas has developed its capabilities over the years as a reaction to Israeli occupation.
Can you frame the "street dynamics" that we are witnessing internationally? How can we explain and understand the hyper-polarization that seems to characterize the Palestinian issue?
BC – Everybody was taken by surprise. People did not expect Hamas to launch such a vast military operation against one of the most advanced armies in the world. There was also a natural reaction of shock against Hamas’ crimes against civilians and hostage-taking, which are clear and despicable violations of International Humanitarian Law, potentially war crimes. However, the people who are protesting in support of the Palestinians, see the long-term violence of the occupation that we were talking about, the collective punishment that the Israelis have been inflicting on the Palestinians for decades. Governments in the West, on the other hand, are leaving the political, legal, and historical arguments of the Palestinian people out of the conversation. They describe the action of Hamas as a pogrom against Jews, as antisemitism, or cultural Islamic terrorism.
This is where we need to be extremely careful: we can’t simply stand on one side or the other. We must have public and intellectual debates about what is happening and do not surrender to the too-simplistic “either pro-Palestine or pro-Israel”. It is essential that we acknowledge that Hamas is imposing a path toward religious nationalism, just as the Israeli government is proposing a form of religious nationalism. All of those in acritical support for either of these positions are also supporting a vision that will only heighten religious polarization. This increasing dynamic of Islam versus Judaism is one of the key elements that twisted and escalated the venom of the public debates in the last two weeks.
We need to promote negotiations that include the Palestinians, who have been completely excluded since 2007. We need to have a healthy public debate about the nature of the Israeli occupation, the degree of militarization, and how the international circuits of diplomacy propelled by the Trump peace initiatives – the Abraham Accords – have been misleading and are rejected by Palestinians at large. Europeans must also reflect on the quasi-absolute absence of the European Union in the past 10 to 15 years of political negotiations. With the Venice Declaration in 1980, the then-European Economic Community declared that the Palestinian people had a right to self-determination; furthermore, in the 1990s and early 2000s, the EU stood as a counterpart to the American diplomacy that historically tended to side, as it does again today, with Israel. But in the last decade, Europe has been completely absent. We need to talk about the very existence of Palestine, the nature of the occupation, the Israeli project of religious nationalism of land annexation, and the EU has to be vocal in this debate. Let’s not shy away from difficulties, we should nurture the intellectual debate rather than the emotional analysis.
Do you see this as a turning point?
BC – I do not think this will be a turning point, but rather a returning point. It cannot be a turning point, because the occupation has been going on for a very long time. A century ago, the British Empire started to create asymmetries favouring the establishment of a Jewish national home in Palestine (with the Balfour Declaration), and since then a military and legal bias against Palestinians has existed since 1948 and 1967. In a way, this new round of violence in and around Gaza is a returning point to the fundamentals of the occupation, of the denial of self-determination, of the respect of the Geneva Conventions. A returning point would also mean bringing the Palestinians back to the negotiating table.
There are also elements that warrant speaking of turning points, for example, the declaration of war by Israel after Hamas’ attacks. Israel in the past would never bother declaring war, because in a situation of occupation, it is normal that military operations are launched. Yet, this time, Netanyahu’s government went at lengths to declare war against Hamas. This is why I have terrible fear for the future: if Israel ‘bothers’ to declare war, that means they are preparing to do things that you can only do in a war context, catapulting us back to a 1948 Nakba situation. Israel is going to enter Gaza, most likely with a military operation, and people will be pushed southwards, which will generate a new wave of internally displaced persons (IDPs) and massive waves of refugees. This is why currently the turning becomes returning: in 2006, during the Lebanese war, Israel set the famous doctrine of Dahiyya, which is a neighbourhood in South Lebanon, by which Israel inflicted massive bombing on civilian infrastructure to punish civilians for voting for, or supporting, Hezbollah in that part of Beirut. This approach of an iron fist against civilian infrastructures has become a military doctrine, and Israel is likely to implement it in Gaza too, punishing the Palestinians for voting for Hamas. This explains why the bombing is already happening heavily in Rimal, a rich neighbourhood in Gaza. In case of military operation on the ground, it is going to be a terrible fight. The future is bleak, and it is time for the international community to stand up and urge Israel to stop its military operations, its collective punishment against the Palestinian people, and rescind the order given to 1.1 million Gazaouis to evacuate the north of the Gaza Strip. The last measure has no grounding in International Law, and war or not war, Israel cannot impose such drastic measures with dire humanitarian consequences.
In the past, Palestinians have called for the international community to make Israel accountable for war crimes and crimes against International Humanitarian Law. Some might remember the Goldstone Report, after the bombing of Gaza in 2008 and 2009, which condemned both sides for war crimes, although the main culprit in this report was Israel. Why not have again an international commission of inquiry that puts an end to this round of violence and investigates the acts of violence committed on both sides in the last weeks?
When you say the international community, do you have specific actors in mind?
BC – I think about the actors that could encourage negotiations. For example, the European Union has for a long time hesitated in declaring Hamas a terrorist organization, and there are other countries, neutral states, that still talk with Hamas, such as Norway and Switzerland - guarantors of the Geneva Convention. It is important to establish fora, use all the multiple tracks of diplomacy, formal and informal, and get Israelis and Palestinians back to the negotiating tables. However, we are far from negotiations. There has been a lot of unconditional support for Israel from Europe, to the extent that there are more critical voices coming from within Israel against the Israeli government than from the whole of Europe put together. Perhaps, we should listen more to Israeli civil society, which has been very critical of Netanyahu and his allies.
You just published a book on violence and representation (“Violence and Representation in the Arab Uprisings”, Cambridge University Press, 2023). There, you focus mostly on the cases of Yemen and Tunisia, but could you apply the theories on violence and representation you develop, to the Palestinian context?
BC – In the book I use the metaphor of the Möbius strip, which is a twisted piece of paper with two edges but only one continuous side, to rethink the place that violence has in various parts of the world, and in particular the question of postcolonial violence. For example, we tend to see Europe as a space of pacified social relations, of a successful social contract, where violence has been neutralized. On the other hand, we often represent the Middle East as a space of extreme violence, as if there was no connection with European history. This framing opposes two separate dimensions: a virtuous political system – Europe – and a destructive political system – the Middle East, or the Arab worlds. The Möbius strip, though, shows how violence in Europe and the Middle East is interconnected. At the time of colonial and imperial power, Europeans “here” have exported violence for the extraction of capital and resources, excluding colonial subjects from the benefits of political modernity (in the case of Palestine, the right for self-determination) and enhancing conditions for more violence “there”. In my book “Violence and Representation”, I guard against the culturalist argument according to which the Middle East is a place imbued with violence, while in Europe, we would be virtuous people. In my book, I look at the constitution of Tunisian and Yemeni state-society relations and how past violence, Ottoman and colonial, created fractures that explain the dynamics of 2011 (the Arab uprisings, or revolutions) and its aftermaths.
By applying the metaphor of the Möbius strip to the case that we discuss here, we could suggest that Israel is an extension of the British imperial system and of the violence imposed during the Mandate system on many Arab societies. Since then, Israel has used this original asymmetry of power to reinforce its military might over Palestinians, including by perpetrating a surplus of violence (that has also European origins, as I was pointing at the start of our interview, with the interconnection of European antisemitism in the 20th century). At one point, however, the Palestinians rebelled. This is a reaction against a century of land dispossession, soon six decades of occupation, and 15 years of humiliation and collective punishment with the siege of Gaza. That doesn’t excuse Hamas for the targeting of civilians and taking hostages, but the recurrence of violence in Palestine against Israel must be read in a relational term, as a cycle of violence with two sets of actors. We cannot think of violence as a substantial characteristic (i.e. Palestinians or Muslims as inherently, culturally, or substantively violent). Violence is always relational.