A reality in which Israel has gone too far, for too long, is ultimately responsible for the current crisis in the Middle East. Whereas the shock of the 1973 October War ultimately persuaded Israel to relinquish occupied Egyptian territory, it also set in motion dynamics that intensified Israel's determination to annex the Palestinian and Syrian territories it rules. In the aftermath of 7 October and Israel's genocidal onslaught on the Gaza Strip, Israeli rejectionism is likely to be matched by that of its adversaries.
Speaking to a group of Israeli military veterans in 1971, Moshe Dayan, Israel's Defence Minister and hero of its 1967 June War victory, triumphantly declared, "Better Sharm al-Shaikh without peace than peace without Sharm al-Shaikh". Two years later the Egyptian military crossed the Suez Canal. In the space of several hours, they demolished the purportedly impenetrable Bar-Lev Line Israel had erected on its east bank.
Egyptian President Anwar Sadat's objectives were to shatter Israel's conceit of military invincibility and compel Henry Kissinger to reconsider his dismissive response to Cairo's offers to conclude a separate peace with Israel. The shock of Egypt's 1973 October surprise produced an Israeli realization that its military superiority was no match for Egypt's determination to recover its occupied territories, and that Cairo would eventually impose on Israel a cost greater than it could bear. Before the decade was out, a deflated Dayan was the architect of an agreement—the groundwork of which had been laid by a chastened Kissinger—that gave Israel peace with Egypt, but without Sharm al-Shaikh.
The October War also set another dynamic in motion. Similarly empowered by post-1967 triumphalism, and after 1973 spurred into action by fears Israel would be compelled to embrace the "land for peace" formula to resolve the Arab-Israeli conflict, messianic Zionist movements such as Gush Emunim ("Bloc of the Faithful"), along with ultra-nationalist proponents of Greater Israel, launched a concerted campaign to expand and consolidate the Israeli presence in the occupied Arab territories.
Successive Israeli governments, determined to retain as much of the land conquered during the 1967 June War as possible, empowered and enabled such groups and effectively deployed them as the spearhead of their territorial agenda. The United States and the Europeans, despite their formal positions and periodic slaps on the expanding Israeli wrist at the United Nations, did literally nothing to dissuade Israel from this trajectory. In various ways, these countries played a vital role in making the settlement enterprise, and with it the process of creeping annexation, a viable proposition.
Israel's confidence that it could pursue this agenda without consequences from its allies, and the impunity enjoyed by its settler auxiliaries, is central to the inexorable march rightwards of Israeli state and society since 1973. When Palestinian self-determination entered the equation and Israeli-Palestinian relations eventually superseded the Arab-Israeli equation, the West, lagging behind the international community by several decades, eventually endorsed Palestinian statehood. Its refusal to confront Israel over the acceleration of its settlement enterprise or consolidation of "a regime of Jewish supremacy from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea" ensured that US-led and EU-financed diplomatic initiatives were stillborn. It was, in the words of Palestinian diplomat Afif Safieh, "all process and no peace". In no small part because, as former US diplomat Aaron David Miller retrospectively conceded, Washington functioned not as mediator, but as "Israel's lawyer."
After the 2000 Camp David summit clarified that a genuinely sovereign Palestinian state on twenty-two per cent of Mandatory Palestine was not on the US-Israeli agenda, and the West Bank and Gaza Strip once again erupted in rebellion, Israel dispensed with even the charade of Oslo's permanent status negotiations. With only the briefest of interludes, it reverted to unilateralism as its preferred approach. Henceforth, issues in dispute with the Palestinians would be resolved by it and it alone, through the application of naked force and power, on terms determined solely by Israel's strategic objectives. This was particularly evident in the Gaza Strip, where under Ariel Sharon Israel categorically refused to coordinate its 2005 "disengagement" with the Palestinian Authority. It did so in the full expectation that the territory would come to be dominated by Hamas, furthering Israel's goal of Palestinian fragmentation.
Once Hamas did seize power in 2007, this served as a pretext for tightening its punishing blockade—imposed in coordination with Egypt—and for periodic military campaigns (termed "mowing the lawn" by Israeli planners) to keep Gaza weak, isolated, and permanently off balance. As multiple crises enveloped the region in 2011-2012 the Palestinians all but disappeared from the regional and international agenda, reappearing if at all as window dressing for US-engineered Arab-Israeli normalisation agreements designed not to promote a resolution of the Question of Palestine, but to further marginalise the Palestinians and leave them permanently at Israel's mercy.
It is against this background that we should understand Hamas's determination on 7 October to irrevocably shatter the status quo. The timing of Hamas's attack remains somewhat of a mystery. That it came on the fiftieth anniversary, almost to the day, of the joint Egyptian-Syrian offensive that set off the October 1973 War may be an explanation. Given that they were at least a year or two in the making, and would additionally have required extensive preparatory measures once the decision to launch them was taken, it seems reasonable to dismiss the notion that their planning was a response to the policies of Israel's current government or that they were undertaken on account of a specific incident.
A key turning point appears to have been the Unity Intifada of 2021, during which it was Hamas that for the first time since 2007 initiated an armed confrontation with Israel, and did so for reasons that had nothing to do with the Gaza Strip. Ultimately it changed nothing, which would have persuaded Hamas it needed to conduct a significantly more spectacular action. But it had also, albeit temporarily, successfully placed Palestine at the centre of the global agenda, unleashed widespread demonstrations throughout the region and beyond in support of the Palestinians, and provided a measure of relief to Palestinians in East Jerusalem threatened with imminent eviction.
The scope and scale of the 7 October attacks almost certainly exceeded their ambition, since Hamas is unlikely to have assumed the Israeli military would collapse like a house of cards, or that the intelligence services had failed to acquire and process relevant information about their plans and intentions. Although the Gaza Strip is arguably the most intensively surveilled territory on Earth, the element of surprise exceeded even that achieved by Egypt and Syria in October 1973. Israel's billion-dollar Iron Wall, a physical, electronic, and digital barrier, replete with sensors and automated machine guns, and designed to encage the Gaza Strip with fewer soldiers on duty, proved even more flimsy than the Bar-Lev Line.
While 7 October 2023 has entered the Western imagination as a pre-meditated atrocity whose sole objective was to kill Jews and kill as many as possible, the reality is somewhat more complex. Hamas well understood that, if it wanted to change the balance of power with Israel, it would need to demonstrate the capacity to inflict meaningful damage on Israel's military. Its primary objective was to inflict a severe blow on the Gaza Division, which as its name suggests is responsible for implementing Israeli policy towards the territory it occupies. Representing the tip of Israel's spear, it was on 7 October essentially wiped out as a coherent fighting force. Hundreds of soldiers and officers were killed in multiple bases, many more wounded, and dozens taken prisoner and spirited to prepared facilities in the Gaza Strip.
Separately, Palestinian units infiltrated and seized control of multiple population centers in the "Gaza envelope", an area larger than the Gaza Strip itself. In these locations, Hamas, Islamic Jihad, and other Palestinians also came into direct contact with civilians. Hundreds were killed, many more wounded, and perhaps a hundred taken to the Gaza Strip as hostages. According to figures released by Israel, the scale of civilian casualties in Israel was more than double that of the military ones.
As demonstrated most prominently during the second intifada, Hamas is not averse to targeting civilians, and claims that such attacks violate its moral code can therefore be dispensed with. That unarmed civilians were killed, not only in situations of crossfire or by Israeli forces using the same tactics employed against Palestinians to reconquer Israeli towns, but deliberately by Hamas and other Palestinians in significant numbers, and in some cases massacred, appears indisputable. At the same time, the narrative of Palestinian Einsatzgruppen rampaging through southern Israel on a single-minded mission to spill Jewish blood also falls short. Hamas does not have a record of attacking Jewish targets that are not Israeli, nor one of attacking Jews – or Israelis – outside Israel/Palestine.
It should be noted that, as a matter of record, not only the Palestinian Authority but also Hamas have called upon the International Criminal Court to investigate all allegations of criminal activity. Israel, supported by the United States, rejects such investigations as a matter of principle. The Court's Prosecutor, Karim Khan, appears to have decided he has more pressing business.
The most lurid stories circulated in the aftermath of the attacks, many repeated to this day, have upon closer examination been exposed as fabrications or lack sufficient evidence. US President Joe Biden will probably go to his grave insisting he viewed images that don't exist of infants beheaded by Palestinians. Similarly, the only verifiable truth about accounts of babies roasted in ovens, necrophilia, mass/gang rapes, and the like is that they were concocted to dehumanise an enemy and, like similar war propaganda elsewhere, generate foreign and domestic support for what came next.
It was not only the unprecedented scale of casualties – over 1,000 killed and thousands wounded, and more than 250 held captive within Gaza – that marks 7 October as the most traumatic day in Israel's 75-year history. Equally important is that it represents the first time since 1949 that Israeli territory was seized by its enemies, and it had to wage war within its undeclared borders. It is a scenario Israel has for a decade been preparing to confront on its northern border with Lebanon, but never anticipated would emerge from the modestly-armed militia in the pauperised, blockaded, intensively surveilled Gaza Strip in the far south that it has controlled for over five decades. Israel's military doctrine that wars must be short, decisive, and fought on enemy territory did not survive the first day.
With Israel's war on the Gaza Strip, also launched on 7 October, now approaching its fourth month, a second pillar of Israel's doctrine has also fallen victim to reality. In view of the overwhelming power disparity between Israel and the Palestinians, the mere duration of this confrontation suggests Israel's military campaign is confronting significant challenges. While it has once again proven itself to be an effective killing machine, ground operations and urban combat do not appear to be among its strengths. Although armed to the teeth by the United States with its most advanced weaponry, an unlimited supply of munitions, and the brightest of green lights, it is increasingly clear that a decisive outcome is unlikely if not unattainable.
However, the destruction of Hamas's military infrastructure and ability to govern Gaza is only one of Israel's war objectives. The other is to inflict apocalyptic levels of death and destruction upon the Gaza Strip and its Palestinian population. In part to satisfy its seemingly insatiable desire for revenge, in part because it believes a society destroyed will be deterred and deter others from contemplating anything similar, and in part to fulfil a longstanding policy objective. The latter, stretching back to the 1950s, identifies the large number of 1948 refugees in the Gaza Strip, who comprise some three-fourths of its population and often live within a short distance of their former homes – 75 years ago many made the journey to Gaza on foot – as a perennial threat to be resolved by their removal to more distant lands.
Over the decades, Israel has proposed and pursued numerous initiatives to reduce the Gaza Strip's Palestinian population, sending them to destinations as far afield as Paraguay. Turning the unconditional Western support provided on 7 October to further advantage, Israel immediately began advocating the wholesale, permanent expulsion of Gaza's population to Egypt's Sinai Peninsula. The proposal was enthusiastically embraced by the Biden administration and several European leaders, but faltered when it was categorically rejected by Washington's closest and most dependent Arab partners. Rather than reversing course, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken came out only against "forcible displacement." Voluntary resettlement is now a legitimate part of the policy debate.
Israel has been doing everything possible to ensure that "voluntary" ethnic self-cleansing remains the only remaining option for Palestinians in the Gaza Strip. Completing the work of the most intensive bombing campaign in history, military bulldozers and demolition crews have reduced large swathes of the territory entirely to rubble. Civilian infrastructure has been systematically targeted, with the health and education sectors effectively obliterated. Mediaeval siege tactics have produced the highest proportion of households in hunger crisis ever recorded globally, deprived more than two million civilians of access to potable water, and ended the supply of medication to the chronically ill.
Giora Eiland, retired general, former national security advisor, and advisor to the current cabinet, has been enthusiastically saying the quiet part out loud in his column for Yedioth Ahronot. Rejecting the concept of civilian non-combatants, and admonishing against a campaign focused on Palestinian military capabilities as too lengthy and costly, he consistently promotes calamity and cataclysm. On 29 October, for example, he urged Israel to inflict "not only destruction in Gaza City, but a humanitarian disaster and absolute governmental chaos … [O]nly that outcome – the complete destruction of all systems in Gaza and desperate distress", will bring about victory. On 19 November he exhorted the government to reject foreign entreaties to allow food, water, and medical supplies into the Gaza Strip, emphasising that "severe epidemics in the southern Gaza Strip will bring victory closer and will reduce the number of IDF casualties." The identification of an entire society as a military target, and the determination to make it suffer on account of Israel's failure to defend itself, has been a common refrain among Israel's senior political and military leaders.
Israel has transformed the entire Gaza Strip into a killing field. In the space of less than three months it has, in addition to massacring over 25,000 people and wounding tens of thousands more, killed more UN staff and journalists than have perished in any other conflict. UNICEF describes Gaza as the "world's most dangerous place" to be a child, increasing numbers of whom are being killed in shellings aimed at hospitals, schools, and other locations assumed to provide zones of safety. In the words of Iraqi novelist and poet Sinan Antoon, "Only the dead are safe from Israeli bombing." But not from its bulldozers, which have ploughed through cemeteries, ripping open graves and scattering about their contents.
South Africa's case before the International Court of Justice accusing Israel of genocide may or may not succeed. That said, there are compelling reasons the Court has determined it deserves a proper hearing rather than dismissing it as a frivolous legal manoeuvre.
The scale and ferocity of the Palestinian attacks of 7 October and of Israel's onslaught on the Gaza Strip every day since appears to have persuaded the West that it is finally time to respond to the Palestine question, or at least be perceived as doing so. With the US once again in the lead, Biden and Blinken lose no opportunity to confirm their commitment to a two-state settlement. Yet their words ring hollow to Palestinian ears, which hear only meaningless posturing. While a two-state settlement remains feasible as a practical matter, because it is ultimately about the deployment of sufficient political will rather than passing a specific threshold or "point of no return," it cannot be achieved without an end to Israeli occupation. And more than half a century of experience has conclusively demonstrated that the West, and Washington in particular, is simply not prepared to adopt policies to bring this about. Even today, the Biden administration's political horizon is a resumption of the Oslo process, which formally expired last century and pointedly refrained from identifying a Palestinian state as an objective. Rather, the illusory promise of such a state is the cosmetic façade for the Trump-Biden project of Arab-Israeli normalisation at the expense of Palestinian rights.
Were Moshe Dayan around today, he might be similarly chastened by the high price of Israeli hubris in its dealings with the Palestinians. But he would also remind us that a key reason Israel returned the Sinai Peninsula to Egypt was because doing so gave it a freer hand to tighten its grip over the remaining occupied Arab territories. If Dayan would nevertheless have concluded that it's time for Israel to cut its losses, withdraw to the 5 June 1967 boundaries, and peacefully co-exist with the Palestinian people, those who succeeded him have a very different agenda and are today moving in exactly the opposite direction. Determined to make the maximalist aspirations of Gush Emunim and the ultra-nationalists a reality, they proceed as if Israeli impunity has been inscribed into international law and are determined to bring matters to an apocalyptic conclusion. Better Kiryat Arba without peace, than peace without Kiryat Arba.
The problem for Israel is that while its allies in the West may prefer a policy of vocal support or silent acquiescence regarding its policies, its actions have convinced a growing number of Palestinians and Arabs that, while peace with Israel may still be possible, it is no longer desirable. Co-existence with a genocidal, irrational state that consistently seeks to resolve political challenges with overwhelming violence, and responds to failure with only more violence, is a proposition with diminishing currency in the region. The more so given that irrespective of what happens to the Gaza Strip, Israel's vulnerabilities have been irrevocably exposed by Hamas.