Breaking the Cycle of Violence
BY PROF. HERMAN KRAFT
October 7, 2023 will be on record as one of those days when violence in the Middle East once again threatened to inflict itself on the rest of the world. The brutal attack by Hamas on Israeli settlements and other locations bordering the Gaza Strip led to an even more ferocious response from Israel on Palestinian communities in the strip. Body counts which equate the taking of more than 200 hostages and the deaths of around 1400 Israelis and over 100 foreigners against the November 1 count of more 7500 Palestinians killed and the tens of thousands injured and displaced in the Israeli retribution doesn’t make the wherefores of the issue any clearer.
Complicating sentiments further closer to home, four Filipinos have been confirmed as fatalities in the ongoing conflict with a few hundred needing repatriation from Gaza and Israel. International public sympathy has swung heavily between horror at the cruelty of the Hamas attack and distress over the emerging humanitarian disaster resulting from the Israeli reaction. The latter has seen a backlash against Israel and led to attacks against Jewish communities all over the world. There is a growing call internationally for an immediate ceasefire, for Israel to stop its airstrikes and ground attack against Gaza, and for Hamas to release at once without preconditions the hundreds of hostages it still holds. Even in the unlikely event that both parties, the Israeli government and Hamas, accede to this demand, it still begs the question of what happens after—is there going to be any way forward for a resolution to this long-standing conflict?
ACT OF TERROR OR ACT OF SELF-DEFENSE?
The Israeli representation of this latest outbreak of violence revolves precisely around that—that it was a surprise attack by Hamas against unprepared and non-combatant targets. Emphasizing the gruesomeness of the attack by highlighting the act of killing and method of killing of women, children, and old people in settlements along the border, and those attending a music festival including a number of foreigners, Israel sought to not only paint Hamas as the aggressor but that this was an act of terror intended to pressure Israel into releasing Hamas activists and fighters currently incarcerated in Israeli jails. It was also intended to expose the vulnerability of Israelis and the weakness of the government in providing protection to Israel’s people.
The counter-narrative, however, is that this was an act of self-defense by an oppressed people. Hamas claims that it was acting on behalf of the Palestinian people whose land had been occupied by Israel for nearly eighty years. Squeezed into enclaves in the Gaza Strip and in ever-shrinking territories in the West Bank, the Palestinians and those that support them have noted that their condition and destiny is controlled by Israel which imposes strict restrictions on the Palestinians. The demand of course is for the establishment of a separate Palestinian state.
As with any political question, however, the answer cannot be this simple. More so as this involves the Middle East where history, religion, and geopolitics meet. The October 7 attack is only the latest episode in a history of conflict that goes beyond simple religious and ethnic differences. The idea of Palestine being divided between a Jewish and an Arab state goes back to United Nations (UN) Resolution 181 (II) adopted by the UN General Assembly on November 29, 1947. This resolution authorized the establishment of a Jewish and Arab state in the territory covered by the British Mandate for Palestine. The rejection of the resolution by the Arab communities in Palestine and the Arab states that supported them and the eventual establishment of a Jewish state in 1948 led to the first of the armed conflicts involving Arabs and Israel of which the October 7 attack is just the most recent iteration. Over the years, this conflict has involved wars between Israel and its neighboring Arab states, guerilla groups engaged in hit and run attacks which eventually morphed into terrorist attacks, and uprisings in Palestinian communities against the presence of Israel Defense Forces among them.
These attacks do not present a very good picture of the Palestinians especially as the attacks by the armed groups that claim to be fighting for them are brutal in their execution and indiscriminate in who are targeted. At the same time, however, the Israelis do not do themselves any favors as their response to these attacks have tended to be disproportionate and equally indiscriminate in who is harmed. More importantly, the Israeli government’s general treatment of the Palestinians has been severely lacking in consideration for their overall condition as the difference in living standards between the Palestinian communities and Israel indicates. Of greater consequence for future discussions, allowing (even encouraging) the expansion of Jewish settlements into what is understood to be Arab areas raises questions about the credibility of Israel as a partner in a political solution to the problem.
A SOLUTION WAITING TO BE IMPLEMENTED
The continuing cycle of violence needs to be broken; but the distrust and hatred that it has generated and regenerated makes it difficult to find a path towards breaking this cycle. The two-state solution which was the fundamental idea behind UN Resolution 181 remains the primary formula towards a political resolution to the issue. It is, however, also the principal problem in seeking that political resolution that will end the conflict.
An essential part of the basic formula set in UN Resolution 181 is the existence of two states. A key component of the Arab rejection of the resolution is the non-acceptance of the right of a state of Israel to exist in Palestine. Since then, recognition of this right and of Israel has been a key component of the agreements signed between Israel and those Arab countries it has entered into peace treaties with and eventually those peace treaties it will sign in the future. The oldest of these is the Camp David Accords signed between Israel and Egypt brokered by the United States in 1978. It eventually contributed to the assassination of Egyptian President Anwar Sadat, but the peace he arranged with Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin remains in place to date. The Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) eventually also signed with Israel the Oslo Accords of 1993 and 1995 that on paper included recognition of Israel by the PLO and the recognition by Israel of the PLO as the representative of the Palestinian people and its partner in bilateral negotiations. While the Oslo Accords did not in and of itself establish a Palestinian state, it started the process with the establishment of the Palestinian Authority which would exercise limited self-government over the West Bank and Gaza. It was understood that the process of establishing a separate Palestinian state would involve negotiations with Israel over borders, the status of Jerusalem, and the right of return of Palestinians.
Unlike the Camp David Accords, however, the terms and expectations of the Oslo Accords were never fully implemented and achieved. There was widespread opposition within the Arab communities, particularly among Palestinians, to the Oslo Accords. A key element of this opposition was the recognition of Israel. In fact, the emergence and popularity of Hamas stemmed from its rejection of Israel’s right to exist and its willingness to continue armed resistance against Israel and the status quo. Arab chants of “from the river to the sea” show that the intention to eradicate Israel is still alive and strong. On the other hand, neither was there ringing support for the Oslo Accords among Israelis, particularly those intent on pursuing the Zionist aspiration of building an Israel that would encompass the whole of Palestine territorially. Yitzhak Rabin, who was Prime Minister of Israel at the time of the signing of the Oslo Accords, was assassinated in 1995 by a rightwing Israeli extremist a few months after signing its second and final part. There is already a state of Israel and the territory it encompasses is vastly larger than what was originally intended in UN Resolution 181. A Palestinian state is yet to be established and the territory it would encompass is shrinking as Israel’s military victories gain it more territory to occupy. The rejection by the Arabs of UN Resolution 181 in 1947 and the subsequent war and wars basically took the territorial formula it proposed off the table.
Would Israel be willing to give up territory even if it helps to guarantee peace? Would the Palestinians be willing to guarantee peace in exchange for the cession of territory?
And even if some pathway towards the establishment of a Palestinian state could be found, there would remain other sources of resentment that would continue to fuel conflict. Arguably, Israel’s economy is what keeps the Palestinian communities viable to the extent they are—a dependence that would be unsustainable in a two-state set up, and would continue Israel’s dominance of the Palestinian people. And then, there is the geopolitical angle that needs to be factored in.
Nonetheless, any pathway to lasting peace requires an end to the violence that has been feeding the mutual hate and distrust. Given the latest outbreak of fighting and the numbers of noncombatants killed, injured, or taken hostage, this is not going to happen in the near future.
If it had a Facebook profile, this conflict’s status would be “it’s complicated.”