The reignition of the conflict should have surprised no one, had not so many eyes—including in Europe—been averted.
In the hours after Hamas’ attack in southern Israel, shock prevailed in the hearts of many. And understandably, given the unprecedented scale and logistical-military capabilities demonstrated by the organisation in launching its ‘Al Aqsa Flood’ operation.
Implicit in an attack of this magnitude is extensive preparation. The Hamas militants did not improvise: their meticulous plans would have covered military strategy, politics, intelligence—and the instillation of fear. Yet, Israel, with its advanced security and military systems, seems to have been unaware, despite its technological surveillance, its informants, the siege it had imposed on the Gaza strip and its collaboration with Arab nations such as Egypt and the United Arab Emirates.
If the foremost question arising was thus ‘How did all of this go unnoticed?’, the more profound concern is however just how unforeseen was a sudden surge in intense violence between Israel, Gaza—which Hamas seized control of in 2007—and the Palestinian population. Indeed, that very overarching sense of surprise brings to light some concealed truths.
Focusing on immediate intelligence and military shortcomings diverts attention from the real failure, which has been political and ethical. That failure encompasses all parties: Israel, the Palestinian Authority (PA) in nominal control of the west bank, Arab states, European countries and institutions as well as the United States. It stems from policies based on a selective historical perspective on the Israel-Palestine conflict and the belief that peace and security can take root and thrive even in an environment of injustice.
Under the leadership of the most right-wing government in its history, Israel has pursued short-sighted priorities. Since December of last year when it was formed, the prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, has focused domestically on undermining the judiciary via a political override of unwelcome rulings, leading to massive street protests, and securing his coalition by making concessions to its hard-right fringes. Internationally, his priority has been enhancing relations with Saudi Arabia.
Palestinians have not been absent from the government’s agenda. But they were only addressed as an obstacle to Israeli plans to annex occupied territories in the west bank or to engender a ‘new middle east’.
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Not only were Palestinian rights continually violated and their grievances left unaddressed. A belief also prevailed that the Israel-Palestine conflict had become dormant or was on the brink of pacification—partly due to the potential expansion of the normalisation between Israel and Arab nations initiated in 2020. This perception endured despite the escalating and systemic violence in Jerusalem, the west bank and Gaza.
The events of October 7th did thus not only reflect on a distracted Israeli government. They were the direct result of the occupation and of the unpreparedness of a state under the illusion that its overwhelming power—assisted by the subservience of the PA, which has long acted as a security co-ordinator in the occupied west bank—would suffice to continue disregarding Palestinian rights and guarantee security to Israelis.
The decades-long divide et impera policy adopted by Israel, imposing a territorial, political, economic, cultural and personal fragmentation on Palestine and Palestinians, sought to neutralise Palestinian actions that could potentially challenge the controversial bedrock of the state of Israel. Israel truly believed (and still believes) this would do the trick, and western countries largely bought into that narrative.
This is, politically, what explains the shock in Israeli society and among western governments, convinced as they were that the security provided by the armed forces in a context of occupation, fragmentation and oppression would be sustainable. But the now-clearer truth is that, as long as injustice persists, a stable and secure middle east remains unattainable and, without recognising Palestinian rights as integral components of the equation, regional integration is a distant goal.
Sideshow at best
For months, discussions about the ‘new’ middle east revolved around the negotiations between Israel and Saudi Arabia, mediated by the US. While certainly significant, normalisation between the two non-warring countries has always been, at best, a sideshow in the greater middle-east picture.
The true challenges revolve around the continuing conflicts, starting with the Israel-Palestine one. This extends to conflicts with Lebanon and Syria, and it reaches a colossal regional scale with Iran. As evident in these tragic days, only the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has the destructive power to unleash a wider regional conflagration.
Yet, as during prior international peace initiatives in the middle east, all the media attention and political, economic and security ‘capital’ have been directed towards placing a sticking-plaster where there is no wound while failing to dress the gaping lesions, all the while sustaining the illusion that the real problems would remain dormant.
Myopia and hypocrisy
Responsibility does indeed lie within the region but it also extends to the west. Just a few weeks ago, the US national security adviser, Jake Sullivan, declared that the middle east had not been so quiet in two decades. Not only macabre in hindsight, those words revealed immense myopia and hypocrisy. And while the US has not made any significant positive contribution to the middle east in recent years, Europe has done even less.
In Ukraine, Europe understood that stabilisation would not come through a mere freezing of the conflict. Yet in the middle east the European Union deluded itself into thinking peace without justice was possible. It let the ‘two states for two peoples’ solution die amid Israel’s settler colonial hybris, the weakness of the PA, the cynicism of middle-eastern governments and western hypocrisy.
The solution perished into oblivion, while the problem, as evident in these days of tragic violence, is all too alive. With it, the rights of Palestinians to a just future and the west’s credibility in countries of the global south are fading away.