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The appalling events in Israel and Gaza have unleashed unprecedented bloodletting, spawned outrage around the world, and increased the risk of a full-blown Middle East conflict.
They have exposed the international community’s culpability in letting the situation fester unresolved for so long, to the cost of both Israelis and Palestinians. They have also highlighted how extreme and polarised views on the conflict have become, to the detriment of rational debate or common ground.
It’s been shocking to see how many commentators have argued that Hamas’ indiscriminate and barbarous assault on Israeli civilians and seizure of hostages is justified, or even to be celebrated, as a legitimate blow for justice for the Palestinians, given how much they have suffered under Israeli occupation. This is grotesque whataboutery.
Hamas claims to be acting on behalf of the Palestinians, but its actions will do nothing to advance their cause or improve their lives. Instead, as we are already witnessing, it has precipitated an entirely predictable, and devastating, Israeli response, including a massive bombing campaign, the imposition of a complete blockade on Gaza, and (at the time of writing) the cutting off of all food, water and electricity to residents there.
Calls urging Israel to exercise restraint have inevitably fallen on deaf ears. Having failed to anticipate the attack in advance, Israel’s intelligence and military services are under huge pressure to crush Hamas now, and ensure that Gaza can never again become a safe haven from which militants can launch attacks.
It’s also been shocking to see how many people have tried to claim that those who criticise Hamas but support Ukraine are operating double standards – when the methods Hamas has used have far more in common with Russian atrocities, than Ukraine’s behaviour in trying to defend itself.
Yet, it’s been equally disheartening on the other side to see how many supporters of Israel have called for the obliteration of Gaza, no matter what the cost in terms of innocent Palestinian deaths, and cheered the suffering of Palestinian men, women and children, in their desire for revenge.
There is a form of double standards at play, in that while most of the democratic world was quick to condemn Russia’s aggression against Ukraine, and rally to give it support and arms to fight back, the international community has been far more laggardly in terms of addressing years of harsh Israeli behaviour towards Palestinians. This includes Israel’s continuing illegal occupation of Palestinian territory, continued construction of new Jewish settlements in the West Bank, and regular use of collective punishment against the families of militants, all in violation of international humanitarian law.
The Blame Game
Gaza – crammed with more than two million people, blockaded by Israel to the north and Egypt to the south – has been a powder keg waiting to explode.
The current Israeli Government, the most hardline in Israel’s history, which had been facing huge internal opposition and international criticism over its moves to curtail judicial independence, will now feel it has free rein to clamp down even harder on Palestinians in both Gaza and the West Bank.
Though there may be a reckoning down the line for its failures to foresee the attack, or a push for a government of national unity, for now most Israelis are bound to rally behind the current leadership, including Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, giving it an entirely new lease on life.
The prospects for lasting peace, let alone an independent Palestinian homeland, may be gone for decades, if not forever. Israelis are sure to conclude that their decision to withdraw unilaterally from Gaza in 2005 was a mistake, which they must never repeat in the West Bank.
There will be finger-pointing on all sides about who is to blame for this latest round of violence. Some will put the blame entirely on Israel, for its failure to deliver an equitable two-state solution for the Palestinians, who deserve their own homeland. Others will blame the Palestinians, many of whom still do not accept Israel’s right to exist, which Israelis would argue is precisely why they need to maintain strict security measures in the West Bank and Gaza.
Commentators will also recall the circumstances which led to the creation of Israel, including the role of some European powers, including Britain and France, in making false promises to both Arabs and Jews while handling the break-up of the Ottoman Empire; the culpability of certain European powers in the Holocaust which drove the Jewish need for a homeland of their own; the one-sided approach of America towards the Israeli-Palestinian conflict; and the exploitation of Palestinian suffering by authoritarian regimes across the Muslim world for their own purposes.
The truth is that both Israelis and Palestinians have legitimate grievances and concerns. Both have committed egregious errors and atrocities. Both have been let down by poor leadership. And both have been let down by the international community, which has impotently wrung its hands for years over the conflict, issued hundreds of meaningless statements and resolutions calling on ‘both sides’ to exercise restraint, and backed numerous different peace plans, without being able to deliver or enforce any of them.
The blame game is a futile waste of time. Until the international community can get its act together, insist on a peaceful settlement, and be willing to dedicate the necessary time and resources to enforce it, the deadly cycle of violence between Israelis and Palestinians will continue.
Hamas’ brutal treatment of hostages will further fuel Israeli anger. Israel’s pounding of Gaza will generate more Palestinian hostility. Deadly clashes between Israeli settlers and West Bank Palestinians, and between Israeli Arabs and their Jewish neighbours, seem very likely.
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No Winners, Only Losers
The ripple effects of this latest upsurge in violence, the worst in decades, will go far beyond Israeli and Palestinian territory, however.
If hard evidence emerges confirming Iran’s role behind Hamas’ actions, Israel may be tempted to attack it as well, risking a wider Middle East conflagration, drawing in Iran’s allies, Hezbollah, in Lebanon as well.
Arab governments across the region that had signed peace deals with Israel over the heads of their largely pro-Palestinian populations will come under pressure to break off relations or face popular uprisings of their own. It is no coincidence that Hamas timed its attack just as the US was attempting to broker a deal to establish relations between Saudi Arabia and Israel.
Countries further afield with significant Jewish or Muslim populations will face intra-communal tensions. Demonstrations for and against Israel will take place around the world. Antisemitic and Islamophobic sentiment and hate crimes may increase, fuelled by toxic, and often misleading, coverage of the conflict on social media.
The US will further harm its ability to act as a good faith mediator by overwhelmingly throwing its support behind Israel. Already, some US politicians on the Republican right have suggested that all aid for Ukraine should be diverted to support Israel instead.
Russia will be gloating from the sidelines and looking to exploit the situation to its own advantage – whether by supporting its proxy, Iran, in fuelling the violence, overtly backing the Palestinians, or extending its war in Ukraine while the West is distracted.
Meanwhile, China will be wondering if this is a good moment for it to pursue its claims in the South China Seas and against Taiwan.
It is hard to find any reason for hope. Right now, there are no winners, only losers, and the prospect of more death and destruction to come.
And yet, and yet. After this dreadful new round of bloodletting subsides, might Israelis possibly, despite their grief, conclude that their country will never be secure and at peace, until they finally agree to a Palestinian homeland in the West Bank? Will Palestinians, despite their suffering, finally realise they will never achieve their aims through militant attacks on Israel? If any good can come out of this latest tragedy, might it also be the possibility that, at last, the international community will be jolted out of its torpor to take more resolute action?
The blood of Jews and Arabs is also on our hands. We owe it to the victims of this disaster, and their families, to help them end this bloody cycle for good.
Alexandra Hall Hall is a US-based former British diplomat with more than 30 years experience, with postings in Bangkok, Washington, Delhi, Bogota and Tbilisi. She resigned from the Foreign Office in December 2019 because she felt unable to represent the Government’s position on Brexit with integrity. She is the co-host of the ‘Disorder’ podcast