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.

The unfolding tragedy of Israel/Palestine

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It has been a terrible few weeks in Israel and Gaza. My Facebook account is full of people condemning Israel’s bombardment. A lesser number of commenters try to defend Israel’s actions. I am not planning to join this chorus of condemnation. I want to take a step back and look at what is happening, and ask where it is all heading.

What about me? I am not Jewish. I had a lot of Jewish friends at school in the 1970s, where I was highly sympathetic to Israel. In 1979 I volunteered for a few weeks at a kibbutz on the border with the Gaza strip, and took the opportunity to visit the city. I have friends who are both Jewish and Muslim, and I like to see the best in both traditions. In this drama I have identified more easily with the Israelis, who seem to be people more like us, than with the Palestinians and their tendency towards darker versions of the Islamic faith. And that, more than anything is why this post examines the actions and evolution of the Israeli state rather than its aggressors.

It seems to me that Israeli policy has three foundations: the primacy of force; identity with the West; and permanent ambiguity over resolution. Until now, this has been very successful, whatever one thinks of the morality. But it is looking less and less sustainable over the long term.

Might is right – the legacy of the great betrayal

Let’s start with the primacy of force. In Europe, after generations of appalling wars and murderous dictatorships, we are hardwired to think of the  peaceful resolution of problems, using the rule of an emerging international law. We believe that it is always better to try and build long term relationships based on trust, and respect legal principles in spirit as well as letter. Failed military interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan reinforce this prejudice. It is easy enough to challenge this bias as naïve. When we bump into countries that play to different rules, like Russia, we find ourselves relying on America.  But the feeling runs deep – and we are internally consistent. When the IRA started to bomb London, we did not send assassination squads in to kill Gerry Adams or Martin McGuiness, still less send in the RAF to bomb Sinn Fein premises in Dublin. We did use military force, but we agonised of its propriety, legality and proportionality.

Israelis have never shared this European bias, drawing different conclusions from the same historical events. To them the overwhelming sense from European history is betrayal. Jews trusted the non-Jewish mainstream in the 18th and 19th Centuries, when so many of them integrated into mainstream society, and trusted to the basic principles of a civilised, rules-bound society. They were betrayed. By the Russians, the Germans – and in different degrees by almost everybody else. Jews were dispensable when the going got rough.

And so, after the War and the Holocaust, the Zionists said “Never Again”. To them that meant self-reliance, and a prejudice to use military power when they had it to protect themselves. Legal principles could be used when convenient, and ignored or bent when not. I need to be very careful here; Jews, including Zionists, are as keen as anybody to support societies based on the rule of law, and in Israel non-Jews have effective legal protections which far exceed those of neighbouring societies. But in Israel the primacy of law seems to have been trumped when it comes to what they see as the existential interests of the national as a whole. [The italicised section replaces a piece of sloppy writing which understandably created offence in the original] The Israelis never trusted the international community in the UN partition in  1948, and simply took what they were able to – under attack from the Arab powers. And so it has gone on.

Back in the 1970s this looked plucky, as Israel “created facts” that the ponderous international community had to put up with and negotiate on. But after the country established complete military supremacy, it took on a more sinister aspect. Assassination continued to be part of national policy; reprisals became increasingly disproportionate. The use of force seems to have replaced all other ways of solving security problems. This doesn’t just take the form of occasional violence, but it also means placing physical constraints on Palestinian communities in Gaza and the West Bank – walls, checkpoints, economic restrictions. To Israelis these are simply pragmatic solutions to a security problem. To others it looks much more sinister.

“People like us” – the West’s front line

The second foundation of Israeli policy is relentless propaganda in the Western democracies, in Europe and America. From this they have forged a massively important military alliance with the U.S., which supplies it with weapons and logistical support. The central tenet of this propaganda is that Israel is part of the extended family of Judaeo-Christian peoples (an adjective probably invented for the purpose) – part of a great “Us”. This is placed in contrast to the hostile and foreign Arab states that surround it, who were at first portrayed as allies of the Soviet Union, and then part of the Muslim terrorist threat – but always an alien “Them”. This has some grounding in truth. Israelis, by and large, are much closer to us in values and institutions than the Arab countries. These have never been proper democracies – and as their peoples are increasingly attracted to fundamentalist visions of the Islamic faith, they become even more alien to us. Israel is presented as a “bulwark” against this alien world.

The propaganda machine has been relentless in its efficiency, supported by Jewish communities embedded in European and  American societies. Critics of Israel are accused of anti-Semitism, and are driven to the fringes of mainstream media and political discourse. “What would you do?” Israeli spokesmen ask – presenting their country’s reactions as a proportionate response to a security threat. Over time its targets might feel the messages are bit like those of a spoilt child. Everything is always somebody else’s fault. You believe them the first few times, but the inhuman monotony of the message leads to scepticism. Also the refusal to engage in serious strategic reasoning or any concept of unintended consequences is wearying.

But the proof of the pudding is in the eating – and success of this messaging in America is quite staggering. It helps that many Americans don’t share Europeans’ distaste for the use of force. And while Americans are more attached than most to the rule of law – it is only American law that they really respect. International law is viewed with suspicion.

Permanent ambiguity

It is natural for policy makers to look at Israel’s situation of tension with its Palestinian population, and the world in general, and look for some kind of long term resolution. There are basically only two open to respectable policymakers: the single state and the two state solutions. In the former, the Occupied Territories are incorporated into the Israeli state, and their Arab residents are accepted as full citizens. In the second, the territories are divided, with a Jewish Israel and an Arab Palestine. Neither solution is acceptable to the Israelis. In the first case the status of Israel as a Jewish homeland comes under threat – and besides the legacy of war and mistrust presents an insuperably obstacle. I can’t think of a successful case of two such different but numerically equivalent peoples coming together in a single successful polity. But the two state solution is little better in most Israelis’ eyes. No division will satisfy the Arab hotheads, and the two states would drift into a state of mutual hostility and war. To most Israelis, the withdrawal from Gaza has proved the point – it has made the security situation worse, not better. And we haven’t even mentioned dividing Jerusalem or recognising refugee rights – which could lead to rebellion and armed conflict within Israel itself.

So the solution for the Israeli state is to maintain the current ambiguous status quo, where most Palestinians are effectively stateless, and where Israel remains in effective control of the territory. Peace plans come and go; it is not difficult to play along with them and sabotage them in due course, with the Arabs taking the blame. Meanwhile settlement of the West Bank by Jewish communities slowly but relentlessly continues. This is not good for the Palestinians, but that is simply not a factor that weighs in the calculations.

Israel’s critics often complain that the country has lots of tactics but no strategy – that they win battles but lose the war. But Israel’s leaders are a clever bunch, and they are advised by even cleverer people (including top game theorists) – and they are focusing on an existential problem. (The word “existential” comes up a lot in Israeli discourse – no doubt to distinguish their debates from the dining table discussions of Western liberals). They have simply decided that the best long-term solution is to have no long-term solution.

And things fall apart

Israel’s strategy had seemed to be working fine until quite recently. Israeli citizens continued a normal, suburban life without too much disturbance. The progressive collapse of neighbouring Arab states reduced the threat from that quarter. The security measures against terrorists seemed be doing their job. But now the pressure on Israel’s grand strategy is growing.

First, living with and containing the threat looks much more difficult than expected. The strength of Hamas is a bit of a shock: not just the sheer quantity of rockets that they managed to build up under the blockade, and keep using under threat – but the discovery of so many tunnels to aid future attacks. Instead of responding to Israel’s punitive tactics by abandoning terrorism, Israeli pressure has made their enemy more resourceful. And the civilians seem to feel they have nothing to lose by giving them tacit support. They do not believe that Israel will ever reward better behaviour. Israel are not the only ones to take on the logic of an existential war, where the ways of violence must take precedence. Israel’s operation may have secured Gaza for the time being – but at a greater cost in Israeli military lives than the threat warranted. Can they really keep on doing this every two or three years? And what if West Bank and Israeli Arabs start to take up the cause? Another problem is that dismantling the Hamas organisation, even if it is possible, only presents the threat of its replacement with more extreme and fragmented versions of it.

Second the propaganda offensive is losing its effectiveness. There are two problems. The first is specific to Europe. Many European countries now have significant Muslim populations, whose political weight is growing, and who the political mainstream are trying to integrate rather than isolate. These Muslims are taking Israel’s actions in Gaza as a rallying point, and uncommitted liberals are joining in, glad find an issue where they can build bridges. Unfortunately for the Israelis, appealing to this Muslim audience is much harder than the mainstream one, and they are making no serious effort. Indeed, victims of their own propaganda, they tend to see these people as part of the great “Them”. Europeans appreciate the threat of Islamic extremism – but Israel looks more and more to be part of the problem and not the solution. Talk of it as a “bulwark” seems nonsensical.

The second problem arises from the freedom of social media, which is increasingly how younger people get their news. It has proved impossible for the Israeli machine to muzzle or counter the sheer volume of unhelpful comment. Worse yet, angry posts by Israelis and their supporters wishing ill to all Palestinians get an airing, undermining the country’s carefully crafted image of injured innocence. Israel is losing the propaganda war amongst the young, even in America. And even Jewish citizens are questioning Israel’s actions. Politicians in Britain are much freer to criticise Israeli policy than at any time I can remember.

Where is this going?

So if Israel will need a new strategy, what might this be? The first thing that we can rule out is a move towards some flavour of peaceful reconciliation, in two or one state flavours, beloved of Western liberals. The opportunity for this has passed. Israel may be losing the propaganda war with the public in the West, but it commands the overwhelming support of its own public. Remember that these are no longer largely made up of European exiles – but of refugees from places with no record of liberal values (Russia, Syria, Iraq and so on), or who have grown up in Israel itself in a state of siege. The first pillar of Israeli strategy, reliance on force, is going to stay firmly in place.

But Israel may look for new allies who have fewer scruples. They are losing European nations; America may start to become more reticent. But there are alternative partners outside the West. The BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa) are notably pragmatic in their outlook, and surely open to military and technological cooperation. Russia, China and India are also open to “robust” policies to tackle Muslim extremism. Israel’s attack on Gaza is a picnic compared to Russia’s suppression of Chechnya, after all. Israel has to tread carefully, as the quickest way of ending the US alliance would be for Israel to sell its military secrets to these emerging powers. But the opportunity is there. Israel may become less appealing to Western liberals, but they matter less in the new multi-polar world.

And that brings with it the possibility of some kind of final solution to the Arab problem: annexation of the occupied territories and expulsion of the Arabs living there. So far outside commentators have viewed this possibility as unthinkable, even for Israelis. But a growing body of Israeli opinion openly advocates it, and doubtless the rest is persuadable. And who will stop them and how? I can’t see this happening soon, and doubtless it will require further provocation from the Arab side. But if Israel can’t live with the Arabs, it will live without them. As chaos overwhelms Syria and Iraq, and Russia gets away with annexing Crimea and arming Ukrainian rebels, this solution starts to look less outlandish. This does not look like a world where liberal norms apply.

What can we do about it?

We probably cannot do much more about this than to watch and cry. But there is some value in Western liberals saying what we think the way forward should be, even if nobody outside our own societies is listening. We must show our belief in a better way.

The first thing we need to say is the Palestinians should drop their obsession with weapons and armed resistance. This just makes Israel’s final solution possible – and nobody is coming to their aid. They need to develop a line of peaceful, passive resistance and take the moral high ground. This may look hopeless, but so is the attempt to use terrorism to create a negotiating position. Negotiations need trust, and everything Hamas has done has undermined potential trust. If only they had maintained peaceful coexistence after the Israeli withdrawal, the two state solution might have seemed feasible.

We also need to slowly isolate Israel if it continues to use excessive violence to gain its objectives. We need to call for a progressive easing of living conditions for Palestinians, and to urge progress towards a two state solution. But we should reserve complete isolation for the event that Israel starts mass expulsions of Arabs from the Occupied Territories.

But darker forces are driving both Israel and the Arabs, and they are in no mood to listen to Western liberals. I have used the word “tragedy” in my title because events are taking the shape of those great tragic dramas of Shakespeare or Sophocles. Opportunities for reconciliation are missed as human emotions and miscalculations take events through to an outcome that nobody wants. Everybody is right. Everybody is wrong.

In due course, we can only hope that, like the European nations before them, the peoples of the Middle East will tire of endless violence and seek a better way. But things will get worse first.


Hopeless in Gaza

The Gaza Strip isn’t a big place.  You can walk across it in an hour or so.  I know because I’ve done it.  That was in 1979.

I had just graduated, and a group of us from Cambridge were volunteers at Kibbutz Be’eri on the edge of the strip.  The kibbutzim largely ignored their neighbour, but we were curious, and talked about visiting it.  One of the local Israelis suggested that we’d have our throats cut, but mainly I think the reaction was “What do you want to do that for?”.  We dithered.  Then one morning two of the girls in our group had enough and went on by themselves to the checkpoint nearby to walk into Gaza City.  Half a dozen of us others  decided that that was where they had gone, and that we had better follow them.  And we went to the checkpoint, and walked all the way up to the beach, finding the two girls as we did so.

We were made to feel welcome, including the Jewish lad amongst us who did not conceal his Star of David pendant.  I don’t remember much about what the Palestinian locals said, but we did meet at least one radical PLO type.  I remember most clearly a lad on the beach asking me to “Tell them at home how it is here.”

How was it?  It was a forgotten corner where stateless people lived, largely in poverty, and without much hope.  But they were human beings like us.  A lot has changed since, but not those essential characteristics.

I didn’t really fulfil that young man’s wish, certainly not in public.  I have avoided saying much at all about the Arab-Israeli affairs.  Opinions are so polarised that few would care to hear what I was actually saying, just try to decide whose side I was on.

Whose side are you on?  That’s where the Israeli narrative starts.  The world is divided between an “us”, the Western societies of Europe and America of which Israel is a part, and a “them”, assorted Arabs, Iranians and other Islamic nations, who wish “us” ill, and with whom we share little in terms values, culture and outlook.  I’m sure that’s how most Israelis see the world, excepting those for whom “us” can only be Jews.  It’s a view that seems to be accepted in America too.  In Europe we struggle with it, having learnt, the hard way, that model of the world really won’t do.

And after that we get into a tangled web of claims and arguments.  The Israelis ask, quite understandably, “What would you do if a neighbour kept firing rockets at you?”  We have very little conception as to how we answer that question.  It’s of quite a different order to the various terrorist threats we have faced in our own countries.  Kibbutz Be’eri lives on, but under constant threat.  In 1979 security was very discreet, and the sense of threat only in the far background.  These Israelis did not gratuitously flaunt their weapons, as so may Israeli and Arab men do, then and now.

The rockets aren’t pocket terrorist weapons, they require a degree of state organisation to support, especially the bigger ones.  Israelis must feel that Gaza civilians are to some extent complicit in allowing this to happen.

And the Palestinians point to a long history of injustice, which passes completely unrecognised in Israeli political life.  They feel that all means of progressing their cause other than violence have been blocked.  The Israels just want them to keep quiet so that they and the rest of the world can forget they are there.  Again we can have no idea about the depth of frustration they are feeling – just as we cannot understand how random violence against the innocent is any way to progress your cause.

Both sides are in a bind.  Hamas is spoiling for a fight, and they seem to be daring the Israelis to invade, so that they can bog them down in a horrible war.  The Israelis know that a military solution requires just such an invasion.  Both sides may draw back, but no ceasefire will tackle the fundamental issues that divide them.

Both sides seem addicted to the use of violence as the way to solve their problems – which only reinforces that conviction in the other side.  Any individual leader, on either side, that tries to break free from that logic risks being undermined by those that disagree.  I am a political optimist generally.  But not here.