Book Review: Schanzer, Jonathan. Gaza Conflict 2021: Hamas, Israel, and 11 Days of War
Instead of challenging the media's biased narrative as it aims to do, this book leaves much to be desired.
The book Gaza Conflict 2021: Hamas, Israel, and 11 days of War attempts to scrutinize the 11-day war that unfolded from May 10 to May 21, 2021, between the Israeli occupation forces and the joint operation room of the different Palestinian resistance factions in Gaza. Precisely, the author purports to unravel in 21 short chapters discrepancies and gaps between American news reporting on the war and what he was “watching, reading, and hearing from the region itself”.
A conspicuous coherence can be observed between the sensational terminology used throughout the book like “the terrorist group Hamas” and a quick glimpse into the background of the author. Jonathan Schanzer is a senior vice president for research at the “Foundation for Defense of Democracies” think tank in Washington. He previously served the US Department of the Treasury as a “terrorism finance analyst”. In one of his books (State of Failure: Yasser Arafat, Mahmoud Abbas, and the Unmaking of the Palestinian State), he argued that the blame for the roadblock to Palestinian statehood should be put not on "Israel", but on the Palestinian Authority’s own “political dysfunction and mismanagement”. His Ph.D. dissertation at King’s College London revolved around the US Congress’ “efforts to combat terrorism in the 20th century”. He studied for his master’s at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and claims to speak both Hebrew and Arabic.
The book is published by a Washington-based think-tank (the FFD Press) rather than an academic publisher. This partly explains the use of vocabulary similar to the press contrasting the objective and sociologically defined terms in academic literature, and an introduction grossly starting with a detailed personal account and sensational description of Gaza as a dangerous and poor urban space during the author’s trip back in 1998. While academic research is accompanied by years of colossal fieldwork, collection of data, extensive literature review, and rigorous methodology, this book was published in 2021, the very same year of the war that broke out in May in Gaza, which this book claims to analyze. Perhaps the goal was to write the first published book on this war. He mentions that he relied on his own phone calls with journalists and “officials” in the US, "Israel", and “several Arab governments”. The audience he targets isn’t academics or researchers but “novice and experienced Middle East watchers” (p.12). He attempts to help them better understand Hamas’ history and the involvement of its “foreign patrons”, namely Iran. Consequently, despite the fact that Schanzer is the vice-president for research, I will refrain from discussing how academically problematic the book is, such as the total absence of definitions of overused concepts like “terrorism”, “proxy”, or Iran’s “shadow war”.
With all modesty, one can safely affirm that this book leaves much to be desired. To situate this book in the ocean of literature on wars between Hamas and "Israel", this book is just another one recycling the US State Department’s narrative with all its decades-old Manichean judgments on West Asian actors. Instead of challenging the press’ dominant narrative as it aims to do, it reproaches it for not reporting enough on Hamas’ “war crimes” and the “indirect role of Iran”, despite that 261 Palestinians were killed, among them 67 children and 41 women, in contrast to the 10 killed in "Israel".
The primary fundamental problem is methodological. Unfortunately, almost every single statement presented as a fact by the author is questionable. He deliberately builds his reasoning upon categorical assertions only backed up by US law and foreign policy, and official Israeli records, excluding any academic debate challenging them. Thus, Hamas is a “terrorist organization”, Iran is a “state sponsor of terrorism”, and friends of the US are all rightful democracies who only defend themselves. More problematic is that except for very few occasions, there’s a quasi-total absence of robust evidence to back his claims. An obvious example is his unprovable trivial assertion that Hamas was using “Human shields to protect their fighters and military infrastructure” (p.46) during the war, which is the very discourse that the Israeli army holds to justify its airstrikes on civilian infrastructure. Indeed, Schanzer’s evidence is aerial photographs from the Israeli occupation forces’ website, which don’t actually prove the presence of neither tunnels nor Hamas. Anyone who follows the news of the region knows that the Israeli occupation forces repeatedly published maps and photographs not only of Hamas’ tunnels but also of Hezbollah’s “secret weapons depots” next to civilian areas in Beirut, which almost nobody in Lebanon takes seriously. In his ambitious attempt to investigate Hamas’ underground infrastructure from his seat in Washington (chapter 3), he asserts that the group’s underground tunnel network was funded by Iran and involved Iranian engineers, by exclusively relying on anonymous “Israeli military officers”. The recount of the events that unfolded during the war in May 2021 by the author is equally misleading. Not only does he exclusively display the Israeli narrative, concerning the decades-old legal battle of the Sheikh Jarrah affair by affirming that “The homes in question were originally bought by Jewish families in 1875” (p.16), but he also omits the storming of al-Aqsa mosque by the Israeli forces which he misleadingly refers to as “sporadic reports of violence between Jews and Arabs” (p.17). This incident was the cherry on the top of the Sheikh Jarrah evictions that Hamas viewed as a red line and pushed it to launch the first rockets, according to its official narrative at least. Hence, the author confidently affirms that Hamas started the war but forgets to mention that five days prior to the war, Muhammad Deif, the commander of al-Qassam brigades, warned that further attacks on Palestinians in East Jerusalem will meet retaliation. But Schanzer’s neglect of those incidents is either due to a deliberate deception or ignorance of the sacred value of religious sites for the Islamic Palestinian factions. This is without a doubt the result of writing an entire book without any fieldwork or in-depth understanding of Hamas’ social and cultural realities.
To add insult to injury, the author’s analysis and interpretation of the events are highly idiosyncratic and seem to leave the reader perplexed. He does so by taking the reader for an idiot by starting with “Each time [Hamas-Israeli war], Israel emerged the stronger party. There was never any doubt that it would. This was, after all, a conflict between a non-state actor and a powerful regional state” (p.10). One does not win a war simply for coming out with fewer casualties. With this reasoning, the US never lost the war in Vietnam, and "Israel" didn’t lose the thirty-three-day war in Lebanon in 2006. As Henry Kissinger famously puts it, “a conventional army loses if it does not win, and a guerrilla wins if it does not lose”. One wins or loses a war if one fails to achieve the initial goals motivating the launch of the war, and in the case of "Israel", it loses when the new deterrence equation coming out of the war is not to its advantage. But the author doesn’t offer any analysis or interpretation of the new equation. Instead, Schanzer blames Western media for not pointing out Hamas’ “contradictions”. The “contradictions” Schanzer thinks he unravels are Hamas’ combination of Islamist and nationalist rhetoric (actually, numerous academics like Gilles Kepel offered an in-depth socio-historical analysis explaining this duality a decade ago, but Schanzer is late to the party), its claim of independence while relying on foreign “patrons” (without providing any definition of patron or independence), and controlling the Gaza territory while claiming Israeli occupation (which it never does, unless Schanzer is referring to the Israeli blockade on Gaza or the occupation of the 1948 territories). The book is also quite ambitious. It attempts to go over events that extend over long periods of time in individual short chapters, such as the 2008, 2012, and 2014 wars in Gaza (chapter 12), the "Iranian-Israeli proxy war in Syria" (chapter 9), or the origins of Hamas (chapter 2) through the narration of successive historical events and superficial correlations instead of an in-depth study of the context from which the group came to being. It ludicrously concludes that Hamas is a “global terrorist organization” (p.180) simply because some of its members studied abroad and have dual citizenship. Several inconsistencies can also be discerned through close reading: the author acknowledges at the beginning of the book that Hamas takes its decisions independently (p.8), but unsuccessfully attempts to explain throughout pages and pages that Iran is its patron, solely for financially and militarily assisting it and inviting it to conferences. Following this logic, does Schanzer consider the US as "Israel’s" patron? Perhaps the use of the term “patron” is more appealing to Schanzer’s entourage than “ally”.
But to be fair, the book shouldn’t be thrown off the shelf. Despite that it’s totally substance devoid on theoretical and analytical grounds, the book offers nevertheless a detailed account of incidents (albeit rarely unbiased) which can be used as a complement to Western press articles. It’s an empirical study that gives food for thought on how unconventional warfares operate in the 21st century and how they involve regional actors. For instance, the reasons given by the Israeli army for bombing the Al-Jalaa tower in Gaza, which the author loyally transcribes, give way to exploring cyberwarfare modus operandi: “The terror group [Hamas] was reportedly using the building to conduct research and development (R&D), collect signals intelligence (SIGINT) and electronic signals intelligence (ELINT), and wage electronic warfare targeting both IDF operations and civilian systems in Israel. In fact, one of the primary goals of these Hamas operations was to disrupt or jam Israel’s Iron Dome missile defense system” (p.47). Admittedly, although the author didn’t explore enough the level of coordination between the different groups that took part in the war, he doesn’t fail to situate the war in Gaza in a broader regional war that involves Iran, Hezbollah, and Syria, and that has taken place in a larger geographical and temporal scope. The book also gives clues on the role of scientists involved in developing Hamas’ rocket arsenal with local material, like Professor Jamal al-Zebda whose role and identity are detailed in chapter 14. Specifically, Chapter 10 allows one to understand why a conventional army enjoying large military and advanced technological capacities is not enough to defeat a guerilla or paramilitary group. Indeed, the author acknowledges Hamas’ unprecedented military achievements during the war. The group’s military tactics like launching dozens of rockets in a single burst can overwhelm a powerful conventional army’s defense system like the “Iron Dome”, and introduced “unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) that pierced the skies over Israel” (p.120), similar to Iran’s and to Ansarullah’s. For anyone unfamiliar with the Axis of Resistance and the way it operates, the book gives a glimpse into how the Islamic Republic militarily assisted its regional allies over the years by progressively bypassing "Israel’s" blockade on Gaza and its struck of weapon shipments in Syria: from conveying ordnances of unassembled rockets to teaching how to locally produce and assemble the increasingly sophisticated precision-guided rockets. Finally, the book contains interesting elaborated confidential records from Israeli military officials, such as in the concluding chapter where an official extensively explains his assessment of the war and his prediction of the future: “there will almost certainly be future Hamas technological advances that will challenge Israel. These include PGMs, cruise missiles with a 'depleted trajectory' that hug the ground, more advanced drones, and other high-tech weaponry that Iran is expected to provide” (p.239). Consequently, this book can serve as useful material for researchers if facts are cautiously checked and if the discourse analysis methodology is properly applied. It’s hence beneficial to anyone wishing to access an American-Zionist narrative of this war, of the historical trajectory that gave way to it, of a specific perception of Iranian foreign policy, and 21st-century unconventional warfare strategies.
Overall, the author’s analysis of the reasons and the trajectory of the war that unfolded in Gaza and "Israel" in May 2021 relies on very biased blatant sophisms and arguments even thinner than the Western media’s reporting that he criticizes. The book doesn’t offer any robust analysis, let alone contribute to the theoretical literature on unconventional warfare, or any type of war for that matter. However, through its narration of detailed successive events of the war in Gaza and within the rest of the 1948 territories, of the belligerents’ evolution of military capacities and strategies, and unofficial Israeli records, the book provides exploitable elements useful to think unconventional warfare in the 21st century generally, and the wars against "Israel" particularly.