Israel will never be safe until Palestine is free 

Oct 24, 2023
Palestinian And Israeli Crisis as a Middle East War tragedy of tribal conflict as a symbol of the challenges of violence and territorial disputes as a political issue in middle eastern countries.

No attempt to “explain”, rationalise, find some counter-“equivalence” for, nor any attempt to see matters through the eyes and the experiences of the murderers rather than the immediate victims can justify or forgive the barbaric massacre of Israeli children, women and men by Hamas warriors after they broke out of Gaza. It does not forgive collective punishment, or the counter-massacre of Palestinians it inspired either. But one of the starting-off points for dealing with the latest upsurge of irrational violence must be the sheer enormity of what was done to southern Israelis.

There wasn’t in fact a sophisticated explanation capable, by any standard or perspective, of making the massacre acceptable. But that was the very point. Hamas was telling Israel, the Arab world, and the whole world, that the problem of Palestine was not going to go away. Israel was not going to resolve its problems by negotiations and treaties with other nations, by further annexations and occupation of Palestinian territory, by effective imprisonment, separation and coercion.

Whatever Israel did by way of response would lead to further resistance, even suicidal resistance. The fighters who burst out of Gaza on October 7, for example, were effectively willing suicide bombers, who knew that their chance of getting back to Gaza after a surprised Israel organised a response were slim. Some did return, with hostages, but their survival could never have been assured.

A response with massive oppression, or indiscriminate killings in Gaza would only guarantee new generations of fighters over the years ahead. Each generation, if history was any guide, would be the more frustrated, and the more desperate, and the more willing to fight to the last drop of their own, and other people’s blood. The families of Israeli settlers forcibly displacing and occupying Arab land would be regarded as combatants, in much the same way that Israelis and their armed forces had increasingly acted as though the Palestinians, not the trespassers, were the security problem.

Israeli Jews had won their land by using terror against the British colonials, by using terror on Palestinians who had occupied the lands for centuries, and ultimately by a short sharp war. They had defended their nation through an array of wars with most of their Arab neighbours, in the end able to control the West Bank of the Jordan, and, effectively, Gaza. They were a mighty armed state, with powerful allies, militarily able to cope with external threats from Arab nations and showing themselves increasingly unwilling to negotiate any sort of settlement with the Palestinian refugees pushed out in 1948, or those who remain.

Israel, not the Palestinians, has frustrated a Palestinian state.

What began as a liberal and democratic state has increasingly fallen under the control of fundamentalist right-wing Jews. And opportunists, such as Benjamin Netanyahu, now seemingly determined to break down those of the civil institutions which threaten his right to deal without accountability. His focus on survival in power has effectively seen him rule out any political settlement with the Palestinians, or the surrender of any land, including conquered land, to a Palestinian state. Israel has also succeeded in persuading many outsiders of a dubious argument that it has forever been desperately seeking political solutions in exchange for security, only to be rebuffed by intransigent Palestinians. In fact, Israel has sabotaged negotiations for decades, particularly those offering some hopes for a negotiated peace, such as the 1993 Oslo Accords. Significant players in Israeli politics, including Netanyahu himself, flirt with the complete denial of Palestinian aspirations for land, for nationality and for justice.

Hamas is only one factor in any political settlement, although it has firm control over the Gaza Strip – control which will, most likely, survive Israeli vengeance and its desire to completely wipe out the movement. The Palestinian Authority is the dominant faction on the West Bank, though its authority and standing has been damaged by the way that Netanyahu has played divide-and-conquer politics, effectively favouring Hamas to weaken the PA. It too is frustrated by the lack of Israeli movement on peace, even if it can be assumed to be furious that Hamas has brought further oppression on all Palestinians.

But that may be very much in Hamas’s calculations, both in the belief that Israel will over-reach, and bring more resistance upon itself, and in the hope that the ongoing conflict may bring other players into the conflicts, including Iran, already the chief arms supplier to Hamas, and Hezbollah, the Lebanese-based forces that are also clients of Iran. No Palestinian could expect to benefit in the short or the medium term from heightened conflict, new players, and increased Israeli surveillance and control. But pushing Israel into this position increases its cost of maintaining security and guarantees ongoing confrontations. It will also heighten domestic doubts, including among its armed forces, about its security strategy and tactics. And make Israel even more of a pariah in the second and third world.

The United States and most other western alliance nations, including Australia, have stood by Israel, expressing horror at the massacres, and affirming Israel’s right to self-defence. But that has been swiftly shifting to real fear of a massacre of Gaza civilians, in the name of extirpating Hamas operatives in their midst. That fear extends to major concern over the vengeful personality of Netanyahu and worries that he might inadvertently make all the problems worse.

Arms for a desperate Ukraine now being diverted to Israel.

America’s diversion of arms to Israel has been at the expense of Ukraine, whose position in its war with Russia still hangs in the balance. Indeed, the timing of the Hamas breakout may owe something to the near stalemate there. Iran, the sponsor of Hamas and a major mischief-maker in Middle Eastern politics, is a substantial supplier of arms and equipment to Russia and is a beneficiary of national political instability to its south, its west and its east. That increasing instability is reducing the momentum for Ukraine membership of NATO, and its steady re-equipment. Some of the political conflict in the US congress involves opposition to further arms supplies to Ukraine. Tension in Israel, in short, is probably working to Russia’s advantage.

Netanyahu himself has made serious enemies abroad, not least in the United States. In the Trump period, he threw in his lot with the Republicans, and openly derided and destabilised the Democrats, including its leader, Joe Biden. If Biden had any reason to suppose that America was being played by Netanyahu, or by the Israeli establishment, he could very easily weaken Israel’s position in its region. That lack of emotional allegiance to Netanyahu may have been a factor in Biden’s success in demanding the supply of food, water and medical supplies to Gaza, as well as a marked decline in the language of revenge and collective punishment from political and military figures. What is still missing is some description of what Israel really proposes against those it identifies as Hamas figures, other than seeming to want to make Gaza uninhabitable.

The fact that the Hamas attack came out of the blue – indeed, was not anticipated by a formidable Israeli intelligence establishment – has made America’s extension of its protection mostly bipartisan. But the support is by no means uncritical, whether in the US or among its allies, including Australia. Many nations are exasperated at the Israeli hard-line on negotiation with the Palestinians, on relentless development of settlements, and the bellicose approach of representatives of extremist religious parties in the Netanyahu Cabinet. They may well understand and sympathise with the siege mentality of the Israeli state – particularly after events such as on October 7, without any direct provocation from the state. But they can hardly fail to be aware of, or indifferent about, Israel’s own role in keeping the conflict temperature high. The west wants Israel to be safe and secure in its environment. But it wants peace and social justice for the Palestinians too. Notwithstanding the surge of support after the Hamas massacre, public opinion is moving against Israel, even in America. Australia has long been an ally of Israel, but Australians of Muslim background now outnumber Australians of Jewish background by five-to-one. That doesn’t necessarily foreshadow a change of policy, but it does mean that many Australians have a keen eye on progress towards justice for the Palestinians.

It would be completely wrong to regard the appalling action of Hamas as some sort of appeal to western opinion, or cry of help to liberal opinion in Israel itself. Hamas must have anticipated world horror at its massacres of civilian families, including babies and small children, and holiday makers. They cannot have expected anything but condemnation of its hostage taking, whether of soldiers or civilians. Nor can they have expected that the hostages would be bargaining tools in some ultimate negotiations, other than, perhaps, in immediate discussions about a ceasefire or abandonment of missile attacks.

In all those senses, it can be assumed that Hamas has complete contempt for Israeli or western public opinion. Even if, as is likely, it did not expect such surprise and success with its murderous plans, it would certainly have known what horror, contempt and condemnation it would provoke, even among groups which have given support to the cause of the Palestinians.

The fight will become bloodier and more desperate. Hamas doesn’t care about casualties.

The message, in that there was one at all, was of Hamas determination to fight on, however events went against them. That fight would become progressively bloodier, with more and more random attacks on Israeli citizens. If that provoked massive retaliation and repression, as one might expect, so much the more difficult, and much more expensive in money and lives, it would make the lives of Israelis. As the colonial experience showed, in Palestine as much as elsewhere in the world, occupation cannot continue indefinitely with a sullen and angry population. Israel could not kill, deport, or jail every Palestinian. But it could make greater enemies of an even greater number of them. Meanwhile the world would increasingly recognise that this security state, acting as though its inhabitants were Mau Mau, was itself causing the conditions of which it complained.

Some Israelis will fear that any shift towards more moderate government, and economic and political freedom for Palestinians, will represent a defeat for the policies of the state, and a “reward” for the terrible massacres. Any relaxation of current policies would be inviting fresh attacks, and demanding fresh reprisals, they will say.

The more sensible will realise that keeping the lid tight will only increase the pressure and cause more and more explosions. That might suit – even further empower — extremists, who themselves thrive in an anti-democratic environment because of the severity of the repression and the effective incarceration of the whole population. But it will increase the danger to police and military forces, and to ordinary Israeli civilians, including women and children, going about their business. Israelis may have the grit and determination to experience great hardship for their state’s right to exist. But a time is reached when the price Israel must pay to be secure is too great. That’s not merely the cost of maintaining more and more armed forces, and more and more of the paraphernalia of the surveillance state, with more and more controls over every aspect of daily life. It’s also the psychic and emotional cost of restricted freedom, complicity in significant injustice to others, and the ever-disquieting understanding that maintaining the lives of Israelis stands on denying the rights of other national groups.

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