Peace never really got a chance in the Middle East. Thirty years after the Oslo Accords, we've only learned more about our failings. What would it take to truly bear up to the challenge of peacework now?
In 2015, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was at risk of losing an election to Isaac Herzog, so he appealed to the extreme right wing. He promised them that, if elected, there would be no two-state solution with Palestinians. This gave him an edge over a leading politician more interested in repairing relations with the world, and he won.
Netanyahu would continue to lean on more extreme right wing coalitions to sustain his control of the Israeli parliament, called the Knesset, until a far right coalition at the end of 2022 emboldened him in attacks on the judiciary, which was hindering party appointments and legislative actions. In the months leading up to Israel’s 75th anniversary, weekly protests grew to over 100,000 participants, as many Israelis fought for a more balanced and less extremist state, run by a leader embroiled in three corruption trials. Jewish and democratic: that was the dream of Israel, which Netanyahu’s actions seemed to be eroding from within.
But Netanyahu’s pivot in 2015 wasn’t so unusual for the head of the Likud Party, which from its outset in 1977 had a party platform asserting that Judea and Samaria (regions in the West Bank) were part of Israel and would “not be handed to any foreign administration”. In 2001, in an interview he didn’t seem to realize was recorded, Netanyahu boasted about how he had gamed the Oslo Accords, the last major peace deal between Palestinians and Israelis in the region, to give Israel more control in the West Bank. He also spoke about how easy it was to manipulate the US, because their support of Israel was “absurd” in its robustness.
Today, as Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) move through the Gaza Strip to root out Hamas operatives, many competing histories exist to explain why everything has come down to such a brutal conflict yielding over 9,400 Gazan casualties to date, including over 3,800 children. Was this necessary? Inevitable? There are claims that good-faith efforts were made to pursue peace by other means, but this narrative flattens the complexity of two key demographics.
Palestinians were never unified: some never wanted a two-state solution; some would only be satisfied with the destruction of Israel as a Jewish-dominant state; and some absolutely wanted (and want) to live in peace with their neighbours.
Israelis, too, were never unified: some never wanted a two-state solution; some would only be satisfied with Palestinians driven out of the West Bank and Gaza; and some absolutely wanted (and want) to live in peace with their neighbours.
To tell a story of the past 30 years, since the signing of the Oslo Accords in 1993 up to the brutality of October 7, is challenge enough. Why bother? In part, because there are some misconceptions and falsehoods being circulated to rationalize actions today. In equal part, because one day this latest operation will end. And when it does, if the whole region hasn’t been dragged into an even worse conflict first, we’ll be talking about how to build a lasting peace again.
Many have attempted to outline road maps to a better future.
Many have also tried to explain why past efforts failed.
Here, the main aim is to articulate how daunting the challenge truly is.
The road to Oslo in 1993
There are many important dates in regional history we won’t address here in full: 1948, 1967, and 1973 among them. But it bears noting that the 1978 Camp David Accords would provide a template for the document facilitated by Norway (ergo the name, “Oslo”) in the 1990s. Also of note is the First Intifada.
In December 1987 an IDF vehicle crashed into a civilian car, killing four Palestinian workers: three from the Jabalia refugee camp in Gaza, where tensions were already running high. Part of what made this a breaking point was IDF denial of the event. Palestinians went on strike, refused to work on Israeli settlements, called for boycotts, vandalized, threw stones and Molotov cocktails. Israel deployed troops with extremely permissive rules of engagement. Over 300 Palestinians were killed by IDF in that first year, 57 under 17, and over 1,100 in the six-year period leading up to Oslo. In that same time frame, 60 members were killed, and 100 Israeli civilians. 16 died in 1989, when a Palestinian Islamic Jihadist (PIJ) blew up a bus. Palestinians were also executed by extremists for purported collaboration with Israeli authorities.
The First Intifada was the birthplace of a new, radical group, heavily critical of the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) and much more committed to the complete annihilation of Israel. Hamas came into being in 1988, with a covenant that situated itself as operating on three axes: from a local interest in the Palestinian cause, in fraternity with other Arab nations, but above all else committed to Islamic jihad.
But nothing transformative happens in a vacuum, and analysts have noted that by the time the Oslo Accords were underway, there was far less pressure from the First Intifada behind them. Instead, the world had reorganized itself in ways that made peace seem plausible. In earlier decades, Arab nations had seen Israel as the biggest threat to their sovereignty, but at the close of the 1970s and all through the 1980s, Islamic extremism had become a mounting threat. So long as borders with Israel were fraught, it was difficult to address these radical entities. Arab nations were solidifying their interest in strong borders, and developing treaties to match.
The end of the Cold War and the proximity of the Gulf War also changed matters. The former meant that Palestinian groups could not count as readily on Soviet intervention. The latter also hugely tipped the balance. Yasser Arafat, chairman of the PLO, a coalition of armed and political groups, had invested too much in a relationship with Saddam Hussein, who fell out of favor with Arab nations after annexing Kuwait and bringing ruinous Western involvement into the region.
Arafat had famously proclaimed that there would never be recognition, peace, or negotiations with Israel, and that the State of Palestine could only ever be achieved by force. Nevertheless, after losing Kuwait’s financial and residential support, his party’s only chance at reclaiming power was through something monumental, like a peace deal under US guidance that would revitalize Palestine’s position in the world.
Meanwhile, US involvement in Kuwait gave Israel reason to trust in direct Western intervention. It was Israeli representatives who initiated talks with Norway, but not all at once. The PLO did not recognize the state of Israel, and there were legal restrictions in Israel against contact with the PLO. In 1991, PM Yitzhak Shamir of the Likud Party had an opportunity to pursue peace at the Madrid conference, but he did not accept the vision of Israel on offer at the time.
It took a surprise change in political parties to set matters into motion. In June 1992, the Labor Party came into power on a platform that involved cutting back on politically motivated Israeli settlements and seeking better relations with Palestinians. This was in contrast with Shamir’s Likud Party, which wanted to continue expanding Jewish settlements and had less of a pressing interest in a deal with Palestinians.
The election of the socialist-Zionist Labor Party was somewhat a marvel, considering that only left-leaning activists had been consistent proponents of peace in the region since the 1960s. A majority of Israelis were opposed to recognition of the PLO and the creation of a Palestinian state.
Still, PM Yitzhak Rabin wanted peace—and because right wing parties scattered the vote under new, tougher eligibility thresholds, his party got its chance.
The challenge of Oslo
Both major parties to the Oslo Accords had a tall order, though, because although the PLO was recognized by the UN as the de jure representative of Palestinians, there was no actual state to be negotiating with another state. Before there could be peace, then, there had to be a plan to develop a functioning civil society that could carry out further stabilizing measures. This meant that the PLO needed to sustain sufficient internal authority to unilaterally pursue peace in the non-state of Palestine, even as other extremist groups vehemently opposed the process.
First came the Letters of Mutual Recognition, signed on September 9, 1993. In them, the PLO formally recognized Israel’s right to exist in peace, accepted UN resolutions pursuant to borders at the end of 1967 and 1973 regional wars, and renounced terrorism and militancy in favor of diplomatic normalization. Israel, in turn, recognized the PLO as the legitimate authority for the Palestinian people, for the purposes of developing a peace plan going forward.
The Oslo Accords were signed on September 13. They crafted a transitional plan for the region, in which Israel would withdraw from the Gaza Strip and the region of Jericho in the West Bank, with a gradual transfer of power to the nascent Palestinian civil society, while Israel maintained responsibility for overall border security. Both would collaborate on providing energy, water, social welfare, and the development of viable trade networks to civilians. The groundwork for proper election campaigns and culture also needed to be cultivated in that time period.
Other issues were postponed, though with a deadline of May 1999. Key among these was the “right of return”, which many on both sides considered the most important matter. For such dissenters, no peace was possible without deciding whether Arab residents forced from their homes in 1948 (and/or their descendants) could return to or receive compensation for their original residences, within the pre-1967 borders of Israel. For the Israeli right wing, any concession on this point threatened the existence of Israel as a truly Jewish state. Postponing the question to pursue more pragmatic facets of regional peace-building was therefore unacceptable.
Meanwhile, the PLO’s success was intolerable to the competing Palestinian groups, Hamas and PIJ, who made their displeasure known by escalating suicide and car bombings. 40 Israeli civilians were killed in major attacks in 1994. 35, in 1995. Busses were primary targets. Others were stabbed and shot during that era, not only by the al-Qassam Brigades of Hamas, but also factions of Fatah.
In 1995, the Oslo Accords yielded a Palestinian Interim Self-Government Authority that would ostensibly be replaced in 1999 with a permanent structure for a fully formed democratic state.
That same year, Rabin was assassinated by an Israeli Jew who opposed the Accords.
In 1996, Benjamin Netanyahu of the right wing Likud Party was elected in his wake.
From Oslo to the Second Intifada
If the attempted peace was hard to carry out in its first transitional years, it became even more challenging from 1996 on, the same year that Yasser Arafat of the Fatah Party was elected as president of the Palestinian National Authority (PA). One phase of the transition involved the partial withdrawal of Israelis from Hebron in the West Bank, but it was here that Netanyahu, a strong critic of the Oslo Accords, found a loophole to keep more land in Israeli control.
The Labor and Likud Parties have different ideas of Israel. The Likud Party believes in a “Greater Israel”, in which Judea and Samaria are intrinsic parts the “Land of Israel”, under Israeli sovereignty and no other. The party does not acknowledge Palestinian nationhood in the area, and would at best negotiate full civilian autonomy… but even then, not on good faith.
After Shamir lost the 1992 election, he admitted that autonomy would only ever have been a ruse, a stalling tactic while expanding Jewish settlement:
“It pains me greatly,” he replied, “that in the coming four years I would not be able to expand the settlement in Judea and Samaria and to complete the demographic revolution in the Land of Israel. I know that others will now try to work against this. Without this demographic revolution, there is no value to the talk about autonomy because there is a danger that it will be turned into a Palestinian state. What is this talk about ‘political settlements’? I would have carried on autonomy talks for ten years and meanwhile we would have reached half a million people in Judea and Samaria.”
When reminded that, judging by the results of the recent election, there is no majority for a Greater Land of Israel, Shamir retorted bluntly: “I didn’t believe there was a majority in favour of a greater Land of Israel. But it can be attained over time. This must be the historic direction. If we drop this basis, there would be nothing to prevent the development of a Palestinian state.”From an interview with Yitzhak Shamir after the 1992 election, as recorded in Avi Shlaim’s “Confessions of a Stone-Waller” (1992).
As Netanyahu boasted in the aforementioned 2001 interview, where he sat down with Israeli terror victims in Ofra, he continued that deception by leveraging the fact that military sites, an exception to withdrawal agreements in the Oslo Accords, had never been properly defined. He refused to implement the Hebron Protocol until Israel was granted the right to define them for itself.
I was asked before the elections “Will you act according to [the Oslo Accords]?” and I answered, “Yes, subject to reciprocity and limiting the withdrawals.” But how do you limit the withdrawals? I interpret the Accords in such a way that will enable me to stop this rush toward ’67 borders. How do we do it? No one said what defined military sites. Defined Military Sites, I said, were security zones. As far as I’m concerned, the Jordan Valley is a Defined Military Site.
… But then the question came up of just who would define what Defined Military Sites were. I received a letter, to me and to Arafat, at the same time, which said that Israel, and only Israel, would be the one to define what those are, the location of those military sites and their size. Now, they did not want to give me that letter, so I did not give [them] the Hebron Agreement. I stopped the government meeting. I said, I’m not signing. Only when the letter came, in the course of the meeting, to me and to Arafat, only then did I sign* the Hebron Agreement.Starting at 2:24 in this video, of a 2001 interview originally broadcast by Channel 10 in Israel.
The asterisk in the above transcript comes from Netanyahu misspeaking: he neither signed nor ratified the Hebron Protocol (it was signed in 1995, never ratified), so much as agreed to implement a much smaller and more conservative withdrawal on Israel’s terms after the concession. The negotiation, carried out with the US under then-President Bill Clinton, also deepened US-Israel ties while diverging significantly from the spirit and the letter of the Oslo Accords. Netanyahu then lost office by a wide margin in 1999, to Ehud Barak of the Labor Party.
But Barak struggled to form a coalition government, and needed to make a huge compromise. Although he had not campaigned on the religious vote, it soon seemed that the anti-democratic ultra-Orthodox Shas Party would be his only chance if he wanted to pursue peace. They would work with him, but also dominate his cabinet: a group of fundamentalists with strict gender roles, and strong desires for religious autonomy in settlements. Other, more democratic and left-leaning coalition members distanced themselves from the Labor Party under this new alliance.
To no one’s surprise, then, amid all this fraught internal politicking, the Palestinian territories failed to achieve their promised autonomy by the original 1999 deadline, at which point a new summit was called for in 2000, at Camp David. Here, all the problems postponed in the original accords, then dragged out by bad-faith actors, reached a breaking point. Arafat and Barak had decided on an all-or-nothing approach, despite attempting to hash out many challenging issues, including the right to return for Palestinians (a deal-breaker for many right wing Israelis).
One other major issue was how to interpret the UN resolution that Arafat had accepted in the Letters of Mutual Recognition, which called for Israeli withdrawal from all territories secured in the 1967 war, back to the “Green Line” of 1949. Israel disagreed with that interpretation of UNSC 242, arguing that the resolution also required a border that was secure and defensible. The division proposed under 1949 borders meant ceding East Jerusalem, the Old City and home to the Temple Mount / Al-Aqsa Mosque and the Dome of the Rock. Instead, Israel proposed that Palestine cede this territory, and make other concessions in the West Bank and involving its airspace, in exchange for more of Gaza.
Talks broke down, and the PLO fragmented in its wake, with many Fatah armed factions joining Hamas and PIJ. Arafat had failed to deliver on the peace, and in September postponed the declaration of an independent Palestinian state.
In this demoralized climate, the Israeli leader of the opposition, Ariel Sharon of the Likud Party (a war hero to Israelis, and a strong opponent of a Palestinian state), visited the Al-Aqsa compound. This symbolic act rubbed salt in the open wound of the failed summit, which had focused on the ongoing Israeli occupation of land Palestinians felt had been promised to them in the UN resolution accepted in the Oslo Accords. Palestinian protests broke out, meeting with swift Israeli military response. It was the beginning of the Second Intifada, which would last for five years and see over 3,100 Palestinians and over 1,000 Israelis killed, both in fields of combat and as civilians slaughtered in suicide bombing and rocket attacks.
From the Second Intifada to the 2014 Gaza War
But far from being a time of total chaos, political strategy continued. Sharon, surging to popularity after the breakout of intifada, became Israel’s Prime Minister in 2001. The subsequent year, the Barrier began going up: a wall in the West Bank ostensibly meant to reduce suicide bombings and similar attacks in Israel, but which also added to the border conflict by reshaping the landscape in favor of Israeli sovereignty.
Most of the Barrier’s route does not run along the Green Line of Israel’s original borders. Instead, it runs inside the West Bank, where it isolates Palestinian civilians (many from their farmlands) and further cordons off the East Jerusalem territory subject to dispute in the failed 2000 Camp David talks. In March 2002, after a series of terrorist attacks had killed 126 Israelis, Sharon also launched a massive military campaign in the West Bank, to “change the security reality” in the region. This action allowed Israeli forces to establish a presence in more Palestinian villages, but also drew the next plucky US politician’s attention.
It was George W. Bush’s turn to try to assist in building peace.
But rather than be compelled to negotiate with Arafat in 2004, who was by then trapped in his West Bank compound by Sharon’s military incursions, Sharon deflected. He proposed something extraordinary for any Likud Party leader, let alone one known as the “bulldozer” and the “butcher” for past work in settlements and military brutality: the complete withdrawal of Jewish settlers from the Gaza Strip. This was intended to allow his government to shore up security gains in the West Bank, and it worked. All attention was on Gaza.
Arafat died in November 2004 in a French hospital, after years of confinement in his West Bank compound. With his death came a chance to formally end the intifada, and to rebuild a “road map to peace” under the guidance of the Quartet (UN, US, EU, and Russia). Palestinian presidential elections were held in January 2005 to elect the next head of the PA. President Mahmoud Abbas went on in February to renew relations with Israel at the Sharm El Sheik Summit, where Abbas and Sharon promised an end to violence between their peoples.
But Sharon paid the price for his planned withdrawal from the Gaza Strip among his own party, and left it later that year to form a new group that might have won the next election and ushered in a different relationship with the Palestinian territories. We’ll never know, though, because Sharon suffered a stroke in January 2006, which put him in a vegetative state until his death in 2014.
Ehud Olmert, also of the Likud Party, became acting PM, then won the next election.
He had risen to the role of Finance Minister first, after Netanyahu quit in protest of Sharon’s withdrawal of Jewish settlers from the Gaza Strip.
But there was plenty of internal turmoil in Palestinian territory, too. That same January, the newly formed PA under President Abbas underwent elections for its legislature. In a tight contest, Fatah Party representatives lost to members of the so-called “Change and Reform” Party, which gained 44.5% of the legislature with 74 seats: enough for a majority.
That “Change and Reform” Party was the slickly re-branded Hamas, which had downplayed its violent anti-Israel and anti-Jewish agenda to campaign as a socioeconomic alternative to Fatah, a party long enough in power to be seen as incompetent, authoritarian, and wasteful. Although extremists comprised the core of Hamas, the Change and Reform Party did what any party does during election season: played to the issues, appealed to religious voters, and highlighted Fatah’s long history of bribery and state theft to absorb public budgets earmarked for citizens whose livelihoods had collapsed during the Second Intifada.
Voters have long been able to compartmentalize and hold their nose at the polls, which also explains why 63% of Hamas voters did not endorse the party’s denial of Israel’s right to exist. That was an abstract issue to them. The need for socioeconomic aid, and the dangled promise of a less corrupt bureaucracy through a return to religious integrity via “Change and Reform”, was real.
Once in office, though, Hamas had no interest in the Quartet’s road map to peace. Olmert withheld tax revenue from the Palestinian Authority as a punitive measure in response to the legislative election of a party that did not acknowledge the existence of Israel. Hamas, under PM Ismail Haniyeh, would not budge on this accord.
But Fatah’s representatives also refused to work with such a legislative government, which was where the whole fragile attempt at a functional legislative assembly fell apart. In early 2007, a tentative “Unity” government seemed to stabilize matters, by allowing Hamas representatives to serve under an umbrella group less offensive to Israel, but that very June, Hamas would seize control of the Gaza Strip and kick out all Fatah members. Abbas called a state of emergency and disbanded the unity government, but it was too late: Palestinian governance was split between the PA in the West Bank, and a terrorist group in the Gaza.
For the next five years, there were routine acts of in-fighting among armed groups in Gaza, and significant border security issues for Israel, which developed its Iron Dome in collaboration with the US to defend especially from Hamas and PIJ attacks.
During this period, Hamas normalized relations with nearby Arab nations (sometimes worsened, sometimes aided by surrounding civil wars), and claimed an interest in reconciling with the PA. By 2012, though, both Palestinian governments were changing their cabinets independently: furthering their overall divide. Hamas relied on funds from Iran and fuel from Egypt, with UN and other international aid providing support to civilians lost in the shuffle.
Hamas did not reside solely in Gaza, though.
On May 15, 2014, two Palestinian teenagers were killed by Israeli forces. As with the confusion around the IDF vehicle that killed Palestinian civilians in 1987, these deaths on “Nakba Day”, when Palestinians mourn their displacement from Israel in 1948, were shrouded in state denials: that anything had happened, that IDF had been involved, that real bullets had been used. Later forensics identified an Israeli Border Police officer as responsible for at least one of the deaths.
In June 2014, three days after the autopsies first confirmed they’d been shot, and amid an outpouring of Palestinian protest calling for “revenge”, Hamas operatives in the West Bank kidnapped and killed three Israeli teenagers. (For which another Palestinian teenager was also later kidnapped and killed in further retaliation.) When IDF surged the territory, arresting Hamas members, Hamas, PIJ, and other local extremist groups in Gaza fired rockets in large volleys at Israel.
Seven weeks of brutal conflict ensued, in the 2014 Gaza War. 67 Israeli soldiers died, 6 civilians, and one Thai worker. According the UN Human Rights Council report, which sits between Gaza and IDF death counts, 2,251 Gazans were killed, 65% civilian. Thousands of homes were destroyed, along with tunnel systems to Egypt that had provided worker pathways and trade routes buoying the Gazan economy.
While the crisis yielded renewed calls for peace from many worldly quarters, Israel’s military campaign hardened resolve among Israelis and Gazans. The vast majority of Jewish Israelis were against the eventual ceasefire, favoring war until Hamas was utterly eliminated. Nearly two thirds of Arab Israelis felt that the operation was unjustified and excessive. Meanwhile, for those caught in the bombing itself, support for Hamas surged among Gazans, while those who dissented faced extreme, even fatal retaliation. The campaign also yielded more criticism of Israel in the world.
After the war, Netanyahu’s government declared a plan to expropriate 1,000 acres from the West Bank, understood as retaliation for the three murdered Israeli teens in June. Relations between his government and the US under Barack Obama sharply declined. Netanyahu fell further out of favor with international Jewish communities, when claiming to speak for the “entire Jewish people” in 2015. With a tight electoral race ahead of him, Netanyahu appealed to right wingers with an initial promise to refuse a two-state solution, as noted at the outset.
And so we enter the most recent era.
From 2015 to October 7, and beyond
Also in 2015, the Palestinian Authority made itself party to the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court (ICC), along with other international treaties in pursuit of normalization as a state-without-its-statehood. Israel had signed the Rome Statute in 2000, but only because the US had signed at the last minute first. Israel never ratified its commitment to the ICC because it objected to a clause that would treat its expansionist efforts in West Bank as a possible war crime: a reason that Israeli governments have also disagreed with the Fourth Geneva Convention.
The PA was not happy to see Netanyahu re-elected after the bombardment of Gaza in 2014, and its government openly committed to seeking redress faster from the ICC. Israel had already threatened to withhold tax revenue it collected for the territory if the PA pursued any case against Israel, and its government further appealed to US Congress not to send funding to the PA if Palestinians went to the ICC.
In 2018, Netanyahu’s Knesset gave his right wing base another victory in the form of the Jewish Nation-State Law, which declared that only Jewish people had the right to national self-determination in Israel, only Hebrew is a state language (Arabic has “special status” subject to regulation), and “the state views Jewish settlement as a national value and will labor to encourage and promote its establishment and development.” While running for office, Netanyahu has routinely warned his base that Arab Israelis will vote for his opponents. The year after this law, Netanyahu reiterated that Israel is “not a state of all its citizens”, delineating the country’s two million Arab citizens from its majority-Jewish membership.
This animosity goes a long way to explaining why in 2019, again behind closed doors, Netanyahu further boasted of his strategy to leverage Hamas against the PA, by feeding Hamas just enough in the way of economic concessions to keep the two Palestinian groups at odds with one another.
Whoever opposes a Palestinian state must support delivery of funds to Gaza because maintaining separation between the PA in the West Bank and Hamas in Gaza will prevent the establishment of a Palestinian state.PM Benjamin Netanyahu, March 2019, in a meeting of Likud MKs and on the subject of money transfers to Hamas, as included in Adam Raz’s “A Brief History of the Netanyahu-Hamas Alliance”, Haaretz, October 20, which details the “open secret” of Netanyahu’s policy among local and foreign officials for years.
But as the aforementioned column intimates, Netanyahu’s actions were also concerning to other Israelis: average citizens and government officials alike. The country’s courts started to find against state orders to expand Israeli settlements and demolish homes at cost to Palestinian rights. The court then crossed a line this January, when telling Netanyahu that a member of the Shas Party could not serve as a cabinet minister because he had been convicted in February 2022 for tax fraud. This led Netanyahu to step up his judicial overhaul agenda, which in turn was met by civic backlash. The more Netanyahu leaned into right wing religious coalitions to concentrate power, the more Israelis fighting for their democratic state pushed back.
And the world was with them, and also growing more favorable to helping Palestinians caught in differently challenging straits in Gaza and the West Bank.
Then on October 7, Hamas operatives invaded Israel along its Gaza border. Of the cited 1,400 casualties in Israel, 1097 have so far been named, including 720 citizens (27 between 4 and 17, none younger yet). These were young people at a rave, Bedouins on the land, Thai workers, Nepalese students, Jewish families in their homes, and elders including Holocaust survivors. Some 240 people, including many foreign nationals, are presumed alive but kidnapped in Gaza.
Netanyahu declared war the same day, and in keeping with the sentiment of Israelis who in 2014 felt that attacks on Gaza should not end until Hamas has been eliminated, he has firmly refused global calls for a ceasefire. Aerial assaults on Gaza continued for weeks, destroying extensive civilian infrastructure to reach Hamas tunnels and other enemy structures, and have now given way to a war on the ground, as IDF operatives encircle Gaza City in the north. The latest casualty count for Gazans sits at over 9,400 according to the Gaza health ministry, including over 3,800 children. The health ministry released a list of 6,747 names last week, when US President Joe Biden expressed hesitancy about the numbers.
Biden has embraced a strong ally role in this conflict, even as it isolates the US from most of the international community. There is logic to this gambit on a few levels, including the fact that US lives hang in the balance both among the kidnapped and in Gaza, and that US citizens died on October 7. This war has already engaged US military operatives, who deployed to the region for a show of force against the sabre-rattling of Iran, Lebanon (under Hezbollah, another extremist group funded by Iran), Syria, Yemen, and Turkey, in strikes against external agitators.
Some 200,000 Israelis have been internally displaced, around Gaza and the Lebanon border, as the government prepares for a long fight against multiple groups. The UN estimates around 1.5 million of Gaza’s 2.2 million have been internally displaced, with the Egyptian border only now opening to facilitate the evacuation of a few with international passports or in extreme medical need.
In the West Bank, emboldened settlers have taken up attacks on local Palestinians, with The Times of Israel reporting on IDF abuse, too. 122 Palestinians have been reported killed by IDF and settler fire in the region. In Israel, Arab and Jewish Israelis who are conscious objectors to this violence on religious grounds have been subject to harassment. Gazan married men over the age of 25, who had been issued work permits in Israel and were laboring there on October 7, were detained and have now been released to Gaza. Israel has stated that it is cutting ties with them.
If the situation doesn’t further escalate into regional war, it will end on Netanyahu’s terms. But possibly not for long.
Internally, Netanyahu is no more loved for his actions in this latest conflict than he has been loved over the last few decades. The Likud Party’s coalition governments played their role in exacerbating border tensions and contributing to a regional all-or-nothing attitude toward peace, so even if Netanyahu succeeds now in destroying Hamas, his political future will be fraught.
But it’s not just Netanyahu, or Likud.
Rabin’s Labor Party, back in the early 90s, was operating in a rare, fragile moment in both Israeli politics and global power arrangements. He acted out of the idea that there might never be a better chance, but at a moment when Palestinians and Israelis still weren’t truly open to the concept of a pragmatic peace.
And he paid for Israel’s side of that reluctance with his life.
Likewise, Palestinian and Israeli civilians have paid for the PLO’s attempt to speak for all of Palestine, when groups like Hamas and PIJ did not accept its authority.
Israelis and Palestinians are by no means the only peoples, though, who have struggled with seemingly interminable wars, or wars of such atrocity that no peace seems possible. After the Rwandan genocide, it took justice and reconciliation commissions, the establishment of long periods of mourning, and a great deal of international mediation to rebuild. And that was in the wake of a relatively short flash-fire of an event: such processes are even more challenging when war has existed for a lifetime.
When Colombia established its 2016 Peace Treaty with FARC, a guerrilla group that during over 50 years of war had kidnapped, tortured, bombed, and otherwise murdered thousands, its referendum on the peace process initially failed by a tight margin. Many wanted to go forward. Others wanted FARC killed to the last operative.
The peace process is ongoing, and while it has involved robust attempts at alternative justice through special tribunals, the establishing of memory houses to entrench victim stories, and investment in transitioning soldiers and communities into peacetime economies, it has had its setbacks. Many couldn’t tolerate the reintegration of FARC into civic life, and assassinated its disarming members. That, and other disillusionment with the peace process, created a dissident FARC contingent that the state is still fighting today.
Peace, in other words, is not an end goal, so much as a collective commitment to a new attitude. But shifting to a new attitude will take time, and “time” is what makes peace even harder to achieve.
Differing views of regional resolution
In Israel, many want to believe (as the US did, after 9/11) that one can simply exterminate every last radicalized individual and then get started on peace. As history abundantly shows us, though, this latest trauma will only radicalize anew. As with Gazans whose support for Hamas surged while they were being bombed in 2014, it is unlikely that people who have lost whole families, communities, and homes before winter will believe that Israel isn’t also their enemy, on top of the government that seized control of Gaza in 2007 and cut them off from the PA’s flawed path to stable society.
In part, this is because Israel is also acculturated to seeing greater violence as the necessary response to any act of resistance. In the West Bank in October, IDF bulldozed a lingerie shop for a tasteless, mocking use of a picture of a kidnapped Israeli to sell pajamas (comfort for wherever life finds you), and put up a sign explaining that the destruction was in response to support for terrorism.
In a less wounded democracy, this would not be an acceptable response: a steep fine on the business, or misdemeanor charges with public service sentencing, is usually the way things go in the Western world. In Israeli and Palestinian territories, though, bulldozing homes is such a normal punitive response that the work of onboarding less violent recourse, of de-escalating the idea that greater violence is always the answer, will take a generation at best. It will require extensive international mediation (if allowed), but more importantly, an approach to all current combatants that does not unduly pathologize their participation in violence to date.
This last is the truly tricky part, though: finding a way to reach citizens who have spent their whole lives committed to constant vigilance, and help them transition without feeling so judged for past actions, however brutal, that they only deepen in their militancy. It will require the region finding its own form of special tribunal, and truth and reconciliation processes, to ensure that everyone’s perspective is heard as the region heals. It will require developing peacework initiatives that feel as rewarding and affirming as the militarized alternative.
But to get to that point will be a challenge, even if this regional conflict doesn’t spill out into further war, because Israeli and Palestinian territories are both filled with people still struggling to be the moral majority in difficult communities: places where religious extremism for territorial gain is always in direct conflict with democracy.
In Palestinian areas, the conflict lies between wanting to live in peace, and having no clear economic or political pathways with current lives in Gaza and the West Bank. Susceptibility to extremist causes will always be high among disenfranchised youth.
Likewise, in Israel, historical differences in Zionist thinking have yielded very different approaches to state-building, as seen in the usual coalitions around Labor and Likud over the last 30 years. There are many streams of traditional Zionism, and they profoundly disagree over the correct path to regional stability and fulfillment of the Jewish dream of return.
Those who believe in a militant approach, like Netanyahu and Shamir, have always been patiently waiting out whatever international blather they must, to secure the rest of lands they consider to be Israel’s sovereign territory, and to grow their demographics to build a Jewish state in their image. For them, even reclaiming all of Judea and Samaria, and other contested territories, won’t mean an end to constant vigilance. Theirs will always be a state watching minorities (even other Jewish minorities) to ensure that they don’t “act out” at cost to Israel again.
And maybe that’s what Israel’s form of democracy wants.
Is there any other way for Israel to be Jewish and democratic for all time?
The ideological challenge is not new to people living in Christian-informed countries, or among white nationalists grown militant out of Replacement Theory panic.
But since we’re struggling with extremism in the West as well, there’s also a lot of room to build solidarity with anyone else living through similar.
There have not been many good-faith attempts at peace in the Middle East.
But when the smoke finally clears, and the grief here can be felt on its own again, there will still be many who need the world to give it a much better try.