A second Nakba looms for the Palestinians

As 2024 draws to a close I’m not in an optimistic mood. Britain is stuck a low-growth rut, with crumbling public services and with politicians and public unable to face up to the difficult choices needed to climb out. Western support is crumbling for Ukraine, meaning that the war will degenerate into a never-ending frozen conflict until the Putin regime collapses, and probably long after that. Necessary steps to save the world from ecological and climate catastrophe are subject to endless push-back. Western paranoia over China, compounded by China’s own victim mentality, makes things worse. And then there is the Gaza war.

My thoughts on this topic have been crystallised by two recent articles. The first was in The Economist exploring the two-state solution, suggesting that it is the only solution to the conflict, because all the others are impossible. The second was by Janan Ganesh in the Financial Times, in which he suggests that the British prime minister Rishi Sunak’s business background leaves him unprepared to deal with extremists, who don’t compromise and don’t stick to any deal they might appear to accept.

I have commented a few times on the Israel-Palestine conflict here. I have much more sympathy with the Israeli side than many. Indeed I am instinctively closer to liberal Israelis than I am to any other faction in the conflict. But I have always been troubled by the influence of Israeli extremists – to the extent that I have sometimes upset liberal Jewish supporters of Israel. These maintain that the extremists are a minority who will not dictate Israeli policy in the long term. And yet these liberals remind me of the one-nation Conservatives in Britain’s parliament (or “wets” as they are often known), who may be passionate in their defence of decency and international law, but cave in rather than press a confrontation with their party’s extremists – in the hope that they will win through on another day. The trouble with Tory wets, as Guardian columnist Polly Toynbee has said, is that they are wet (or I think it was her – I can’t find the reference). Mr Ganesh makes his point well. Tory wets are often businessmen (and women) who assume that there is always a deal to be done, and can rely on any deal being ultimately enforceable. Political extremists are playing a different game.

The Economist suggests that there are two alternatives to the two-state solution. One is the one-state solution, where the two communities co-habit with full rights in a single state; the other is apartheid and ethnic cleansing. It describes both of these as “non-starters”. They are right about the one-state solution, which has few serious sponsors anywhere. Apartheid and/or ethnic cleansing are simply dismissed as “abhorrent”. And yet this is the approach advocated by the Israeli extremists, and they are working towards it much as Brexiteers worked towards Brexit in Britain against a hostile establishment. This solution is also advocated by Palestinian extremists (“from the river to the sea, Palestine shall be free”) and their supporters on the western political left. These latter extremists have nowhere near enough power to make their wishes come true, but they do help build the conditions in which the Israeli extremists can have a prospect of success.

The Hamas-led attacks of 7 October, and the appalling atrocities they perpetrated, are an excellent example of this. Israelis are united in horror, and quickly agreed that military action was required both in vengeance, and to destroy the perpetrators to prevent future attacks. The government framed the objective of military action as the destruction of Hamas, to make it incapable of holding power in the future. All Israelis could agree on that, and so military operations started. But there the agreement ends. The world has been shocked by the level of violence and the number of civilian casualties resulting from Israeli action. The Israeli government and military have responded with a combination of denial and obfuscation, and constant reference back to the original atrocities. It is true that their tactics are less indiscriminate those used by Russian-sponsored forces in the various Middle Eastern civil wars, which specifically targeted hospitals, for example. But the level of destructive power available to them is much higher. I have followed military matters since boyhood, and I would certainly question whether such destructive tactics are militarily all that effective. It is in fact easier to defend rubble than intact buildings, where defenders suffer a constant risk of being cut off and trapped. Having said that, the Israeli military, which doesn’t seem to controlled by extremists, are leading this, and military men usually have a predilection for blowing things up. What is clear is that the political leadership is not holding them back. The soldiers don’t see it as their job to give serious thought to how to manage the civilian needs.

The result of this is not just high civilian casualties, but a wider disaster beckoning, due lack of food, water and medical faculties, to say nothing of protection from the elements. The Israeli government seem to think it is enough to let a few extra lorry-loads of aid through the controlled border. Meanwhile the Hamas fighters will simply follow their usual tactic of hiding amongst the civilian masses, wherever they might be. The logic seems to be that the population of Gaza, or a substantial proportion of it, will be forced to flee into Egypt, whether the Egyptian government likes it or not. The Israeli government is not offering an alternative Hamas-free civilian infrastructure within the territory as an alternative. What is clear to everybody is if Gazans escape to Egypt, they will not be allowed back.

Because that is what happened after the 1948 Nakba, or catastrophe, when Arab refugees fled their homes into neighbouring territories, for what they thought would be a temporary respite. This is what the Israeli extremists want, and nobody else will stop them. More liberal Israelis may not want to admit this explicitly, but they are worried about their future security. The 7th October attacks fell particularly severely on liberal Israeli families.

Israeli extremists have particular power because they form part of the current government, and the prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu has made it his life’s mission to covertly ally with them. That’s perhaps a bit too strong – Mr Netanyahu has always undermined anything resembling a long-term solution, and simply let Israel’s control of the territory it occupies expand incrementally, and the rights of their non-Israeli inhabitants to be marginalised. But recently he has been in hoc to extremists because he needs their help to block court cases against him.

Mr Netanyahu’s political career will end eventually, and the extremist parties may be ejected from power – they have never had majority support. But the extremists are armed and very determined to advance their agenda. They are strong in settler communities in the West Bank. If a two-state solution is to be implemented, many of them will have to be forcibly removed. This could spark a civil war. But, if my understanding of the Israeli psychology is right, that is unthinkable. Ultimately the country survives through a strong sense of solidarity. Turning on each other to advance the interests of Arab inhabitants and refugees is beyond imagination. Enforcement of laws against unruly settler communities is at best half-hearted as it is because of this sense of solidarity. It is much easier to blame the Arabs for their difficulties. Especially when they behave as Hamas have done.

Perhaps I’m wrong about the second Nakba. Perhaps the Israeli government will be able to allow a stable civilian infrastructure to support Palestinians resident in the Gaza Strip. But there is no two-state solution, just as there is no one-state solution. There is either catastrophe or a never-ending semi-frozen conflict. And that adds to my depression over political affairs at the end of 2024.

6 thoughts on “A second Nakba looms for the Palestinians”

  1. Can I try to cheer you up, Matthew? The reason Hamas had to strike now was that an alliance hostile to them was forming in the Middle East. This included crucially Saudi Arabia under Crown prince MDS, as well as Egypt under Al Sisi, Jordan under its King and Israel itself. China has been encouraging a limited rapprochement between Saudi Arabia and Iran – which is Hamas’ main backer. I would expect that moderate Israelis (which include the balance of opinion in the military) will get rid of Netanyahu as soon as the present war ends, as his policies of security through strength have basically failed, and be able to form constructive relations with surrounding states to freeze out the extremists. On the Ukraine issue, why not settle for a stalemate (assuming we can)? The fundamentals are that people living in Europe would rather live in the West than in Russia – the factor which did for Communist Russia, and should also undermine in turn their corrupt oligarchist successors.

    1. It is the season for good cheer, so let’s hope that things take a different course from my fears.

  2. Another obstacle to peace is Palestinian revanchism and the insistence on the right of return.

    1. Indeed so Mark. Palestinian militancy and Israeli extremism feed off each other. It makes it especially hard for Israeli liberals to oppose the extremists. We all hope that this vicious cycle can somehow be reversed, but I fear we have gone too far that.

  3. The problem for the West is that the revanchism takes on the cloak of anti-colonialism, and on this basis gets a lot of support from the global South. If Europe could only take over from the heavily pro-Israel USA as the leading Western influence, I think it would get better results.

    1. Alas Europe is steeped in the colonial legacy and has its own credibility problems. However the global south is in fact highly pragmatic and focused on their own interests. It is not they that are complaining about China’s extreme colonialist policies in Xinjiang, amongst many examples.

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