In the spring of 1956, eight years into the Nakba, a group of Palestinian fedayeen crossed the ploughed ditch which was all that separated Gaza from the state of Israel1. On one side of the ditch were 300,000 Palestinians, 200,000 of them refugees expelled from the surrounding area; on the other were a handful of new Israeli settlements2. The Palestinian fighters attempted to enter the kibbutz of Nahal Oz, killing Roi Rotberg, a security officer. They took his body back with them to Gaza, but returned it after the UN intervened. Moshe Dayan, then Israel’s chief of the general staff, happened to be in the settlement for a wedding and asked to give the eulogy at Rotberg’s funeral the following evening. Speaking of the men who killed Rotberg he asked: “Why should we complain of their hatred for us? Eight years they sat in the refugee camps of Gaza, and saw in front of their eyes how we turned the lands and the villages in which they and their forefathers once dwelled into our homeland.” It was a recognition of what Palestinians had lost that contemporary Israeli politicians can no longer afford to express. But Dayan wasn’t advocating the right of return: he ended his speech by arguing that Israelis had to prepare themselves for a permanent and bitter war, which would have a major role for what Israel called “frontier settlements”3.
Over the years, the ploughed ditch turned into a complex system of fortifications — a 300-metre buffer zone, where more than two hundred Palestinian demonstrators were shot and killed in 2018-19 and thousands more injured, several layers of razor-wire fences, concrete walls extending underground, remote-control machine guns — and surveillance equipment including watchtowers, CCTV, radar sensors and spy balloons. Beyond this are a series of military bases, some of them near or inside the civilian settlements that form what’s known as the Gaza Envelope. On 7 October, in a co-ordinated attack, Hamas struck at all the elements of this interlinked system. Nahal Oz, the closest settlement to the fence, was one of the attack’s focal points. The term “Nahal” refers to the military unit that established the frontier settlements. Nahal settlements started life as military outposts and were supposed to turn into civilian villages, mostly of the kibbutz type. But the transformation is never complete, and some residents are expected to double as defenders when the time comes4.
“Absentee land” was the tabula rasa on which Israeli planners drafted the blueprint of the Zionist settler project after the expulsions of 1948. Its chief architect was Arieh Sharon, a graduate of the Bauhaus, who studied under Walter Gropius and Hannes Meyer before moving to Palestine in 1931, where he built housing estates, workers’ co-operatives, hospitals and cinemas. When the state of Israel was established, David Ben-Gurion made him head of the Government Planning Department. In The Object of Zionism (2018) the architectural historian Zvi Efrat explained that, though Sharon’s master plan was based on the latest principles of modernist design, it had several other aims: to provide homes for the waves of immigrants who had arrived after the Second World War, to move Jewish populations from the center to the periphery, to secure the frontier and to occupy territory in order to make the return of refugees more difficult.
In the 1950s and 1960s, Sharon’s master plan and its successors led to the building in the “frontier zones”, then defined as roughly 40 per cent of the country, of regional hubs or “development towns” which served a constellation of agrarian settlements. These development towns were meant to house Jewish immigrants from North Africa — the Arab Jews — who would be proletarianized into factory workers. The agrarian settlements of the kibbutz and moshav type were meant for the pioneering members of the labor movement, mainly Eastern Europeans. The land belonging to the Palestinian villages of Dayr Sunayd, Simsim, Najd, Huj, Al Huhrraqa, Al Zurai’y, Abu Sitta, Wuhaidat, and to the Tarabin and Hanajre Bedouin tribes, was built over by the development towns Sderot and Ofakim and the kibbutzim of Be’eri, Re’im, Mefalsim, Kissufim and Erez. All of these settlements were targeted on 7 October.
Following Israel’s occupation in 1967, the government established settlements between the main Palestinian population centers in Gaza itself. The largest was Gush Katif, near Rafah on the Egyptian border; in total, Israeli colonies covered 20 per cent of Gaza’s territory. In the early 1980s the area in and around Gaza also absorbed many Israeli settlers evacuated from Sinai after the peace accord with Egypt. The first fence around the territory was built between 1994 and 1996 — a time seen as the height of the “peace process”. Gaza was now being isolated from the rest of the world. When, in response to Palestinian resistance, Israel’s Gaza colonies were dismantled in 2005, some of the evacuees chose to relocate to settlements close to Gaza’s borders. A second, more advanced fencing system was completed shortly after. In 2007, a year after Hamas took power in Gaza, Israel began its full-scale siege, controlling and limiting incoming flows of life-sustaining provisions such as food, medicine, electricity and petrol. The Israeli army calibrates the privation to a level that brings life in Gaza to an almost complete standstill. Together with a series of bombing campaigns, which according to the UN resulted in 3500 Palestinian deaths between 2008 and September this year, the siege has brought humanitarian disaster on an unprecedented scale: civil institutions, hospitals, water and hygiene systems are barely able to function, with electricity available for only around half the day. Almost half of Gaza’s population is unemployed and more than 80 per cent rely on aid to meet basic needs.
The Israeli government offers generous tax breaks (a 20 per cent reduction in income tax, for example) to residents of the settlements around Gaza, many of which are strung along a road a few kilometers from the fence line and running parallel to it. The Gaza Envelope contains 58 settlements within 10 km of the border, with 70,000 inhabitants. In the seventeen years since Hamas took power, despite sporadic Palestinian rocket and mortar fire, as well as Israeli bombardment of the territory a few miles away, the number of settlers has kept growing. Rising property prices in the Tel Aviv area, and the region’s open hills (real estate agents call it the “Tuscany of the Northern Negev”), have led to an influx of middle-class settlers. Conditions on the other side of the fence have deteriorated in inverse proportion to the region’s growing prosperity. The settlements are a central part of the system of enclosure imposed on Gaza, but their inhabitants tend to differ from the religious settlers of the West Bank. Demonstrating the partial blindness of the Israeli left, some settlers in the Negev are involved in the peace movement5.
On 7 October, Hamas fighters broke through the interlinked elements of the siege network. Snipers shot at the cameras that overlook the no-go zone. They dropped grenades on the communication towers. Barrages of rockets saturated the radar space. Rather than tunnelling under the fences, the fighters approached on the ground. The Israeli observers either failed to see them, or couldn’t quickly communicate what they saw. The fighters blew or cut open a few dozen holes in the fence. Palestinian bulldozers widened the breaches. Some Hamas fighters used paragliders to cross the border. More than a thousand stormed the military bases. The Israeli army, blinded and muted, was left without a clear picture of the battlefield and detachments took hours to arrive. Unbelievable images appeared online. Palestinian teenagers followed the fighters on bikes or horses into land they may have heard about from their grandparents but was now transformed beyond recognition.
After the bases came the settlements, and the massacres that no previous violence can justify. Families were burned or shot in their homes. In total, the fighters killed about 1300 civilians and soldiers. Two hundred people were captured and taken to Gaza. Israel has spent decades blurring the line between the civilian and military functions of the settlements, but now the line has been blurred in ways never intended by the Israeli government. The civilian inhabitants co-opted into becoming part of the living wall of the Gaza Envelope got the worst of both worlds. They couldn’t defend themselves like soldiers, and they weren’t protected like civilians6.
The images of the devastated settlements provided the Israeli army with a free pass from the international community, and lifted whatever restraint may have held it back in previous rounds. Israeli politicians called for revenge in explicit, annihilationist language. Commentators said Gaza should be “wiped off the face of the Earth”, and “It’s time for Nakba 2.” Revital Gottlieb, a Likud member of the Knesset, tweeted: “Bring down buildings!! Bomb without distinction!! Stop with this impotence. You have ability. There is worldwide legitimacy! Flatten Gaza. Without mercy!”
However the conflict ends, with or without Hamas in power (and I bet on the former), Israel won’t be able to avoid negotiating over the exchange of prisoners. For Hamas, the starting point will be the six thousand Palestinians currently in Israeli prisons, many of them held in administrative detention without trial. The capture of Israelis has had a central place in the Palestinian armed struggle throughout the 75 years of conflict. By obtaining hostages the PLO and other groups aimed to force Israel into an implicit recognition of Palestinian nationhood. The Israeli position in the 1960s was to deny that there was such a thing as a Palestinian people, which meant that it was logically impossible to recognize the PLO as their legitimate representative. The denial also meant that there was no need to recognize Palestinian fighters as legitimate combatants under international law, and therefore no need to grant them POW status in line with the Geneva Conventions. Captured Palestinians were held in a legal limbo, much like the ‘unlawful combatants’ of the post-9/11 era.
In July 1968 the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) hijacked an El-Al flight and landed it in Algeria, inaugurating a series of hijackings whose explicit aim was the release of Palestinian prisoners. The Algeria incident led to 22 Israeli hostages being exchanged for sixteen Palestinian prisoners, though the Israeli government denied that there had been a deal at all. Sixteen for 22: such an exchange rate would not hold for long. In September 1982, after Israel’s invasion of Lebanon, Ahmed Jibril’s PFLP-General Command captured three IDF soldiers; three years later, in what was known as the Jibril agreement, Israel and the PFLP-GC finally reached a prisoner-swap deal: three soldiers for 1150 Palestinian prisoners. In the 2011 deal to release Gilad Shalit, captured by Hamas in 2006, the exchange rate was even more favorable to the Palestinians: 1027 prisoners for a single Israeli soldier. In anticipation of being forced to make many more such deals, Israel began arbitrarily to arrest more Palestinians, including minors, to increase its assets for future exchange. It also kept the bodies of Palestinian fighters, to be returned as part of any exchange. All of this reinforces the perception that the life of one of the colonizers is worth a thousand times more than the lives of the colonized. This calculation inevitably brings to mind the history of human trading. But here the exchange rate is mobilized by the Palestinian resistance to invert the deep structural colonial asymmetry.
Different states deal with the capture of their soldiers and citizens in different ways. The Europeans and Japanese usually engage in secret prisoner exchanges or negotiate ransoms. The US and UK claim in public that they don’t negotiate or comply with captors’ demands, and although they haven’t always strictly adhered to this, they have favored inaction and silence when a rescue operation has seemed impossible. This is seen as the “lesser evil” and is part of what military game theorists call the “repeated game”: every action is evaluated in relation to its possible long-term consequences, with the benefits of securing a prisoner’s release weighed against the chance that the exchange will result in more soldiers or civilians being captured in future.
When any Israeli is captured, their family, friends and supporters take to the streets to campaign for their release. Most often, the government acquiesces and makes a deal. The Israeli army usually advises the government against exchange deals, pointing to the security risk posed by released captives, especially senior commanders, and to the likelihood that it will encourage more hostage-taking by Palestinian fighters. Yahya Sinwar, who is now the leader of Hamas, was released in the Shalit deal. A significant civil campaign against such exchanges was led by the religious settler movement Gush Emunim, which saw them as a manifestation of the fragility of Israel’s ‘secular-liberal’ society.
In 1986, in the wake of the Jibril deal, the Israeli army issued the controversial Hannibal Directive, a secret operational order designed to be invoked on the capture of an Israeli soldier by an irregular armed force. The military has denied this interpretation, but it was understood by Israeli soldiers as a license to kill a comrade before they were taken prisoner. In 1999, Shaul Mofaz, the then chief of the general staff, explained the policy: “With all the pain that saying this entails, an abducted soldier, in contrast to a soldier who has been killed, is a national problem.” Although the military claimed that the directive’s name was randomly selected by a computer program, it is an apt one. The Carthaginian general Hannibal Barca killed himself in 181 BC in order not to fall into Roman hands. The Romans had shown similar resolve thirty years earlier: when Hannibal tried to secure a ransom for the soldiers he had captured in his victory at Cannae, the Senate, after a heated debate, refused and the prisoners were executed.
On 1 August 2014, during the offensive on Gaza known as Operation Protective Edge, Palestinian fighters captured an IDF soldier near Rafah, and the Hannibal Directive came into effect. The air force bombed the tunnel system into which the soldier had been taken and 135 Palestinian civilians, including entire families, were killed in the bombardment. The army has since cancelled the directive. But with the current indiscriminate bombing of Gaza, the government seems not only to be bringing unprecedented destruction on the people of Gaza but to be returning to the principle of preferring dead captives to a deal. Bezalel Smotrich, Israel’s finance minister, has called for Hamas to be hit “mercilessly, without taking into serious consideration the matter of the captives”. Gilad Erdan, Israel’s ambassador to the UN, has said that the hostages “would not prevent us from doing what we need to do”. But in this war the fate of the civilians in Gaza and the captured Israelis is closely entangled, as is that of both peoples.
This article has been originally published on 2 November 2023 in London Review of Books.
Translated into Russian by Katerina Korableva
- In the spring of 1956, the Gaza Strip was occupied by Egypt. ↩︎
- Throughout the text, the author uses the term “settlements” without distinguishing between communities located in the occupied West Bank (and the Gaza Strip before 2005) and the internationally recognized territory of Israel (or “Israel proper” within the “green line”). The communities located in the Gaza Envelope, attacked by HAMAS on 7 October 2023, belong to Israel proper. ↩︎
- The term “frontier settlements” goes back to the early stages of Israeli state-formation in the 1940s and the 1950s. They should be distinguished from the so-called outposts in the occupied territory of the West Bank, built in violation of Israeli law. ↩︎
- The author probably means kitot-konenut, community-based self-defense units created in the aftermath of the Suez Crisis. They were instrumental in the few cases of successful defense against HAMAS on 7 October 2023. ↩︎
- The “middle-class settlers” from Tel Aviv and the Negev desert are Israeli citizens moving within the internationally recognized territory of Israel proper. See footnote 2. ↩︎
- The majority of the victims of the attacks on 7 October 2023 are civilians. ↩︎