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6 December 2023

Israelis and Palestinians have been taken back to the traumas of 1948

Reporting from the front line in Gaza, I have seen the destruction wrought on all sides by this long conflict.

By Jeremy Bowen

On the morning of 7 October I was in Kyiv. The rain lashed down and winter barrelled in from the steppe as I struggled through increasingly bloody videos on my phone. Hamas was smashing the unpleasant, painful but familiar status quo that had defined the past decade of the long conflict between Israel and the Palestinians. Even on that first day, the war looked as consequential as any since Israel won its independence in 1948. Our BBC team packed in a hurry and headed west to Poland, then on to Israel.

Gaza’s borders were closed to journalists not already there on 7 October. We set up in the closest working hotel to the border wire, in the empty streets of Ashkelon, just north of Gaza. I downloaded the Israeli government’s red-alert app. It would peep threateningly, then seconds later the town would shake, as Israel’s Iron Dome anti-missile defence system blew up most, though not all, of the rockets fired out of Gaza. Deeper, percussive sound waves boomed up the coast from Israeli air strikes and heavy artillery, and then from tanks as the invasion began.

Most nights I went to sleep after midnight, listening to enormous explosions coming out of Gaza, and woke to a dawn chorus of the same thumping impacts. When the Israeli military started taking journalists into Gaza on supervised trips, I saw they had worked systematically to turn the Strip into a wasteland. Between the northern border and Gaza City, every building I passed was either destroyed or badly damaged. I did not see a single Palestinian civilian. Hundreds of thousands of homes had been pulverised. Even the palm trees planted along the coast road were flattened. Sand dunes that had been tamed by concrete and asphalt were emerging through the rubble. The destruction was as bad as in Aleppo, Syria after Russian planes and Bashar al-Assad’s regime had finished with it.

Since 7 October Israelis and Palestinians have been dragged back into their traumatic histories. The horror of each at their enemies’ actions and what they might do in the future is a living, breathing nightmare.

The status quo that Hamas destroyed on 7 October rested on an assumption that Israel could manage its conflict with the Palestinians. Israel’s prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu believed he could build an alliance with the Saudis against Iran. Netanyahu weakened the Palestinian Authority, which recognised Israel and cooperated on security but was discredited by corruption and incompetence. Netanyahu condemned Hamas while doing deals via third parties such as Qatar, allowing the group to hold Gaza. It was classic divide and rule, and strengthened his argument that Israel had no partner for peace.

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[See also: Joseph Roth’s lessons for Putin’s Russia]

In the few weeks after the Hamas attack, I saw Avraham Burg, who was speaker of the Knesset – Israel’s parliament – in the hopeful days of the Oslo peace process in the 1990s. He argued that the existence of the state of Israel had inoculated its Jewish citizens against the memory of centuries of pogroms in Europe, culminating in the Holocaust. On that one day of slaughter on 7 October – the worst for the Jews since the Nazis – Hamas had shown them that the vaccination was no longer working.

The army took journalists into the ruined Israeli communities along the Gaza border when the bodies of the country’s civilians were still being recovered, and combat soldiers were clearing buildings with bursts of fire. Dead Hamas gunmen lay where they had been killed, blackened and stinking, swelling in the hot October sun. The mood in Israel, Burg assessed, was something like the years 1945-48.

Palestinians have also been transported back to 1948, to the defeat and exile that defines their history, which they call the Nakba – the catastrophe. As Israel won its war for independence, more than 700,000 Palestinians fled or were driven from their homes at gunpoint. The new state took their property and never let them return.

As Israel kills thousands of Palestinian civilians in Gaza today, and armed Jewish settlers further north, in the West Bank, swagger into villages and farms determined to take the land they want, Palestinians have become more certain than ever in claiming that Israel wants to finish the job it started in 1948. In Sussiya, a small, beleaguered Palestinian community in the hills south of Hebron in the West Bank, it even looked like 1948. A plough was being dragged across a stony field by a donkey. Nasser Nawajah, a Palestinian farmer and tireless activist who works with Israeli human rights groups, said he had a tractor, but local settlers had threatened to pour sand into the fuel tank if he used it. Wearily, he told me: “We’ve been passing through one Nakba to another through the years of Palestinian occupation, and we can’t handle another one. We don’t have another place to go… We need to stand here, in this land.”

President Joe Biden, correctly, has said that the only way to a safer future is to create an independent Palestinian state alongside Israel. But making that happen is another matter. For at least a decade, the two-state solution has been an empty slogan, chanted by Western leaders despite years of failed negotiations. Perhaps there is a chance to offer Israel the recognition it craves from Arab countries in return for Palestinian independence, a formula proposed by the Saudis 20 years ago. New Palestinian and Israeli leaders would have to persuade their people to make sacrifices and abandon dreams. If that cannot be achieved, the cancer of this century-old conflict will continue to metastasise.

[See also: What it means to be Jewish now]

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This article appears in the 07 Dec 2023 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas Special