In Israel, 10/7 has become a date to sit alongside 9/11. 1400 people lie dead, a nation is in shock and families are grieving unimaginably. In Gaza, an even greater and growing number of people are buried, or wait for burial in white shrouds, or lie dazed and wounded in hospitals, wondering how their lives and their cities can be rebuilt after such devastation.
The rest of the world is caught up in the question about blame. Is it, as the Israelis say, firmly Hamas’ fault, the result of a fanatical Islamist group determined to extend militant Muslim control over the Middle East in general and Israel in particular? Or, as the pro-Palestinian crowds chant, the inevitable outcome of Israel’s ongoing occupation of the West Bank and Gaza? The argument has reached the shores of capitals across the world as supporters of both sides reach for their flags and banners, and post support for one side or the other on X or TikTok videos. Everyone is pushed to decide. As a child of a friend asked his mum the other day: “Which side are we on?”
Yet what if we try to see this conflict in a different light - not so much in terms of blame but pain?
Echoes of the past
Of course, this is not the first time there has been war between the people of Israel and their enemies on the coastline of Gaza.
The book of Judges in the Bible recounts a series of confrontations around 3,400 years ago (or 1400 BC) between the Israelites and the Philistines, who harassed and taunted the Hebrew tribes as they struggled to establish themselves in the land of Canaan (though it’s important to stress that the Philistines are not precursors or ancestors of modern Palestinians, there being no direct link from one to the other, apart from a politically-motivated decision of the Romans back in the day to change the name of the region from Judaea to Palestina.)
One of those stories tells of Samson, an immensely strong Israelite warrior, who kills numerous Philistines in a spree of violence lasting several years. Samson marries a Philistine woman, Delilah, who betrays him into the hands of his enemies. He is captured, and his eyes are gouged out. In a final act of heroic violence, he brings down the roof of the Philistine Temple at the height of a religious feast, killing both himself and more of his enemies than he killed in his lifetime.
The story is both a tragedy and a trauma. John Milton’s great verse drama Samson Agonistes, written around 1650, presents Samson as a tragic figure, gifted and heroic, a hero of Israel brought low into his Gazan prison by a fatal character flaw of pride and lust, betrayed by his cunning wife, and in his famous phrase, ‘eyeless in Gaza at the mill with slaves, Himself in bonds under Philistian yoke’. The tragedy is complete in his final act of destruction both of himself and his enemies.
Yet besides a tragedy, this is also a story of trauma. The roots of the trauma lie deeply hidden in the history between Israel and the various tribes that surround them. Samson is one of many dragged into a history of tit-for-tat violence which ends in this scene of death and devastation. He is caught up in the long history of human wrongdoing – as both victim and perpetrator - that stretches right back to Adam and Eve in the garden. The result is Samson and his enemies all lying dead in the rubble of a demolished building in the heart of Gaza.