Storrs, CT (Special to Informed Comment) – Israelis and Palestinians have already entered hell. The casualties, the wounded, the hostages, the displacement of people and emptying of communities, the widespread trauma, the fear, the complete disruption of normal life, the intense suffering. But even at this moment we should all remember something: Barring a strategic shift, the recent past suggests the situation will likely get more and more horrific each time.
Hamas and the Likud-led Israeli government, citing their respective nationalisms, are locked in a death struggle for control of the Holy Land. They each draw upon an internationally-recognized national right to self-determination but to the total exclusion of the other. Neither has ever legally recognized that the other people have standing.
Israel’s nationalist-religious right is implementing a vision of a Jewish state, with no ethnonational equality and no territorial room for a State of Palestine alongside Israel. In addition to formal indications like the 2018 Nation State Law, ministers and other elites have made a number of relevant statements both before and after the Hamas attack on October 7. For example, this past August, Israel’s National Security Minister, Itamar Ben Gvir, said, “My right, and my wife’s and my children’s rights, to get around on the roads in Judea and Samaria, is more important than the right to movement for Arabs.” He envisions a clear, permanent hierarchy where Israeli Jews have rights and most Palestinians do not.
Unlike the State of Israel, Hamas lacks the control of the territory in Gaza, Israel, and the West Bank, but the nationalist-religious vision it has sketched out has no room for a Jewish State of Israel. Even in 2017, when Hamas released modified ideas, it still stated, “Its goal is to liberate Palestine and confront the Zionist project.” In this Hamas vision, Israel and its people have no standing or legitimacy: “The expulsion and banishment of the Palestinian people from their land and the establishment of the Zionist entity therein do not annul the right of the Palestinian people to their entire land and do not entrench any rights therein for the usurping Zionist entity.” That Hamas leaders have sometimes talked of negotiations and a long-term ceasefire will do little to assuage their critics.
In short, neither the most powerful Israeli political coalition nor Gaza’s most powerful Palestinian movement are making any room for the other. Thus, it seems highly unlikely the conflict will suddenly take a turn away from conflict and toward conflict resolution or negotiations as long as they remain the top powers.
Rather, confrontational events from 2014, 2021, and now 2023 – three battles between Hamas and the Israel Defense Forces – show us the myriad ways the violence could spin further and further out of control. Consider these four elements:
First, Hamas’ attack on October 7, 2023, showed that it is not deterred by or fearful of Israeli military force, Israel’s primary strategy for containing Hamas. Moreover, we have been reminded that Hamas, like many non-state armed groups, will constantly be innovating, looking for unexpected vulnerabilities. Suicide bombings seemed catastrophic at the time but compare the Israeli death toll and psychological impact from the entire second intifada to that one day in October 2023.
Second, all the Israeli military campaigns against Palestinians in Gaza, including 2014, 2021 and right now, show that Israel has an unimpeded military capability to realize the genocidal rhetoric that we have heard from some Israeli political leaders. Israel could decide to flatten Gaza anytime, and Palestinians could not stop them. At a minimum, it could try to use bombing to drive the entire Gaza population through the Rafah crossing and into Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula.
Embed from Getty Images
SDEROT, ISRAEL – NOVEMBER 22: In this photograph taken near the Israeli border with the Gaza Strip, a plume of smoke rises over Beit Hanoun in Northern Gaza after an Israeli air strike on November 22, 2023 in Sederot, Israel. The starting time of a four-day truce between Israel and Hamas that would entail a pause in fighting and the release of around 50 hostages still had not been announced as of Wednesday morning. Air strikes appeared to have continued in Gaza in the hours following news of the deal. (Photo by Christopher Furlong/Getty Images)
Third, in 2021, we saw widespread fighting between Jewish and Palestinian citizens of Israel. Such fighting was reminiscent of 1947-48 and foreshadows a civil war. Some people forget that even before Israel declared independence on May 14, 1948, and then fought with several neighboring Arab states, Zionists and Palestinians already were skirmishing in the Holy Land; the 1948 war had already begun. Today, if we add the ongoing violent settler rampages in the West Bank – attacking Palestinians as the Israelis seek to drive them from their homes – and the operation of Palestinian militant cells in Jenin or Nablus, one can quickly imagine fighting in the streets and a large-scale, deadly struggle amidst intermixed or nearby Arab and Jewish communities.
Fourth, we are tottering on the edge of a regional war. Hezbollah, itself well-armed, and Israel, with its advanced military and nuclear weapons, are at a low boil. The US Navy moved two carrier groups to the region. Iranian allies have attacked US forces, for example in Iraq; the US has bombed Syria at least three times in recent weeks. Houthi militants from Yemen have fired at Israel. Israel continues to bomb Syria to destroy arms.
Every one of our worst fears is plausible, even as they have not all fully played out: inter-communal fighting, terrorism, regional war, ethnic cleansing, and genocide. They may not all happen now, but we have a much better sense of what they would look like. The warning lights are flashing, and such catastrophic violence could occur the next time or the time after that.
One can hope that external mediators or grassroots movements for change can divert the political actors from these terrible scenarios. The need is urgent. But barring such a change in direction, the possibility of tremendous additional suffering lies straight ahead of us.