Conflict inevitable in the absence of a Palestinian state
It is too soon to wonder what the Israeli political, military and security institutions will conclude from the current developments. It is also too soon to wonder what Hamas will conclude.
Will the Israeli institutions view the developments as a terrible setback that must be overcome by making Hamas and Gaza pay a price equal to the damage they have dealt the image of the Israeli army and its deterrence power? Will it preoccupy itself with punishing those whom it deems responsible while still preparing for the next war?
One must await the end of the war, which may spiral out of control if it stretches on and witnesses even greater violence than we have seen so far.
What about Hamas? What will it conclude? Will it consolidate its conviction that there can be no other solution than war and prepare for more wars to come? In this case, what about the West Bank and the simmering tensions there in the wake of the current fighting?
What about the Lebanese-Israeli border, where the embers lie in wait for the possible expansion of the war? What about the Lebanese-Syrian border? Will the war spread across it in spite of Russia’s presence in Syria? What about the entire region? What of the allies of the warring parties, namely the US and Iran?
What is taking place is greater than just a war between Israel and the Gaza Strip. It is a new crossroads in a long and bitter conflict between the Israelis and Palestinians.
It is no exaggeration to say that the new images are unprecedented. It is no simple feat for the Qassam Brigades to attack Israel by land, sea and air. It is no simple feat to confuse the Israeli army like this. It is no simple feat to reach such heavy death tolls, cause this many injuries and take so many people captive. It is no simple feat to prepare for such a war and to take Israeli intelligence by surprise. We are speaking here about Gaza, which the Israeli army believed it was besieging and keeping a close eye on.
The scenes are indeed unprecedented. It is no simple feat for Hamas fighters to enter the settlements around Gaza and take several residents hostage. It is also no simple feat for the Qassam Brigades to shower Israel with thousands of rockets.
The battle on the first day was that of optics above anything else. The regular Israeli army was incapable of immediately retaliating and addressing the loopholes that were exploited. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu himself was forced to acknowledge that Israel was at war and that he had to call up the reservists.
The memories of the people of the Middle East are full of long and bitter conflicts. The Palestinian-Israeli conflict is at the forefront. One of the many chapters of this long lesson is that the conflict cannot be resolved through war, and it also cannot be resolved through a settlement.
The current Israeli government includes figures who make provocations on a daily basis. The result is the situation we have now.
The Israeli army achieved a resounding victory in 1967. It broke the Arab armies and occupied more territories. But the war did not force the losers to surrender. Instead, they retaliated hard in 1973. Israel was taken by surprise, but American support prevented an Arab victory. The shock of the war did not persuade Israel to opt for peace as a way to end the conflict. It only agreed to enough points that would see Egypt quit Gaza. Israel was deluded into thinking that Egypt’s departure would bring an end to the wars and that the Palestinian cause would eventually be forgotten.
In the 1970s, Beirut became the capital of the Palestinian cause. The clashes on the Lebanese-Israeli border were heated messages. The Palestinians were underscoring their demand for their rights. Israel was trying to deprive them of these rights. In 1982, Israel concluded that it should uproot the Palestine Liberation Organization from its last remaining foothold on the Arab-Israeli front line. The Israeli army invaded Lebanon and besieged Beirut, forcing the PLO to withdraw from the country. Israel believed at the time that the Palestinian cause would be defeated in exile.
Neutral observers believe that Israel lost major opportunities to guide the conflict toward a settlement that would stop the cycle of wars. It lost the opportunity presented by Yasser Arafat’s handshake with Yitzhak Rabin at the White House. It was a handshake between two warriors who each enjoyed full legitimacy in their own environment. Israel underestimated the importance of Arafat’s political and military legitimacy and his Palestinian, Arab and Islamic legitimacy. Ariel Sharon was deluded in believing that a “boycott” of Arafat would destroy the Palestinians’ dream of the establishment of their own state.
Israel also wasted the opportunity presented by the Arab Peace Initiative, which was declared at the Arab League Summit in Beirut in 2002. The initiative was the product of arduous efforts to resolve the conflict in a way that would guarantee the establishment of a Palestinian state side by side with Israel. The latter was promised that it would be included in the region should it be receptive to the proposal.
Israel’s sense of superiority and power led it to waste more opportunities. It believed that the post-9/11 world and the US invasion of Iraq offered a golden opportunity to impose a status quo that disregards the essence of the Palestinian conflict. It took away all hope from the Palestinians and its behavior weakened the position of moderates, who were banking on reaching a negotiated settlement. Israeli society slipped further toward the right. The current Israeli government includes figures who make provocations on a daily basis. The result is the situation we have now.
The embers of war could be blown in more than one direction. But the expansion of destruction and the war will not eliminate the extraordinary scenes that unfolded on that first day, when Israel witnessed the unexpected.
This conflict can only be resolved through deriving some lessons. The first is acknowledging the Palestinians’ right to have their own independent state. Any other option means merely biding time until another, even fiercer, war claims more lives, especially among civilians, and causes massive economic losses.
The question remains: What will the fighters conclude when the fighting stops? They cannot emerge from this chronic conflict without carrying out a deep review and taking painful decisions. The formation of a Palestinian state is the first step toward establishing stability in the region. Without it, we will witness more conflicts like the one unfolding right now.
• Ghassan Charbel is editor-in-chief of Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper.