The latest Israel-Hamas or Israel-Gaza war has resulted, as is often the case, in a tidal wave of propaganda, misinformation and misunderstandings. In this Q&A, Khaled Diab fact checks the war and responds to misconceptions about the wider Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
The latest Israel-Hamas war is on course to be the worst yet and trust between Palestinians and Israelis appears to be at its lowest level for years if not decades. Many people have abandoned all hope of a resolution to the conflict and see no prospects for peace.
Realism dictates pessimism, at least in the near term.
However, in the longer term, there remains hope for peace, or at least a better future. This is mainly because the current system is not only unjust but also extremely volatile and ultimately unsustainable.
Peacemakers and peace lovers cannot stay silent and must work towards that long-term goal now by setting in motion a vision for peaceful and just coexistence and waiting for the moment to transform it into a reality, whether that involves dismantling and rebuilding the current system brick by brick or through rapid and transformative change.
There are moments in history where the darkest moments presaged a new and brighter dawn. One prime example is South Africa. Just before Apartheid was dismantled, the country was on the brink of civil war. But with the right leadership and circumstances, it was able to come back from the brink and transform into a society for all its citizens.
Yes, Hamas targets civilians, such as when it sent a reported 3,000 unguided rockets into Israel to strike random targets. Its history of suicide attacks before it seized power in Gaza also targeted civilians.
At the time of writing, some 1,200 people in Israel had been killed since the latest Israel-Hamas war began, according to the Israeli military. Most of these were civilians and included people of all ages, from children to the elderly. Quite a few Arabs and foreigners were also amongst the dead.
The Geneva Convention prohibits the killing or ill treatment of civilians. Wilful killing is considered a “grave breach” of the Geneva Convention and, hence, a war crime.
Hamas has also taken Israeli hostages into Gaza and has threatened to execute one every time Israel strikes civilian targets without warning in Gaza. The Geneva Convention also proscribes kidnapping and executing hostages.
Yes, Israel targets civilians, as has been amply documented by human rights organisations in previous wars in Gaza and elsewhere.
At the time of writing, over 1,400 people have been killed in Gaza since the latest war erupted. Most of these are civilians. Even though Israel claims to take precautions against targeting civilians and many Israelis believe they have the world's most moral army, its bombardment of heavily populated areas of Gaza and buildings containing civilians undermines this claim. In addition, the blockade of Gaza means that civilians have no way to flee the fighting and are effectively a sitting duck.
In addition, Israel's defence minister Yoav Gallant has indicated that Israel will impose a “complete siege” on Gaza and would cut off electricity, gas, water and food supplies. If the aim of the siege is to starve the population or cut it off from aid and assistance, then it is collective punishment and prohibited by international humanitarian law. Furthermore, Israel's ordering of Gaza City's civilian population to evacuate their homes and head south will be calamitous, in the words of the United Nations, and will severely harm civilians because they have nowhere to go in southern Gaza and there are no provisions in place for their care.
Since the very start of the blockade, critics like myself have continuously pointed out how counterproductive and destructive the blockade and the cyclical wars it triggers are, not only to the civilians of Gaza but also for the long-term prospects. Opposition to the blockade has come not only from Palestinians and their allies around the world but also from within Israel. However, Israel has trapped itself and Gaza in a destructive Catch-22 loop: Israel will not lift its blockade of Gaza until Hamas is removed from power, but Hamas will not fall so long as there is a blockade.
The sad, ironic tragedy is that Hamas could have been “contained” without a single shot being fired now, or last year, or in 2014, 2012, 2008/9 and 2006. And repetition does not appear to have made Israel any the wiser. Underpinning this tragedy, and the crime of collectively punishing an entire population, is a profound misunderstanding of what violence can achieve in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. As has been repeatedly demonstrated, overwhelming force has failed to overwhelm the Palestinians or weaken their resolve. Instead, it has reawakened the collective trauma of the Nakba and led to poverty, destitution and despair – ideal breeding grounds for further radicalisation. Despite the repeated failure of Israel's strategy, the Israeli population is terrifed of Hamas and extremists in the Israeli government and society capitalises on this fear to push their hostile agenda. The opportunistic Netanyahu has repeatedly exploited the situation in Gaza to shore up political support and maintain his grip on power.
At this juncture, it is hard to identify Hamas's exact motivation for attacking Israel and murdering so many civilians that Israeli prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu has dubbed it Israel's 9/11. The ostensible reason given by Mohammed Deif is that it was payback for Israeli raids on Jerusalem's Al Aqsa mosque complex and the Noble Sanctuary. “Today the rage of Al Aqsa, the rage of our people and nation is exploding. Our mujahedeen (fighters), today is your day to make this criminal understand that his time has ended,” the secretive Deif, who commands Hamas's Al Qassam Brigades, said in a rare broadcast.
But the real reasons for the attack are likely to be far more profane. One is the profound despair in Gaza and the world's continued ignoring of the humanitarian catastrophe in the territory, which has not only evoked rage against Israel but also threatens Hamas's domination. In addition, the failure of the moderate branch of the party to reach a political resolution with Israel over the blockade has empowered the military wing, which now dominates the movement. A ferocious war would enable the hawks within Hamas to defeat the doves within the party, force society to close ranks behind them, and undermine their political archrival Fatah. It also counteracts the threat to Hamas coming from other radical Islamist groups, such as Islamic Jihad. Moreover, with the ascendancy of Hamas's ideological wing, concern for Palestinian civilians, never paramount in the calculations of the movement's radical wing, has been relegated to the “greater cause”.
Hamas's actions betray a profound misunderstanding of what violence can achieve against Israel. Not only can the Palestinians never defeat Israel on the battlefield, violence is only likely to provoke a dangerous mix of fear and rage that, tapping into a deep-seated collective trauma of past persecution and the Holocaust, causes Israel to up the violence ante rather than force it to make concessions and compromises.
Egypt has been a junior partner in the Israeli-led blockade of Gaza since its inception. This “insane alliance“, as I have previously called it, is motivated by the regime's animosity towards Hamas, which is ideologically allied to the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, though politically independent of the branch in Egypt, even if the Palestinian movement was inspired by its Egyptian precursor. This is reflected in how even during the government of Muslim Brotherhood president Mohamed Morsi the blockade was not lifted, though it was eased slightly. Since Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi's rise to power, the regime, with its rabid anti-Muslim Brotherhood discourse, has re-tightened the screws on Gaza, amplifying the territory's despair and destitution.
Other factors behind Egypt's closing of its borders to Gaza include fear that the Israeli blockade would lead to a permanent influx of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians into Egyptian territory. During this latest Israel-Hamas war, the Egyptian regime has indicated that it would open the Rafah crossing to humanitarian aid but would not allow the Palestinians there to cross into Egypt. It remains to be seen whether the mass killing in Gaza and popular pressure will soften the regime's heart and prompt it to offer the population temporary refuge in Egypt.
Republican Lindsey Graham not only urged Israel to “level the place” in Gaza, in what amounted to incitement to mass murder and war crimes, he also described the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as a “religious war“. And it is not only extremists who see the conflict as a holy war, many ordinary people are convinced that religion plays a central role in the conflict.
But the US senator is wrong. Although Islamic and Jewish fanatics are hell bent on transforming the Israeli-Palestinian conflict into a holy war, it is primarily a secular one which centres on such earthly issues as land, political and civil rights, as well as identity. This is reflected in how the traditionally dominant movements on both the Israeli and Palestinian side were secular, such as the Israeli Labour party and the Palestinian Liberation Organisation (PLO).
Early Zionism's overwhelming goal was to try to save Jews from persecution and extermination. The choice of Palestine for this homeland, though religiously symbolic, was initially quite coincidental, as reflected by the fact that Theodor Herzi had considered Cyprus, Sinai and East Africa as potential Jewish homelands.
Early Palestinian and pan-Arab nationalism sought to reclaim Palestine, enable the return of refugees and restore it to the Arab fold.
The Israeli-Palestinian and the broader Arab-Israeli conflict has been grinding on for as long as anyone can remember and longer. Determining the exact starting point is tricky. The most siginificant milestone, though not the actual starting point, was the creation of the state of Israel in 1948 following the UN partition plan of 1947 and the 1947-8 civil war in Palestine. The actual roots of the conflict lie in the 1880s, when large-scale Jewish immigration to Ottoman Syria began, then accelerated under British rule over Palestine following World War I.
How does this compare with other conflicts?
While a multigenerational conflict is too long by any measure, there are, unfortunately, other hotspots in the world with a similar vintage. The succession of internal conflicts in Burma and the Myanmar since 1948 has led experts to call it the world's longest ongoing civil war. Another example, there has been a conflict between India and Pakistan since the 1947 partition of the Indian subcontinent following the dissolution of the British Raj. Kashmir is another conflict area that dates back to this time.
Even if we mark the 1880s as the starting point of the conflict, does this make it the world's longest-running conflict?
Other ongoing conflicts also date back to the 19th century, with the awakening of ethno-nationalism in numerous areas of the world. In the Middle East, the Kurdish struggle for statehood dates back to when nationalist leader Sheikh Ubeydullah demanded independence from the Ottomans and Persians in 1880. Today, the struggle continues across the borders of four countries: Turkey, Syria, Iraq and Iran.
In Europe, Basque nationalism dates back to a similar period, while the Irish struggle for independence from Britain dates all the way back to the 16th century. Then there are all the centuries-old struggles of the indigenous peoples of the Americas and Oceania.
That Palestinians only understand the language of violence is a common conviction amongst Israelis. However, reality contradicts this widely held hypothesis. Israeli violence does little to deter Palestinians and, if anything, strengthens their resolve and steadfastness. The Palestinian issue is not going anywhere, no matter how many missiles, tanks, automatic weapons or even bulldozers Israel throws at it.
This is nowhere on greater display than in Gaza, where the implicit violence of a land and naval blockade, and the explicit violence of several wars has done nothing over the past 16 years to dislodge Hamas or subdue Gaza. It has, instead, increased the sum of human suffering and misery there, and the ranks of people with nothing to lose.
Moreover, while there are violent Palestinian factions, non-violent resistance has played a vital role in the Palestinian struggle, even if it does get overshadowed by violence. The First Intifada was a peaceful uprising against Israeli repression and oppression. Palestine is also home to many groups that still practice passive resistance, though the lack of progress towards peace has discredited them in the eyes of many. In addition, living under a generations-long occupation makes engaging in daily life an act of immense peaceful resistance.
Khaled Diab is an award-winning journalist, blogger and writer who has been based in Tunis, Jerusalem, Brussels, Geneva and Cairo. Khaled also gives talks and is regularly interviewed by the print and audiovisual media. Khaled Diab is the author of two books: Islam for the Politically Incorrect (2017) and Intimate Enemies: Living with Israelis and Palestinians in the Holy Land (2014). In 2014, the Anna Lindh Foundation awarded Khaled its Mediterranean Journalist Award in the press category. This website, The Chronikler, won the 2012 Best of the Blogs (BOBs) for the best English-language blog. Khaled was longlisted for the Orwell journalism prize in 2020. In addition, Khaled works as communications director for an environmental NGO based in Brussels. He has also worked as a communications consultant to intergovernmental organisations, such as the EU and the UN, as well as civil society. Khaled lives with his beautiful and brilliant wife, Katleen, who works in humanitarian aid. The foursome is completed by Iskander, their smart, creative and artistic son, and Sky, their mischievous and footballing cat. Egyptian by birth, Khaled's life has been divided between the Middle East and Europe. He grew up in Egypt and the UK, and has lived in Belgium, on and off, since 2001. He holds dual Egyptian-Belgian nationality.