What The Al-Ahli Hospital Bombing Really Meant

[This essay first appeared in the AUTOMACHINATION literary magazine. You can watch an in-depth discussion on the al-Ahli Arab Hospital bombing with Alex Sheremet and Keith Jackewicz here.]

Yesterday, the al-Ahli Arab Hospital in Gaza was hit by an IDF airstrike or a “failed rocket” launched by Palestinian militants. In some ways, this felt like an existential moment for Israel—more so than even the Hamas massacres on Israeli territory two weeks prior. That’s because despite America’s claims of an “existential threat” from terrorism in 2001, or Israel’s perceived security needs in keeping a stateless population at bay, terrorism rarely poses serious (i.e., existential) danger to nations, and most terror campaigns fail. Of course, there are exceptions. Jewish terrorism in Mandatory Palestine forced Britain to disengage in the midst of political assassinations, kidnappings, and a hotel bombing for which Israel was awarded the legal right to statehood. Palestinians soon adopted these tactics, yet lacked the strength, and, until recently, sufficient public opinion to achieve their aims. In the meantime, Israel has become a nuclear-tipped hegemon with an identity crisis. Many young Jews want nothing to do with what the UN and human rights groups call an apartheid state, while Israel itself has become increasingly corrupt, right-wing, and religious. So when news broke of (yet another) potential war crime in Gaza, Israel needed to respond—and quickly.

As in previous situations, Israel’s behavior inspired little confidence. Hananya Naftali, who works for Benjamin Netanyahu on “media content”, tweeted, then deleted, “breaking [news]” that “the Israeli Air Force struck a Hamas terrorist base inside a hospital in Gaza”, alluding to Hamas’s “heartbreaking…use of human shields”. This was soon replaced by a message blaming a Hamas rocket which failed to reach its target. Irrespective of whether or not the IDF was responsible, one could already detect hasbara in action, down to the evidence-free assumption of “human shields”. The IDF, for its part, released an analysis which concluded “an enemy rocket barrage…[aimed] towards Israel” struck the hospital. Once it was pointed out the video was dated forty minutes after the blast, the IDF quietly removed it from their statement. Such sloppiness is reminiscent of the murder of Palestinian-American journalist Shireen Abu Akleh in 2022, wherein “Palestinian militants” were angrily blamed until CNN published its own analysis of the “targeted killing”. Likewise, in 2018, as Israel massacred hundreds of mostly-civilian protesters in Gaza, 21-year-old medic Rouzan al-Najjar was “intentionally targeted” by the IDF. Israel soon released a deceptively edited video purporting to show that she was a “human shield for Hamas” as journalists hunted down the actual source material. Naturally, these terrorist actions are long forgotten, but the al-Ahli Arab Hospital strike would not be. Jordan, the West Bank’s Mahmoud Abbas, and Egypt pulled out of a meeting with Joe Biden, while the United Arab Emirates—an ally of Israel after 2020’s normalization agreement—released a statement explicitly blaming Israel for the attack. If Hamas’s targeting of civilians provided respite for Israel’s flailing PR campaign, the hospital strike would fritter away every bit of good-will they had so recently accumulated. Yet this has always been the case. How many can name even one terrorist attack from the Second Intifada? History remembers only context—and decades of ethnic cleansing will inevitably (even if wrongly) forgive Hamas as much as the Holocaust has forgiven Jewish terrorism in Eretz Yisreal. Recognizing this, Israelis are forced to geek out on technical questions because they are far less painful than contextual ones.

To wit: the al-Ahli Baptist Hospital had already been struck days before, injuring several people. More importantly, WHO has documented “34 attacks on health care in Gaza [in the past week]…that have resulted in the death of 11 health workers on duty, 16 injuries, and damages to 19 health facilities and 20 ambulances.” In Operation Cast Lead, human rights groups in Israel and abroad claimed that the IDF explicitly targeted ambulances, hospitals, and crews, forbad medical assistance, and set up physical obstacles to treatment. All told, Cast Lead saw damage to, or the complete destruction of, fully half of Gaza’s health facilities. Just a few years later, Operation Protective Edge destroyed roughly the same proportion of facilities, including 17 hospitals. In most cases, human rights organizations pushed back against allegations that Hamas used these facilities as meat shields—an irrelevant accusation, anyway, given that Israel proudly announced it does not, and would not, target militants fighting from or in the vicinity of hospitals, as international law demands.

If one can expect Israel to destroy half of Gaza’s medical infrastructure during any given siege, accumulate thousands of deaths at a 100:1 ratio and level thousands of buildings in the hope of finding a dozen weapon caches, what makes the destruction of the al-Ahli Hospital so special? It could be the death toll, yet it is a small fraction of civilian deaths from the past two weeks. It could be the callousness—but what of forcing over a million Gazans (half of them children) on Mao’s Long March after cutting off food, water, and fuel? Since human beings are terrible at numbers, the real answer is in our skill with symbolic thinking. A single, calamitous event is more memorable than the slow asphyxiation which kills 1000X as many people, as the very nature of asphyxiation allows for narrative, counter-narrative, and plausible deniability. Observing news items and social media chatter over the past day, it is clear that Israel, which is dependent on symbol and metaphor for its own self-justifications, has boxed itself in. If the IDF was responsible for the al-Ahli Hospital attack, then all self-justification ‘must’ dissolve: a superstition not unlike any other, for it imbues deep meaning into a small break which, if one telescopes out, is all continuity. Those on the Palestinian side fare no better, as they too wed themselves to a specific outcome—have to, in fact, because if decades of massacres, annexations, and ethnic cleansing could not stop Israel’s aspiration towards Greater Israel, perhaps one magical, God-given event might.

No doubt such language is macabre, but it does seem that God—or those who claim to speak for God—conducts His own cost-benefit analyses. Moral questions of Hamas’s terrorism aside, the attacks on Israeli civilians are, from their perspective, rational. The last few years were strangely quiet despite Israeli police beating up worshippers, settlers murdering their Arab neighbors (often with the help of Israeli police), and normalization agreements which systematically excluded Palestinians. There has been no serious talk of a Palestinian state in more than twenty years, while Netanyahu continues threatening to annex the West Bank. Hamas seems to have concluded that a final, desperate push would derail the Saudi-Israel normalization plans at the cost of over 1300 Israeli lives and thousands more Palestinians. Is this ungodly—against the spirit of Islam? Yet Netanyahu, for his part, seems to have calculated that supporting Hamas (even with direct cash transfers) was worth it if it meant a weakened Fatah and no Palestinian state. There are now almost 1 million settlers, which came, apparently, at the cost of ~0.01% of Israel’s Jewish population. Isn’t this ‘rational’, as well? Egyptian officials were surprised at Netanyahu’s indifference when they presented “something big” happening in Gaza. One can omit the ‘Bush did 9/11’ conspiracy theories and simply reiterate Egypt’s own observation: that Netanyahu was so absorbed with accelerating illegal West Bank settlements that he had no time for Gaza. But Gaza exists, and is therefore as important a part of Israeli identity as it is for a Palestinian one.

[The image of the Al-Ahli Hospital in Gaza was found through CatholicIreland.net.]

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