“The darkest place to which this conflict sinks” – Four Corners: The Forever War

Mar 13, 2024
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.

For five months now, our screens have been bombarded by images depicting Israel’s air and ground assault on Gaza. This extraordinary footage, this apocalyptic scene, shows just how widespread that destruction has been. Israel is still denying foreign journalists independent access to Gaza. We’re in Israel, about a kilometre from the border, reports the ABC’s John Lyons.

The Forever War’, 11 March 2024, Four Corners

Generations of historians will study this Gaza war — the violence of Hamas’ October 7 attack, and the unparalleled ferocity of Israel’s retaliation, which left tens of thousands of Palestinians dead and vast sections of Gaza reduced to rubble. One thing they’ll focus on will be Israel’s response. Was it proportionate or was it driven by rage, humiliation, and revenge?

Was it legitimate self-defence or did it involve the commission of war crimes as Israel’s detractors around the world have alleged? And would the war jolt the international community into pushing for something that Israel’s leadership had for so long resisted: a Palestinian state?

In this Four Corners we go head to head with insiders at the centre of Israel’s defence and intelligence establishment – a former Prime Minister, two ex-intelligence chiefs, a current cabinet minister, and a one-time Israeli army commander. We challenge them about one of the most controversial wars in modern times.

John Lyons, Reporter: Why has the most powerful army in the Middle East, Israel, killed so many children?

John Lyons, Reporter: Do you think that revenge has become a major factor in Israel’s response?

Tzipi Livni, fmr Foreign & Justice Minister: No

John Lyons, Reporter: Is it possible that Hamas can be destroyed?

Avi Dichter, current Israeli Cabinet Minister: Hamas as a military organisation will be destroyed.

Tzipi Livni, fmr Foreign & Justice Minister: They hate us. We saw the results. The idea of eradicating Hamas completely from Gaza is a just cause.

Ehud Barak, fmr Prime Minister of Israel: I don’t think that anyone made the deliberate decision to kill children.

Yehuda Shaul, fmr Israeli Army Commander: That the IDF is doing everything to avoid civilian casualties is a blunt lie. Straight lie.

John Lyons, Reporter: Gaza was already one of the most desperate places on earth. Now uninhabitable, plagued by mass starvation and disease.

Dalal Iriqat, Prof. Diplomacy & Conflict Resolution: When I look at it, Israel is committing a series of war crimes.

John Lyons, Reporter: Some warn that Israel’s fierce response to October 7 will have sown seeds of hatred for generations to come. Is there a way out of what’s beginning to look like the forever war?

IDF Soldier: In front of 50 line it shows that there are currently 12 people running towards the fence. There are two motorcycles, roger? We need an answer.

IDF Soldier: Commander. Commander, we are at war!

John Lyons, Reporter: October 7 was the deadliest day in Israel’s history.

Avi Dichter, current Israeli Cabinet Minister: Saturday morning, it was about six o’clock I woke up, I got to prepare myself to go to the beach to swim. About 20 minutes later I heard noises of Iron Dome rockets far away. As someone who lives in Ashkelon I’m familiar with the noises of rockets of Iron Dome. It was very odd because Iron Dome before a siren, it’s never happened before.

Ami Ayalon, fmr head of Shin Bet: I got a telephone call from my son. He asked me how-, what is the code in order to open the safe here in my home? I said, why do you need the code? And said he need his gun because his gun is in our safe. And said there is a war. And I said, what?

Yehuda Shaul, fmr Israeli Army Commander: I was watching all the horrible videos coming out of the south and I became physically sick. The level of dehumanisation? The brutality, yeah. I was just beyond belief.

John Lyons, Reporter: What went wrong?

Avi Dichter, current Israeli Cabinet Minister: Everything. Literally everything.

Ehud Barak, fmr Prime Minister of Israel: It became clear that that’s the worst failure of our intelligence and operational forces since the establishment of the state of Israel.

Binyamin Netanyahu, Prime Minister of Israel: Israel is at war..

Abdaljawad Omar, Analyst & Lecturer, Birzeit University: From the beginning of the first moment, I knew that such a big event will also bring a ferocious Israel and a ferocious Israeli response.

Binyamin Netanyahu, Prime Minister of Israel: They have made a mistake of historic proportions.

Avi Dichter, current Israeli Cabinet Minister: They will get cemeteries. That’s what Hamas is going to get. I’m telling you the tunnels that they dug tunnels. I’m telling you they dug the biggest cemetery in the world.

Yehuda Shaul, fmr Israeli Army Commander: Y’know, the beginning.. I was also full of rage. I also had the feeling that these are animals, we need to go there and bomb the hell out of them. But then you stop for a second and you think, you say to yourself, what did we think is going to happen after 16 years of siege.

Amira Hass, Occupied Territories Correspondent, Haaretz: I was surprised and not surprised because I kept warning that people cannot stand. The accumulated cruelty accumulated over so many decades. And somehow there will be an explosion. Somehow there will be an outburst. I couldn’t imagine what it would be, but there it came.

John Lyons, Reporter: The occupied Palestinian territory is made up of three parts – Gaza, the West Bank and East Jerusalem. Gaza, under Israeli blockade since the militant group Hamas, seized power in 2007. And the West Bank, run by the moderate Palestinian Authority – although more than 700,000 Israeli settlers also now live there, protected by Israeli soldiers. The architecture of occupation is brutalist.

Palestinians require permits to enter or leave the West Bank. There are scores of fixed checkpoints, pop-up checkpoints; internal checkpoints, occasional checkpoints, roadblocks, earth mounds, road gates, walls, fortified barriers and trenches.

More than 600 physical obstacles and about one hundred different permits in total.

And everywhere, Big Brother surveillance cameras armed with face recognition technologies.

Israel says it’s for security.

19-year old Israeli soldiers in the West Bank wield absolute power. Even if they kill an innocent Palestinian, they’ll rarely face serious consequences.

John Lyons, Reporter: This is Qalandia at Checkpoint, the main checkpoint between Jerusalem that way, and Ramallah in the West Bank that way. Now a place like this shows the tyranny of occupation. We’ve just seen a Palestinian man come down here and try to go through that gate and that security person behind me. He said no to him. He wouldn’t let him, and they closed the gate. Now that Palestinian may have to walk now two or three hours all the way around there just to get through that gate, which, if this decided to reopen. It’s the complete unpredictability. It’s the tyranny. It’s these concrete forces of occupation

This is part of what grinds down Palestinians is that they never know at the checkpoint what soldier, what police officer is gonna let them through or not let them through.

John Lyons, Reporter: You’ve spent a lot of time studying this obviously as head of Shin Bet. Could you describe what is the reality for Palestinians here?

Ami Ayalon, fmr head of Shin Bet: It was a life of people who dream about freedom, and don’t see it. whether we liked it or not, we control the life of millions.

John Lyons, Reporter: If you were a Palestinian living in the West Bank or Gaza, what would your view be of Israel?

Ami Ayalon, fmr head of Shin Bet: I would fight against Israel in order to achieve my liberty.

John Lyons, Reporter: How would you fight? How dirty?

Ami Ayalon, fmr head of Shin Bet: I would do everything in order to achieve my liberty. And that’s it.

Abdaljawad Omar, Analyst & Lecturer, Birzeit University: Life for us is struggling not to drown. It’s basically continuing on survival mode all the time. It’s to have your life being determined by another people, what type of economy you can have, who you can fall in love with and live with. The ability of somebody else to humiliate you on a daily basis.. just passing through a checkpoint.

Abdaljawad Omar, Analyst & Lecturer, Birzeit University: We sometimes feel like we live in this field of targets I’ve seen personally when an Israeli sniper hit one of my friends and high-fived his other soldier or his buddy, that he got the target.

Dalal Iriqat, Prof. Diplomacy & Conflict Resolution: Life under occupation is basically being expected to normalise with the abnormal.

John Lyons, Reporter: What’s it like having a gun pointed at you?

Dalal Iriqat, Prof. Diplomacy & Conflict Resolution: It’s totally abnormal

It’s not civilised to say the least. If I want to take my kids over the weekend to visit their grandma who lives 40 minutes away from Ramallah, we have to pass at least two checkpoints. We have to stop, get checked with the soldiers pointing the guns at the backseat where my kids are terrified and they start to ask questions.

Amira Hass, Occupied Territories Correspondent, Haaretz: Any moment the Israelis may come and declare that your land is state land. So you cannot reach it and then see an Israeli settlement being built there your piece of land, the trees that you grandfather planted

John Lyons, Reporter: If life in the West Bank was difficult, the daily life in Gaza was worse. Israel’s siege condemned Gaza’s 2.3-million Palestinians to slow suffocation in what many describe as the world’s largest open-air prison.

Every so often, Gaza would erupt – with public protest or barrages of rockets – and Israel would come down even harder.

Dalal Iriqat, Prof. Diplomacy & Conflict Resolution: Can you imagine that 2.3 million civilians and they were deprived from enjoying the basic right of having clean water, electricity, four hours of electricity a day, internet services, best case scenario, 2G services. Just because Israel wants that

Abdaljawad Omar, Analyst & Lecturer, Birzeit University: What was the choice of Palestinians before October 7th? No legal respite, no diplomatic resolution, no horizon for two state solution or one state solution, no efficacy for non-violence action.

John Lyons, Reporter: Is there a certain rationale to Israel’s security argument?

Dalal Iriqat, Prof. Diplomacy & Conflict Resolution: I don’t think it’s rational.. If we provide those people with the normal, with the basic human rights, why would they resort to anything else? As long as Israel continues to occupy the Palestinians and deprive them and suffocate them.. they should not expect, but for more violence.

Ehud Barak, fmr Prime Minister of Israel: Look, I once was asked some 30 years ago what I have been doing if I were a Palestinian and 30 years ago I was new enough in politics to tell the truth that if I were born Palestinian probably would’ve joined one of the terror organisations.

Believe me, I fully understand. There are things that are painful for the other side. And if you look at them isolated from the rest of the picture, they sounds terrible.Israel is living genuinely in a very tough neighbourhood. Once, I compared it to a villa in the jungle. Inside your villa you can enjoy classical musical, your jacuzzi. Once you step the first step you go out of your door, you have to be ready to pull the trigger within a split of a second, otherwise you would not survive. The real challenge when we look at it from a wider perspective is you cannot avoid human pain and damage along such conflict, but you can think honestly about how to solve it.. rather to ..dig deeper into the hole.

John Lyons, Reporter: The rampage by Hamas on October 7 shook Israelis to their core. Within hours Israel was bombing Gaza.

Ehud Barak, fmr Prime Minister of Israel: It was clear from day one that we will have to deploy tens of thousands of pairs of boots on the ground the order was given to the army, and they’re doing it well, but there are significant achievements even in developing tactics along the way to fight with the tunnels that were much more developed kind of system than we assessed at the beginning.

Since October more than 30 000 Gazans have been killed, two thirds of them women and children.

John Lyons, Reporter: Why did Israel need to kill so many people in Gaza?

Tzipi Livni, fmr Foreign & Justice Minister: We never target civilians.

John Lyons, Reporter: You may not be targeting them, but they’re dying in their tens of thousands

Tzipi Livni, fmr Foreign & Justice Minister: Because they live. All those that control their life are these terrorists that are exploiting the existence.

John Lyons, Reporter: But Israeli

Tzipi Livni, fmr Foreign & Justice Minister: Support,

John Lyons, Reporter: Israel’s dropping the bombs.

Tzipi Livni, fmr Foreign & Justice Minister: We have no other alternative. I try to avoid these casualties and I can’t.

Tzipi Livni, fmr Foreign & Justice Minister: I was in the Israeli security cabinet and I know how the Israeli army is working and this targeting in accordance every target is getting the approval of the justice ministry. And if the army can approve that this is a legitimate target. It is.

Avi Dichter, current Israeli Cabinet Minister: Gaza strip it’s and 350 square kilometre, that’s it. All in all about 40,000 terrorists — paid this terrorists trained this terrorists. You have to take into account the surrounding of those terrorists. It’s many, many thousands, tens of thousands of terrorists.

John Lyons, Reporter: Mr. Ayalon, one thing I don’t understand is why does the most powerful military in the Middle East Israel backed by the most powerful military the world’s ever seen the United States need to kill so many children.

Ami Ayalon, fmr head of Shin Bet: We don’t need to.

John Lyons, Reporter: But you are.

Ami Ayalon, fmr head of Shin Bet: There was no war like this ever fought. We are when we fight Hamas, it is the most populated battlefield ever fought. In the history of wars. And in order to achieve our military goals, we have to hit military targets. But in a populated area in which we are fighting in Gaza, it is almost impossible to hit a military target without killing or hitting civilians. Hamas deliberately are using civil target, civilian target schools, hospitals, UN institutions in order to place military targets in civilians, institutions, and even according to international law, we have the right to hit the military installation if it is used deliberately as a, so Hamas is doing everything in order for us to kill or to use their people as a human shield.

Ehud Barak, fmr Prime Minister of Israel: I don’t think that anyone made the deliberate decision to kill children.

John Lyons, Reporter: I’m not saying it was a deliberate decision. I’m asking why did the most powerful army kill so many?

Ehud Barak, fmr Prime Minister of Israel: No, I want to describe it in a different way. So Israel called upon the population to leave the area for some two or three weeks repeatedly.

Yehuda Shaul, fmr Israeli Army Commander: We are told that the IDF is doing everything to avoid civilian casualties is a blunt lie. Straight lie. It’s a hard statement to say about my own army, but it’s the truth.

John Lyons, Reporter: Yehuda Shaul, a former Israeli army commander, says Israeli military strategy has been driven, for the past 15 years, by a doctrine of deterrence through disproportionate destruction.

Yehuda Shaul, fmr Israeli Army Commander: Theoretically it’s possible to bomb thousands of legitimate targets. What matters is the devil is in the details. We don’t have enough evidence coming from soldiers coming out of Gaza in this war yet, but we know from past operations from before October 7 in terms of how the IDF fights in Gaza.

We are told that every target we strike is a legitimate target under international humanitarian law and is based on clear cut double-check verified intelligence. And when we strike, we do it in a surgical manner in a way while taking all precautions to avoid, to minimise the civilian collateral damage and casualties. But that is not the case.

Then the question is proportionality. But what about a house of a militant? A target that was very common in many operations before in Gaza. Two, 3, 4, 5, 6 story building that you will wipe out with a half one tonne bomb just because on the second floor, the flat to the left Hamas militant lives. There’s no way this is a legitimate target under IHL.

I have no doubt that after October 7th, yeah, they’ve loosened some of the restraints, some of the restrictions they had from previous wars. What exactly we don’t really know yet. But all what you need, for example, is to decide that.. the amount of civilians you are allowed to take out for each strike goes higher than before. And.. you lower the rank of a Hamas operative that you’re allowed to strike. So if before, let’s say for a company officer in Hamas, you are allowed to take out five civilians, hypothetically speaking. And now in this war, for every rank and file guy in Hamas, you’re allowed to take out, ie. to kill 15 civilians. A move like this can explain a lot of what we see.

Was there a viable alternative to all this, to the scale of the killing.

John Lyons, Reporter: Israel’s famous for its targeted assassinations. I mean you yourself dressed as a woman famously and went into Beirut and met up with Mossad and went and killed a Palestinian leader. Israel’s done that over the years. Why couldn’t they have tried to strategically target Hamas leaders rather than kill those thousands of children?

Ehud Barak, fmr Prime Minister of Israel: I never deluded myself to believe that by killing any individual you solve the problem, you give them a blow and they will recover in a way it just delayed the real decision. Real decisions at the end are not about how to kill mosquitoes more effectively. It’s about how to drain the swamp.

John Lyons, Reporter: You’ve worked for Mossad, probably no other country on earth can target its enemies successfully.

Tzipi Livni, fmr Foreign & Justice Minister: Against terror, yes.

John Lyons, Reporter: No other Mossad has been into Dubai and they have killed and targeted hama leaders that can do it in Beirut, they can do it in Dubai. Wouldn’t an alternative to thousands and thousands of women and children being killed for Israel

Tzipi Livni, fmr Foreign & Justice Minister: They are hiding amongst these civilians now

John Lyons, Reporter: You asked, is there an alternative? Wouldn’t an-

Tzipi Livni, fmr Foreign & Justice Minister: So, so what is-

John Lyons, Reporter: Alternative be to get the Hamas leadership who were behind this whole plan and not kill thousands of civilians.

Tzipi Livni, fmr Foreign & Justice Minister: It’s not just about one leader, it’s about this organisation that his vision ideology is to kill Israel, to kill Jews. This is where we are standing. And unfortunately they turned it into a regime.

John Lyons, Reporter: This is Benjamin Netanyahu’s war. Israel’s longest serving Prime Minister. Throughout his career, Netanyahu has tried to kill the idea of a Palestinian state.

John Lyons, Reporter: Do you trust Benjamin Netanyahu?

Tzipi Livni, fmr Foreign & Justice Minister: Never.

John Lyons, Reporter: Can there be peace while Benjamin Netanyahu’s the leader here?

Tzipi Livni, fmr Foreign & Justice Minister: No. No.

John Lyons, Reporter: Can the world trust Benjamin Netanyahu?

Ehud Barak, fmr Prime Minister of Israel: I don’t think that anyone can trust him. So basically he lies to everyone and no one trust him.

John Lyons, Reporter: Just over a year ago, he managed to cobble together the most right-wing coalition Israel’s ever seen. Netanyahu awarded senior cabinet portfolios to two extremists: Bezalel Smotrich, now the Finance Minister, and Itamar Ben-Gvir, Minister of National Security.

Itamar Ben-Gvir, Minister for National Security, Israel: Shoot them. If they throw stones, shoot them.

John Lyons, Reporter: Both ministers live in illegal settlements. Ben-Gvir has criminal convictions for racist incitement and supporting a Zionist terrorist group. He has been condemned by the US and the EU for using “racist rhetoric.”

Itamar Ben-Gvir, Minister for National Security, Israel: Go to Syria

Shopkeeper: Go to Europe!

John Lyons, Reporter: Smotrich denies the very existence of the Palestinian people.

Bezalel Smotrich, Finance minister, Israel: There’s no such thing as a Palestinian people.

John Lyons, Reporter: These two men are now accused of driving Netanyahu’s Gaza policy, pushing an agenda that would force Palestinians off their lands.

Dalal Iriqat, Prof. Diplomacy & Conflict Resolution: I think Israel’s agenda… the end goal is to annex the land. It doesn’t take a genius to come up with that conclusion.

Binyamin Netanyahu, Prime Minister of Israel: Here’s Israel in 1948.

John Lyons, Reporter: You know, Netanyahu himself went to the UN in September and he showed that map from the river to the sea.

Binyamin Netanyahu, Prime Minister of Israel: Surrounded by a hostile Arab world.

Dalal Iriqat, Prof. Diplomacy & Conflict Resolution: What does that mean to anybody? He doesn’t see Palestine, he doesn’t see Palestinians.

Binyamin Netanyahu, Prime Minister of Israel: The whole Middle East changes.

Ehud Barak, fmr Prime Minister of Israel: Ben-Gvir and Smotrich, the two racist messianic guys that seems to be to very strong leverage on Bibi. They want to turn it into a major religious war between Israel and the Islam.

John Lyons, Reporter: Are they dangerous?

Ehud Barak, fmr Prime Minister of Israel: Sure, they’re dangerous.

John Lyons, Reporter: How powerful are Ben-Gvir and Smotrich and what do you think of them?

Ami Ayalon, fmr head of Shin Bet: I see them as terrorists and as a Jewish messianics, they represent only a small minority within the Israel society, but they get their power because of our coalition system.

John Lyons, Reporter: But can I just check something? Are you calling the Minister for National Security and the Minister for Finance in Israel? Are you calling them terrorists?

Ami Ayalon, fmr head of Shin Bet: Of course. They are.

John Lyons, Reporter: Is the brutal reality that Benjamin Netanyahu wants to continue this war for his own political survival?

Ehud Barak, fmr Prime Minister of Israel: Look, I cannot penetrate his soul and tell you for sure, but it’s clear that he acts as if the main objective of this whole event is his survival. He understands that if fighting will have a pause for six weeks or two times six weeks, the Israeli republic will demand accountability in spite of the fact that there is no word in Hebrew for accountability. It was not needed in our culture, but the public will demand it and he might lose his role, the prime minister.

John Lyons, Reporter: The Prime Minister’s Office did not respond when we put these allegations to him. Mr Ben-Gvir and Mr Smotrich also failed to respond to our requests for comment.

It now appears that Netanyahu wanted to sow seeds of division between the hardliners who ruled Gaza and the more conciliatory Palestinian Authority, running the West Bank.

Ami Ayalon, fmr head of Shin Bet: We did something very, very simple. We did everything in order to make sure that Hamas will go on controlling Gaza and Palestinian Authority will control the West Bank so they will fight each other.

John Lyons, Reporter: Netanyahu allowed Qatar to give massive amounts of cash to Hamas in Gaza.

Ami Ayalon, fmr head of Shin Bet: So what we did with the permission of our prime Minister is to let Qatar to transfer a huge amount of money in cash, probably more than $1.4 billion, and to make sure that they will be able to send people to work in Israel and to achieve or to get intelligence if they need. By doing it, we increase the power of Hamas.

Ehud Barak, fmr Prime Minister of Israel: That served Netanyahu who wanted to avoid any discussion of two state solution.

John Lyons, Reporter: So are you saying Benjamin Netanyahu deliberately boosted Hamas to try to prevent a Palestinian state?

Ehud Barak, fmr Prime Minister of Israel: Yeah, sure. He deliberately and systematically even told on record, whoever wants to avoid the threat of a two state solution has to support my policy of paying protection money to the Hamas.

John Lyons, Reporter: Netanyahu maintains the Qatar money was to avoid a humanitarian catastrophe. Having helped build up Hamas, Netanyahu has vowed to destroy it.

Yehuda Shaul, fmr Israeli Army Commander: He fed the beast and it exploded in our face. If you base your national security strategy solely on force, then you need to win 24/7 forever.

John Lyons, Reporter: Is it possible that Hamas can be destroyed?

Yehuda Shaul, fmr Israeli Army Commander: I don’t believe you can destroy Hamas with military force at all. The issue is this. Okay, if you want to destroy Hamas in Gaza, what you will have to do is forcibly displace more than 2 million Palestinians into Sinai. Go house by house, corner by corner, wipe out entire Gaza above ground, and then go from months underground. Tunnel by tunnel, suffer hundreds of casualties, if not thousands ultimately and maybe after a few years there won’t be Hamas and Gaza. But if you’ve done that, there’s going to be Hamas everywhere else.

John Lyons, Reporter: Can Hamas be destroyed?

Avi Dichter, current Israeli Cabinet Minister: Hamas as a military organisation will be destroyed. We are in a war in Gaza. We put two main goals in front of the military and front of the security organisations. First to destroy all military infrastructure of Hamas and PIJ in Gaza Strip and the second goal to topple the regime of Hamas from continuing ruling and running the Gaza Strip. These were the two main goals and the main target was to release all hostages at that time that we knew that were taken into the Gaza Strip. So they can hide in tunnels. We should find them there. They can hide in houses. We should find them there. It’s not going to be stopped up until we’re going to destroy the military infrastructure of both in Gaza strip.

John Lyons, Reporter: How long do you think Israel’s war against Hamas will last?

Avi Dichter, current Israeli Cabinet Minister: How long it’ll take? It may take a year or two in Gaza.

U.S. President Joe Biden: We stand with Israel. We stand with Israel. And we will make sure Israel has what it needs to take care of its citizens, defend itself and respond to this attack.

John Lyons, Reporter: What would happen if President Biden said thousands and thousands of civilians have been killed in Gaza. The bombings indiscriminate. As of tomorrow, I’m cutting off the supply of bombs?

Nathan Thrall, fmr Director International crisis group: The war would end. That would be the end of this war. Israel cannot wage it without these bombs. The role of the US has been as usual, full-fledged support for Israel, backing in the security council supply of arms, total complicity and responsibility for all of Israel’s behaviour.. and the bombing that is indiscriminate as the president said, and at the same time a bit of public finger wagging

Voice: In Tel Aviv, another impressive military spectacle.

John Lyons, Reporter: Since 1946 the US has provided more than two hundred billion dollars in military aid to Israel. In the 1967 Six-Day War, Israel’s then newly appointed Defence Minister, Moshe Dayan, took personal command of Israeli forces as they captured East Jerusalem.

Moshe Dayan once said: “Our American friends offer us money, arms, and advice. We take the money, we take the arms, but we decline the advice.” Those words have echoed down through the decades. Now an emboldened Israel has flattened vast sections of Gaza with American bombs… declining the softly spoken advice of President Biden.

U.S. President Joe Biden: The state of Israel was born to be a safe place for the Jewish people.

John Lyons, Reporter: President Biden is a lifelong supporter of Israel.

U.S. President Joe Biden: If Israel didn’t exist we’d have to invent it.

John Lyons, Reporter: The supporters of Israel in America, of course, would say Israel is the only democracy in the Middle East. It’s in our strategic interests to support it. Is that a fair argument?

Nathan Thrall, fmr Director International crisis group: Well, I don’t know of any democracy that for more than half a century has deprived millions of the people under its control of basic civil rights based on their inborn characteristics. That is the case here in Israel. And I don’t think it’s defensible under any definition of democracy to call this place a democracy.

Ehud Barak, fmr Prime Minister of Israel: Israel cannot fight this regional war without having close relationship with the Americans. We need their support, not just in munitions that we do not produce in a high enough space to supply the needs of such a regional war, but we need them also to protect us in the UN Security Council. We needed them at the beginning of the crisis to deter Iran from getting involved or from activate the Hezbollah against us. And we will need them even in the Hague, to block the prospect that… Israeli commanders or even politically, they might find themselves as a criminal in the Hague or demanded to be broke. Only America can help us to avoid all this.

John Lyons, Reporter: Pro-Israeli lobby groups in the US wield immense power.

Nathan Thrall, fmr Director International crisis group: Every politician in the United States knows that they can pay a major price with their jobs for not toeing the line. And the level of devastation that we are seeing now has so horrified the world and has so horrified the American public that now we have half of the people who voted for Biden saying that Israel is perpetrating a genocide in Gaza.

U.S. President Joe Biden: Israel also has a fundamental responsibility, to protect innocent civilians in Gaza.

And now for Biden, for the very first time there is talk that an American president could lose an election over being too pro-Israel. It’s unheard of.

Nathan Thrall, fmr Director International crisis group: And so we have this enormous American hypocrisy of supplying the bombs that we say are being used indiscriminately and expressing sympathy for the people who are being killed by our bombs.

American criticism has intensified, with Washington repeatedly expressing frustration at the impact of the war on civilians, but the bombing has continued.

John Lyons, Reporter: If it’s found later that war crimes were committed by Israel. Is the United States complicit in those war crimes?

Nathan Thrall, fmr Director International crisis group: 100%. 100%.

John Lyons, Reporter: As the US continues to supply Israel with munitions, it’s now dropping food aid to Gazans, amid warnings that hunger has reached “catastrophic levels.”

Children are already dying of starvation and the UN says famine is imminent.

Amira Hass, Occupied Territories Correspondent, Haaretz: There is this country and there are two peoples who live in it, and this country belongs to the two peoples but any plan to expel or to get rid of one of the two peoples will result in even more disasters.

I feel that now when this genocidal war is still going on in Gaza and against Gaza, my first thing that I say is, there must be a ceasefire.

John Lyons, Reporter: On what do you base the word genocide?

Amira Hass, Occupied Territories Correspondent, Haaretz, HAARETZ: I’d say genocidal.

John Lyons, Reporter: Genocidal. Why do you use the word genocidal?

Amira Hass, Occupied Territories Correspondent, Haaretz: Because the enormity of the killing, the enormity of the wounded, the enormity of the destruction, the enormity of the fear that each person, including so many of my friends, pass every moment of their life now for almost fƒdive months. The enormity of it is genocidal.

Ami Ayalon, fmr head of Shin Bet: Genocide start with something very, very clear. The intention to kill a race or a people. We do not have this intention. That’s it. So it is not genocide. It is not a genocide intent. We are facing a major threat and we are fighting against a threat. We are doing many mistake, but it is far from being genocide or far from being a genocide intent. That’s it.

John Lyons, Reporter: The International Court of Justice opened hearings on allegations that Israel was committing genocide in Gaza.

International Court of Justice Judge: The acts and omissions by Israel of which…

John Lyons, Reporter: In a preliminary ruling, the court ruled said it was plausible that Israel’s acts could amount to genocide. The ICJ ordered restraint. Another international court is investigating possible war crimes by both Hamas and Israel.

Amira Hass, Occupied Territories Correspondent, Haaretz: I’m so tired of the legal terms for things and legal definitions. And I know that for years Palestinians used to say genocide about almost everything, and I opposed it. I mean, when you kill so many families in one bomb and destroy so many families, you don’t have any chain, no, no chain, no memories left for the family and no chain of descendants for this family. You destroy culture, you destroy academics, you destroy schools, you destroy clinics. I mean, the reconstruction will take decades, decades

John Lyons, Reporter: Some members of Hamas have said clearly that we will try more. October 7th, they’re committed to wiping out Israel. What can Israel do to protect itself?

Dalal Iriqat, Prof. Diplomacy & Conflict Resolution: I think the answer is very simple. They need to end the Israeli military occupation. They need to grant the Palestinians back their rights, and they need to recognise that the Palestinians have a right to self determination, to freedom, to sovereignty, to end independence, to liberation, to being equally humans.

John Lyons, Reporter: Do you now fear for the future?

Tzipi Livni, fmr Foreign & Justice Minister: I am worried. I am worried about the future of Israel. Yes, more than ever.

Ami Ayalon, fmr head of Shin Bet: You cannot deter a person or a group of people if they believe that they have nothing to lose. We Israelis, we shall have security only when they will have hope.

John Lyons, Reporter: What’s the future for Palestinians

Avi Dichter, current Israeli Cabinet Minister: Supporting death will not bring you anything. If you don’t believe that the Jewish presence here between the Mediterranean and Jordan Valley is forever. You are going to lose more than you’ve lost till now.

Abdaljawad Omar, Analyst & Lecturer, Birzeit University: we’re in a very bleak, very dark moment in our own history. But at the same time, I always think that from the depths of despair, from the depths of this darkness, we can always see some light. And perhaps there is some hope that we can reconfigure life in the holy land in a way that treats people equally, treats people with the humanity that they deserve.

John Lyons, Reporter: It’s often said that this conflict is impossibly complicated. Now even more so – after the atrocities of Oct 7 and horrors of its aftermath — trust is broken and animosities are greater than ever. But when you really listen to both sides, their aspirations have not changed.

The essence is this. Israelis want security. Palestinians want an independent state. If Israel agreed to end its occupation and Palestinians guaranteed Israeli security, then this most intractable of all conflicts could end.

Right now. It feels like we are light years away from that, but if something doesn’t give, then the horrors of October seven and the death and devastation in Gaza that followed are unlikely to be the darkest place to which this conflict sinks.

 

Republished from Four Corners: The Forever War aired at 8.30pm on Monday 11 March and is available on ABC iview.

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