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War on Gaza: Netanyahu, Hamas and the origins of the 2023 Nakba war

In this extract from a new book, Avi Shlaim says that all the signs are there that the Netanyahu government is actively planning a second, and decisive, Nakba

When Israel withdrew from Gaza in 2005, it turned the tiny enclave into an open-air prison. Israel’s response to the Hamas attack of 7 October 2023 - the incessant bombardment of Gaza by land, sea, and air - turned this open-air prison into an open graveyard, a pile of rubble, a desolate wasteland.

Antonio Guterres, the secretary-general of the United Nations (UN), said in his address to the security council that the Hamas attack, in which 1,200 mostly Israelis were killed and 250 taken hostage, did not happen in a vacuum. “The Palestinian people have been subjected to 56 years of suffocating occupation,” he noted. He immediately added that: “The grievances of the Palestinian people cannot justify the appalling attacks by Hamas. And those appalling attacks cannot justify the collective punishment of the Palestinian people.” 

Gilad Erdan, Israel’s ambassador to the UN, responded with a vicious personal attack on the secretary-general, claiming, falsely, that he accused Israel of blood libel, calling for his resignation, and topping it off with a call on members of the UN to stop funding the organisation.

Israeli antagonism to the UN and obstruction of its work is nothing new, but the contrast between the decency and humanity of the secretary-general and the rudeness and crudeness of the Israeli representative was particularly striking on this occasion. 

I propose to follow in the footsteps of the secretary-general by stating the obvious: the Israel-Hamas conflict did not begin on 7 October. It has to be placed in its proper historical context.

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The Gaza Strip is the name given to the southern part of the coastal plain of Palestine, adjoining Egypt. It was part of Palestine during the British Mandate which ended in May 1948.

Under the 1947 UN partition plan, this area was to form part of the Palestinian Arab state, but this state did not materialise. During the 1948 war for Palestine, the Egyptian army captured this semi-desert strip. The 1949 Israeli-Egyptian armistice agreement left this area on the Egyptian side of the new international border. Egypt did not annex the territory but kept it under military rule, pending resolution of the Arab-Israeli conflict. 

The strip is 25 miles long and four to nine miles wide, with a total area of 141 square miles. In the course of the 1948 war, more than 200,000 Palestinian refugees were added to a population of around 70,000, creating a massive humanitarian problem. UNRWA (the United Nations Relief and Works Agency) was set up to provide food, education, and health services to the refugees.

Israel occupied the Gaza Strip in the course of the Suez War of October-November 1956, but was forced by international pressure to vacate it in March 1957. A large number of civilians were killed, and atrocities were committed by the Israeli army during its short-lived occupation of the territory in what was a foretaste of things to come.

In June 1967, Israel occupied the Gaza Strip, the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, the Golan Heights, and the Sinai peninsula. It withdrew from Sinai in 1981 as part of its peace deal with Egypt.

In August 2005, Israel withdrew its soldiers and settlers from the Gaza Strip. Israeli spokespersons claimed that by withdrawing they gave the Palestinians in Gaza an opportunity to turn the enclave into the Singapore of the Middle East.

This claim is utterly preposterous when compared with the grim reality, but it is quite typical of Israeli propaganda.

The reality is that between 1967 and 2005, a classic colonial situation prevailed in the Gaza Strip. A few thousand Israeli settlers controlled 25 percent of the territory, 40 percent of the arable land, and the largest share of the desperately scarce water resources. 

The Gaza Strip is not backward and impoverished because its residents are lazy but because Israel’s rapacious colonial regime did not give it a chance to flourish. Economic progress was thwarted by a deliberate Israeli strategy of “de-development”.

Sara Roy, a Jewish scholar at Harvard, the daughter of Holocaust survivors, is the leading expert on the Gaza Strip. She has written four books on Gaza. The first and ground-breaking book was called The Gaza Strip: The Political Economy of De-development. In this book, she coined the term and formulated the pivotal concept of de-development.

Her powerful thesis is that the dire state of Gaza is not the result of objective conditions but of a deliberate Israeli policy of keeping it underdeveloped and dependent. Despite considerable opposition from the scholarly community when she first introduced the concept, it has become widely used and part of the lexicon in political science and other disciplines. The book shows in detail the various measures by which Israel systematically thwarted the growth of industry in the Gaza Strip and exploited the enclave as a source of cheap labour, as well as a market for its own goods. 

'Demographic time bomb'

There were three principal reasons for the decision of the right-wing Likud government, headed by Ariel Sharon, to withdraw from Gaza in 2005. One is that Hamas, the Islamic resistance movement, launched attacks against Israel’s settlers and soldiers and, as a result, the price of occupying Gaza outstripped the benefits.

The game was no longer worth the candle.

A second aim of the move was to sabotage the Oslo peace process. As Dov Weissglas, Sharon’s chief of staff, explained in an interview with Haaretz on 6 October 2004: 

"The significance is the freezing of the political process. And when you freeze that process you prevent the establishment of a Palestinian state and you prevent a discussion about the refugees, the borders and Jerusalem. Effectively, this whole package that is called the Palestinian state, with all that it entails, has been removed from our agenda indefinitely… The disengagement is actually formaldehyde. It supplies the amount of formaldehyde that’s necessary so that there will not be a political process with the Palestinians."

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The third reason for disengagement had to do with demography. Palestinians have a higher birth rate than Israelis and this is perceived as a threat, a "demographic time bomb" as some Israelis call it.

To preserve the slim Jewish majority in areas claimed by Israel, the Likud government decided to withdraw unilaterally from Gaza. By withdrawing from Gaza, it removed, or thought it removed, in one stroke, 1.4 million Palestinians from the overall demographic equation.

Sharon claimed that by withdrawing from Gaza, his government was making a contribution toward peace with the Palestinians. But this was a unilateral Israeli move undertaken solely in what was considered to be the Israeli national interest.

The nature of the move was revealed by its official name: “The unilateral disengagement from Gaza.” Disengagement from Gaza was not the prelude to further withdrawals from the West Bank and it most emphatically was not a contribution to peace.

The houses that were abandoned in Gaza were demolished by bulldozers in what amounted to a scorched earth policy. The controlling consideration behind the move was to divert resources from Gaza in order to safeguard and consolidate the more significant Israeli settlements in the West Bank.

In the year after withdrawing its 8,000 settlers from Gaza, the Likud government introduced 12,000 new settlers into the West Bank. Today, there are over 700,000 settlers in the West Bank, including East Jerusalem. The 2005 move was not coordinated with the Palestinian Authority.

The long-term aim of the Sharon government was to redraw unilaterally the borders of Greater Israel. One step in this overall strategy was the disengagement from Gaza. The other step was the building of the so-called security barrier on the West Bank. The security barrier was in fact as much about land-grabbing as it was about security. It was said to be a temporary security measure, but it was intended to delineate the final borders of Greater Israel. 

The two moves were anchored in a fundamental rejection of Palestinian national rights. They reflected a determination to prevent the Palestinians from ever achieving independence on their own land. Denying access between the Gaza Strip and the West Bank was a means of obstructing a unified Palestinian struggle for independence. At the tactical level, withdrawing from Gaza enabled the Israeli Air Force to bomb the territory at will, something they could not do when Israeli settlers lived there. 

Hamas's election victory

Following the Israeli withdrawal from Gaza, Hamas moderated its programme and turned to the ballot box as the road to power. Its 1988 charter was considered antisemitic. But in its platform for the January 2006 elections, it tacitly accepted Israel’s existence and lowered its sights to an independent Palestinian state along the 1967 lines.

However, Hamas did not agree to sign a formal peace treaty with Israel, and it insisted on the right of return of the 1948 refugees, widely seen as a codeword for dismantling Israel as a Jewish state.

Hamas won a clear victory in a fair and free election not just in Gaza, but in the West Bank as well. Having won an absolute majority of seats in the Palestinian legislative council, Hamas proceeded to form a government in accordance with customary democratic procedure.

The Hamas victory came as an unpleasant surprise for Israel and its western supporters. Israel refused to recognise the new government and resorted to economic warfare to undermine it. The United States and the European Union, to their eternal shame, followed Israel’s example in refusing to recognise the democratically elected government and joined Israel in economic warfare to undermine it. 

The United States and the EU, to their eternal shame, followed Israel’s example in refusing to recognise the democratically elected government

This is just one example, one among many, of western hypocrisy on Israel-Palestine. The western leaders claim that they believe in democracy and that their objective around the world is democracy promotion. They invaded Iraq in 2003 in the name of democracy and ended up destroying the country and causing hundreds of thousands of casualties.

The western military interventions in Afghanistan, Syria and Libya also used democracy as a camouflage for their imperial ambitions, and all of them ended in dismal failure. Democracy needs to be built by the people from the ground up; it cannot be imposed by a foreign army from the barrel of a tank.

Palestine was a shining example of democracy in action. With the possible exception of Lebanon, it was the only genuine - as opposed to sham - democracy in the Arab world. Under the incredibly difficult conditions imposed by coercive military occupation, the Palestinians succeeded in building a democratic political system. The Palestinian people had spoken, but Israel and its western allies refused to recognise the result of the election because the people had voted for the “wrong” party.

In March 2007, Hamas formed a national unity government with Fatah, the mainstream party that came second in the ballot box. It was a moderate government which consisted mainly of technocrats rather than politicians. Hamas invited its coalition partner to negotiate with Israel a long-term hudna or truce.

Much more significant than the offer of a long-term truce was Hamas’s acceptance of a two-state settlement (with the implicit de facto recognition of Israel). This acceptance was already hinted at in the Cairo declaration of 2005, the “prisoners’ document” of 2006, and the Mecca accord between Hamas and Fatah of 2007.

Hamas all-but-explicitly endorsed a two-state settlement and, as the then UN Middle East Envoy Alvaro de Soto observed, it could have evolved further - if only its overtures had not met with flat dismissal and rejection from Israel and its allies. Nevertheless, Hamas leaders continued to make it clear, in countless subsequent statements, that they would accept a Palestinian state based on the 1967 borders.

Cruel blockade

Not content with dismissing Hamas’s call for a hudna and its offer of negotiations for a two-state settlement, Israel entered into a plot to topple the national unity government and oust Hamas from power.

In 2008, a leak of memos from the Israel-Palestinian Authority negotiations showed that Israel and the US armed and trained the security forces of President Mahmoud Abbas, with the aim of overthrowing the Hamas government.

Later, the “Palestine papers”, a cache of 1,600 diplomatic documents leaked to Al Jazeera, provided more details. They revealed that a secret committee was formed called the Gaza Committee. It had four members: Israel, America, Fatah, and Egyptian intelligence. The aim of this committee was to isolate and weaken Hamas and to help Fatah stage a coup in order to recapture power. 

Hamas decided to pre-empt the Fatah coup. It seized power violently in Gaza in June 2007. Since then, the two branches of the Palestinian national movement have been divided, with Hamas ruling over the Gaza Strip from Gaza City and the Palestinian Authority, dominated by Fatah, governing the West Bank from Ramallah.

The Palestinian Authority, funded mainly by the European Union and, to a lesser extent, by the United States, functions essentially as a sub-contractor for Israeli security. It is corrupt, incompetent, and impotent.

As a result, it enjoys little legitimacy in the West Bank and even less in the Gaza Strip.

Hamas exiled political supremo Khaled Meshaal (L) and Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas give a press conference in Damascus, 21 January 2007 (AFP)
Hamas exiled political supremo Khaled Meshaal (L) and Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas give a press conference in Damascus, 21 January 2007 (AFP)

Israel’s response to the Hamas seizure of power was to intensify a blockade on Gaza. The US, UK, and other European allies participated in this cruel blockade. The blockade has now been in force for 17 years. It inflicts daily hardship on the inhabitants of the Strip. It involves Israeli control not only of the imports but also of all exports from Gaza, including agricultural goods.

The blockade of Gaza is not only cruel and inhumane but plainly illegal. A blockade is a form of collective punishment, which is explicitly proscribed by international law. And yet the international community has totally failed to hold Israel to account for this and the rest of its illegal actions. Israel denies that it is an occupying power of the Gaza Strip.

However, the UN, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), Amnesty International, and Human Rights Watch all concluded that Israel remains in “effective occupation”, despite its physical withdrawal, because it continues to control access to the territory by land, sea and air.  

Having been denied the fruits of its electoral victory, Hamas resorted to the weapon of the weak, to what Israel calls terrorism, and this took the form of rocket attacks from Gaza on southern Israel. The Israeli army retaliated by bombing Gaza; a tit-for-tat ensued and the inevitable escalation of hostilities. In June 2008, Egypt brokered a ceasefire between Israel and Hamas.

The ceasefire worked remarkably well. In the six months before June, the average number of rockets fired on Israel was 179 per month. In the following months, the average fell to three rockets a month. On 4 November 2008, the Israeli military launched a raid into Gaza, killed six Hamas fighters, and killed the ceasefire, leading to an immediate resumption of hostilities.

Hamas offered to renew the ceasefire on its original terms, which included the easing of the blockade. Israel refused the offer and prepared to renew the fight. Hamas has an impeccable record of observing ceasefires whereas Israel does not. Every ceasefire brokered by Egypt was violated by Israel when it outlived its usefulness.

Operation Cast Lead

Israel launched its first major military offensive in Gaza on 27 December 2008, naming it Operation Cast Lead. The reason given for the attack was self-defence. Israel, like any other country, it was claimed, has the right to defend itself and to protect its citizens.

In other words, Israel claimed the right to self-defence against the people it occupied and oppressed. However, if all Israel wanted was to protect its citizens, it did not have to resort to force. All it had to do was to follow Hamas’s good example and observe the ceasefire. Israel repeatedly invokes its right to self-defence but, under international law, self-defence does not apply if you are an illegal military occupier. 

Operation Cast Lead was also the first major Israeli assault on the people of Gaza, and I use the words “people of Gaza” deliberately. Israel claims that Hamas uses civilians as human shields and that this makes them legitimate military targets.

In a crowded enclave, however, it is inevitable that some Hamas command centres, tunnels, and weapons stores are located near civilian buildings. That is not the same as using civilians as human shields. Many of the Israeli claims that Hamas uses schools, hospitals, mosques, and UNRWA buildings as cover for its operations have turned out to be untrue.

On the other hand, the claim that the Israeli military goes to great lengths to avoid hurting innocent civilians is flatly contradicted by the evidence. Its offensive inflicted very heavy casualties and massive damage to the civilian infrastructure. It established a pattern of regular incursions to hit Hamas, incursions that invariably rain down death and destruction on the civilian population.

The United Nations Human Rights Council appointed a commission of inquiry into Operation Cast Lead. It was headed by the eminent South African judge, Richard Goldstone. The Goldstone team noted that both sides were guilty of war crimes but reserved its severest criticisms for Israel because of the scale and seriousness of its war crimes.

To give just one example, Goldstone and his colleagues found seven incidents in which Israeli soldiers shot civilians leaving their homes, holding a white flag. 

The report concluded that the attacks in 2008-2009 were directed, at least in part, at the people of Gaza as a whole. It was “a deliberately disproportionate attack designed to punish, humiliate, and terrorise a civilian population”.

During the second Lebanon war of 2006, Israel's military chief of general staff, Gadi Eizenkot, enunciated a policy of deliberately harming enemy civilians which became known as the “Dahiya doctrine”. The doctrine was named after the Dahiya neighbourhood of Beirut, where Hezbollah was headquartered during the war.

It encompassed the destruction of civilian infrastructure in order to deny its use to the enemy, and it endorsed the use of “disproportionate force” to achieve that end. It was not, however, until 2023 that the horrific humanitarian consequences of this doctrine became evident to anyone with eyes to see.

'Designed to punish, humiliate'

Operation Cast Lead was followed by further Israeli attacks on the Gaza Strip in 2012, 2014, 2021, 2022 and 2023.

Operation Swords of Iron is the sixth Israeli military offensive in Gaza in 15 years, and it is by far the most lethal and destructive. After two months of fighting, the Palestinian death toll had risen to at least 17,700, including 7,729 children and 5,153 women, with more than 48,700 injured - more than the total of the previous military offensives combined.

A further 265 Palestinians were killed in the West Bank by the Israeli military and armed settlers. Nearly 1.9 million people, equivalent to 85 percent of a population of 2.3 million, were internally displaced. Heavy Israeli bombardment reduced entire neighbourhoods to rubble and inflicted catastrophic damage on the civilian infrastructure and economy of Gaza.

UN staff who assisted the Palestinians were another casualty of this savage Israeli offensive. More than 130 UNRWA teachers, health workers and aid workers were killed - the highest number in any conflict in the UN’s history. 

A medic inspects the damage in a room following Israeli bombardment of Nasser hospital in Khan Younis, southern Gaza Strip, on 17 December 2023 (AFP)
A medic inspects the damage in a children's ward following Israeli bombardment of Nasser hospital in Khan Younis, southern Gaza Strip, on 17 December 2023 (AFP)

The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) estimates that Israeli attacks destroyed more than 52,000 housing units and damaged more than 253,000. At least 60 percent of Gaza’s homes have been damaged or destroyed.

By 12 November, OCHA reported, 279 educational facilities had been damaged, more than 51 percent of the total, with none of Gaza’s 625,000 students able to access education. More than half of Gaza’s hospitals and nearly two-thirds of primary healthcare centres were out of service and 53 ambulances were damaged.

All 13 hospitals in Gaza City and northern Gaza had received evacuation orders from the Israeli military. Water consumption had fallen by 90 percent since the war started. People were queuing for an average of 4-6 hours to receive half the normal bread ration.

Around 390,000 jobs had been lost since the start of the war. Before the war the jobless rate already stood at 46 percent, and 70 percent among youth. The socioeconomic impact of the war has been nothing short of catastrophic. It is difficult to avoid the conclusion that, as in Operation Cast Lead, Operation Swords of Iron was “a deliberately disproportionate attack designed to punish, humiliate, and terrorise a civilian population”.

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Israeli generals frequently use the same phrase to describe their recurrent operations in Gaza: “Mowing the lawn.” What this means is that they have no political solution to the problem of Gaza.

So every few years they move in with foot soldiers, tanks, artillery, navy, and aircraft, smash up the place, degrade the military capabilities of Hamas, pulverise the civilian infrastructure, and then go home and leave the political problem completely unresolved. 

“Mowing the lawn” is a chilling metaphor, because it describes a mechanical action that you do periodically every few years and with no end in sight. Under this template, there is no end to the bloodshed, and the next war is always around the corner. This is not a policy for dealing with Gaza; it is a non-policy. To put it differently, it is an inappropriate military response to what essentially is a political problem. 

There is a popular Israeli saying: if force does not work, use more force. This is an asinine idea - if force does not work, it is because it is an unsuitable instrument for dealing with the problem at hand. It can also be counterproductive.

Israel’s disproportionate, excessive use of military force in the past ended up encouraging the rise of Hezbollah in Lebanon and of Hamas in the Gaza Strip. Israel’s policy of assassinating Hamas leaders with the aim of decapitating the organisation has never worked. The dead leaders are quickly replaced by younger leaders who are usually more militant. 

The government formed by Benjamin Netanyahu at the end of 2022 is the most radical, right-wing, xenophobic, expansionist, overtly racist - and the most incompetent - government in Israel’s history. It is also the most explicitly pro-settler, Jewish supremacist government.

The policy guidelines of this government assert that “the Jewish people have an exclusive and inalienable right to all parts of the Land of Israel”. In other words, only Jews have a right to the whole land of Israel, which includes the West Bank. Palestinians have no national rights. This extreme and uncompromising position makes bloodshed inevitable because it leaves the Palestinians no peaceful avenue for realising their right to national self-determination.

'A slave rebellion'

In the period since 7 October, Israel announced a new war aim, namely to eliminate Hamas altogether as a political and military force. Israeli leaders began to speak of “dismantling Hamas once and for all” or “eradicating” Hamas. To anyone familiar with the history of Israel-Gaza relations, this aim comes as a surprise. It definitely represents an abrupt reversal of Netanyahu’s previous policy.

On 7 October, the cynical policy of Netanyahu's, of preserving the status quo in the occupied territories by a tactic of divide and rule, collapsed

Whereas some Israeli leaders prefer having a unified collaborator PA administration in Gaza and the West Bank, Netanyahu was content with the status quo of different regimes in Gaza and the West Bank. Here is what he reportedly said to his Likud colleagues in March 2019: “Anyone who wants to thwart the establishment of a Palestinian state has to support bolstering Hamas and transferring money to Hamas… This is part of our strategy - to isolate the Palestinians in Gaza from the Palestinians in the West Bank.”

On 7 October, the cynical policy of Netanyahu's, of preserving the status quo in the occupied territories by a tactic of divide and rule, collapsed spectacularly. His policy was to keep the Palestinian Authority weak, to allow Israel a free hand to do whatever it liked on the West Bank, and to keep the Palestinians in Gaza cooped up in the open-air prison. It was a policy of containment that ultimately failed to contain. 

On 7 October, the inmates broke out of the prison. In the words of Norman Finkelstein, the breakout was akin to a slave rebellion. Fighters of Hamas and Islamic Jihad broke down the fence and went on a killing spree in southern Israel. First, they attacked a military base, then kibbutzim and settlements around the borders of Gaza.

They killed about 350 soldiers, and more than 800 civilians, and the carnage was accompanied by terrible atrocities. They also took 250 hostages, both soldiers and civilians. This was a game-changer: the first time Hamas conducted a large-scale attack by land inside Israel. It was a horrific and totally unexpected attack that traumatised the whole of Israeli society. 

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu arrives for a cabinet meeting at the Israeli Ministry of Defence, Tel Aviv, 17 December 2023 (AFP)
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu arrives for a cabinet meeting at the Israeli Ministry of Defence, Tel Aviv, 17 December 2023 (AFP)

On the Israeli side, this was more than an intelligence failure; it was a policy failure of the highest magnitude. For years, Netanyahu had been saying to the Israeli public that the Palestinians are finished, that they are defeated, that Israelis can do whatever they like on the West Bank, that they can forget Gaza, and achieve peace with the Arab states without making any concessions to the Palestinians. 

The 2020-2021 Abraham Accords between Israel and Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates, Morocco and Sudan seemed to vindicate Netanyahu. They yielded what he wanted: peace for peace without any price being paid by Israel, without any concessions on the Palestinian issue.

The accords were a betrayal of the collective Arab position on the Palestinian issue. This position was adopted by the Arab League summit in Beirut in March 2002, and it became known as the Arab Peace Initiative. It offered Israel peace and normalisation with all 22 members of the Arab League in return for agreeing to an independent Palestinian state along the 1967 lines with a capital city in East Jerusalem.

Israel ignored the offer. The Abraham Accords amounted to a very different kind of a deal for Israel and a stab in the back to the Palestinian national movement. They were sponsored by the United States as part of a misguided policy of promoting stability in the Middle East by cooperating with authoritarian Arab regimes and Israel while bypassing the Palestinians. 

PA's craven subservience

The Hamas attack announced loud and clear that the Palestinian issue is not dead and that Palestinian resistance to the Israeli occupation is far from over. One of its aims was to deter Saudi Arabia from concluding a peace treaty with Israel. Under strong American pressure, Saudi Arabia came very close to signing an Abraham accord with Israel.

In the Arab world, as in the West, there is a disconnect between the governments and the people on Israel-Palestine. The governments value their relationship with America and Israel; the Arab street remains strongly pro-Palestinian regardless of the shifting geopolitics of the region. The Hamas attack, by rekindling popular support for the Palestinian cause throughout the Arab and Islamic worlds, forced the Saudis to think again. 

The 7 October attack also highlighted the contrast between the craven subservience of the PA to Israel and America and the Islamic resistance to the occupation spearheaded by Hamas. The PA has been totally ineffective in protecting the people of the West Bank against Israeli land grabs, ethnic cleansing, escalating settler violence, and ever-increasing provocations in and around al-Aqsa mosque in the Old City of Jerusalem, one of the three holiest sites of Islam alongside Mecca and Medina.

Al-Aqsa is of the greatest importance to Muslims as a religious symbol and this is precisely why the encroachment by the Netanyahu government and by its Jewish fundamentalist followers is so incendiary. By its attack of 7 October, Hamas signalled to Israel that these provocations would no longer be tolerated. It was for this reason too that the operation was named the Al-Aqsa Deluge. All in all, it was a powerful assertion of Palestinian agency and leadership in the ongoing struggle against the Israeli occupation.

The Hamas attack left Netanyahu’s entire policy in tatters, and he will probably pay the political price for the intelligence and security failures. Before 7 October, there were massive protests in Israel against his plan for judicial overhaul. The protests did not cease altogether following the Hamas attack but the situation in Gaza became the dominant issue. It did not take long for the families of the hostages to start a vigil outside the prime minister’s residence in Jerusalem.

After the dust settles, all the anger will be redirected at Netanyahu. In the face of mounting international calls for an immediate ceasefire, he remains defiant. He knows that once the war against Hamas comes to an end, his days in office will be numbered. Politically speaking, Netanyahu looks like a dead man walking. 

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What is clear is that Netanyahu’s new policy of eradicating Hamas has no chance of succeeding. Hamas has a military wing, the Izz ad-Din al-Qassam Brigades, which commits terrorist acts when it targets Israeli civilians. Even if all its commanders are killed, they would be quickly replaced by new recruits and more militant ones. But Hamas is also a political party with institutions and a social movement with many branches such as a women’s association and a students’ association. It is part of the fabric of Palestinian society. What is more, Hamas is a set of ideas, including the idea of freedom and self-determination for the Palestinian people. Military force can decimate an organisation, but it cannot kill an idea. 

With characteristic hubris, Netanyahu announced that he was determined to destroy Hamas not only to ensure his own country’s security but also to free the people of Gaza from Hamas’s tyranny. His indiscriminate use of force, however, does not weaken Hamas; it strengthens it. By relying on brute military force alone, he weakens those Palestinian leaders who advocate negotiations and believe that Palestinians need only behave nicely for the world to sit up and listen. Nor is Hamas identical to the Islamic State (IS) group, as Netanyahu and an ever-increasing number of his ministers keep claiming. IS is an organisation with a nihilist global agenda. Hamas, by contrast, is a regional organisation with a limited and legitimate political agenda.  

On 2 June 1948, Sir John Troutbeck, a senior official in the UK Foreign Office, wrote a memo to Foreign Secretary Ernest Bevin. He complained that by their support for the creation of Israel, the Americans helped to create a “gangster state with a thoroughly unscrupulous set of leaders”.

Whether Israel behaves like a gangster state is open to debate, but Netanyahu is without doubt a thoroughly unscrupulous leader. As he directed Israel’s 2023 assault on Gaza, Netanyahu was also on trial for three serious corruption charges, and he knew that if convicted, he might end up in prison. The imperative of personal political survival helped to shape his conduct of the war.

Netanyahu’s motives

Yet Netanyahu’s motives for prolonging the war in Gaza went deeper than self-preservation. His life’s mission has been to defeat the Palestinian national movement and to prevent the emergence of an independent Palestinian state alongside Israel.

He grew up in a fiercely nationalistic Jewish home. His father, Benzion Netanyahu, was the political secretary of Ze’ev Jabotinsky, the spiritual father of the Israeli right and the chief architect of the strategy of the “iron wall.” In 1923, Jabotinsky published an article under the title “On the Iron Wall (We and the Arabs).” In it, he argued that the Zionist goal of an independent Jewish state in Palestine could only be achieved unilaterally and by military force.

A Jewish state could only be established not by negotiations with the Arabs of Palestine but behind an iron wall of Jewish military power. The essence of the strategy was negotiations from strength. Once the Arabs gave up hope of defeating the Jews on the battlefield, then would come the time for stage two, for negotiating with them about their status and rights in Palestine.

Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin moved from stage one to stage two of the strategy by signing the Oslo accord with the PLO in 1993, though he never conceded any Palestinian national rights. 

Yasser Arafat (R) and Yitzahk Rabin (L) shake hands watched by US President Bill Clinton on 13 September 1993 at the White House after the signing of the Oslo accords (AFP)
Yasser Arafat (R) and Yitzhak Rabin (L) shake hands watched by US President Bill Clinton on 13 September 1993 at the White House after the signing of the Oslo accord (AFP)

Netanyahu came to power in 1996, following the assassination of Rabin, with the explicit mission of subverting the Oslo Accords and preventing the establishment of a Palestinian state. He was fixated on the first part of the iron wall strategy, on accumulating more and more military power, and avoiding stage two: negotiations of any kind.

Until 7 October, his strategy was to drive a firm wedge between Gaza and the West Bank and to allow a weak Hamas to govern Gaza. After 7 October, he was determined to destroy Hamas but without allowing the PA to extend its writ to Gaza, because that would strengthen the case for a two-state solution.

A century ago, Jabotinsky enunciated his sophisticated iron wall strategy of using military power as a means to a political settlement of the conflict.

In 2023, Netanyahu pursued a crude version of the strategy, of using Jewish military power not to resolve the conflict but to keep the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza in a permanent state of subordination to a Jewish supremacist state. His declared aim is to ensure security for Israel for the long-term. His undeclared aim is to end forever the prospect of Palestinian independence.

Depicting the Palestinians as Nazis

One disturbing aspect of the Israeli response to the horrific Hamas attack is the dehumanising of the Palestinian people. This is nothing new. On one occasion, Netanyahu famously suggested that it was Haj Amin al-Husseini, the leader of the Palestinian National Movement, who suggested to Hitler that instead of expelling the Jews from Germany, he should exterminate them. One of Netanyahu’s most often repeated and most morally repugnant claims is that Palestinian nationalism is a direct continuation of Nazi antisemitism. 

Today, many Israeli ministers depict the Palestinians as Nazis. Yoav Galant, the defence minister, referred to the enemy as “human animals”, and used this view to justify the inhuman siege that he imposed, the cutting off of water, food, fuel and medical supplies to 2.3 million people.

Particularly chilling in its explicitness and cruelty, and given the huge number of children killed, is the President of Israel Isaac Herzog’s statement that “there are no innocent civilians in Gaza”. Dehumanising an entire people can have serious political consequences, even if they are unintended.

The Nazi dehumanisation of the Jews was a major factor in paving the way for the death camps. Israeli demonisation of the Palestinians, calling them animals and terrorists, is a similarly dangerous dynamic that can be used to justify the ethnic cleansing of Gaza.

The Nazi dehumanisation of the Jews was a major factor in paving the way for the death camps. Israeli demonisation of the Palestinians is a similarly dangerous dynamic

The western response to the crisis in Gaza has comprised the usual hypocrisy and brazen double standards, but this time taken to a new level. The western love of Israel has always been accompanied by the denial of Palestinian history and humanity.

Deep concern for Israel’s security is reiterated all the time by all western leaders, but no thought is spared for Palestinian security, let alone Palestinian rights. Evidently, the Palestinians are the children of a lesser God. 

In the immediate aftermath of the Hamas attack, western leaders undertook pilgrimages to Jerusalem to demonstrate that they were standing by Israel. Palestinian resistance to the occupation, the most prolonged and brutal military occupation of modern times, has been decontextualised and de-historicised.

The Palestinians are engaged in an anti-colonial struggle, possibly the last anti-colonial struggle in today’s world. But their struggle is widely attributed to religious fanaticism and irrational hatred of Jews rather than to the normal, universal desire of all people to live in freedom and dignity on their land.

The western stand with Israel carries an echo of the habitual colonial tendency to treat struggles for national liberation as proof of the savagery, barbarism and terrorism of the indigenous population. This is how the “civilised world” responded to the liberation struggles of South Africans, Algerians, Kenyans and Vietnamese. And this is how some western leaders look upon Palestinian resistance today. 

Israel's 'second war of independence'

The United States and the United Kingdom have given Israel not only moral but material and military support as well as diplomatic protection. President Joe Biden has said that the attack of 7 October is the worst attack on the Jewish people since the Holocaust.

This is to trivialise the Holocaust. America sent two aircraft carriers to the Eastern Mediterranean and beefed up its forces in Saudi Arabia, Iraq and Jordan. This was ostensibly to deter Hezbollah and Iran, but what the US was actually doing was to shield Israel, allowing it to carry on with the mass slaughter in Gaza.

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In effect, America and Britain gave Israel warrant to pursue its war against Hamas despite the humanitarian catastrophe it caused. They called for “humanitarian pauses” when what was desperately needed was a complete ceasefire.

The seven-day pause in the fighting made it possible to send some humanitarian aid into Gaza and for the freeing by Hamas of some of the hostages in return for the release of three times the number of Palestinian prisoners from Israeli prisons. But as soon as the pause expired, on 1 December, the Israeli army intensified the bombardment, killing 700 people in one day and exacerbating the utterly horrendous humanitarian crisis. 

A UAE draft resolution to the UN Security Council for an immediate humanitarian ceasefire was defeated by an American veto on 8 December, although it had the support of 13 members with only the UK abstaining. Since 1948, the US has used its veto 34 times to defeat resolutions critical of Israel.

The majority of these resolutions were drafted to provide a framework for resolving the Israel-Palestine conflict. The veto of the UAE draft resolution was widely denounced, especially in the global south, as tantamount to a free pass for Israel to continue the butchery and destruction of Gaza.

In his 28 October address to the nation, Netanyahu said that the Israelis were fighting their second war of independence. This is preposterous: no one is threatening Israel’s independence or existence today. It is Israel which is denying freedom and independence to the Palestinians.

The statement may also carry a veiled threat. In 1948, what Israelis call their “war of independence” was accompanied by the Nakba, the catastrophe, the ethnic cleansing of Palestine. There are ample signs that the Netanyahu government is in fact actively planning a second Nakba. 

'Zionists want all the land'

A leaked report from the intelligence ministry, dated 13 October, outlined three alternatives “to bring about a significant change in the civilian reality in the Gaza Strip in light of the Hamas crimes that led to the ‘Iron Swords’ war”.

The alternative deemed by the document’s authors to best serve Israeli security involves moving Gaza’s civilian population to tent cities in northern Sinai, then building permanent cities and an undefined humanitarian corridor. A security zone would be established inside Israel, on the border with Egypt, to block the displaced Palestinians from entering.

The report did not say what would become of Gaza once its population was cleared out. History tells us that once Israel drives Palestinians from their homes, it does not allow them to return. This is what happened in the 1948 war and in the 1967 war and, despite strong Egyptian opposition, it could happen again.

'What the global south has known for 100 years, the people of the global north are understanding now: that the Zionists want all the land, with no Palestinian people'

- Ahdaf Soueif, novelist

These are not isolated actions but part of a pattern. They all serve the ultimate goal that the Zionist movement had set itself from the start: to build a Jewish state on as large a part of Palestine as possible with as few Arabs within its borders as possible.

Operation Swords of Iron marks a new and utterly ruthless step in this direction. As Ahdaf Soueif, the Egyptian-British novelist, observed in the Guardian on 3 December: “What the global south has known for 100 years, the people of the global north are understanding now: that the Zionists want all the land, with no Palestinian people, and will stop at nothing to get it.” 

I would like to conclude my reflections on Israel’s brutal war in Gaza by quoting something that William Gladstone said in the House of Commons in 1876. He was at that time the leader of the Liberal opposition; the Tory prime minister was Benjamin Disraeli. The context for the speech was a series of hideous atrocities committed by soldiers of the Ottoman Empire against civilians in Bulgaria.

Gladstone’s speech has seared itself in my memory since I was an 18-year-old schoolboy in London doing A-level British history. The key passage went as follows: “Let the Turks now carry away their abuses in the only possible manner, namely, by carrying off themselves. The Zephtiehs and their Mudirs, their Bimbashis and the Yuzbashis, their Kaimakans and their Pashas, one and all, bag and baggage, shall, I hope, clear out of the province they have desolated and profaned.”

This is rather how I feel about the atrocities perpetrated by Israel in the Gaza province today.

This is an edited chapter which will appear in the forthcoming book titled: Deluge: Gaza and Israel from Crisis to Cataclysm, edited by Jamie Stern-Weiner and published by OR Books, 2024.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

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