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Whose Victims? Who To Blame? How Do World Wars Begin? Awful Questions, No Easy Answers

Worldcrunch’s editor tries to make some kind of sense out of a week that felt senseless and tragic, perilous and inevitable all at once.

photo of a crashed motorcycle and a covered dead body

The body of an Israeli slain by Hamas

Ilia Yefimovich/dpa via ZUMA
Jeff Israely

PARIS — Awful. That’s the word that kept returning this past week: in conversations, on WhatsApp exchanges and silent murmurs to myself while selecting photos for the articles we’re about to publish.

It is, of course, above all a reaction to the awful human toll: by far the world’s single worst terrorist attack since 9/11, a cold-blooded and close-up hunt by Hamas to kill as many innocent people as possible; and a predictably instantaneous Israeli response fueled by both vengeance and sense of futility that, even if shrouded by distance and military objectives, ultimately displays the same disregard for human life.

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For as long as anyone can remember, this has been a conflict driven by historical claims and victimhood — locked into place and plain for all to see. Terrible political choices. Fleeting moments of hope give way to diplomatic impotence. The triumph of extremism. Surrender to intractability. Yes, from both sides: a blood feud for the ages.

And now, finally: total war. Awful.

For the rest of the world, that word also expresses the depth of fear that this war will spread across the region, and beyond. There are warnings of a kind of replay of the post-9/11 period, where Israel’s massive response to the Hamas attack triggers a new season of Islamic terror around the world. Yet what’s new now is the convergence of the Middle East conflict with that other expansive war heading into its third Ukrainian winter — and its own potential for regional contagion always lurking.

Slaughter of the innocents

Yes, the events of the past week look awfully big, things are moving awfully fast. It’s a lot, an awful lot … for both an editor and reader to process: skirmishes at the Israeli-Lebanon border, Iran’s double talking. Vladimir Putin siding with Palestine. Volodymyr Zelensky with Israel. China’s opportunistic superpower maneuvering, with a hungry eye always on Taiwan. The West’s increasing isolation and internal doubts about the fragility of the democratic model.

Meanwhile Gaza descends deeper into hell with each passing hour, while new details and videos continue to emerge of individual Israeli victims hunted down in their homes, as the hostages’ fate hangs in the balance. And each side clings ever tighter to its singular claim of victimhood.

Is this what the start of a new kind of world war looks like? Rather than an assassination of an archduke or appeasement of a psychopath’s imperial ambitions, will it be the slaughter of the innocents on your Instagram feed that unleashes the next worldwide conflict?

photo of two children crying

After an Israeli air strike in Gaza

Abed Rahim Khatib/dpa via ZUMA

Multiple perspectives, reliable information

Since leaving the U.S. 25 years ago, I’ve become acutely aware — no doubt because of both my name and nationality — of the connections people make between the source of information and the information itself. This is as true for the versions we have of world history as it is for current events. And certainly holds for the Middle East.

My work has confirmed for me the limits we have in finding definitive answers.

My previous work as a reporter and the last decade as an editor have confirmed for me the limits we have in finding definitive answers, but also the responsibility to keep asking and seeking. And from as many reliable sources as possible.

Worldcrunch will keep doing that with our formula of finding stories and viewpoints from a multiplicity of places and languages: this week from Turkey and Germany, Ukraine, Egypt and Iran — and of course, wherever possible, from the ground.

A colleague flagged another story from pan-Arab news site Daraj about the different historical reference points this week, depending on where you sit. In the West, the main comparison with events has been 9/11; the Arab world instead has been citing the 1948 expulsion of Palestinians from their land at the founding of the state of Israel, which is known as Nakba, the Arabic word for “catastrophe.”

Last Sunday, as the scale of the bloodshed was first coming into focus, I wrote to the one Israeli citizen currently in my life, a friend and veteran journalist who has lived around the world and speaks five languages, including English just like mine. I sent her a message to see if her loved ones were safe, signing off with an American: hang in there…

She wrote back right away to thank me, with a simple response: What a catastrophe. Yes indeed — from every point of view, in any language — that's the best word right now to describe our world.

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FOCUS: Russia-Ukraine War

Putin's "Pig-Like" Latvia Threat Is A Chilling Reminder Of What's At Stake In Ukraine

In the Ukraine war, Russia's military spending is as high as ever. Now the West is alarmed because the Kremlin leader is indirectly hinting at a possible attack on Latvia, a NATO member. It is a reminder of a growing danger to Europe.

Photo of Russian President Vladimir Putin

Russian President Vladimir Putin

Pavel Lokshin


BERLIN — Russian President Vladimir Putin sometimes chooses downright bizarre occasions to launch his threats against the West. It was at Monday's meeting of the Russian Human Rights Council, where Putin expressed a new, deep concern. It was not of course about the human rights of the thousands of political prisoners in his own country, but about the Russian population living in neighboring Latvia, which happens to be a NATO member, having to take language tests.

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