The revenge of old West Asia

Hamas’s October 7 attacks shatter the foundations of the ‘new Middle East’; the Palestine question remains the source of all maladies in the region

Updated - November 03, 2023 07:09 pm IST

Published - November 03, 2023 02:45 am IST

A recreated war scene at the 6th of October War Panorama museum and memorial of the 1973 Arab-Israeli war, in Cairo

A recreated war scene at the 6th of October War Panorama museum and memorial of the 1973 Arab-Israeli war, in Cairo | Photo Credit: AFP

“There was no such thing as Palestinians,” Golda Meir, the then Labour Prime Minister of Israel, told The Sunday Times on June 15, 1969, on the second anniversary of the Six-Day War. It was during the 1967 war, Israel brought the whole of historical Palestine under its control. In the 1948-49 first Arab-Israeli war, Israel had captured 23% more territories, including West Jerusalem, than what the 1947 United Nations Partition Plan for Palestine had proposed.

In 1967, it seized the West Bank and East Jerusalem from Jordan and the Gaza Strip and Sinai Peninsula from Egypt, and the Golan Heights from Syria. Ever since, Palestinian territories have remained under Israel’s military occupation and control (it pulled back both troops and Jewish settlers from Gaza in 2005 after the second intifada, but has laid siege to the enclave since 2007).

The Israeli narrative

After Hamas’s brutal October 7 Sabbath attack on Israel, killing at least 1,400 people, mostly civilians, Israel has launched a devastating bombing campaign on Gaza, leaving over 9,000 Palestinians dead in 27 days, most of them women and children. Israel’s narrative is that it has the right to respond to Hamas’s terror attack. And the use of disproportionate force against the enemy, deliberately targeting civilians, is a well-known Israeli method (the Dahiya doctrine). General Gadi Eisenkot, a former Israeli Chief of General Staff, once said about the Israel Defense Forces’ bombing of Dahiya, Lebanon, “We will apply disproportionate force on it and cause great damage and destruction there. From our standpoint, these are not civilian villages, they are military bases.” Israel’s current President Isaac Herzog echoed Gen. Eisenkot (now a Minister), when he said on October 14 (after Israel ordered over a million people in northern Gaza to evacuate), that there are no innocent civilians in Gaza. “It’s an entire nation out there that’s responsible,” Mr. Herzog said in a press conference.

Between what Golda Meir and Mr. Herzog said lies the reality of the Palestinians — either they do not exist as a national category, or they are all culprits and punishable. Israel says its heavy response is necessitated by its circumstances. Its narrative is that it is living in a hostile regional environment faced with Islamist terrorism. There is a history of wars with the Arab world. Hamas is a Palestinian terrorist organisation with which political dialogue is impossible. Hamas and Hezbollah are directly supported by a Holocaust-denying Iran. So, this argument goes, Israel has to stay tough for its own survival. And being tough means continuing the occupation of the Palestinian territories endlessly and responding with massive force and collective punishment to violence by Palestinians.

Let us look at these arguments one by one. Hamas, “the key impediment to peace”, was created only in 1988, 21 years after Israel started the direct military occupation of the Palestinian territories. In the 1970s and the early 1980s, the Islamic Centre, a Muslim Brotherhood offshoot and a precursor to Hamas, had Israel’s recognition as a charity which allowed the group to raise funds for their activities. Israel then saw Fatah, Yasser Arafat’s secular nationalist guerrilla movement, and the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO), the coalition Arafat had built, as its main rivals. The PLO had used violence against Israelis, and Israel launched two wars (1978 and 1982) in Lebanon to fight the PLO (the late Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin once called them “murderous anti-Semites”). But during the Oslo talks, the PLO, which for long denied Israel’s right to exist and advocated for the liberation of the whole of Palestine (“from the river to the sea”), made a major compromise. Arafat recognised the state of Israel and accepted the formation of an independent Palestine state within the 1967 borders, which is just 22% of historical Palestine.

It was the collapse of Oslo in the subsequent years and continuing Israeli occupation of the Palestinian territories that led to the strengthening of Hamas, which had always opposed Oslo. By the time the second intifada broke out in 2000, Hamas was already in the driving seat and the PLO’s non-violent campaign for statehood was seen as toothless by most Palestinians. So, from a historical perspective, it is not the Palestinian radicalism that prevented peace. Rather, it is the absence of peace and the continuing occupation that strengthened Islamist radicalism in Palestine.

The Iran factor

Second, it is a fact that Iran remains a major rival of Israel in West Asia. Iran also backs Hamas and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad, which jointly carried out the October 7 attack. Thus, the crisis has a clear geopolitical angle. But is Iran the central factor of the Israel-Palestine crisis? Iran became a hostile nation to Israel only in 1979, after the Islamic revolution. Before the revolution, the Iranian monarchy was so close to Israel that both nations had agreed in 1977 to build a military co-production complex inside Iran to make ballistic missiles. Even after the Mullahs seized power in Tehran, Israel supplied the Islamic revolutionary regime in the 1980s with weapons, under United States supervision, during the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war.

Iran did not have much of an influence among the Palestinians during the Oslo process. It was after Oslo collapsed and Hamas began rising as a key pillar of the Palestinian resistance that the Islamic Republic became a major player through its support for Palestinian non-state militias. What Iran did was to exploit the continuing occupation and lack of peace for its geopolitical benefits by supporting radical Palestinian Islamists.

Hostile neighbourhood

Lastly, defenders of Israel’s disproportionate aggression always argue that Israel’s existence is at stake in a hostile neighbourhood. True, neighbouring Arab countries attacked Israel immediately after the new state was declared in May 1948 within historical Palestine. After that, it was Israel which launched the 1956 and 1967 wars. The last time an Arab country attacked Israeli troops was in 1973 when Egypt, along with Syria, launched the Yom Kippur war. Since then, six Arab countries have normalised ties with Israel, namely Egypt, Jordan, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Sudan and Morocco. And it is hardly a secret that Saudi Arabia and Israel have very good backroom ties though they have not officially established diplomatic relations. Israel is now an undeclared nuclear power with massive air power, ballistic missiles and other weapons. It is also unconditionally supported, militarily, politically and financially, by the U.S., the world’s most powerful country. Israel is no longer the David; it is the Goliath of West Asia.

But Israel’s regional hegemony and deterrence against and friendship with Arab countries have not brought peace for Israelis. Why? Because the Palestine question remains unaddressed. Palestine may no longer be an Arab-Israel problem, but it continues to remain an Israel-Palestine problem. Ever since its forced withdrawal from Gaza in 2005, Israel’s approach has been to ignore the question of occupation, as Golda Meir articulated in 1969: treat Palestinians as a security nuisance and move on with Arab peace plans, shaping “the new Middle East”, with the blessings of Washington. But Hamas’s brutal October 7 attacks, the first invasion into Israel proper since 1948, shattered the foundations of the “new Middle East”. Hamas’s indiscriminate attacks and Israel’s collective punishment of Gazans suggest that the Palestine question remains the source of all maladies in the region. It is the revenge of old West Asia.

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