Modern wars kill civilians in numbers geometrically greater than deaths among combatants. That grim fact is a product of the 20th century. It all has to do with efficient modern weapons, true ‘force multipliers’, that allow fewer troops to kill many more noncombatants. On October 7, Hamas killed 1,400 Israelis – more than a thousand were civilians. Striking back, Israel has, as of this writing, killed more than 9,000 Palestinians, again the overwhelming proportion being civilians; a horribly large percentage are children.
The Israeli-Palestinian War, I should remind readers, started before World War II, not on October 7, 2023. October 7 is only another, albeit even ghastlier, chapter ballooning the death tolls that, in turn, inspire more revenge killings. The last ninety years have been one continuous series of revenge killings, each justified as payback for the atrocities of six major wars and countless smaller bloodbaths from the 1930’s to 2023. The carnage has dehumanized each side’s perception of the other. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu calls for the Palestinians to be treated like the ‘Amaleks’ – an ancient Cannanite tribe exterminated by King David (see the 1st book of Samuel), while his Defense Minister describes Gazans as ‘animals’. An early Palestinian leader declared “killing Jews is good in the eyes of God.” Common decency and lack of space do not allow a detailed account of what each side has inflicted on the other, nor will I entertain any arguments about which murder of whose baby was worse. As one side slaughters the children of the other, it is digging graves for its own children.
Netanyahu has laid out his objectives for the war on Gaza; he will eradicate Hamas both militarily and politically. He has cast the war in existential terms as a fight for the “very survival of Israel” – rather than a battle against a militant group holding a block of territory 141 square miles big, surrounded and outgunned. For a few days, Netanyahu proposed expelling two million Gazans to Egypt, ostensibly for their own protection while the Israelis hunted down Hamas. For Palestinians and Egyptians, Netanyahu’s call conjured up memories of the expulsion of more than a million Palestinians in 1948.
Allowing the conflict to fester since then has only driven more revenge-inspired bloodshed. As I have written in this column earlier, this conflict did not originate with the Palestinians or the Israelis. Europeans laid the groundwork for the conflict in 1915, and European antisemitism, culminating in the Holocaust, brought it to a head. Foreign powers, especially the U.S., have perpetuated the conflict. The U.S. jealously guards its monopoly over negotiating any settlement of the conflict. We push ‘peace process’ negotiations but our track record of success is dismal.
The record is littered with failed strategies. Henry Kissinger first articulated the theory that supplying unlimited military equipment to Israel sufficient “to ensure its superiority to any combination of possible enemies” would give the Israelis the confidence and sense of security needed to make compromises for peace. Every successive American administration has tried the same policy and they all have failed.
We repeatedly dragged the Palestinian Resistance Organization (PLO) to the negotiating table, but we never seemed to understand that the Palestinians, much the weaker party, lacked the strength to negotiate. In 1993, it appeared that we might have had a breakthrough with the Oslo Accords that established a Palestinian Authority (PA) and initiated the concept of the two state solution. Tragically, an Israeli fanatic assassinated Yitzhak Rabin, the Israeli leader who signed the Oslo Accords, and everything began to slide downhill thereafter.
Israel, in a misguided attempt at ‘divide and conquer’ initially nurtured Hamas to undermine the PA which has lost all credibility. Palestinians see it as an ossified and corrupt collaborator with the Israeli occupation. In 2005, the U.S. and Israel insisted that Palestinians conduct elections over the objections of the PA. Hamas won the vote by a big margin, but the U.S. and Israel then refused to accept the results; apparently on the theory that democratic elections are only valid when our guy wins.
This bloody downward spiral has led the protagonists into a situation where each side’s minimum demands are unacceptable to the other. The nationalists on both sides demand that their state exclusively occupy the land. The national narrative of each side envisions a state only occupied by their own ethnic group. The chant “From the River to the Sea” echoes in both camps.
The time has truly come for the outside world to step in forcefully and put an end to the conflict it started and helped perpetuate. Pundits wring their hands and worry that Israel will never dismantle settlements, for example, or that Palestinians will never forfeit the refugee’s right of return. Why not? Some of us are old enough to remember that in 1978, President Jimmy Carter took a famous “walk in the woods” at Camp David with Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin after the latter stated he would rather “give up his right arm” than withdraw from a single settlement from the Sinai. When the two got back from the walk, Begin had agreed to the withdrawal of all settlements from Sinai. Why not try it again?