Israel’s War of Time

By Ada Mullol

During the last couple of months, the international community has been paying increasing attention to the developing conflict in Gaza. The focus has, understandably, been on the relentless increase in the number of casualties – so far, over 20,000 – since Israel started bombing the territory, the kidnappings and killings by Hamas, and the forced displacement of most of Gaza’s population. However, another parallel battle is being waged on the background: the battle over narratives, which Israel has been fighting using quite an underestimated weapon, time.

Since early October, Israel’s official narratives have been meticulously sketching the idea that the attacks by Hamas on October 7th came out of the blue. These narratives have invoked the country’s moral duty to eliminate terrorism and, for an added element of fear carefully tailored to ring Western audiences' alarm bells, these have run under the banner “Hamas is ISIS”. Such imagery has been used to justify Israel’s brutal retaliation against the Palestinian population. Meanwhile, the oppression of Palestinians since the creation of the state of Israel in 1948, including the Nakba and a second exodus following the 1967 Arab-Israeli war, the occupation of Palestinian territories, restrictions of movement and other human rights violations, which are crucial elements to understand the recent developments, have been deliberately erased from the picture.

Moreover, in its mission to impose its narrative on the international arena, Israel has attempted to delegitimize any attempts to contextualize the October attacks, labeling critical voices as antisemitic. The UN Secretary General António Guterres, for example, made some remarks to the UN Security Council on October 24 stating that “the attacks by Hamas did not happen in a vacuum”, and highlighting the “56 years of suffocating occupation” suffered by the Palestinian people. While the UN chief condemned both the attacks by Hamas andthe collective punishment of the Palestinians, Israel’s ambassador to the UN, Gilad Erdan, was quick to call for his resignation, arguing that such remarks implied an understanding for “the massacre committed by Nazi Hamas terrorists”.

Israel, in short, has been trying to create a narrative without a story, or a logical connection with past events. While the country’s use of time as a political resource goes a long way back, to the point of becoming a naturalized practice of domination, the implications of this instrumentalization of time during an open conflict are particularly devastating. As the critical Israeli historian Ilan Pappé recently put it, the dehistoricization of the October attacks by Hamas is helping Israel “to pursue genocidal policies in the Gaza Strip”. It also serves as a pretext for international powers, including the US and European countries, to allow the violation of “democratic freedoms in the name of a new ‘war on terror’”.

By trying to convince the public opinion that the attacks on October 7th were random terrorist attacks, Israel has been trying to frame its brutal response to such offensive in path dependence terms. Within this framework, the attacks by Hamas are conceived as a critical juncture, which set in motion an inevitable retaliation – in a similar way as the invasion of Iraq was framed by several Western countries following the 9/11 attacks. This inevitability also suggests a lack of agency by the Israeli government which, in turn, leads to a lack of accountability for its actions. Moreover, this type of framing implies a lock-in or irreversibility within the new path of increased warfare. Thus, when framed in these terms, the conflict in Gaza has very pessimistic prospects.

This is why, now more than ever, it is paramount to introduce emplotment, or a logical connection between events, in our view of the war. Framing the October attacks and the war that unfolded as process sequencing, instead of path dependence, would allow us to see how those attacks were firmly rooted in previous events. In addition, this approach does not imply a unidirectional path following an initial juncture, but rather allows for the reversal in trajectories. This implies a greater role of agency, as decisions can be taken to reverse the course, and therefore, a greater accountability for these decisions. This model, then, would provide some hope for a change of course, in the form of an effective ceasefire or a de-escalation, of the conflict in Gaza.

While Israel will likely continue immersed in its War of Time, aiming to win the battle of narratives, it remains to be seen which of these two approaches will prevail in the international community’s framing of the war in Gaza. And, even if the process sequencing model imposes itself, with a greater focus on Israel’s accountability, Israel may play the card of using time as a strategy of exhaustion. If the conflict becomes protracted, the international attention – including news media – may eventually get “tired” of it and look for a more newsworthy event somewhere else, as it sadly happened with the war in Syria, and more recently with Ukraine.

Time, however, while potentially malleable, is not a tamable force of nature. As the ancient Roman philosopher Seneca once said, ultimately, “time discloses the truth”. Thus, even if Israel wins this battle of narratives, facts will sooner or later come to light. It is only a matter of time.

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Associate Professor of International Relations and Political Science

International institutions and political networks.