Two Months That Shook the World: The First Phase of the Gaza War

As Israel resumes its bombing of Gaza, the risk of a wider regional war grows. Mouin Rabbani analyzes the military and propaganda battles between Hamas and Israel.

Photo illustration: Elise Swain/The Intercept; Photos: Getty Images

On Friday morning, Israel resumed its bombing campaign against Gaza, and the civilian death toll is once again rising. Both Hamas and Israel accused the other of violating the temporary truce. Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant has promised, “We will fight in the entire [Gaza] Strip.” Despite meekly worded suggestions from Secretary of State Antony Blinken that Israel make an effort to reduce civilian deaths, the U.S. position remains one of full-throttled support for a military campaign that has killed more than 15,000 Palestinians, the vast majority of them children and other civilians.

In this special episode of Intercepted, political analyst Mouin Rabbani, co-editor of the Arab Studies Institute’s ezine Jadaliyya, offers a provocative analysis of the current situation. In a discussion with Jeremy Scahill and Murtaza Hussain, Rabbani suggests that behind the belligerent rhetoric and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s proclamations he will eradicate Hamas, Israel may already be heading for a bloody quagmire it is unlikely to transform into an accomplishment of its stated goals. “We’re now well into the second month of this war, and the most Israel has been able to achieve is to raise the Israeli flag on a hospital. It’s not exactly Iwo Jima,” Rabbani says. The “Israeli military is a very effective killing machine when it’s dropping 2,000-pound bombs from the air, but a rather mediocre fighting force when it comes to ground operations.” Rabbani describes the evolution of Hamas’s strategy and tactics over the past decades and maps out several scenarios that might emerge in the coming period. “The idea that you can wipe [Hamas] out, even if you fully succeed in conquering every last square inch of the Gaza Strip, is an illusion,” he says. “It is effectively impossible to resume this war without regional escalation.”

Jeremy Scahill: This is Intercepted.

Welcome to Intercepted. I’m Jeremy Scahill.

Murtaza Hussain: And I’m Murtaza Hussain. 

JS: Maz it seems like the hardliners in Israel are getting their way. On Friday morning the temporary truce was shattered. Israel claims that Hamas fired rockets. Hamas is saying that Israel broke the truce. Regardless of how it happened, we are now back to a situation where Israel has resumed heavy bombardment. Early indications are that they’re increasing their campaign in the south of Gaza. And Israel began its military operations literally as U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken was taking off to depart Israel. 

Antony Blinken: Well, good evening everyone and thanks for bearing with us through a long day. So this is my fourth trip to Israel since the Hamas terrorist attacks of October 7th.

JS: And it really seems like every time Blinken goes to the region or goes to Israel, it’s then followed by an intensification of Israeli military tactics. And you know Blinken has been trying to publicly sell this talking out of both sides of the mouth from Washington. On the one hand giving full-throttled support to Israel and on the other hand saying, well, we want to try to put some guardrails on Israel’s operations. And one of the things that Blinken said is: 

Antony Blinken: But Israel has the most sophisticated — one of the most sophisticated — militaries in the world. It is capable of neutralizing the threat posed by Hamas while minimizing harm to innocent men women and children. 

JS: All we’ve seen from Israel since this started was the opposite. We’ve seen that Israel clearly wants to maximize the terror being felt by civilians in Gaza. And part of it seems aimed at saying we’re gonna force them through merciless bombing to somehow overthrow Hamas. But it shows a kind of fundamental misunderstanding of the lens of history that many Palestinians are viewing this through and also the history of Hamas itself.

MH: Well, if you look at the satellite footage and even statements from Israeli officials, it is clear that their campaign is not aimed at minimizing damage to the Palestinian people or civilian infrastructure, or civilians themselves. They’ve been carrying it out in such a way to punish the population and you’ve seen this in the death toll as well too.

So Blinken’s statement that Israel has the capability of minimizing the toll to civilians may be true per se but the implication is that they’re not taking that because they have the technology, they have the weaponry and so forth. But we would not be seeing these massive death tolls of 15-plus thousand people by some estimates — total destruction of Gaza City — were Israeli leaders taking, prioritizing and minimizing civilian harm or just focusing on Hamas per se. And we can see that they’re not just focusing on Hamas, not just by the toll on Gaza, but also by the actions of the West Bank recently, where Hamas is not in control and where Israel is still ramping up its suppression of Palestinians killings and the treatment of Palestinians in jail too, which is also deteriorated in recent weeks by many reports.

So it’s very, very clear that Israel is not behaving in the way that Blinken is portraying them as behaving or… This good cop bad cop attitude that the U.S. is taking towards Israel is really not very convincing, even on those terms. It’s clear that Israel is engaging in tactics which we condemn very thoroughly when done by Russia or Syria or other countries that we’re opposed to. But when we’re seeing them in real time by [a] U.S. ally, we’re getting at very minimum defense from the U.S. administration of Israeli actions. 

JS: You know, now we’re about two months into this acute aspect of the war. Of course, this war has been going on a lot longer and started far, far earlier than October 7th, of course. But we thought it would be good and worth it to look at these two months that have shook the world, and to do so we’re joined by Mouin Rabbani. He’s a researcher, analyst, and commentator specializing in Palestinian affairs, the Arab-Israeli conflict, as well as the contemporary Middle East. He is the co-editor of Jadaliyya and contributing editor of Middle East Report.

Mouin thank you so much for being with us here on Intercepted. 

Mouin Rabbani: It’s a real pleasure to be with you. Thanks for inviting me.

JS: Let’s start with the very beginning of this acute aspect of the war. Of course, you can say this has been going on for a very, very long time, but… October 7th. First, talk about what you understand were the strategic objectives of Hamas in what they called “Operation Al-Aqsa Flood.”

MR: Well, I think we’re probably going to have to wait, and perhaps wait a long time, to get a definitive answer to that question. But the strategic objective, as I understand it, was to shatter the status quo, and to shatter it irrevocably.

It was a situation in which the Gaza Strip had been under blockade for 16, 17 years, the occupation was well into its sixth decade. Of course, there was also the dispossession of the Palestinians in 1948. And, in addition to that, what we had also seen was a number of escalating Israeli measures.

First of all, of particular interest to Hamas as an Islamist movement, the Al-Aqsa Mosque and the Haram al-Sharif compound in Jerusalem, the growing settler pogroms, and dispossession and ethnic cleansing in the West Bank, particularly in the Jordan Valley.

So, on the one hand, you have those developments. On the other hand, you had a situation where Israel was increasingly seeking to unilaterally resolve the core issues of the question of Palestine, without any reference to either Palestinian rights or Palestinian interests, or even negotiations with those Palestinians who were most amenable to the Israeli agenda; here, I’m referring to the Palestinian leadership, the leadership of the Palestinian Authority in Ramallah.

And the reason it was able to do this is because Israel had, on the one hand, the active support of the Americans. And, secondarily, the passive acquiescence of the Europeans, a passive acquiescence that has turned increasingly into active support as well. And I think the reason that Hamas decided it needed to do something, for lack of a better term, genuinely spectacular on October 7th, is because they had attempted to shatter the status quo on two separate occasions, at least.

The first was the Great March of Return in 2018, when very large numbers of Palestinians went to the boundary between the Gaza Strip and Israel to demonstrate, on the anniversary of Nakba Day. And Israeli snipers shot and killed numerous Palestinians, wounded many more, medics were killed, and so on. And the world shrugged and, the following day, things returned back to what they were.

More recently, in 2021, represented the first time that an Israeli-Palestinian armed confrontation took place at the initiative of Hamas, rather than Israel. And, just as importantly, was initiated by Hamas for reasons that had nothing to do with conditions in the Gaza Strip. It was a response to growing Israeli incursions, and repression, and other measures in East Jerusalem; you may remember the attempted settlement expansion in the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood of East Jerusalem. And then specifically, also the Al-Aqsa Mosque. And even then, that lasted for a few weeks, that was a so-called “Unity Intifada,” where you had Palestinians rising up in the West Bank within Israel, and then this confrontation between Palestinians and Israel in the Gaza Strip. A ceasefire was eventually established and, once again, things went back to their usual pattern.

I think, when you look at the scale of what we saw on October 7th, it can’t be seen as a response to the policies of the current far-right government in Israel: Netanyahu, Ben-Gvir, and Smotrich, and so on. Sure, that was a factor, but the planning for an operation of this size, scale, and scope must have started before — perhaps even well before — this government took office.

And so, I know there is a tendency to blame anything and everything on Netanyahu — it’s kind of a Netanyahu derangement syndrome, if you will — but the current government is more of a change in scale and intensity, rather than a change in policy. And the issues that I was discussing previously were more or less policies of previous Israeli governments, rather than the current one. In addition, of course, you had the prisoner file, which is of central importance, not only to Palestinians generally and to Hamas, particularly, but also to Yahya Sinwar, the leader of Hamas in the Gaza Strip, and seen as an architect of the October 7th attacks, personally.

So, if you take all of these issues together, my sense is that if you were to summarize Hamas’ strategic objective in one phrase, it would be to irrevocably shatter the status quo. Did they have very clear ideas of what they wanted beyond that? At the tactical level, yes. It’s quite clear that the reason they took so many Israeli soldiers captive and civilians hostage is because they wanted a comprehensive prisoner exchange, including people who they were unable to get released in the 2011 agreement, that led to the freedom for about a thousand Palestinian prisoners. They wanted changes with regard to the blockade, and so on.

But did they have a clear — and what they consider achievable — political objective? I haven’t really seen the evidence for that. My sense is they did not think that far ahead.

One last point is that I think we also need to recall that, on October 7th, the Israeli military and intelligence services not only failed but, at the first sign of contact, they collapsed like a house of cards. So, we have to consider it quite likely that the scale of the October 7th attacks far exceeded Hamas’s initial planning for that event, and that they ended up basically operating in a geographical area that’s larger than the Gaza Strip itself. I don’t know to what extent Hamas planned for that. I suspect they didn’t think they would be able to, and I suspect that many of these expanded operations were decided, and implemented, and conducted in the heat of the moment, simply because the Israeli defensive measures evaporated into thin air.

MH: Mouin, in the wake of October 7th, the Israeli government has said that its goal is to eradicate Hamas; in various terms, it said that. And it’s reiterated that goal now, over a month into the operation. Despite that, Hamas, by all accounts, still seems to have considerable command and control inside Gaza. The recent prisoner exchange suggests as well that they’re still very well entrenched, and Israel is still very, very far from achieving those stated military objectives.

From your sense, how realistic is this goal of destroying Hamas, or eradicating Hamas, as the Israeli government has put it. Is it an actually achievable objective for Israel? And, if so, what would it take to accomplish that?

MR: I don’t think it’s achievable at all, and I think we should view this primarily as a rhetorical aspiration, rather than a serious policy. It’s quite possible that, on October 7th, Netanyahu Defense Minister Gallant, Chief of Staff, and their biggest champions in Washington — Biden and Blinken — believed that this would be, to use a phrase that was introduced in 2003, “a cakewalk,” and could be easily achieved.

But even before this Israeli offensive started, let’s look at the facts. Hamas and a number of other armed groups are also present in the West Bank. Hamas is a fairly modest militia, even if you compare it to other paramilitary organizations in that part of the world, and especially if you compare it to conventional state armies, and overwhelmingly, if you compare it to the nuclear power that is Israel, that is armed to the teeth with the most advanced weaponry in the U.S. arsenal. So, Hamas is already, in military terms, a quite modest outfit. That’s referring to Hamas in the Gaza Strip.

Then, when you talk about Hamas and other groups in the West Bank, they’re not just modest. I mean, they’re very lightly armed. Most of their weaponry consists of, at best, automatic weapons and explosives. Nevertheless, for the past two years, Israel has been conducting regular intensive raids, particularly in the northern West Bank, to wipe these organizations out. It has had the full cooperation of the Palestinian Authority in this campaign. And, if anything, the attacks emanating out of the West Bank — and Northern West Bank in particular — have been escalating.

So, if you can’t eliminate an exceptionally poorly-armed series of militias that are, in many respects, not even a coherent military force from the West Bank where you have total control, and you have the cooperation of the Palestinian authorities, how can you expect to achieve that objective against a much better armed, more coherent, much larger and well developed Palestinian armed group in a territory that it has controlled for almost two decades? That would be my first answer.

Secondly, Hamas is not just a militia or an armed group. It is a deeply rooted movement that exists wherever Palestinian communities exist today, very much, like used to be the case — and in many respects still is a case — with the PLO and its constituent factions. So the idea that you can wipe this group out, even if you fully succeed in conquering every last square inch of the Gaza Strip, is also an illusion. You have the civil service, you have the social services, you have the political movement. It’s a whole network of agencies, organizations, and institutions, and so on.

And so, I think the most that Israel could hope to attain would be to wipe out the existing leadership and to severely degrade the military capabilities of Hamas, but only in the Gaza Strip. And even that has been a total failure. We’re now well into the second month of this war, and the most Israel has been able to achieve is to raise the Israeli flag on a hospital. It’s not exactly Iwo Jima.

And not only that, I think there’s another point worth making, as your question implied: At the very outset of this war, Israel and the United States vowed, as you said, that they would eradicate Hamas, that there would be no truce until this objective was achieved, and that there would absolutely be no negotiations with this group. Well, if you look at the situation today, there has now been approximately a week of a truce, a whole series of exchanges of captives, and these have been the result of Qatari- and Egyptian-mediated negotiations between the United States and Israel on the one hand, and Hamas on the other. And the person who was leading the negotiations on behalf of Hamas is Yahya Sinwar, the very architect of the October 7th attack.

So, Israel and the United States have already climbed down pretty far from the tree they jumped into. They’re negotiating, they’re accepting truces, they are implementing agreements that overwhelmingly reflect the conditions initially proposed by Hamas, rather than by them. So, how can you eradicate an organization you’re negotiating and reaching agreements with?

Of course, at some point, I do expect the Israeli offensive to resume, but I think we’re now in a stage where most likely we’ll see one, maybe one or two, furious Israeli attempts to inflict as much damage as they can. And then, I think the clock will start winding down pretty quickly.

JS: Mouin, these scenes that we have seen play out over the course of the exchanges of Israeli captives and Palestinian captives are surreal on a number of levels. On the one hand, Hamas is putting out fairly sophisticated video production on its side of the handovers. Sometimes they have drone photography that they’re using to show the vehicles, we’ve also seen these scenes of several Israeli prisoners smiling at them, shaking their hands, waving at them, speaking to them.

And Hamas has what I think is a fairly sophisticated information operation that they’re running. They also, in one of the exchanges, decided to do it right in the center of Gaza City…

MR: Twice, actually.

JS: Twice, right? The first time that it happened, I would have paid serious money to watch Netanyahu’s face as that was happening.

But you also have Yahya Sinwar acting as a sort of commander-in-chief in battle, and reportedly went down into tunnels where some of the Israelis were being held, and had interactions with them. One of the released Israelis, an 85-year-old woman who identifies herself as a peace activist, has been telling Israeli media that she had an exchange with Yahya Sinwar, where she kind of shamed him for attacking them and said, “we’re peace activists.”

But what I’m getting at is that you have a much more sophisticated public imaging operation going on from Hamas, and I want to get your take on what’s at play there, and how this is being received in the broader Arabic language public in the world.

MR: Yes. Well, I would start by saying that Hamas propaganda in the early days was very crude and very ineffective. And what appears to be the case is that they’ve taken a page out of Hezbollah’s playbook. And here, I’m referring to the experience of Hezbollah, the Lebanese militant movement, in the 1990s, when it was launching increasingly successful attacks on Israeli occupation forces, and on their local collaborators, the so-called South Lebanon Army.

And every time Hezbollah would claim, “we attacked this and that base or outposts, we can confirm that we inflicted X casualties,” the Israeli military spokesman would come out and say, well, the Arabs are lying again. And this is propaganda, we’ve got everything under full control.

Then, with the technological developments that we saw in the 90s, Hezbollah began recording their attacks on video, and then broadcasting them on its television station, Al-Manar. And, pretty soon, what you had is not only their own constituency in Lebanon — and people in the Middle East, more broadly — realizing that this is an organization whose claims had a lot of credibility. But, also, that its increase in credibility was because it was telling the truth, it was being honest. And it wasn’t inventing and exaggerating achievements that didn’t exist.

And, most importantly, it got to a point where the Israeli public began to trust Hezbollah propaganda more than the propaganda of their own military and their own government. And what I think we’ve seen here is broadly similar.

I know your question was specifically about the release of captives, but what we’ve seen is a whole series of statements by Hamas’s military spokesperson, Abu Obaida, who’s now become perhaps the single most popular figure in the Middle East; that’s not Mahmoud Abbas, as Biden and Blinken would like you to think. And he not only makes statements, but backs them up with video that substantiates those statements.

My sense is that Hamas propaganda is directed — or, at least in the initial stages — was directed primarily at Palestinian and Arab public opinion, and also at Israeli public opinion. But then, when you began to get all these statements coming out of the Israeli leadership, out of the U.S., particularly from European capitals also, saying Hamas is ISIS, Hamas is worse than ISIS, Hamas are Nazis … And it got to the point where people have actually been downplaying the Nazi Holocaust in order to suggest that the real issue here is not Adolf Hitler, but Yahya Sinwar, and so on.

Then Hamas also began, I think, trying to influence global, and particularly Western public opinion, which is, I think, a quite new arena for them. And the way they have tried to do this is to put out videos trying to demonstrate, whether you believe it or not, that they are treating their captives humanely, that they don’t consider attacking civilians a strategic goal, and so on.

Of course this is propaganda and political theater, such things always are, whether it’s by Hamas or anyone else. But I would nevertheless compare and contrast the image Hamas is trying to project in relation to its treatment and release of captives that it holds with those of Israel.

I mean, look at the difference. In these Hamas videos, they are handing over their captives to the International Committee of the Red Cross, pushing old ladies in wheelchairs, handing water bottles to their released captives, waving goodbye and giving them a friendly send-off. Political theater, propaganda? Of course.

But what do we see at Ofer Prison in Beituniya, just outside Ramallah, where Israel is releasing Palestinian captives? Well, you have, first of all, clouds of tear gas being fired by the Israeli forces at gatherings of Palestinian well-wishers. You have actually live ammunition being fired at these people, and several have been killed. Israeli police have been raiding the homes of captives who are about to be released, and literally warning their families that any expressions of joy are verboten. And intimidating journalists, evicting journalists from the homes of released captives.  So, it’s not only what Hamas has been doing, it’s also the contrast between Hamas and the Israelis.

And one more contrast is that — and this is less of a Hamas policy, of course, because it doesn’t really have much or any control over these situations in the West Bank — but the Palestinians have been very eager for their released prisoners to describe the conditions of their captivity, which have been horrific. And to discuss their experience of achieving freedom, and so on. Remember, so far, at least, we’re talking about children — or what I think The Guardian calls “individuals under 18,” because Palestinians aren’t children — and women, many of whom, were never charged with a single offense, let alone tried, even, by a military court for any offense.

So, you have the Palestinians very eager to expose their released captives to the media and to tell their stories, and then you have Israel which, under the pretext of medical checkups, is holding its own released captives incognito, because they’re terrified that these people will say, well, actually, no, we weren’t beheaded and burned alive, and no, it wasn’t quite, the ISIS story that you’ve been trying to convey to the world.

JS: On that specific issue, I think we just have to say clearly that the Israeli civilians who were taken hostage, including very young children, witnessed utterly horrifying acts where their parents were killed, or their neighbors were killed. And you then had the Israeli military come in on October 7th, and there’s serious questions about how many Israelis and foreign workers — Thai workers and others — that were killed by the Israeli response to the attacks orchestrated by Hamas. But I’m saying that because I think it’s important to remember that, no matter what, the people who then were taken hostage by Hamas already went through unspeakable terror as human beings.

Now, having put that on the table, I want to ask you something about the two camps of stories we’re starting to hear emerging from Israelis who were held hostage, and their family members. Several Israelis have described being treated with respect while in Hamas captivity. They described difficult conditions, they talked about how they were eating the same food as the guards or the people that were holding them captive, and that sometimes the food was dwindling, and sometimes it was OK. Same situation with medication.

On the other hand, you’re starting to have family members of children who were held hostage describing things like, the child was made to watch videos of the October 7th attacks. And if they were crying, they had a gun pointed at them. And some of the Thai workers saying that some Israelis were being beaten with electrical cords; not with live wire electricity, but with electrical cords. And these are the two sorts of narratives that have started to bleed out in the Israeli media. And, of course, some are promoted more than others.

But what I wanted to ask you is somewhat of a granular-level question, and that is: do we know that all of these hostages were being held by the same entity? Because we did see, in some of the exchanges, members of Hamas, and members who were identified as Islamic Jihad handing over certain prisoners. We also know that there are, I think, credible reports that some of the people taken hostage that day in Israel were taken by what appeared to be sort of freelance gangs, or people that maybe were not necessarily operating under the umbrella of Hamas, or under the direction of Mohammed Deif, the head of the Qasim brigades.

I know you don’t have inside information, but what is your sense of how different hostages were held, and how Hamas has had to sort of figure out where all of them are, and whether there may be different layers of treatment based on who was holding the Israelis inside of Gaza?

MR: It’s a very good question, and let me start by repeating your point, that no civilian deserves or should be placed in captivity without due process by a legitimate court of law that convicts them for a specific crime. I think the difference between us and many other people is, in this context, we feel that that is a criteria that applies not only to Israelis, but to any human being, and even includes Palestinians.

Secondly, yes, for both Israeli and Palestinian civilians, particularly children, the initial seizure of these people was of course traumatic, can often include violence and brutality. And now I’m speaking specifically about the Israelis and Gaza; there’s several unanswered questions to me, because I think that the main objective of Hamas on October 7th was to knock out The Gaza Division, which is a division of the Israeli military responsible for maintaining the Gaza concentration camp, and launching periodic attacks on it.

I think it’s more or less established that they also sought to attack and, at least temporarily, control a number of population centers in the so-called Gaza envelope. To what extent seizing Israeli civilian captives was part of the initial plan, I don’t know, but it did happen. And we also know — and this is according to both Palestinians, Israelis, the Qatari and Egyptian mediators, and the United States — that the captives are being held not only by Hamas but, as you said, a number are also held by Islamic Jihad. And there are others who are being held by … I don’t know if it’s gangs or ordinary civilians who … Because, you know, once Hamas breached the barrier on October 7th, a lot of people started streaming into nearby Israeli settlements, whether it was simply to experience a taste of freedom, or to engage in looting, or to engage in acts of revenge, or a combination of the above, is not clear. But some of the people who were seized and taken into the Gaza Strip were by those groups.

And we’ve gotten a lot of propaganda. I think this week we heard a story of testimony — I believe it was a seven-year-old child — saying that he was being held by an UNRWA teacher; UNRWA is the U.N. agency for Palestinian refugees that has been under systematic U.S. and Israeli and European attack for decades. And we’re expected to believe that the seven-year-old child not only knows what UNRWA is, but also that the first thing his captor said to him is, the most important thing you need to know about me is that I’m an UNRWA teacher, and, if you don’t believe me, here are my pay stubs, because I’m desperate to get fired from my job. You know, it just defies imagination.

I also think that the inconsistencies in the stories of treatment are a little too contradictory for my liking. I would find it believable if the general pattern was abuse, or the general pattern was humane treatment, but the idea that similar people under identical circumstances are treated very differently, I just don’t find it very convincing.

The only explanation that I would have for this, if it is indeed correct, is that there may have been abuse, torture of military prisoners in order to extract information from them by their captors.The other possibility, as you said, is that it may be that you had certain individuals seized by ordinary citizens, or other groups that decided to treat their captives very differently.

But the idea that you have ten people in the same room, five were treated humanely, and five were constantly abused… There’s too much contradiction in there for my liking, unless there are other factors that help explain that.

A final point — and again, no one deserves to be held captive unless they’re convicted of a specific crime by a legitimate authority — having seen these images of these Israeli captives being released, I have to say, and I think it needs to be said, they looked in better condition than many of the Palestinian civilians who were there to witness their release and departure. I think that’s an important point to make.

MH: Mouin, it seems very clear now that the Israeli military and Israeli government embarked on this conflict in Gaza without a clear plan for how they’d like to proceed throughout the course of the conflict, and also, very importantly, after it’s over, whether they achieved their objectives or not. And the U.S. government also has cosigned and encouraged this conflict, again, without really having an idea of what they want to happen, ultimately.

I’m very curious, because I’ve heard Blinken, and Biden, and others say that their ideal situation is that, at the end of the war, the Palestinian Authority will be in charge in Gaza. But it seems like the Palestinian Authority has not been very relevant, and it’s decreased in popularity since the conflict began.

Can you talk a bit about how realistic or unrealistic you see that outcome being?

MR: This is primarily a U.S. project, because Israel’s strategy, of course, has been to keep the Palestinians divided and fragmented. And one reason that Hamas has been able to remain in power in the Gaza Strip all these years is because Israel — its distaste for Hamas notwithstanding — has preferred a situation in which the West Bank — or those parts of it under Palestinian administration — and the Gaza Strip are ruled by separate and rival entities, rather than by a unified entity.

And Netanyahu, for example, has spoken out very clearly against any return of the Palestinian Authority to the Gaza Strip, and I think he speaks for the consensus of the Israeli leadership, and not just this leadership, on that issue. So, again, it’s primarily a U.S. project.

And this has a long history, the crux of which is basically that it is the U.S. and not the Palestinian people who will determine who represents them, who leads them, who rules them. It’s [that] the right of Palestinian representation belongs to Washington, and not the Palestinians.

The thing about the Palestinian Authority is that it is, in fact, a disintegrating entity. Israel, particularly since the eruption of the Second Intifada in 2000, has systematically implemented measures to weaken the Palestinian Authority, to transform it, essentially, into a subcontractor for the Israeli occupation, whose main function is kind of as an adjunct to the Israeli military and intelligence services in the West Bank. This has been quite systematic and, again, it’s not something that has ever been substantively opposed by those who claim that the Palestinian Authority should be empowered so that it can participate in a political resolution of this conflict.

So, you have the Americans kind of actively supporting this Israeli policy, while saying that they want the PA to be strengthened, and you have the Europeans effectively doing the same. Every time there’s a new Israeli outrage, how does the European Union respond? Well, it launches yet another investigation of Palestinian elementary school textbooks. I mean, that’s kind of the extent of European opposition to Israeli policy towards the Palestinians, and its efforts to weaken the Palestinian authority.

So, you have a Palestinian Authority that can’t even impose its authority over those areas of the West Bank which are formally under its administration. And, in this crisis, what you’ve had — as is often the case when Israel tries to eradicate the Palestinian organization — Hamas’ stature has been skyrocketing while the PA is primarily present through its absence in the public consciousness. I mean, Mahmoud Abbas is kind of trotted out every other week to make a meaningless statement. The guy is completely AWOL.

Another thing is, Hamas is far from universally popular in the Gaza Strip. There’s actually been quite a bit of opposition towards its continued rule over the Gaza Strip over the years, perhaps even increasing in recent years. But, that notwithstanding, one thing virtually all Palestinians in the Gaza Strip agree upon is that they detest the Palestinian Authority.

So, opposition to Hamas does not translate into support for the Palestinian Authority, because the Palestinian Authority has played a very, very pernicious role in punishing the people of the Gaza Strip, by participating in the blockade, by doing nothing to … Because the Palestinian Authority — or, rather, Mahmoud Abbas in particular — sees not only Hamas as its enemy, as his enemy, but sees the entire Gaza Strip as an enemy, and has treated it as such over the years.

You have a former Palestinian Prime Minister, Salam Fayyad — who also has a very low popularity ratings, but that’s a different question — he is one of several who I believe are on the record as saying that they received instructions from Mahmoud Abbas to further turn the screws on the Gaza Strip, and refused to do so.

And so, the Palestinian Authority is seen by the majority of Gazans as part of the problem — particularly Mahmoud Abbas — and not part of the solution. Now, the Americans, nevertheless … Again, we’re talking about the Washington echo chamber, so you can say anything provided it has no relationship to reality. They’re under this illusion that they are going to resuscitate the Palestinian Authority, perhaps even appoint a new leader in Washington’s image who will be lionized by the Palestinian people. That they will then bring him into the Gaza Strip on the back of an Israeli tank, and that he will be received with rice and flowers by every Palestinian in the Gaza Strip.

I mean, there’s only one problem here, putting aside all these political issues. If the PA can’t even administer territories under its jurisdiction in the West Bank, and if the U.S. can’t even challenge Israel’s systematic efforts over the years to weaken the Palestinian Authority, how are you going to get a strengthened PA that is actually going to rule the Gaza Strip?

And there’s one other point here, which is that all these scenarios have as a prerequisite the successful eradication of Hamas in the Gaza Strip. If Hamas remains, not even as a coherent movement, but retains residual military capabilities, these scenarios are all pie-in-the-sky and off the table.

JS: The final area we wanted to cover was about the Biden administration, and how Joe Biden, and Antony Blinken, and Jake Sullivan, and this administration have handled the events of October 7th and beyond. And what we saw at the beginning, and for anyone that knows anything about Joe Biden’s career, it was no mystery how he was going to respond. He was all in with full support for scorched earth bombing and ground operations on the part of the Israeli state. So, that shouldn’t have come as a surprise to anyone. And that was sustained as just the public messaging, also, for the first several weeks of this.

And then you had this kind of moment of schizophrenia from the messaging from the White House where, on the one hand, that was still going on, but then you had primarily Antony Blinken running around starting to say, oh, we need to deal with the humanitarian crisis now in Gaza. And they start planting stories with unnamed officials talking about how Biden is so concerned about the fate of the innocent civilians of Gaza.

And now, we’ve hit a point where this is now, it’s almost like the dominant messaging now from the White House is, this has to stop at some point. And then they’re leaking stories about how they’re trying to put a leash on Netanyahu, and sort of draw a line about what’s going to happen in southern Gaza.

Make sense of this, from your perspective. Like, give us an overview of how you have seen the response from Biden and his brightest guys in the room.

MR: Well, I was hoping you wouldn’t ask me to do some Kremlinology here, but I’ll give it my best shot.

Look, I don’t take any of these statements seriously. I think your characterization of Biden is entirely correct, and it applies equally to Blinken who, certainly when it comes to the Middle East, is somewhat of a clueless airhead. He genuinely believed that the 2003 Anglo-American invasion, occupation, and destruction of Iraq would create a century of peace and security and stability in the Middle East. I think one thing we need to understand about Blinken is there’s never been a war in the Middle East that he hasn’t fully embraced. The guy just loves war.

To give one example, the one difference he’s had with Biden on Middle East policy was Libya, where Biden had some misgivings. Blinken was all in, because he was sure it would turn out as well as Iraq. Blinken is someone who was opposed to U.S. policy in Syria during the Obama administration, because it didn’t result in war. So, you know, this guy, he just loves war. I think maybe he played too many video games as a kid or something? I really don’t know.

But I think the real issue here is not the growing pressure of public opinion in the U.S., which tends to come first and foremost from what the Democratic Party would consider its natural constituency. I think Biden genuinely doesn’t give a damn about this. He’s got more important things, like supporting Israel. Blinken, for his part, I don’t think has a clue. The point I’ve been making is Biden doesn’t care, Blinken doesn’t know.

Then you have a third faction, which I think is represented by CIA director Bill Burns, who knows the Middle East very well, and understands its politics. And I would argue, also, probably Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, and much of the top brass in the Pentagon.

And if I could just rewind a bit here, I was earlier referring to the conflict of 2021. And what you had then was not only this uprising by Palestinians throughout Mandatory Palestine — in other words, in the West Bank within Israel and the Gaza Strip — but it also began to spread in the region. Palestinians in Jordan, and Syria, and Lebanon were demonstrating, and then you started getting larger and larger demonstrations by growing masses of people in the Arab countries. And, at a certain point, the Chief of Staff at the time, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mark Milley was giving congressional testimony, and he said — I’m paraphrasing here — that if this goes on for much longer, it’s going to begin having a serious impact on our interests in the region. And, next thing you knew, the conflict was over, and a ceasefire was achieved.

So, what I think is going on here is not a response to the growing outrage of public opinion, or even a response to a slight change of tone among some U.S. allies in Europe, particularly, or even a realization that the Western-constructed rules-based international order is effectively past tense. What I think you have — and here is my Kremlinology — what I think you’re seeing is that you have an ascendant faction within the U.S. leadership, represented, I believe, by Burns and Austin, who are looking at this not in terms of civilian casualties or its political consequences for Biden’s reelection campaign, but looking at it from the point of view of U.S. interests in the Middle East.

And what they’re seeing is that it is effectively impossible to resume this war without regional escalation, and their priority is to prevent this regional escalation, because further regional escalation increases the prospect that the U.S. will get directly involved. Particularly at a time when you have certain Israeli leaders who, in view of the U.S. commitment to get directly involved if Hezbollah in Lebanon launches an all-out offensive against Israel, view this as a golden opportunity to enmesh the U.S. in a direct conflict with Iran. In other words: for Israel to fight its enemies to the last American.

And this is what I think is uppermost in the minds of those who want to find an off ramp. And it’s no coincidence, in my view, that the real diplomacy here is being conducted not by Blinken, but by Burns, who’s been in Doha for the past several days, along with a director of the Israeli foreign intelligence agency, Mossad, in Qatar, of course. Oh, and the head of Egyptian intelligence. So, I think that’s where the real discussions are taking place. And Blinken is being allowed to play diplomat, here and there.

Yeah. So, my sense is, I think you very well characterized the initial U.S. response. Then it became clear that this omniscient, omnipotent, unbeatable Israeli military is a very effective killing machine when it’s dropping 2,000-pound bombs from the air, but a rather mediocre fighting force when it comes to ground operations. That it can only make further progress in a context where further regional escalation is a certainty, and I think that those who are most worried about the scenario appear to now have the upper hand.

And it’s because of that, that, all of a sudden, you’re hearing, 15,000 corpses later concern about civilian casualties.

MH: With the caveat that we still don’t know what dimensions this war ultimately may take, there may be a regional implication to it as well, as you said. But I’m curious, in terms of the next day after this conflict’s over, how do you see the political horizon of the Israel-Palestine conflict changed by October 7th, and everything that’s happened since then?

Obviously, the level of death and destruction in such a small time frame is unprecedented, even in this long conflict, and it’s going to have lasting impacts on both Palestinian, Israeli, regional, and, also, Western opinion for many, many years to come.

I’m curious, how do you see politics after this conflict? And what may we actually expect, if anything, in terms of seeing a political resolution any time in the foreseeable future?

MR: Well, I’ll start by getting back to your first question, which is that, on October 6th, the Palestinians were completely marginalized, and Israel and its sponsors in the U.S. and Europe had come to the conclusion that the Palestinians could be safely ignored. And that Israel [can] basically have its way with the Palestinians, and resolve the whole issue unilaterally because, on the one hand, no one cared anymore, and, on the other, the Palestinians were too powerless to do anything about it. That changed on October 7th.

An optimistic scenario would be to recall an incident from the 1970s. In 1971, Israel’s then-defense minister, Moshe Dayan, who was the hero of Israel’s decisive military victory in 1967, was giving a speech and, still full of hubris, he said, you know, if I have to choose, between Sharm El-Sheikh without peace, or peace without Sharm El-Sheikh, and he was referring to a resort in what was then the Israeli occupied Sinai Peninsula. If I have to make this choice, he said, I choose Sharm El-Sheikh without peace.

Two years later, Egypt and Syria launched their joint offensive against Israel to recover their occupied territories, and it caused such a shock within Israeli elites that, by the end of that decade, the Israeli government, then led by the much more radical Likud Party, negotiated a peace agreement with Egypt, part of which gave not only Sharm El-Sheikh, but every last grain of sand in the Sinai Peninsula back to Egypt. And who was a main negotiator of that agreement? Moshe Dayan.

And again, I don’t want to get into the details, but an important reason that Israel concluded its peace treaty was to get a freer hand with the Palestinians, and the colonization of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, and to remove the main Arab military force from the conflict, and so on, but that’s not the point I’m making here.

Then you have Israel’s 1982 invasion of Lebanon, which is known as Operation Peace for Galilee, but its real name was Operation Big Pines. And there, Israel had a very well-developed strategy: you invade Lebanon, you eradicate the PLO, you install Bachir Gemayel, the leader of the fascist Phalangist Party as head of state in Lebanon.

He concludes a peace treaty with Israel, he expels all the Palestinian refugees in Lebanon to Jordan. There is a revolution in Jordan, and it’s transformed from a Hashemite monarchy into a Palestinian republic. That becomes the Palestinian homeland, and Israel can then proceed with the annexation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip. And, eventually, not only the West, but the international community will recognize this.

Well, first of all, Israel eventually proved incapable of seizing West Beirut by military force. It was only able to do so after the U.S. sent a mediator to Beirut to negotiate the orderly withdrawal of the PLO from Beirut. And then, it only took one bomb — an Operation Valkyrie-type operation — to knock off Bachir Gemayel, and the whole plan collapsed.

And then you had, a few years later, the popular uprising, the Intifada, from 1987 to 1993, and the PLO that was supposed to be eradicated in Beirut ended up leading the Palestinians from the occupied territories. And again, this is without getting into any analysis of the Oslo Agreements, but I think the broader point is clear.

But in 1973 there was also another dynamic, which is that Israel — or those Israelis who were most committed to the permanent retention of the occupied territories — began to see the threat of a potential Arab-Israeli peace, and you had groups like Gush Emunim and others that began to very strongly intensify — with full government support I should add — settlement activity in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. So, you have these different dynamics at work.

How will this play out? It’s very difficult to say. On the one hand, I think, when you hear Biden, and E.U. Foreign Affairs Commissioner [Joseph] Borrell, and others, talking about a reinvigorated initiative to achieve a two-state settlement, you can take all that with a grain of salt. Not because a two-state settlement is no longer on the table, but because you can’t have a two-state settlement without an end to the occupation. And, since 1967 — so, now, for over half a century — there is literally not a single instance in which either the United States or Europe have confronted Israel with a single consequence for any of its actions in the occupied territories.

So, this whole process of creeping and now leaping annexation has proceeded without challenge, and has been enabled by, for example, the U.S. and Europe making these settlements economically viable, by allowing them to export their illegal products from their illegal settlements into the European and American markets.

Yes, there have been verbal condemnations and statements, and so on, but in terms of practical consequences? Literally zero. And a world in which Washington or Brussels challenge Israel and take measures to compel Israel to end its occupation, that doesn’t exist, any more than the moon is made out of cheese.

So, my view, and I’m perhaps in a minority here, is that, at least as a theoretical matter, a two-state settlement is entirely achievable, because I don’t believe there is such a thing as a point of no return.

If you compare the West Bank to Algeria, Algeria was internationally recognized as an integral part of the French homeland until 1954 by the entire international community as it existed then. That’s never been the case for Israel and the West Bank. And all it would take is a phone call from Washington and the occupation would end. Again, that’s never going to happen, but you can think of ways in which Western interests in the Middle East are sufficiently challenged, that the U.S. and Europe may begin to change their policies.

So, the issue is not whether there can be a two-state settlement. I think one question we need to ask ourselves in view of what we’ve seen in the past month is whether there should be peace with Israel. And here’s what I mean by that.

If you look at Europe in the 1940s, at a certain point, a conclusion was reached that there could be no peace in Europe without the dismantling of the Nazi regime, because it was a rabid, lunatic, irrational state with whom peace was simply impossible. No one talked about exterminating or expelling the German people, but about dismantling the state and its key institutions.

You go to Southeast Asia in the late 1970s, and a conclusion was reached that, in addition to the expulsion of American forces, peace in Southeast Asia could not be attained without dismantling the rabid, lunatic, thoroughly irrational Khmer Rouge regime. You go to Southern Africa in the 1990s and, similarly, it became apparent that, unless you dismantle the white minority regime in South Africa, peace in Southern Africa would remain a pipe dream.

Now, you look at Israel today. It’s a state that has reached such a degree of irrational, rabid lunacy that its government routinely accuses its closest allies of supporting terrorism. And, in the last week or two alone, Israel has accused the leaders of Spain, Belgium, and Ireland of supporting terrorism for having even the slightest disagreement with it.

You have Israel’s clownish representative to the United Nations, who attends security council meetings wearing a concentration camp outfit, or at least the yellow star, and demanding the immediate resignation of the U.N. Secretary General, whose position … He hasn’t named Israel once as responsible for anything. But he demanded his immediate resignation simply because he made the obvious factual observation that the attacks of October 7th were not the beginning of the history of this conflict, and is demanding resignations left and right.

For Israel, slaughtering 15,000 people in a month, conducting the most intensive bombing in the history of the Middle East — and we’re talking about the Middle East, not Scandinavia — has become perfectly normal. It is a state that has become thoroughly incapable of any form of inhibition. I would argue that the Israeli regime is a clear and present danger to peace in the Middle East, and, rather than drawing any conclusions, rather than or in addition to having a discussion and debate about how Israeli-Palestinian peace might be achieved, we should also be asking ourselves, should that peace be achieved? Or, rather, can it only be achieved by dismantling a regime and its key institutions the way that was done in Europe in the 1940s, in Southeast Asia in the 1970s, in South Africa in the 1990s, Southern Africa in the 1990s, and I’m sure there are other examples as well.

And, just to be clear, I’m not talking about expulsion of Israeli citizens or whatnot. I’m talking about a regime and its institutions. Again, let’s not jump to conclusions, but let’s ask the difficult questions.

JS: On that note, Mouin Rabbani, we want to thank you very much for being with us. And I know it’s not popular to give out people’s Twitter — or they call it “X” — handles right now, but I really recommend to people to give you a follow on whatever we’re calling Twitter these days. It’s @MouinRabbani. We’ll also link to it.

But, Mouin, thank you very much for sharing your analysis with us.

MR: Thank you. And, just on your last point: I don’t block trolls, because they always help me substantiate my argument.

JS: All right. Thanks so much, Mouin. We really appreciate it.

MR: Thank you very much. It was a pleasure being with you.

MH: That was Mouin Rabbani, the co-editor of Jadaliyya. He also has his own podcast called, Connections. We’ll link to that on our website. 

JS: And that does it for this episode of Intercepted. We won’t have an upcoming episode this upcoming Wednesday but we’ll be back the following week as usual. 

Intercepted is a production of The Intercept. José Olivares is the lead producer. Our supervising producer is Laura Flynn. Roger Hodge is Editor-in-Chief of The Intercept. Rick Kwan mixed our show. Legal review by David Bralow and Elizabeth Sanchez. This episode was transcribed by Leonardo Faierman. Our theme music, as always, was composed by DJ Spooky.

MH: If you want to support our work, you can go to Your donation, no matter what the size, makes a real difference. And, if you haven’t already, please subscribe to Intercepted, and definitely do leave us a rating and review whenever you find our podcasts. It helps other listeners to find us as well.

JS: If you want to give us additional feedback, email us at

Thank you so much for joining us. Until next time, I’m Jeremy Scahill. MH: And I’m Murtaza Hussain.

Join The Conversation