The Israel-Palestine conflict has been ongoing since 1948, when the State of Israel was founded and 700,000 Palestinians were forced to flee their homes. (Its roots go back far further.) The central underlying issue is not actually very complicated: Israel was established as a Jewish state in a land with a large indigenous Arab population. That population has always been inconvenient for the project of building an ethno-nationalist state. Granting the Palestinians full rights as citizens of a democratic Israel would prevent Israel from being a “Jewish” state. The sensible solution for Israel would be to grant Palestinians their own state, but Israel holds the cards, since it has Palestine under occupation (in the West Bank) and blockade (in Gaza). Rather than give Palestinians sovereignty in what remains of their historic territory, Israel has chosen to maintain its control and grant Palestinians only limited freedoms, creating an apartheid state, the miseries of which are well-documented. The realistic possibilities for a Palestinian state have steadily been diminishing, first because Israel sees no reason to change its position, and second because Israeli “settlers” keep seizing bits of Palestinian territory, to the point where maps of the Palestinian West Bank now look like a Swiss cheese.
Benjamin Netanyahu’s far right government has made it clear that its position is that Palestinian sovereignty is simply off the table. Netanyahu openly declared a policy of annexing the West Bank to Israel. He vowed to “crush” Palestinian statehood aspirations and swore that they would never have self-governance so long as he was in power, meaning that the apartheid status quo would be maintained and extended. As Palestinians looked toward the future, it’s clear that they could see little except steady further encroachment on what little self-determination they had left. The Netanyahu vision for Palestine is to keep it as essentially a prison within Israel, under full Israeli control.
For decades, there have been those who warned that this attitude toward Palestinians was ultimately self-destructive for Israel. People who are occupied, after all, do not simply disappear. The more they are oppressed, the angrier they become. The less they see a realistic possibility of a favorable diplomatic settlement, the more they will feel they have “nothing to lose” through violent revolt. As Noam Chomsky warned in 2015:
For the last 40 years, the greatest threat to Israel has been its own policies. If you look back 40 years, say to 1970, Israel was one of the most respected and admired countries in the world. There were lots of favorable attitudes to it. Now, it’s one of the most disliked and feared countries in the world. In the early 70s, Israel made a decision. They had a choice and they made a decision to prefer expansion to security and that carries with it dangerous consequences. Consequences which were obvious at the time—I wrote about them and other people did—if you prefer expansion to security it is going to lead to internal degeneration, anger, opposition, isolation, and possibly ultimate destruction.
Now, disaster has struck both Israel and Palestine. Hamas, the militant group that runs the Gaza strip, has launched a surprise attack on Israel, killing hundreds of Israelis, including many civilians, in acts of gruesome violence. The attacks have been indiscriminate and indefensible, with hundreds of people gunned down at (of all things) a music festival celebrating peace. By attacking civilians, Hamas has done incalculable damage to the cause of Palestinian rights, first by making their actions impossible to defend as “legitimate resistance,” and second by putting the entire Palestinian civilian population at risk against their will.
Israel, predictably, has vowed to punish Palestinians with extreme vengeance. The rhetoric is apocalyptic. Already, Israel is bombing Gaza relentlessly, and the defense minister has vowed to cut off electricity, fuel, and food from Gaza, in a horrific act of collective punishment that punishes Palestinian children and elderly people for the actions of Hamas. The defense minister says that Israel is “fighting human animals and we are acting accordingly.” (One would have hoped that a state founded in the aftermath of the Holocaust would avoid outright dehumanizing its opponents.)
When a horrific atrocity happens, many people’s memories seem to virtually go blank and their rationality is replaced with blind rage. After 9/11, the United States was consumed by a thirst for vengeance. The ensuing wars wrecked half a dozen countries, killed millions, and generated more refugees than any event since World War II. There, too, the terror inflicted by a small group of people led to the dehumanization and blaming of a much larger group of people who did not personally bear responsibility. It’s not “the Palestinians” who attacked Israel. It was Hamas. But ordinary Palestinians will pay the price.
In the United States, many politicians are ignoring the context of the eruption of violence in Israel, calling the terror “unprovoked.” But while it was unjustified and brutal, “unprovoked” it was not, and any analysis that leaves out Israel’s terrorization of Palestinians is only telling half the story. (Ben Shapiro, for instance, encouraged people to view video footage of the horrors unleashed by Hamas, but did not encourage his followers to watch footage of, for example, peaceful Gazan protesters, medics, and journalists dying from Israeli bullets.)
Within Israel, plenty of people understand that the hard-right policies of the Netanyahu government made Israel less safe, and that the horrific backlash was a predictable consequence of turning Palestine into a pressure cooker. As leftist Knesset member Ofer Cassif said:
“We must analyze those terrible incidents [the attacks] in the right context – and that is the ongoing occupation. … We have been warning time and time again. … everything is going to erupt and everybody is going to pay a price – mainly innocent civilians on both sides. And unfortunately, that is exactly what happened. … The Israeli government, which is a fascist government, supports, encourages, and leads pogroms against the Palestinians. There is an ethnic cleansing going on. It was obvious the writing was on the wall, written in the blood of the Palestinians – and unfortunately now Israelis as well.”
The editorial board of Haaretz, Israel’s leading newspaper, was similarly scathing about Israeli government policy, placing responsibility squarely on the shoulders of Netanyahu himself:
The disaster that befell Israel on the holiday of Simchat Torah is the clear responsibility of one person: Benjamin Netanyahu. The prime minister, who has prided himself on his vast political experience and irreplaceable wisdom in security matters, completely failed to identify the dangers he was consciously leading Israel into when establishing a government of annexation and dispossession, when appointing Bezalel Smotrich and Itamar Ben-Gvir to key positions, while embracing a foreign policy that openly ignored the existence and rights of Palestinians.
The situation, then, is this: for years, Israel has been depriving Palestinians of their basic rights and slowly dispossessing them of their land. It has kept Gaza under merciless siege. For a glimpse of what it has felt like in Gaza, read the testimony of Gazan Haneen Shat, who wrote in this magazine in 2021 after an Israeli bombing campaign:
What do we in Gaza have to celebrate today? If you have seen the videos of dead children in the Gazan rubble, then you know human rights were publicly violated with impunity, more than they usually are. Israel’s missiles fell everywhere. All of Gaza is soaked in chaos and blood. For eleven days, rockets fell on families while they slept at night. Civilians are still under the rubble, some alive and some dead, some infants and some pregnant women. Children, who have paid the price of their lives in the blink of an eye, have been torn to shreds without mercy. There is nowhere to hide—for the last eleven days a drone has hovered constantly above my home. Memories have been assassinated. No one can think about anything except the terror that still lurks in the sky. The only thought in Gaza every morning is, “Are we really still alive?” The only thought in Gaza every evening is, “If they want to kill us, why don’t they do it now so that we don’t have to live through this nightmare anymore?”
This terror, of course, is just as real as the terror Hamas unleashed in Israel over the weekend. And so what we have is an occupying power brutalizing an occupied/besieged population, and then a militant wing of that population reacting with terror of its own. That, in turn, is causing the occupying power to unleash hell. The cycle of violence looks like it will never end.
Can it end? Perhaps, but only with a just peace. Israel’s current campaign of violent reprisal will create more victims. Those victims will have families. Those family members will want vengeance of their own. They will seek it. More victims. More rage. More people who see only their own suffering and not the suffering they inflict on others.
The responsibility of the international community is clear: we have to push for a final negotiated end to the conflict, through the end of Israel’s apartheid and the granting of full rights of self-determination to Palestine. Ultimately, as Chomsky and Cassif point out, the subjugation of Palestine is not in the interests of ordinary Israelis, who themselves deserve to live in peace. It guarantees Israel’s perpetual insecurity. So long as there are Palestinians, there will be resistance, some of which will be violent, and it will become more violent when other avenues for expressing dissent are closed off. To predict what will happen is in no way to justify it, and while we can and should condemn Hamas’ counterproductive and hideous atrocities, we need to understand why they occurred and how to prevent more from happening in the future. One way, favored by some, is to simply “destroy everything”—there is peace, by definition, if everyone is dead. But if we care about trying to avert the worst disaster, then we have to think rationally and carefully about what is actually likely to end the conflict. Eliminating the source of Palestinian grievances by granting them their basic rights under international law is the best way to minimize the likelihood of future violence. The job of the U.S. is not to “support Israel” by aiding Israel’s vengeance, but by facilitating a just settlement. That involves pressuring Israel to end the occupation that serves as Hamas’ greatest recruitment tool.