Gaza: 7 October in Historical Perspective

Seven months after Hamas’s Al-Aqsa Flood attack across the fence surrounding the Gaza Strip on 7 October 2023, the provisional balance-sheet is daunting. By Gilbert Achcar.


A Provisional Balance-Sheet

According to the available figures, on 7 October 1,143 mostly Israeli persons were killed—767 civilians, among whom 36 children and 71 foreigners, and 376 military and security people—while close to 250 persons were abducted. On the same day, according to Israeli sources, more than 1,600 fighters among the assailants were killed on the spot, and close to 200 persons were detained. Since 7 October, according to Gazan sources, close to 35,000 Palestinians have been killed, including an estimated 40% of children, i.e. 14,000, to whom should be added up to 20,000 persons believed to be buried under the rubble, along with close to 78,000 wounded, many with very serious injuries. The vast majority of the 2.4 million Gazans have been displaced and the Strip’s entire population is suffering from increasing famine, inflicted upon them by Israel’s severe limitation of the amount of aid entering the enclave. Most of Gaza’s dwellings have been destroyed in what is certainly the most destructive bombing campaign of this century, and probably the most destructive ever in terms of intensity (combining extent and speed), barring nuclear weapons. In fact, whereas the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima had a blast of 15 kilotons of TNT, Israel’s armed forces have already dropped close to five times this tonnage over Gaza’s 365 square km. Needless to say, all these figures are provisional and still increasing by the day at the time of writing.

Of What was 7 October the Continuation?

Israel’s immediate reaction to the 7 October attack was not only to call it the largest killing of Israelis in a single day, which is indisputable indeed, but also “the largest massacre of Jews since the Holocaust”—a much more disputable description, loaded with an implicit political statement. And yet, the latter description has become a mantra in Western countries, repeated for instance by French president Emmanuel Macron who, on 7 February 2024, called 7 October “the largest antisemitic massacre of our century” during a ceremony honouring 42 holders of French citizenship fallen among those killed close to Gaza’s border on that day.

For anyone bearing in mind the dreadful balance-sheet depicted above, the implicit analogy between the 7 October attack and the Nazi massacre of Jews must sound quite inappropriate, since it completely disregards the actual balance of forces as well as the identity of the oppressors and oppressed in each case. As several experts on antisemitism and the Holocaust put it very rightly in their collective “Open Letter on the Misuse of Holocaust Memory”:

It is understandable why many in the Jewish community recall the Holocaust and earlier pogroms when trying to comprehend what happened on October 7—the massacres, and the images that came out in the aftermath, have tapped into deep-seated collective memory of genocidal antisemitism, driven by all-too-recent Jewish history.

However, appealing to the memory of the Holocaust obscures our understanding of the antisemitism Jews face today, and dangerously misrepresents the causes of violence in Israel-Palestine. The Nazi genocide involved a state—and its willing civil society—attacking a tiny minority, which then escalated to a continent-wide genocide. Indeed, comparisons of the crisis unfolding in Israel-Palestine to Nazism and the Holocaust—above all when they come from political leaders and others who can sway public opinion—are intellectual and moral failings.

This is notwithstanding the fact that, whatever resemblances one may identify between Hamas and the Nazis, there are certainly more similarities between the latter and Israel’s far-right Zionist government, dominated by Likud, a party with a fascist pedigree, and including ministers whom Israeli Holocaust historian Daniel Blatman, a professor at the Institute for Contemporary Jewry at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, did not hesitate to describe as “neo-Nazi” in the Israeli daily Haaretz.

7 October in Context

For having stated on 24 October the rather obvious and banal truth that 7 October “did not happen in a vacuum”, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres was accused by Israel of “justifying terrorism”, while Israel’s ambassador at the UN demanded his resignation. Pointing to the post-1967 occupation, Guterres had explained that “the Palestinian people have been subjected to 56 years of suffocating occupation. They have seen their land steadily devoured by settlements and plagued by violence; their economy stifled; their people displaced and their homes demolished. Their hopes for a political solution to their plight have been vanishing”.

He had also commented that “the grievances of the Palestinian people cannot justify the appalling attacks by Hamas. And those appalling attacks cannot justify the collective punishment of the Palestinian people.” And yet, even Benny Gantz, Benjamin Netanyahu’s political opponent and supposedly “moderate” member of Israel’s post-7 October war cabinet, stated that the UN Secretary-General “condones terror”, adding that “terror apologists cannot speak on behalf of the world”, thus tacitly approving the demand formulated by Israel’s envoy.

Those reactions by Israeli officials were but further instances of the denial of reality common to all occupying powers in modern times, ever since the prevailing ethics and international law of modern times condemn occupation of another people’s territory. In fact, not only did 7 October “not happen in a vacuum”, but it was entirely predictable that a flare-up of violence would occur at some point, in the Gaza Strip in particular. In December 2009, two years into the blockade imposed by Israel on Gaza after the withdrawal of its troops in 2005 and the enclave’s takeover by Hamas in 2007, and a few months after Israel’s first major campaign of bombing of the enclave (2008-9), Larry Derfner put the right questions to his fellow Israeli citizens in The Jerusalem Post:

The question we have to ask ourselves is this: If anybody treated us like we’re treating the people in Gaza, what would we do? …

It’s not that we can’t imagine life in Gaza. It’s that we are determined not to try to imagine. If we did, we might not stop there. Next we might try to imagine what it would be like if our country were in the condition in which we left Gaza. And sooner or later we might try to imagine what we would do if we were living over here like they’re living over there.

Or not even what we would do, just what we would think—about the people, about the country, that did that to us and that wouldn’t even allow us to begin to recover after the war was over. That blockaded our borders and allowed in only enough supplies to keep us at subsistence level, to prevent starvation and mass epidemics.

The truth is that portraying Hamas as primarily motivated by antisemitism and akin to the Nazis is but the continuation, in the present new intensive episode of the Arab-Israeli war of narratives, of an old proven narrative stratagem inaugurated by the post-1945 exploitation of the figure of Amin al-Husseini to present the Zionist conquest of Palestinian land in 1948 as World War Two’s ultimate battle. Thus, the last episode of colonial conquest in modern times could be presented as the latest battle against Nazism. This stratagem works well in those parts of the world that bear the guilt of the Nazi genocide of European Jews: populations whose ancestors were perpetrators, direct accomplices, or bystanders, including those who slammed their countries’ doors in the face of Jewish refugees. The same stratagem does not work, however, for most of humankind, which, based in the Global South, had little stake in World War Two and has always perceived the Palestinians, not as continuators of Nazi imperialism, but as continuators of the long bloody series of colonial victims.

Historical Flashback: Angola 1961

In the aftermath of 7 October, my friend Michel Cahen, a French specialist of the history of Portuguese-speaking Africa, drew my attention to a historical episode that took place in Angola in 1961 and bears a striking resemblance to the ongoing events in the Middle East. Intrigued, I researched the matter and found that the parallel goes way beyond the moment of 7 October alone. Here is the record:

In 1961, on the background of a major progress of decolonization on the African continent, resentment against die-hard Portuguese colonialism tremendously increased in Angola, especially after the neighbouring Republic of Congo (later to become the Democratic Republic of Congo) had achieved its independence from Belgian colonial rule in the previous year, prompting Portuguese colonial authorities to increase their repression of Angolan independentists. Anticolonial armed struggle was progressing in Africa’s remaining colonial dominions, and Angola was no exception. One of its anticolonial movements was the Union of Angola’s Peoples (UPA), whose leader, Holden Roberto, had links with both the Algerian National Liberation Front—of which it will adopt the name later to become the National Liberation Front of Angola (FLNA)—and with the CIA.

On 15 March 1961, UPA fighters crossed the border from Congo into northern Angola, joined by many local natives. A ragtag mass of four to five thousand men, a few of them armed with rifles and most with machetes, went on the rampage, killing in unspeakably horrendous ways several hundreds, up to one thousand (there are no precise figures), white colonists—men, women, babies and children—along with many more Angolans of other ethnicities or mixed-race (mestiços). As Maria da Conceição Neto wrote sixty years later, “the images of slaughtered whites, mestiços and blacks would become the centrepiece of Portuguese propaganda to discredit the attackers as ‘terrorists’ and ‘barbarians’ without any political objective. To this day, these are the most widespread images about ‘the 15th of March’, immediately creating a barrier to understanding what has happened…” (on the role of images, see also Giselda Brito Silva).

The Portuguese government of far-right dictator António de Oliveira Salazar—who personally took the ministry of defence in hand for the purpose—launched a massive retaliatory campaign, including an extensive use of air force. In a few months, tens of thousands (over 50,000 by the end of the year, according to Nkwelle Ekaney) were killed among the black population, with several villages burned and razed in a vast area. A major weapon used by the Portuguese air force in perpetrating this genocidal massacre was napalm, provided by the US administration of John F. Kennedy (see David Birmingham, p. 72).

Two more elements of the historical record are relevant here. First, The UPA/FLNA would carry on as a CIA-backed rival of the Soviet-backed People’s Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA). However, far-right Portugal was a founding member of NATO. Therefore, as Roberto himself later explained to a Swedish researcher:

We could not receive assistance from the Western countries, because of NATO and the relations with Portugal. We had no support. The little support that we could count upon was from African and Arab countries, such as Tunisia. And Israel, which was very important for us. The Israeli government helped us at that time.

Tor Sellström: With weapons?

Holden Roberto: With weapons. It was with the help by Golda Meir.

Second, Frantz Fanon—who had encouraged Roberto to launch armed struggle (see the biographies of Frantz Fanon by David Macey, pp. 386–7, and Adam Shatz, pp. 249–9)—commented on the Angolan events in the chapter entitled “Grandeur and weakness of spontaneity” of his famous 1961 book The Wretched of the Earth (p. 85) in the following terms:

On March 15, 1961, we recall, the Angolan peasants in groups of two or three thousand attacked the Portuguese positions. Men, women, and children, armed and unarmed, courageously and enthusiastically hurled themselves en masse in wave after wave against the regions dominated by the colonists, the military, and the Portuguese flag. Villages and airports were surrounded and suffered numerous attacks, but thousands of Angolans were mowed down by colonialist machine gun fire. The leaders of the Angolan uprising soon realized that they would have to adopt different tactics if they really wanted to liberate their country. The Angolan leader, Roberto Holden, therefore, has recently reorganized the Angolan National Army using the model of other liberation wars and guerrilla warfare techniques.

 In conclusion

Which of these two historical sequences is more similar to the Hamas-led anti-Israeli 7 October and the ensuing onslaught led by the Israeli far-right government: a Nazi-led anti-Jewish rampage followed by the destruction of European Jews perpetrated by the same Nazis, or the UPA-led anti-Portuguese rampage and the ensuing onslaught led by the Portuguese far-right government with the complicity of the United States? Were the UPA-led Angolans of 15 March primarily motivated by antiwhite racism, or by hatred of Portuguese colonial oppression? Likewise, were the Hamas-led Palestinians of 7 October primarily motivated by antisemitism, or by hatred of Israeli colonial oppression? The answers to these questions should be obvious to anyone who is not blinded by anti-Palestinian, anti-Arab or anti-Muslim racism, and “narcissistic compassion” with whitened Israelis.

Source >> Historical Materialism

Art (46) Book Review (100) Books (106) Capitalism (64) China (71) Climate Emergency (97) Conservative Government (89) Conservative Party (42) COVID-19 (43) Economics (36) EcoSocialism (44) Elections (62) Fascism (51) Film (46) Film Review (58) France (55) Gaza (50) Imperialism (95) Israel (94) Italy (39) Keir Starmer (45) Labour Party (100) Long Read (38) Marxism (45) Marxist Theory (31) Palestine (125) pandemic (77) Protest (134) Russia (320) Solidarity (123) Statement (40) Trade Unionism (132) Ukraine (321) United States of America (113) War (343)

Gilbert Achcar’s newest book is The New Cold War: The United States, Russia and Ukraine, from Kosovo to Ukraine (2023).

Join the discussion