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Podcast #227: The October 7 Terrorist Attacks: a Historical Perspective

Quillette podcast host Jonathan Kay talks to influential Israeli historian Benny Morris about Hamas’ acts of mass murder, the Israeli response, and the future of Gaza.

· 15 min read
Podcast #227: The October 7 Terrorist Attacks: a Historical Perspective


Jonathan Kay: This week I'll be talking to Benny Morris, one of the best known and most influential historians of Israel. In books such as The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem, Morris challenged Israel's traditionally heroic understanding of its own creation and its treatment of local Palestinian populations.

As a result, he has often been criticized by hawkish Zionists who disagree with and even resent his revisionist tendencies, but as we will hear in the interview that follows, Morris is no dove when it comes to assessing Israel's response to Hamas's October 7 terrorist attacks. In our discussion, we talk about the emotional trauma caused by Hamas's acts of slaughter in southern Israel and the question of whether Israel's response has been excessive.

Morris also offers a grim analysis of Hamas ideology and the question of whether Gazan society can ever rid itself of the nihilistic and theocratic worldview that led to these extraordinarily horrific terrorist attacks.

Professor Morris, thank you so much for agreeing to speak with Quillette. Last time we spoke, it was late 2020, and the subject of our interview was your then recently co authored book, The 30 Year Genocide: Turkey's Destruction of its Christian Minorities, and as we discussed at the time, most of your work had been about Israel and its Arab neighbors. Was there a part of you at that time that felt like the relationship between Jews and Palestinians had become frozen in time and your mind was at liberty to move on to other subjects? Or did you imagine that there would be this kind of horrible 9/11-scale terrorist attack in Israel's future that would bring not just your attention but also the world's attention back to this crisis?

Benny Morris: Well, I certainly didn't imagine what happened would happen, but I knew that the conflict would continue because it had reached a dead end. Efforts to resolve it had reached a dead end after the Camp David talks in the year 2000, after the Palestinian rejection of the Clinton-Barack proposals for a two state solution, and the reiteration of this rejection by Mahmoud Abbas, Yasser Arafat's successor, as the president of the so-called Palestinian Authority in 2007 and 2008. That left no room for future negotiations and no path to a solution.

Now, that was my sense. I suppose that partly led me to stop dealing with the conflict academically, but also I became tired of the conflict. I'd written so much about the conflict and I didn't think I had much that was fresh to provide.

JK: You were born on a kibbutz and, even though your parents moved away when you were still very young, I'm guessing you still understand the close-knit family and social connections that exist in this kind of community. I'm wondering if you can comment on this aspect of the October 7 terrorist attacks. On 9/11, the victims were clustered according to their workplaces, such as the offices they occupied at the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. On October 7, the victims were clustered according to where they lived. A death is still a death, but somehow it just feels so much more morbid and upsetting and emotionally scarring for the country as a whole and for these small, tight-knit communities.

BM: Yeah, you're right. Almost all the settlements that were overrun by the terrorists on the morning of the 7th of October are kibbutzim.

Kibbutzim are communities who live together and work together. These kibbutzim were overrun. Some of them like Be'eri and Kfar Aza lost about a quarter of their population. Women, children, old families, their parents, and babies, a quarter of the population was murdered by these terrorists as the population tried to hide from them in their homes. A proportion also was carried off to Gaza. I think the area has lost about 80 people. 250 were killed out of a community of about a thousand people and 80 are hostages. This happened in more or less the same scale in a number of these kibbutzim which were overrun. One or two of the kibbutzim managed to fend off the terrorists squads, and the squads didn't take over, but they did kill people there. But some of the kibbutzim completely fell under terrorist control for hours until the IDF intervened. The IDF was very incompetent, moved very slowly, and before the attack, of course, was incompetent in not seeing that the attack was going to happen.

But these kibbutzim are devastated and the whole area is now a part of a battle zone. It's the rear base of the Israeli invading force in the Gaza Strip. So the survivors were moved to hotels by the Dead Sea or in Eilat or wherever, and they basically say they're not going back. These communities are not going back to their settlements and their villages unless Israel destroys the Hamas. They will not live next to the Hamas and these kibbutzim were like 300 yards from the Gaza Strip border. They're not going to go back to live there under this threat of terrorist assault again.

So, Israel has a problem in that sense as well. How to rebuild these communities? Both physically rebuild the infrastructure and rebuild the families who've lost their parents, children, babies, husbands, wives, brothers, and so on.

JK: Is the border area between Gaza and Israel going to come to resemble something close to what exists between South Korea and North Korea? A large demilitarized zone, complete with minefields and barbed wire? I mean, you already obviously have some of that infrastructure, but something far more extensive.

BM: Perhaps that's what will happen. If there is a demilitarised zone, Israel will make sure that the territory it will consist of will be from Gaza not from the Israeli side of the border.

But I don't know, because I don't know if anybody there is going to trust the Israeli government and military to be able to protect them whatever they put up. Until now, it was thought that the border fences and the various technological implements there would be sufficient to keep out the terrorists, even small scale infiltration of the border. But, as it turned out, over a thousand, maybe 2000, Hamas fighters managed to get into Israel and were followed by a whole host of local Gazans who came and plundered the settlements before the Hamas withdrew.

JK: This is one of the most shocking aspects of the attacks. How Hamas could could organize such a huge attack involving hundreds of terrorists and Israel was completely in the dark about it.

BM: Yes.

JK: It suggests that Israel's intelligence in Gaza seems to have been largely nonexistent, which serves as a terrible indictment of Benjamin Netanyahu's tenure. Putting aside all of Netanyahu's ethical failings, is this going to define his legacy? I think some of us are wondering why he's still in power.

BM: I think this will define his legacy. Both the corruption and the efforts to subvert the Israeli judicial system and the checks and balances of government which preceded the attack.

JK: Was he so obsessed with these projects that he dropped the ball?

BM: Yes. The success of the Hamas in hoodwinking the Israelis and mounting a deception which worked was partly because of the distraction by the Netanyahu government, which was busy looking at other things, like how to subvert Israeli democracy. They weren't interested in what was happening along the borders. This is part of the story.

The other part is probably that Iranian organised deception by the Hamas was very well organized and very well managed. There was also, of course, Israeli hubris, as there had been in 1973 when Syria and Egypt surprised the Israeli army in their attack on Yom Kippur. Who believed that terrorists could deceive and overcome the Israeli defenses? No one could contemplate it at all.

JK: Many of your readers and fans might still not know how extensive your military experience was before you became a historian and an academic. You fought in the Golan Heights in 1967. You served on the Egyptian front where, as I understand, you were wounded during an artillery attack. You were also deployed with, I think, a mortar unit in Lebanon in the early 1980s. But then, when you were called up as a reservist to suppress the First Intifada in 1988 you refused. If today you were a younger man, would you make a different decision?

BM: Yes, for sure. The brutality, the barbarism, of these terrorists is such that I wouldn't think twice about rallying around the flag. I didn't think twice about it in 1973 when I was also a reservist, but in the First Intifada, my sense was that the Arabs were rebelling and it wasn't a lethal rebellion. It was essentially a rebellion of stone throwers and pamphlets . My sense in 1988 was that the Arabs of the West Bank and Gaza simply wanted to shake off the Israeli occupation. In the Second Intifada, which was in the years 2000 to 2004, my sense was that the Arabs who launched it wanted both to shake off the Israeli occupation but also to destroy Israel itself. That that was the real end game of the Hamas which was in the forefront of the second Intifada in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip today.

It's clear that the Hamas are vile people. I can understand where their anger stems from. What happened to the Palestinians in 48, what happened under Israeli military rule and occupation, these are certainly things which would devastate lives and make people angry. And of course, they brought up generations of their people on the hatred of Jews and hatred of Israelis in the school system, starting with kindergarten camps in which the students were taught how to kill Jews. But the extent of the hatred and fanaticism, which is religious as well, not just nationalist, is medieval. It's simply something which even Israelis who knew the Hamas didn't think the Hamas was capable of. So, I don't see any Israeli refusing service against the Hamas now. I haven't heard of any cases.

JK: We're having this conversation on October 30th. I'm seeing media reports of more extensive Israeli incursions.

BM: It's an invasion.

JK: Especially as Israeli troops approach Gaza City, the nature of the combat that will unfold will likely resemble some of the very messy, dangerous, door to door operations that the United States led in places like Fallujah and parts of Afghanistan.

Those were bloody campaigns. However, in Iraq and Afghanistan, those operations were sustained, at least by the conceit, it was a tenuous conceit but it was there nonetheless, that these countries might become democratic, Western-friendly nations once they were rid of their militant Islamist governance. In the case of Gaza, I don't get the sense that anyone actually believes that. I'm asking you as a historian, an Israeli citizen, but also as a former soldier, how do you motivate soldiers to fight when there really doesn't even seem to be a theoretical best case scenario for Gaza becoming anything except a more isolated and less terror-capable version of what's basically a giant Islamist-run refugee camp.

BM: I don't think there's a problem with motivation. If you talk to Israeli troops, I see them on television, you can see they are highly motivated and the motivation is revenge.

JK: That's a dangerous sentiment, no?

BM: Doesn't matter. That's what's motivating them. My assumption is they will kill every Hamasnik they can find. That's the intention of the government and that's what they're going to do.

Hopefully they'll succeed in doing this. Hopefully the international community and the Israeli public will give them the rope and the time to do it.

As you say, they're doing it carefully. I think they're trying to avoid killing civilians needlessly, but there will be dead civilians as there have been until now. Even though the numbers are probably exaggerated by the Hamas, which controls the health ministry in Gaza. So, you can't trust any of the health ministry's numbers about how many people are being killed or how many children. It's all probably a pack of lies.

There are dead civilians and probably a lot of them by now and there will be more, but I think the Israeli army is going to do it carefully. I think they're avoiding killing civilians if they can and avoiding deaths in their own ranks but they will go after the Hamasniks in their tunnels. I don't know how they're going to do it and how they will flush them out. I hope they won't have to go into the tunnels and have a firefight every hundred meters, but I assume the Israeli army is strong enough to do it and has worked out how it should be done without tremendous casualties on the Israeli side.

JK: This is a subject that goes to some of your defining scholarship as an academic. Much of your career has been spent analysing and debating the issue of whether Israel committed war crimes during the military and paramilitary conflicts that attended Israel's birth in 1948. You've attracted criticism from both doves and hawks because you've taken a fairly nuanced treatment of this question. In your opinion, do you think Israel has committed war crimes in Gaza over the last month?

BM: I think the pilots have been given exact targeting of Hamas targets, bunkers, concentrations, weapons stores, and so on. Some of which, of course, Hamas put under mosques or inside mosques. They also have large concentrations under hospitals. They've worked this out very well. They're behind the human shields. But I assume that the targets have been cleared at every level by Israeli judicial officials in the army and by the attorney general. On the ground with tanks attacking buildings and attacking whatever, there may be some war crimes for sure. But until now, I assume everything's been rigorously checked. That's my understanding of how the air campaign has been unfolding.

JK: In the case of the Taliban and arguably even Hezbollah and other Islamist groups that have been around for decades, eventually a certain sense of realpolitik sets in. While neither Hezbollah nor the Taliban are exactly respected upstanding members of the international community, they have grudgingly made concessions to the real world and that's resulted in them at least somewhat controlling their violent tendencies in regard to external targets.

Is there any hope that Hamas might morph into something that more closely resembles an actual legitimate political authority?

BM: I don't know.

The Hamas charter is very clear about what the Hamas character is and what its aims are. It says, frankly, clearly, and flatly, it wants to destroy Israel and install a Sharia-governed state in all of Palestine. That's what it says. It essentially says: kill the Jews. They say Jews, of course, not not Israelis. It's a deeply antisemitic organization.

In its charter, it says the Jews were responsible for the outbreak of World War I, World War II, the French Revolution, and even the creation of the United Nations. If you judge by that charter, Hamas is not going to change. They're not going to become moderate and responsible government officials, like many Germans hoped Hitler would become in 1933 when he was given the chancellorship. I don't see them changing.

JK: Here in Canada, and I suspect other western countries, one of the refrains you hear among campus leftists who call Israel a genocide state is that there's no real religious aspect to this war. They argue that this is simply an anti-colonial struggle, which they try to analogise to the struggle for indigenous rights in places like Australia or South America. They argue that the Islamist aspect is a kind of nominal overlay on the anti-colonial struggle. Is there some truth to that claim?

BM: No. It's nonsense.

Anybody who wants to know anything about the Hamas simply has to look at the charter and see the language in which it's couched and the aims which it intends. They're thoroughly religious. The whole idea of turning all of Palestine into a religious-run theocracy is central to the charter. There's no getting around this. That's what they are. They are religious fanatics. People in the West, Christians and Jews as well, are essentially non religious, or, if they are religious, it's a sideshow to their lives. Most Arab Muslims are religious. They deeply believe in Allah and the extremists among them, those who are fundamentalists, believe that this is what must dictate their lives and their politics. This is what their attack on October 7th expressed and what their desires express as to the future of Palestine.

JK: I remember when I was reporting in Israel during the carnage of the Second Intifada terrorist attacks. It was a banal scene, but I remember I pulled up at a gas station in a rural part of Israel and the woman saw my Canadian credit card and she said, "What are you doing in this godforsaken place when you could be in Canada?"

She was referring to the fact that I had come to Israel during these horrible terrorist attacks. I remember there was this fatalism in her voice. Obviously that Second Intifada passed but I'm wondering if that fatalism is now a permanent feature of Israeli society and has been reinforced by this latest tragedy. Is Israel now a permanently fatalistic society in terms of its place in the world?

BM: I fear so.

I think that we have the Holocaust as background, when the world basically looked on and allowed the Germans and their helpers to kill off six million Jews. That was two or three years and it ended two or three years before Israel was created. So, that was a type of background to the psyche of Israel.

In 1948, continuous wars and terrorism against Israel has reinforced the sense of victimhood among Israelis, and I think what happened on October 7th has only reinforced the sense that the people around us are barbarians and that we are a villa in the jungle. Israel is still, even under Netanyahu, a democracy and is still an enlightened republic compared to everybody around us, not just the terrorists, but even the normal states like Egypt and Jordan. These are autocratic dictatorships here. So, the sense that we're a villa in the jungle and that the jungle wants to take over the villa and overrun it, like Angkor Wat, has been strengthened by this barbarous attack.

I think Israelis will long remember October 7th. It stamped their psyches and the continuous suffering of the hostages and what's going to happen to the hostages, in my sense, is very negative. I don't see a good outcome to this hostage situation and it is only going to reinforce that sense of victimhood.

JK: As recently as August, just a couple of months ago, you endorsed the use of the word apartheid to describe Israel's treatment of the Palestinians. I'm wondering if you can expand on that, especially since that term often gets weaponised and is now being weaponised in the mouths of Israel's critics.

BM: Israel is composed of 80 percent Jews, or close to 80 percent Jews, and 20 percent Arabs. Israel's treatment of its Arab citizens has been essentially fair. They're given equal rights, they vote freely, they move freely, they work freely, they're treated okay. The word apartheid simply does not pertain to them. It's a misnomer. It's unfair to use that word in relation to Israel's treatment of Israel's Arab citizens.

But when it comes to the West Bank, the Israeli military government ruling the West Bank, there is a type of apartheid. It's not the type which governed South Africa. It's not to do with race. It's a nationalism-based apartheid in which Arabs do not enjoy citizenship. They do not enjoy human rights or civil rights. They sometimes are forced to use separate roads. Their movements are controlled by checkpoints. There are 3 million Arabs or close to 3 million Arabs and over 600, 000 Jews who live in the West Bank. The Jews enjoy full citizenship. They have Israeli courts not military courts as they exist in the West Bank. Everything is separate. That's apartheid. That's where the word comes from. So I used it. I signed a petition which used that word.

JK: So your view is that the word apartheid is correct to the extent that it describes the separate system that exists in the West Bank.

BM: Yes.

JK: As I've mentioned, I'm talking to you from Canada. It's a safe country half a world away from the violence in Israel and Gaza. Instead of mourning loved ones who've been killed or abducted or consoling friends or relatives who've had that horror visited upon them, I have the luxury of examining my own beliefs and reactions.

I've noticed that in the shadow of that horrible attack, I had some very dark reactions to it. The idea of revenge dominated the way I thought about this for days after October 7th. I think there is this sort of tribal impulse that takes over and you become inured to the normal humanitarian feelings you have for everybody on earth, including Palestinians, Jews, what have you, anybody. In the reaction to the attack, my first emotional reflex was that Israel had to take revenge for it. In that moment, I think if you had asked me, I wouldn't have cared how many Palestinians died.

I'm absolutely not proud of that kind of emotional response. I've tried to interrogate that response and remind myself that civilians are civilians and even if they're part of a militant society, mothers and fathers still love their children. Is this something you wrestle with? These natural feelings we have in the shadow of this kind of violence and that we have a duty to manage either as observers or certainly as politicians and soldiers?

I'm guessing you've had to wrestle with this sort of thing as an Israeli for decades?

BM: Well, especially after this attack on October 7th. I think I do wrestle with it. Some days, I think I don't care how many Arabs die in Israel's onslaught against the Gaza Strip. Then other days, I think, well, civilians should be treated differently, and there should be avoidance of civilian casualties.

One has to look at this on another level and that's a level which Westerners don't really understand. It's the level of the mindset and politics of the region. In this region, in the Middle East, revenge is considered necessary when something like this happens. If you don't do it, you're considered weak and you become the prey of further attacks. It invites further attack. Arab states and Arab societies around us, if they don't see Israel taking severe revenge for this, will think Israel is a paper tiger and it will invite further attack by Iran, Hezbollah, you name it.

JK: Professor Morris, thank you so much for taking the time to talk to the Quillette podcast.

BM: My pleasure.


Free Thought Lives

Benny Morris

Benny Morris is an Israeli historian and author. His books include 1948: A History of the First Arab–Israeli War (Yale UP, 2008) and most recently Sidney Reilly: Master Spy (Yale UP, 2022).

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