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Thursday April 18, 2024

Lessons from Sderot for Pakistan

By Mosharraf Zaidi
October 10, 2023
Israels Iron Dome defence system and rockets launched from Beit Lahia in the Gaza Strip rise into the night sky on May 14, 2023. — AFP
Israel's Iron Dome defence system and rockets launched from Beit Lahia in the Gaza Strip rise into the night sky on May 14, 2023. — AFP

For many in Israel, it has been raining down rockets and missiles in Sderot for years now. The large-scale Hamas invasion on Saturday, October 7, however was unlike anything Israel has experienced before. It will be weeks before the full death toll of Israelis and Palestinians is compiled. Many more dead bodies will have to be buried. This latest escalation in violence in Palestine is already the most brutal in memory.

David Ben Gurion named Sderot, which means order or more specifically ‘boulevards’. Sderot has just under 30,000 inhabitants and was supposed to be one of many desert roses planted by Israelis that came to the old homeland-new country that Ben Gurion and his colleagues helped fashion. But what fabric was this vision being fashioned from? Like so much of Israel, it was fashioned from demographic and geopolitical brutality – the eviction of Palestinians from their homes, the murder of those that resisted and the intergenerational stigma of being labelled a militant or worse, terrorist, for any Palestinian that sought a claim over her victimhood.

Sderot is a fiction built on a Palestinian village called Najd. If it was a well-crafted fiction, it would have sat comfortably somewhere far, far away from the children and grandchildren of those that it dispossessed. Instead, it is at its closest, less than 850 meters from Gaza – a shantytown that Human Rights Watch calls “the world’s largest open air prison”. As fictions go, it is so poorly conceived and arrogantly sustained, that Sderot – a place that was supposed to offer safety and refuge for the children and grandchildren of Jewish survivors of the Holocaust – is hosting fire and terror from the sky.

Sderot is both the bulldozer of Palestinians nightmares and a boulevard of broken dreams for Israelis. The people of Palestine have been failed by the world, over and over, and over again – this is not news. But in Sderot, it is the people of Israel that have been failed – by Israel’s broken institutions, its racist, apartheid-wielding politicians, its ethnic cleansing ‘settler’ terrorists, and its grand strategists who believe they can successfully end the yearning of Palestinians by making deals with countries far away from the miseries of Gaza.

Many Pakistanis are aghast at the horrors of what took place this weekend. Innocent women and children being kidnapped is horrific no matter who it happens to. Parading prisoners is a failure of humanity no matter where it takes place. There are 560 Israeli checkpoints in Gaza alone. The West Bank isn’t the West Bank anymore, it is 224 separate ghettos collectively called the West Bank. To be born Palestinian in Palestine is a criminal offence. The Palestinian yearns, quite literally, for air, water, and for being seen and being heard. If brutality is the only language in which she or he is spoken to, then it should not take rocket science to deduce that brutality is the language that the young Palestinian will convene towards.

In the days and weeks to come, Israel will enjoy a more explicit and more brazen carte blanche for its brutality than it usually does. Any neighbourhoods or buildings that Israel deems Hamas leaders to be in or near, will be flattened. Thousands of innocent Palestinians will be killed, and all this violence will do is enhance the language and politics of Israel’s already crimson red lust for blood. Israel is run by right-wing lunatics – and with every episode of globally sanctioned violence, those lunatics become more entrenched and more emboldened.

Given the depth of the Pakistani polycrisis, leaders in Pakistan can ill afford being distracted by events in the Middle East, but they can afford ignoring the lessons from Sderot even less. First, a disclaimer: there are no direct parallels between what takes place in the Middle East and what is taking place in Pakistan’s neighbourhood, so if you are seeking direct like -for-like examples, you will not find any – at least not any that make much sense. There are important lessons to be drawn not because of direct parallels but because of what trends and dynamics events indicate.

Lesson number one is what right-wing extremists do to a polity. The right-wing lunatics in the Benjamin Netanyahu cabinet include Itamar Ben Gvir – who is the national security minister. Ben Gvir’s party is called Jewish Power. He is an admirer of Meir Kahane and Baruch Goldstein. Ben Gvir’s right-wing partner in this Israeli government is Bezalel Smotrich – who is the finance minister. Both Ben Gvir and Smotrich are ‘illegal settlers’ in the West Bank. Their entire politics revolves around hatred for Arabs and for Palestinians in particular. In any civilized country, both would be in jail for hate speech and hate crimes. In Israel, they are ministers. They have helped provoke and curate the events that produced the October 7 invasion of Israel by Hamas.

Now, can you name another country that rewards religious extremists, involved in the murder and destruction of a community based on religious zealotry, with high office? If you are thinking of Narendra Modi and Amit Shah in India, you are on the right track. But think more of Uttar Pradesh’s Yogi Adityanath. And think of the manner by which India speaks of its minorities (and continues its occupation of Kashmir).

For nearly two decades, strategic purposelessness and tactical incompetence on the part of Pakistan has caused the people of Occupied Kashmir to be rendered leaderless and largely hopeless. Since 2016, when Pakistani leaders – civilian and military – started to normalize the idea of surrender to India on the issue of Kashmir, this hopelessness has been baked into Pakistan’s postures across the full spectrum of this country’s substantial national power and its wide array of legitimate international obligations and interests. The result of Pakistan’s self-effacing, weakness-is-us and woe-is-me approach to Pakistani interests has enabled the Ben Gvirs and Smotrichs of India to establish and sustain narratives about occupied Kashmir that even a decade ago seemed like fantasy-fiction.

What happens when you allow the Smotrichs and Ben Gvirs to declare victory? Do they stop or do they keep going? For this, you need look no further back than February 2019. India created a war-like hysteria after the Pulwama attack and followed it up with war – invading Pakistani territory in Balakot with an aerial assault that culminated in an Indian plane going down and Group Captain Abhinandan Varthaman being captured by Pakistan. Pakistan played the role of the bigger person and handed the pilot back to India less than 48 hours after he was captured.

Pakistan’s reward for this was the legal gymnastics of India’s August 2019 annexation of Occupied Kashmir. Pakistan, once again, played the role of the bigger person and responded not with kinetic force, nor with serious diplomatic effort, nor even with a domestic public strategic communications work, but with symbolic gestures like the renaming of highways and the placement of posters of support for Kashmir.

Pakistan’s reward for this restraint was India ‘accidentally’ firing a BrahMos missile at Pakistan that landed in Mian Chunnu on March 9, 2022. Pakistan once again played the role of the bigger man, essentially accepting India’s ‘accident’ theory on the missile. But in the nearly two years since that missile firing, Pakistan has doubled down on being the bigger person. A parade of Pakistani elites, from civilians to military to business leaders, repeatedly seek dialogue with India’s Ben Gvirs and Smotrichs. Pakistan’s reward for this desperation is an icy cold shoulder – so far. But there is an election in India in a few months. Beneath the icy cold shoulder of right-wing India is a heart that is consumed by the fire of hatred – or Pakistan, for Kashmiris and for India’s minorities at large.

All India’s right-wing extremists need for the next round of this fire to be unleashed is a pretext – one that they will find, manufacture or stumble upon sooner or later. India’s right-wing extremists will watch Israel destroy and flatten entire neighbourhoods and kill thousands of Palestinians in the bargain. And they will lick their lips in anticipation of such an opportunity in Kashmir, and across the border in Pakistan.

Those responsible for Pakistan’s national security must prepare not only to defend Pakistan from the Indian right-wing’s appetite for destruction, but also to ensure that Kashmiris suffering under India’s brutal occupation do not lose all hope. Can a disjointed, near-default, undemocratic, and internally-fractured Pakistan deliver what the country needs to survive India’s Israeli wet dreams?

The writer is an analyst and commentator.