Israel-Gaza: The status quo is smashed. The future is messy and dangerous

Jeremy Bowen

By Jeremy Bowen

BBC international editor

At the end of the war that started on 7 October lies a big, unknown place called the future. The old status quo was dangerous and painful, especially for Palestinians living under Israeli occupation. But it was familiar. Then after 7 October it was smashed by the Hamas attacks, and Israel’s response.

The shock of war can speed up change, when it sweeps away old thinking, forcing difficult choices for a better future. Or it drives leaders and their citizens deeper into their bunkers, as they prepare for the next round.

For more than a century, Jews and Arabs have been confronting each other, and sometimes going to war, over control of the small, highly coveted piece of land between the River Jordan and the Mediterranean Sea. Perhaps the safest, saddest bet is to assume that the conflict, reshaped, will go on. After all, that is what has happened after every other Middle East war since 1948, when Israel won its independence.

But there are other options. Here are some of the arguments made by individuals at the centre of events.

Benjamin Netanyahu

Israel’s prime minister has not spelt out his plan for the day after, if he has one. His opponents in Israel, who blame him for security and intelligence failures that made the Hamas attacks on 7 October possible, say Netanyahu’s only real plan is to stay in power and avoid conviction on the serious corruption charges he faces.

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Netanyahu built his career on the message he was Mr Security, the only man who could keep Israel safe. Hamas shattered his brand, which was already badly damaged by political strife inside Israel.

Benjamin Netanyahu speaks in Belrin in March
Image caption,Netanyahu has not spelt out his plans for Gaza after the war ends

The prime minister’s broad statements about what happens after the war, assuming Israel can declare victory, all point to continued occupation of Gaza. Israeli officials have reportedly talked about setting up buffer zones along the border, without offering any details.

Netanyahu has rejected a role for foreign peacekeepers, assuming they can be found. Jordan’s foreign minister Ayman Safadi has already said that Arab states would not “clean the mess” left by Israel.

“There will be no Arab troops going to Gaza. None. We are not going to be seen as the enemy.”

Netanyahu has also dismissed US President Joe Biden’s plan to replace Hamas with the Palestinian Authority, led by President Mahmoud Abbas. Netanyahu claims the PA cannot be trusted and supports terrorism, even though it recognises Israel and cooperates with it on security.

Joe Biden

President Biden’s vision of the future is very different to Benjamin Netanyahu’s. Biden continues to give considerable military, diplomatic and emotional support to Israelis. He visited, embraced the families of hostages and has ordered his diplomats at the United Nations Security Council to use the US veto to block ceasefire resolutions. Biden ordered two aircraft carrier strike groups to the region and has sent Israel vast amounts of weaponry.

In return, the US president wants Israel to return to some kind of revitalised peace process. He wants the Palestinian Authority (PA) eventually to run Gaza while Israel agrees arrangements for an independent Palestine alongside Israel.

The Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas agrees. He has largely been a bystander since 7 October. In a rare interview this week, with Reuters, he said there should be a peace conference after the war to work out a political solution that would lead to the establishment of a Palestinian state.

Joe Biden holds a press conference following a solidarity visit to Israel in October
Image caption,Biden wants a revitalised peace process in the region

The “two state solution” has been the official objective of America and its western allies since the early 1990s. Years of negotiations to make it happen failed. For almost a quarter of a century, since the peace process collapsed, the phrase has been an empty slogan. Biden wants to revive it, arguing correctly that only a political solution will end the conflict.

Biden sent his vice president, Kamala Harris, to Dubai last week to make a speech laying out America’s red lines for Gaza on the day after.

She laid out five principles.

“No forcible displacement, no re-occupation, no siege or blockade, no reduction in territory, and no use of Gaza as a platform for terrorism.”

“We want to see a unified Gaza and West Bank under the Palestinian Authority, and Palestinian voices and aspirations must be at the centre of this work.”

In and out of office, Benjamin Netanyahu has worked consistently hard to thwart Palestinian independence. It is safe to say he is not about to change his mind. If the two-state solution can be revived, it won’t happen while he is prime minister.

Simcha Rotman

I went to see Simcha Rotman at the Knesset, Israel’s parliament, where he is a prominent MP for the far-right Religious Zionist Party. The government of Benjamin Netanyahu depends on the support of Rotman’s party and other hard-line Jewish nationalists. Their power comes from the dynamism of the movement to settle Jews on the land captured in 1967. From that moment of victory, some Israelis were set on extending the Zionist enterprise into the newly occupied Palestinian territories: the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, and the Gaza Strip.

Since 1967 they have been highly successful, despite being forced to leave Gaza when Israel pulled out in 2005. Around 700,000 Israeli Jews now live in the occupied West Bank, including East Jerusalem. Settler leaders are in the cabinet, and their enterprise is at the centre of Israeli politics.

Israeli Parliament member Simcha Rotman speaks during a parliament meeting in Jerusalem in July
Image caption,Simcha Rotman is a prominent MP for the far-right Religious Zionist Party

Now that Israel is fighting Hamas, vowing to smash the organisation once and for all, Jewish nationalists see the biggest opportunity they have had since 1967, when Israel beat all its Arab neighbours in a war that lasted for six days.

Since 7 October, armed settlers in the West Bank, backed by soldiers and police, have prevented Palestinian farmers from harvesting their olives or tending their fields. Settlers have paved illegal roads and sought to entrench themselves even deeper by consolidating outposts that are illegal under Israeli as well as international law. Posters are everywhere demanding the return of Jewish settlers to Gaza.

Settlers have also killed Palestinians and invaded their homes. Men with bulldozers came at night to destroy the tiny village of Khirbet Zanuta, near Hebron. Its population of 200 Palestinians had already left, forced out by armed and aggressive settlers.

International law says an occupying power should not settle its citizens in land it has captured. Israel says the law does not apply.

“Occupation is not the word,” Simcha Rotman told me at the Knesset.

“You cannot occupy your own land. Israel is not an occupier in Israel because that’s the land of Israel.”

For Simcha Rotman and other Jewish nationalists, Gaza is also part of the land of Israel.

“We need to make sure that the only people that are in charge of our security in the land of Israel are the IDF [Israel Defence Forces]. We cannot have any terrorist organisation, doesn’t matter what its name. Would it be Hamas? Would it be Fatah? Doesn’t matter. The terrorist organisation cannot have control of our lives.”

Mustafa Barghouthi

If there are Palestinian elections after the 7 October war ends, Mustafa Barghouti is likely to run for president. He is the secretary general of the Palestine National Initiative. It wants to be the third force in Palestinian politics, an alternative to the Islamist extremists in Hamas and to Fatah, the faction led by President Mahmoud Abbas, which it regards as corrupt and incompetent. Barghouthi believes resistance to occupation is legitimate and legal, though he wants it to be non-violent.

In his office in Ramallah on the West Bank, Mustafa Barghouthi told me that Israel is using the war to deliver a crushing blow not just to Hamas but to the idea of Palestinian independence and freedom. Like many Palestinians, Barghouthi sees what’s happening as a grim echo of the events of 1948 when Israel won its independence and more than 700,000 Palestinians fled or were forced at gunpoint to leave their homes in what became Israel. Palestinians call it al-Naqba, “the catastrophe” and believe Israel wants it to happen again.

Mustafa Barghouti speaks at a news conference in 2014
Image caption,Mustafa Barghouti is the secretary general of the Palestine National Initiative

“I am 100% sure that their main goal right from the beginning was the ethnic cleansing of Gaza, complete ethnic cleansing of Gaza, trying to push people to Egypt, a terrible war crime. And if they managed to do so, I think their next goal will be to try to ethnically cleanse the West Bank and force people to join them.”

“If they fail to ethnically cleanse all Gazans, I am sure that Netanyahu’s plan B is to annexe Gaza City and the north of Gaza completely to Israel and claim it as a security area.”

Barghouthi warns that Israel faces dire prospects if its troops stay in Gaza long term.

“Israel did that before and it didn’t work. And there will be resistance to their occupation, which they cannot tolerate. And that’s why Netanyahu’s goal really is to ethnically cleanse people. He wants to have military control of Gaza without people. He knows very well that Gaza with people is something that is unmanageable.”

Barghouthi believes Gaza should be part of a democratic Palestinian state.

“We Palestinians are grown up people. We don’t need any patronage of anybody. And no, we don’t need any other country to tell us how we should rule ourselves.”

This crisis looks as if it will have more chapters. The US veto of the latest ceasefire resolution at the UN Security Council gives Israel more time to wage war. But that extra time is not indefinite, and continued Biden support for Israel carries a political price in America’s coming election year. Influential members of his own Democratic party oppose what he’s doing, and so do younger voters whose support he needs. The Biden Administration is already deeply uncomfortable that Israel is ignoring its repeated requests to protect civilians and respect the laws of war.

Israel may struggle to achieve the crushing victory Benjamin Netanyahu has promised. He set a high bar for victory; not just annihilating Hamas as a military force, but also destroying its capacity to govern. Israel’s vast military power, reinforced by American resupply, has not yet destroyed the capacity of Hamas to fight. The Hamas creed of Islamist nationalism is also embedded in the minds of many Palestinians. Guns often don’t kill ideas but reinforce them.

The future is messy and dangerous. The war in Gaza will not end

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