No peace to keep: outsiders cannot drive an end to the occupation

Dec 12, 2023
Palestine vs Israel flag on cracked wall. Israel and Palestine war concept

Some years ago I reached the conclusion, reluctantly, that there was no longer a realistic prospect of achieving a two state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Since the 1930s, among outsiders, two state solution proposals have been relatively logical, intellectually neat and tidy, morally defensible, politically appealing notions that appear to present answers to the conflict deeply embedded in the identities of Palestinians and Israelis.

But nothing in the conflict is neat, or tidy. It is where policy wisdom goes to die.

Peace and security for Israelis and Palestinians cannot be found on the basis of geographic separation alone. Even in moments of relative calm, there is too much history, and too little geography, and too little distance between Israeli domestic politics, Palestinian resistance, and the willingness to resort to violence, for that to happen.

The Oslo process briefly surmounted those obstacles by cloaking its internal contradictions in ambiguity, and by maintaining political momentum in the particular circumstances of the period. But that momentum quickly fell away following the assassination of Rabin, Palestinian terrorism (from 1994 to 2005, Hamas and other Palestinian terrorist groups carried out more than 150 suicide attacks, killing about 1,000 Israelis) and the ongoing entrenchment of Jewish settlements. And when the music stopped, the dance ended.

Two decades later a line was crossed, for both sides, on 7 October and in the devastating, pitiless Israeli response that followed.

Its effects will be felt, not in the reorientation of Israeli society and politics in more sustainable directions, or in the collapse of Palestinian ambitions for self-determination and statehood, but in establishing a cycle of continuing, mutually degrading blows and counterblows.

Two points emerge from these conclusions.

First, I expect that cycle of violence to continue until one or both sides reaches such a degree of exhaustion that fundamental reconsideration of what each regards as essential to its interests and identity, and the future of their children, becomes necessary.

The Palestinian future defies prediction. But for now, as Amal Ghandour has observed,

“Zionism and Israel appear, in 2023, as disoriented anachronisms, outraged by a Palestinian people that refuses to surrender to them, furious at a world that questions them, livid with a growing number of Jews who shame them, and embarrassingly dependent on the West to cover for them as they sink ever deeper into their mad predicament.”

Second, whether I am right or wrong, the core fact in my experience is that the views of outsiders about desirable solutions to these interconnected problems have rarely had more than a marginal effect on the behaviour of local actors.

Exhortation is fine. Defence of principles is important for our own interests. Opportunities may be seized (as James Baker did in the aftermath of the liberation of Kuwait to launch the Madrid process; and Bill Clinton did with the Oslo initiative).
But outsiders cannot drive an end to the Occupation, nor can they build peace in a political vacuum.

Contemporary situation

The ‘new reality’ in Gaza is based on the displacement and dispossession of over 1.9 million people, the death of probably at least 18,000 including 7,000 children, injury to at least twice that number, enormous destruction of housing and infrastructure, and societal trauma in a wasteland beyond imagination.

Reconciliation along the lines of South Africa is almost unimaginable under those circumstances. Nor will those responsible or culpable, in Hamas, Israel and Washington, be held to account.

These wounds will therefore be unhealed for generations of Palestinians, if ever. They will remain, even if Israel maintains stable and mutually rewarding relations with major Arab governments—something which still suits the strategic interests of the latter, but which is by no means guaranteed.

The Israeli objective for the foreseeable future will be to avoid scenarios in Gaza in which Hamas can rebuild. But so far, at least, there appears to be little diminution of Hamas’s military capability, let alone its capacity to survive as the dominant actor on the Palestinian side.

Northern Gaza including Gaza City and the refugee camps in the northern area and buffer zones inside Gaza will remain a depopulated wasteland under Israeli military control.

The situation in southern Gaza is apocalyptic. It might become subject to lower intensity Israeli military pressure with ongoing discussions about conditions for a formal ceasefire. Or the Israelis might continue to press forward, with further devastating effects on the beleaguered refugee population.

In either case, there may not be a ‘day after’.

If there is an enduring ceasefire, and subject to military developments, the most likely medium term scenario in southern Gaza will see control falling to refugee camp committees, as was the case during the first intifada from 1987 until the PLO assumed effective control on the ground around 1991.

UNRWA and other UN agencies will have to deliver education and other services in that unstable environment.

Hamas will remain as the primary symbol of Palestinian resistance to the occupation. Nor will outsiders replace Hamas in Gaza with an alternative—that was tried, and failed, by the United States in 2007.

Hamas will be more adept, focussed and effective at maintaining its position in civil society than any Palestinian alternative. Its degree of popularity is not the issue: the simple fact is that it will remain stronger than any other Palestinian actor.

Squeezed in Gaza, but drawing upon its combat experience there, and with ongoing support from Iran, Hamas will probably step up its efforts to build support in the West Bank. It may intend ultimately to engage Israeli forces there, possibly in conjunction with West Bank militias. Alternatively, it may aim, for now, merely to consolidate its political supremacy over its secular rival.

In either case, together with IDF raids and significantly rising Jewish settler attacks, the effects of demonstrating a willingness and capacity to engage Israel militarily will further discredit the Palestinian Authority—while adding to the political strength and appeal of the Israeli Right.

Important elements on the Israeli Right clearly countenance the possibility—indeed the desirability from their perspective—of a substantial displacement of Palestinians from Gaza into the Sinai. Observers in Gaza (and judging by US warnings, some officials in Washington as well) believe that is Israel’s ultimate intention.

This bears watching at least as much as the situations in Lebanon and the West Bank. Lebanon is open to miscalculation, but it remains subject, to a large extent, to strategic thinking on the part of the Iranians and Israel. The situation in the West Bank is degenerating, but so far it has remained short of witnessing a general uprising.

If the living conditions in Gaza remain unbearable, however, by design or by default, and especially if US warnings to Israel against displacement of Palestinians into Egypt go unheeded, Egypt may be forced to choose between allowing an exodus of refugees facing mass starvation, or threatening a military response aimed at preserving Egyptian sovereignty and keeping the refuges in situ.

To make the latter stance credible, Sisi would have to suspend elements of the Egypt-Israel peace treaty controlling military deployments in areas of Sinai close to the border, with destabilising consequences for the relationship with Israel.

It would be a wildly popular move within Egypt, where anti-Israel sentiment is stronger than in most other Arab countries. But it would also be a high stakes approach, militarily improbable, and less attractive to the Egyptian leadership than seeking to rally international support for the preservation of Egyptian sovereignty, and contributing to mediation attempts between Israel and Hamas.

As Nasser, and the Arab world found in 1967, the consequences of posturing vis a vis Israel are dangerously unpredictable.


Talk of revitalising the PA is hollow because its weakness—like the strength of Hamas—is directly related to the Occupation. And intensification of the occupation in the West Bank is far more likely than steps toward addressing the ideological, security and other issues from which it arises.

On the Israeli side, there will be no political mandate to remove settlers, address the refugee issue, resolve the issue of Jerusalem, or remove the daily indignities experienced by Palestinians. Neither Israelis nor the Jewish diaspora would countenance civil war to remove the ideologically-committed settlers from the total of over 730,000 Jews now in illegal occupation of the West Bank and East Jerusalem.

As in the 1920s, violence has also stymied the potential for developing among Israelis a bi-national approach as an alternative to occupation. The Israeli Left has never recovered, politically or philosophically, from the second Intifada two decades ago.

In practice, Israelis face a choice between maintaining ongoing systemic discrimination by their ethno-religious minority over a Palestinian majority – apartheid – while enjoying less sympathy among audiences abroad than ever before as a result of their excessive use of force in Gaza; or the temptation of attempting ethnic cleansing, at the expense of stability of Israel’s relations with Egypt and Jordan.

Either way, especially in the light of the horrors witnessed since the Israeli response to 7 October began, Israel faces ongoing international condemnation, or worse. The despicable terrorism levelled by Hamas against Israelis on 7 October has lost much of its emotive impact upon global audiences. Now the focus is on the imagery of Palestinian civilians suffering from the disproportionate Israeli response.

Like the United States and the Europeans, the Arab states will continue to refer to two states as their preferred outcome, but they can and will do nothing practical to advance that objective. They despise Hamas, but have sound strategic reasons for engaging constructively with Iran as well as Washington.

They will be aware that they would be unlikely to be able to withdraw from any supposedly interim arrangements into which they might be persuaded to enter by Washington. And especially in the aftermath of 7 October, they would prefer to see the Israelis bleed, as occupiers, even at Palestinian expense, rather than placing themselves in harm’s way.

Absent a willingness to confront Israel militarily, the Palestinians would see any commitment by external parties, including Arab countries, to custodianship and peacekeeping as a means of entrenching the Occupation.

Ultimately, for the foreseeable future, Israelis will insist upon preservation of the privileges of Jewishness in a Jewish state. Hamas will of course reject entirely the concept of a democratic secular state, let alone the guaranteed protection of the rights of Jews ahead of Muslims.

Palestinians (other than Hamas) will insist upon equality for all—in other words, an end to institutionalised Jewish privilege. They will do so with growing skill and resonance in presenting their case to global audiences.

But even those Palestinians who seek to disassociate themselves from Hamas and the events of 7 October will make little or no headway towards peacebuilding with Israelis, and others upon whom Israel has long turned to for support. The latter are now mobilized to a new level of anxiety and determination by the horrors Israelis have experienced. That support is backed by fears of surging antisemitism in western societies, inflamed by the visual evidence of Palestinian suffering.

Irrespective of whichever government is ruling Israel a year from now, the positions on both sides are more likely to harden than to be revised.

Without mutual trust or respect, seared by the violence, and fearful of open-ended discussions about their futures, neither Israel nor the Palestinians will be prepared to discuss, let alone define, what they would be willing to accept as alternatives to their maximalist positions.

In time, a new cohort of visionary leaders on both sides might expedite a process of recognising what they have in common. Outsiders will surely urge them to do so. Some will contribute ideas and suggestions to that end. But the disconnections between international expectations of Israel, and its behaviour; and between the memories and mythologies central to Palestinian identity, and what they might be capable of achieving in practice, will remain as old as the conflict itself.
Achieving societal willingness, among Israelis and Palestinians, to think about consequences of their existing trajectories; and finding, within their respective societies, the determination to bring about the political will, and discipline, to achieve durable change, probably remain generations away.


We should join calls for an immediate ceasefire. The moral and intellectual case for doing so is overwhelming.

The two state solution is, once again, an idea ahead of its time. But calling for two states will remain the political language of least resistance. Sometimes referred to, with some truth as well as wry humour, as the zombie solution, it is hollow but hopeful rhetoric—and no-one wants to hear from pessimists.

Ministers also have no choice but to call for a two state solution when neither side is willing to move in the direction of a single state, or even to define what they would expect to see under such an alternative approach.

For Australia, rhetoric aside, the key policy concern is to avoid becoming entrapped in the two state paradigm. In particular, we need to avoid being drawn into commitments to supposedly interim peacekeeping arrangements, purportedly in support of building a two state solution, when no possibility of such a solution exists.

Australia’s interests are primarily humanitarian—ensuring, in alignment with our values, we contribute substantially to relief (mainly through UNRWA); and affirming our support for the observation of international law (because that serves our interests in a rules-based international order).

We also need to pay attention to the possibility that US defence of Israel will impact upon American influence in the multilateral sphere—the arena in which a range of Australian interests have to be defended—as pressure mounts to sanction Israel in those bodies.

Beyond meeting those concerns, we need to recognize that others, especially the Europeans, and the United States, have more substantial direct interests at stake in resolving the conflict than we do.

We should proceed from the assumption that for the foreseeable future Israel will not commit itself to allowing Palestinian statehood. It will remain in occupation of Gaza and the West Bank. And, in targeting perceived threats to its security, it will undermine the credibility among Palestinians of any supposedly transitional arrangements that may be set up, and any institutions arising from them. And so long as the occupation continues, there will be no peace to keep.


For more on this topic, P&I recommends:
Israel Is Losing this War

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