An unprecedented low.(Belal Khaled/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)


October 14, 2023   4 mins

Israel and Gaza are a PathĂ© newsreel of violence. Atrocity mounts upon atrocity. Blood smeared on gristle. Festivals mottled with corpses. Women dragged off to be raped and killed. And, now, perhaps the ultimate taboo. “This is the most difficult image we’ve posted,” ran the Daily Telegraph’s front page, reprinting a tweet from the State of Israel’s official account.“As we are writing this we are shaking. We went back and forth about posting this. But we need each and everyone of you to know. This happened.”

The images were of the charred and blackened corpses of babies. Dead bodies are a fixture of my professional life, and I have never seen anything like it. I have never felt that level of nausea. Nothing is beyond the sadism of Hamas. Nothing, now, might be beyond the response — comes the reply from Israel.

Clearly, nothing now is beyond being live-streamed, uploaded, posted, tweeted or shared. Amid the horror and disgust, one thing has struck me above all: the footage has overwhelmingly come from the perpetrators. Yes, there is video shot by terrified and fleeing victims, but scroll through Twitter, Telegram and Instagram and what do you see? Hamas filming themselves barking at cowering Israeli families on the ground; parents covering their children’s eyes, desperate to banish reality; Hamas yanking soldiers off tanks and throwing them into the dirt; Hamas grinning as they parade an elderly woman around in a golf cart.

This conflict has lasted for almost a century, yet what we have seen this week has never been seen before. It is a nasty and brutal war fought over land where ideology and the interminable cycle of reprisals has made its resolution impossible. But it is something else, too. It is perhaps the world’s longest running geopolitical media spectacle. Nothing, not Kashmir nor the Balkans nor any of the other enduring conflicts largely created by empire, has received anywhere near this level of coverage. The depths plumbed by Hamas are unprecedentedly low.

Several factors explain the brutality. First is a perennial of human nature: old-fashioned rage and bloodlust. No one, least of all it seems Hamas, expected the attacks to be so successful. Coming upon hundreds of unarmed Israelis was obviously too much of a temptation for many of these incontinent fanatics.

Then there is the desire to provoke. To get Israel to overreact, but also its neighbours. Broadcast images of dead Palestinian babies onto those feeds and then maybe your Arab allies will start to wonder about the wisdom of their various normalisation agreements with Israel. History is turning away from Hamas. The warming of relations between Israel and Saudi Arabia threatens to destroy them forever. If the “Custodian of the Two Holy Places” decides the “Zionist Entity” is actually ok, then it’s only the politically impotent and half-witted Bashar al-Assad beside you, and the Iranians, who are formidable but largely alone.

It’s a basic strategy but a generally successful one. Don’t forget that one of the reasons bin Laden struck the World Trade Center was to get the Leviathan to lash out, which it did. Hamas has limited options. This is perhaps the one card it can play with any real efficacy.

But this relies on Hamas exhibiting its dead before the court of international opinion, which makes what it did seem so counterintuitive. Israel now has a far greater licence from that very same court to react more forcefully than it ever has.

For decades, the Palestinians have sought to rally public sympathy to their cause. They accepted they would generally lose the battle in the United States but win in parts of Europe and elsewhere. Now, the reaction from the West is unanimous, projected in blue and white onto the Eiffel Tower and Brandenburg Gate. Yet even this has its benefits. Last Saturday, Hamas morphed into Isis, which ran the most successful media campaign of any terror group in the last century. And I think it was deliberate. Brutalising people on camera will earn you wide scale revulsion, but global attention.

That word “global” is the key here. As the Pax Americana recedes, along with Washington’s capacity and appetite to enforce it, the need to court the West diminishes accordingly. Israel-Palestine has become, like Russia-Ukraine, another front in a broader, undeclared and unofficial war against the Western-led status quo in which spoiler powers such as Iran and Russia can seek to punch holes.

This is not the Cold War — a bipolar world bifurcated into two opposing ideological camps, with some non-aligned powers on the side. If there is any ideology here, it’s Maoism, in impulse if not in doctrine: tear it all down and see what emerges in its stead. Whether it is Slavic chauvinism, Islamism or Han expansionism, that can all be worked out later. Tear it all down and see what rises.

This means Hamas can commit atrocities, provoke Israel, and alienate the West but not, say, Russia, which is committing its own atrocities in Ukraine. Note that Putin has already warned Israel against laying siege to Gaza in the same way Nazi Germany besieged Leningrad, because it would lead to an “absolutely unacceptable” number of civilian casualties. The comparison is about as offensive to the Israelis as you can get, and deliberately so.

Once the Palestinians would never have dreamed of ceding the moral high ground so obviously and egregiously to Israel — even for a week. Now they can do just that with, from their perspective, an extraordinary military success. And if the West damns them? They can go elsewhere. As well as Russia, the Chinese obviously aren’t going to care about human rights violations. And the Iranians are on their side. It doesn’t matter that they share conflicting cultures, religions, and beliefs, the only one thing that matters is the overriding interest that binds them: to attack the Western order.

Of course, given the choice, I suspect Hamas would rather have support from the United State and EU. But it knows that’s not going to happen any time soon. So it leans in, and becomes a proxy not just to Iran but a broader axis of “resistance”. Stream and post and kill and maim to your heart’s content. It’s a new day out there — and a very different world is watching.


David Patrikarakos is UnHerd‘s foreign correspondent. His latest book is War in 140 characters: how social media is reshaping conflict in the 21st century. (Hachette)

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