Nearly a month after the Hamas terrorist attack on 7 October, and it seems Israel has made little progress towards its stated aims. Only a handful of hostages have been released and Hamas appears to be hardly weakened by weeks of pounding from the air. Most of Hamas’s leadership are still alive. Israelis and non-Israelis alike are still in shock over the worst massacre of Jews since the Holocaust, and the humanitarian crisis in Gaza is calamitous: according to Gaza’s health ministry, over 8,000 have been killed, most of them women and children. The UN has said more than 1.4 million Gazans have been displaced within the Strip.
No justification can rationalise the atrocities of 7 October, nor is it acceptable for the entire population of Gaza to pay the price for the actions of terrorists. To prevent a repeat of this scenario in future and understand the precarious position the region finds itself in today, we must examine the many diplomatic and political mistakes that have obfuscated the path to peace.
In the 2006 elections in Gaza, Hamas won a majority of council seats against its rival Fatah. Given Hamas’s openly stated goal of destroying Israel, the US refused to recognise the results and urged Fatah to do the same. Failing to reach a power-sharing agreement, the two factions went to war. When Hamas emerged victorious, the Fatah-controlled Palestinian Authority (PA) was relegated to the West Bank and Israel imposed a blockade on Gaza.
Successive polls in Gaza – the most recent conducted days before 7 October – have revealed widespread discontent with Hamas. Rather than capitalise on that discontent by targeting and weakening Hamas, Netanyahu chose to divide and conquer, making the Palestinians weaker as a whole. He allowed Hamas to grow while undermining peace talks with the PA by supporting settlement building in the West Bank. The result was a strong Hamas in Gaza, a weak PA in the West Bank, and a fragmented Palestinian political apparatus that would allow Netanyahu to claim there was no “partner for peace”.
We cannot discount the role the US has played in unwittingly undermining prospects for a long-term solution. While American “bear hug” diplomacy has been described by US officials as necessary in order to have tough conversations with Israel behind the scenes, such conversations have had varying degrees of effectiveness, particularly as the governing coalitions in Israel have skewed further to the right.
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While consecutive Israeli governments eschewed a political process in favour of a policy of containment, the Trump administration ignored the Palestinian question altogether. Instead, it focused on building ties between Israel and the region based on an “economic peace” and deviating from previous efforts towards a two-state solution. In Israel the sense of urgency leaders should have felt about the untenable situation at the borders in recent years seemed non-existent. With the Israeli leadership distracted by increasing political infighting and the military preoccupied with rising settler violence in the West Bank, the foundations were laid for the disastrous intelligence failure on the eve of 7 October.
If there is any hope in the dire current situation, it is the widespread recognition that the pre-7-October status quo is no longer viable, and a political solution is the only way forward. Mass protests spurred by Israel’s bombardment have put pressure on Arab and Western governments alike, which recognise that the economic peace the 2020 Abraham Accords were based on cannot be substituted for actual, organic peace.
The recent events will make the road to peace much harder: the level of collective trauma in both populations is unbearable, with both seeing their tragic histories repeated before their eyes. With that in mind, there are three steps that can be undertaken to salvage hope for peace.
First, a humanitarian pause and ceasefire with the explicit aim of hostage releases and providing food, water, electricity, fuel and medicine to those in need. Israeli hostages must be returned, and the suffering inflicted on civilians in Gaza must end.
Second, intelligence sharing and a collective effort to target Hamas’s funding and leadership. Thus far, most casualties have been civilians, and more children have been killed in Gaza since 7 October than in all conflicts around the world over the past year. Meanwhile, Hamas’s leadership and its supplies remain largely intact.
Third, plan for a postwar scenario. Contrary to some Western proposals, Arab governments have no desire to fix what, in their view, Israel, with US support, has broken. Egypt has expressly refused to accept a mass displacement to the Sinai, suspecting it would become a permanent arrangement. A coalition of regional and international partners will have to provide significant funding for non-Israeli security forces in Gaza and reconstruction while making space for Gazans to elect a new leadership. Israel may find itself extremely politically isolated after the war and will need regional actors to chart a path to integration. Arab states will be well placed to help mediate diplomatic efforts.
There can be no return to the status quo of a few weeks ago: a never-ending cycle of false calm followed by periods of disruptive violence. A political path to long-term peace must be charted to prevent further instability that the region can ill afford.
Jasmine El-Gamal is an independent analyst and was a Middle East adviser at the Pentagon from 2008 to 2017
Read more: The Labour revolt over the Gaza war
This article appears in the 01 Nov 2023 issue of the New Statesman, Labour Revolts