Israel and Palestine’s Existential War
Israel and Palestine’s Existential War
Op-Ed / Middle East & North Africa 7 minutes

Israel and Palestine’s Existential War

The shock of the October 7 attacks has exposed just how much is at stake, and the decisions being made now will reverberate for decades.

TEL AVIV, ISRAEL – Since the massacre committed by Hamas on October 7, the full scale and scope of which is still grindingly coming to light weeks later, Israeli leaders and media have turned to extreme rhetoric to convey the horrors of entire families being burned alive in their homes, parents being shot in front of their children, babies kidnapped. Hamas is being referred to regularly on Israeli TV as Nazis. Israeli liberal mainstream columnist Nadav Eyal referred to the Hamas attack as “an attempt at targeted ethnic cleansing and genocide.” Israel’s daily Yedioth Ahronoth newspaper website has a banner across its homepage that reads, “The War Over Our Home.”

On October 25, in one of his only public appearances since the war began, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who unlike Israel’s top military brass has conspicuously not taken responsibility for his role in the failure to protect Israeli citizens, said, “We are in the midst of a campaign for our existence.” He also referred to it as Israel’s second war of independence.

Despite many Israelis’ disdain for Netanyahu, most do not believe his words are hyperbole. A vast majority see this as a war for Israel’s existence and are convinced the only way forward is by eliminating Hamas. The problem is that no one knows exactly how to achieve that, and many conflate Hamas with the Palestinian population of Gaza, if not beyond. As one right-wing think-tanker put it, “an entire generation living in Gaza today was raised on Hamas’ ideology.”

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Several Israeli commentators have suggested Gazans be incentivized to emigrate. This is also a sentiment I’ve heard expressed by settlers about Palestinians in the occupied West Bank. Netanyahu has reportedly lobbied for the World Bank to write off Egyptian debts in exchange for the country opening its border to displaced Gaza refugees, and the Israeli Intelligence Ministry has recommended the forced transfer of all Gaza residents to the Sinai Peninsula.

Some of this rhetoric is clearly and dangerously being weaponized to justify Israel’s military response, which has already killed over 8,000 Palestinians—over 3,500 of them children—in relentless airstrikes that appear more adept at destroying Gaza than Hamas. “It’s either us or them,” Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant said.

For Palestinians, this is also an existential crisis, probably more than any other moment that has come before it, apart from 1948 itself. Many Palestinians and their supporters’ view is that whatever Hamas’s methods, it did what it did as part of Palestinian resistance to permanent occupation. Some consider every Israeli civilian a legitimate target.

The term #GazaGenocide has been invoked on social media and in protests around the world against Israel’s actions, intended to provoke alarm and objection to Israel’s large-scale killing of civilians from the air. Palestinian journalists, activists, and residents of Israel and the occupied territories are saying this is another Nakba or the continuation of it (the “catastrophe” of the 1948 war, when 700,000 Palestinians became refugees).

Their fears are not unfounded. The term “Nakba” had been thrown around openly by Israeli politicians and journalists well before October 7, and even more so now, with some calling for Gaza to be wiped off the face of the Earth. The bombardment of the Gaza Strip, and admission by the IDF they are going for “damage” and not “precision,” is what is known as the “Dahiya doctrine,” employed by Israel in the Lebanese neighborhood of the same name in 2006, as part of a tactic to combat guerrilla terror groups by destroying the civilian infrastructure in which they operate. It has been used increasingly in Gaza since 2009’s Operation Cast Lead, which left 1,400 Palestinians dead. In the 2014 Israel-Gaza war, over 2,000 were killed and over 100,000 Palestinians were left homeless, and thus far in this war, 45 per cent of housing units have already been destroyed or damaged.

What is at stake in this war cannot be overstated, not just for Israelis and Palestinians, but for the whole region and to an extent the world. Despite the creeping Israeli ground invasion that has commenced, it is apparent that Israel does not have an endgame and that it cannot rely solely on its military might. Hamas, which is holding over 200 Israelis hostage, is not backing down while the people of Gaza are being killed, and Hamas rockets continue to terrorize a large portion of the country. The Israeli practice of dropping bombs on densely populated neighborhoods and targeted assassinations of Hamas officials, even if likely to be much more comprehensive this time around, is not expected to bring about a different or at least a definitive result, particularly if compounded by the continued rejection of any political solution that involves an end to its hold on occupied territory.

Israel is up against a changing world order in which Western dominance is flailing and failed U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East is on display.

Israel is not just up against Hamas. It is also up against a changing world order in which Western dominance is flailing and failed U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East is on display. Israel has acted for decades with impunity, with Netanyahu representing the epitome of Israeli hubris. Now that concept has been shattered. This war is not just taking place on the ground: It also has a front on social media and in the streets, not just of the Arab world but across the cities of the West, where Israel has already lost or is rapidly losing public support. This has ramifications for Jews around the world. Some Israelis are asking themselves whether it’s safe or worthwhile to continue living here—and are facing the question, where else would they go?

It is hard to overstate the trauma and shock for Israelis. The Hamas attack shattered their sense of safety and security and their faith in Israeli institutions. Israelis are getting licenses for guns at an alarming rate, with the number of gun owners set to triple. They feel exposed and vulnerable, something all too familiar to Palestinians. It’s not just Palestinians who lack effective and legitimate leadership, but Israelis as well, with overwhelming public sentiment that Netanyahu brought them to this point and is incapable of getting them out of it.

Tens of thousands of residents of southern Israel who where displaced from their homes say they will not return to the area bordering the Gaza Strip if Hamas is not incapacitated. Many cannot go home for a long time even if they wanted to because their houses are gone or damaged, with the area still under rocket barrage and attempted infiltrations from Gaza. It will take years to rebuild. And all of this is true, tenfold, for the people of Gaza. In addition, dozens of communities along the northern border have already evacuated, due to skirmishes with Hezbollah in Lebanon and the threat of further escalation that could paralyze much of the country.

Israelis had grown accustomed to a life that would seem familiar to those living in New York or Paris, relying on their position as an unfettered regional superpower. It is impossible to go back to the status quo ante, and hard to see how or when this ends.

For Palestinians, the existential threat is literal because of the structural violence of Israeli occupation and control. Palestinians have no state to protect them and no superpower behind them. People have no warning sirens, no safe spaces, and nowhere to go. The scale of death in Gaza is so great that parents are writing their children’s names on their limbs for later identification if they are killed. Nearly a million Palestinians in Gaza have been displaced, moving to the enclave’s southern end in response to Israeli bombings and evacuation orders. Israeli government plans to expel Gazans into Egypt, and generally encourage their emigration, have resurfaced. As Palestinian scholar Rashid Khalidi pointed out: “Nobody who’s kicked out is ever allowed to return. Every Arab, every Palestinian knows that.”

But the threat is not limited to Gaza. More than 120 Palestinians have been killed in the West Bank by Israeli soldiers and settlers since October 7, and the forcible displacement of Palestinian communities that was already happening is intensifying, in what Israeli human rights organization B’tselem is calling the “Judaization of Area C” of the West Bank. Israel itself is not immune to the anti-Palestinian racism emanating from the government and from the West Bank. Palestinian citizens who identify with Gazans are treated as traitors, and acts of violence against Palestinians are increasing.

In the case of Gaza, as in the case of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict writ large, the endgame is everything. There is no easy answer for what to do with Hamas. Even an Israeli ground invasion seems unlikely to uproot the group entirely from Gaza, even if it does badly damage its military capability. Instead, Israel perhaps could, as part of an urgently needed humanitarian pause, lay out its terms for a longer-term cease-fire that sees hostages released, Hamas marginalized, and regional governments taking a larger role in stabilizing the Gaza Strip.

The priority, though, has to be a stop to the bloodshed, which only serves to harden hearts and perpetuate hate and violence for generations to come, not just in Israel and Palestine, but all over the world. The only way to get to the endgame is a political process that addresses root causes and deals with the nuts and bolts of how Palestinians can live in freedom and dignity, and Israelis in security and within recognized borders.

This article was originally published in the American Prospect.

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