The events of recent days are unprecedented. The last time units of Jewish and Palestinian fighters — military or paramilitary — went to battle on such a broad front in Israel-Palestine was in 1948. There have, of course, been various battles over the years in Gaza as well as West Bank cities like Jenin, and Israeli and Palestinian units fought one another in Lebanon in 1982. But there is no parallel to the scope of what has taken place here since Saturday morning, and not since 1948 have Palestinian fighters occupied Jewish communities on this scale.
This fact is not just a historical anecdote; it has a direct political meaning. This murderous and inhumane attack by Hamas arrived just as it seemed Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was about to complete his masterpiece: peace with the Arab world while completely ignoring the Palestinians. This attack has reminded Israelis and the world, for better or for worse, that the Palestinians are still here, and that the century-old conflict here involves them, not the Emiratis or the Saudis.
In his speech at the UN General Assembly two weeks ago, Netanyahu presented a map of “The New Middle East,” depicting the State of Israel stretching from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea and building a “corridor of peace and prosperity” with its neighbors across the region, including Saudi Arabia. A Palestinian state, or even the collection of shrunken enclaves that the Palestinian Authority ostensibly controls, does not appear on the map.
Since he was first elected prime minister in 1996, Netanyahu has tried to avoid any negotiations with the Palestinian leadership, instead choosing to bypass it and push it aside. Israel does not need peace with the Palestinians to prosper, Netanyahu repeatedly claimed; its military, economic, and political strength is sufficient without it. The fact that during the years of his rule, especially between 2009 and 2019, Israel experienced economic prosperity and its international status improved, was, in his eyes, proof that he is following the right path.
The Abraham Accords signed with Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates, and later also Sudan and Morocco, reinforced this belief conclusively. “For the past 25 years, we have been told repeatedly that peace with other Arab countries will only come after we resolve the conflict with the Palestinians,” Netanyahu wrote in an article in Haaretz before the last election. “Contrary to the prevailing position,” he continued, “I believe that the road to peace does not go through Ramallah, but bypasses it: instead of the Palestinian tail wagging the Arab world, I argued that peace should begin with Arab countries, which would isolate Palestinian obstinacy.” A peace agreement with Saudi Arabia was supposed to be the icing on the “peace for peace” cake that Netanyahu has spent years preparing.
Netanyahu did not invent the policy of separation between Gaza and the West Bank, nor the use of Hamas as a tool to weaken the Palestine Liberation Organization and its national ambitions to establish a Palestinian state. Then-Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s 2005 “disengagement” plan from Gaza was built on this logic. “This whole package called the Palestinian state has fallen off the agenda for an indefinite period of time,” said Dov Weissglas, Sharon’s advisor, explaining the political goal of disengagement at the time. “The plan provides the amount of formaldehyde required so that there will be no political process with the Palestinians.”
Netanyahu not only adopted this way of thinking, he also added to it the preservation of Hamas rule in Gaza as a tool for strengthening the separation between the strip and the West Bank. In 2018, for example, he agreed that Qatar would transfer millions of dollars a year to finance the Hamas government in Gaza, embodying the comments made in 2015 by Bezalel Smotrich (then a marginal Knesset member, and today the finance minister and de facto West Bank overlord) that “the Palestinian Authority is a burden and Hamas is an asset.”
“Netanyahu wants Hamas on its feet and is ready to pay an almost unimaginable price for it: half the country paralyzed, children and parents traumatized, houses bombed, people killed,” Israel’s current information minister, Galit Distel Atbaryan, wrote in May 2019, when she was yet to enter politics but was known as a prominent Netanyahu supporter. “And Netanyahu, in a kind of outrageous, almost unimaginable restraint, does not do the easiest thing: getting the IDF to overthrow the organization.
“The question is, why?” Distel Atbaryan continued, before explaining: “If Hamas collapses, Abu Mazen [Mahmoud Abbas] may control the strip. If he controls it, there will be voices from the left that will encourage negotiations and a political solution and a Palestinian state, also in Judea and Samaria [the West Bank] … This is the real reason why Netanyahu does not eliminate the Hamas leader, everything else is bullshit.”
Indeed, Netanyahu himself had effectively admitted as much a couple of months before Distel Atbaryan made her comments, when he declared in a Likud meeting that “anyone who wants to thwart the establishment of a Palestinian state needs to support strengthening Hamas. This is part of our strategy, to isolate Palestinians in Gaza from Palestinians in Judea and Samaria.”
Strengthening the Gaza fence became another aspect of Netanyahu’s strategy. “The barrier will prevent terrorists from infiltrating our territory,” Netanyahu explained when he announced the start of work in 2019 to add an underground barrier that would end up costing more than NIS 3 billion. Two years later, Israeli journalist Ron Ben-Yishai wrote in Ynet that the ultimate goal of the fence, which was considered to be an impenetrable barrier for terrorists, is to “prevent a connection between Hamas in Gaza and the Palestinian Authority in Judea and Samaria.”
On Saturday morning, that fence was torn down, and with it the broader Netanyahu doctrine — adopted by the Americans and many Arab states — that it is possible to make peace in the Middle East without the Palestinians. As hundreds of militants crossed the border unhindered on their way to occupy army posts and infiltrate dozens of Israeli communities as far as 18 miles away, Hamas declared in the most clear, painful, and murderous way possible that the conflict that threatens Israelis’ lives is the conflict with the Palestinians, and the idea that they can be bypassed via Riyadh or Abu Dhabi, or that the 2 million Palestinians imprisoned in Gaza will disappear if Israel builds a sufficiently elaborate fence, is an illusion that is now being shattered at a terrible human cost.
This is not necessarily good news. It is impossible not to define the actions of Hamas as war crimes: the massacre of civilians, the murder of entire families in their homes, the kidnapping of civilians including the elderly and children into captivity in Gaza — all of these violate the laws of war, and if the International Criminal Court does exercise its jurisdiction over Israel-Palestine, then those responsible for these actions will have to be prosecuted. In other words, Hamas’ “declaration” that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict still exists came at the price of the blood of hundreds of innocent people.
It is also not necessarily good news because it seems that the conclusion Israel is currently drawing from the understanding that the conflict is here in Israel-Palestine, and not in Saudi Arabia, is to “overthrow Hamas” or “flatten Gaza.” Likud MK Ariel Kellner and right-wing journalist Yinon Magal likely represent a significant portion of the Israeli public — and certainly the government — when they call for the response to be another Nakba.
And yet, beyond the moral judgments, the attack by Hamas has brought all of us — especially the Israelis — back to reality, reminding us that the conflict began here, in 1948, and that no magic cure can make it disappear. And since Hamas, as strong and capable of surprises as it may be, cannot murder 7 million Jews, and since Israel — I believe — is not capable of carrying out another Nakba (or even recapturing Gaza), it is possible that from the trauma of the past few days will grow the idea that the conflict must be resolved on the basis of freedom, national and civic equality, and the end of the siege and the occupation.
After the trauma of the 1973 war, which many are comparing to what is happening today, it dawned on Israelis that peace could come at the expense of withdrawing from the Egyptian territory it had occupied. The same realization can happen after the trauma of 2023.
This article has been republished with permission from +972 Magazine. It originally appeared in Hebrew in Local Call.
Senator Lindsey Graham had two options walking into the Doha Forum in Qatar this weekend: find a way to triangulate his full-throated support for Netanyahu policies in Israel for the largely Palestinian-supportive Muslim audience Sunday, or wave his own flag without reservation. He went with the latter.
The South Carolina Republican made it clear he was no stranger to the region — he touted a long friendship with his host the Emir of Qatar and lauded the kingdom's role as international mediator and host to America's Fifth Fleet. But he didn't bat an eye to tell this audience — thousands of Muslims assembled from across the Gulf and the broader Middle East, plus attendees from Global South nations and Europe — that the U.S. veto of the ceasefire was one of the few things he thought the Biden Administration got right.
"President Biden ...You have risen to the occasion after October the seventh," he said, addressing the audience Sunday. "I have a world of difference with President Biden on many things. But when he vetoed the ceasefire resolution, he did the right thing and let me tell you why. Every ceasefire Hamas has ever entered has been broken and we're not going to do a ceasefire until hostages begin to be released like promised and would give the Israeli military the time and space they need to make sure that Hamas ceases to be a threat to Israel and the Palestinian people."
"So as a Republican, I am standing behind President Biden's decision, that resolution and the one that comes next."
He also said the only way there will be peace in the Middle East and to get the real culprit — Iran — and to start building a state for Palestine, was for the normalization process between Arab States and Israel to continue, with the Israel-Saudi deal the icing on the cake.
"I pledge in front of the world to help President Biden secure the votes in the United States Senate to make it possible for Saudi Arabia to have a defense agreement with us, which would then make it possible for Saudi Arabia, to recognize Israel," he declared. "Before the world I pledge my support, to help reconstruct a new Palestine but none of this is possible until you have a less corrupt younger Palestinian Authority, replacing the one we have. And a Hamas can no longer wreak havoc on Israel, on their own people.”
That potential U.S.-brokered Israel-Saudi deal have been deemed all but dead after the Oct. 7 attacks in Israel. Graham contended that aside from hating Jews, Hamas launched the attacks to kill any hope for that deal to go forward. Observers have come to similar conclusions — that the so-called Abraham Accords had left the Palestinians on the cutting room floor, inciting anger among the militant elements in Gaza. But unlike Graham, these critics' hold that the agreements are the problem — that regional leaders' shouldn't have allowed Israel to shunt the peace process to the side in the first place.
Not only did Graham ignore this fatal flaw of the agreements, he reveled in his own blind spots, choosing to ignore any culpability of the Netanyahu government over the decades leading to the violence and what appears today, an endless bombardment and on-the-ground military operation in Gaza with chances for further talks between the two sides dwindling by the hour. Instead, he appeared to blame Iran for everything.
"The biggest fear of the Ayatollah is that the Arab world, in conjunction with Israel, marches toward the light away from the darkness. (Iran hates) the idea that everybody in this room can find a way to work with Israel and live with Israel where everybody makes money and can live in peace. Because let me tell you, their agenda is different than yours. So I believe we cannot let Iran win."
He said he was committed to a two-state solution, and if there was any moment in his talk where he put any responsibility on Israel it was this: "I'm going to Israel soon and here's what I'm telling Israeli friends — Saudi Arabia, Qatar, UAE, none of these Arab countries can help you. Unless you make a commitment for a two state solution. ...To my friends in Israel the best thing you can do to beat Iran is to give the Palestinians a life where they're not dependent upon terrorist organizations that they can live and work and be prosperous."
How Israelis could get there, from here, was not explained by Lindsey Graham, or whether he honestly thought that was possible given the "hell on earth" Gaza is becoming today. But we know he doesn't believe that the civilian crisis on the ground now will reduce the chances for peace tomorrow, because of the way he reacted to U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin's remarks earlier this month.
Austin said “the lesson is that you can only win in urban warfare by protecting civilians. In this kind of a fight, the center of gravity is the civilian population. And if you drive them into the arms of the enemy, you replace a tactical victory with a strategic defeat.”
“Strategic defeat would be inflaming the Palestinians? They’re already inflamed,” Graham continued. “They’re taught from the time they’re born to hate the Jews and to kill them. They’re taught math: If you have 10 Jews and kill six, how many would you have left?”
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Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov speaks at the 21st Doha Forum in Qatar on Dec. 10. (Vlahos)
DOHA, QATAR — In remarks Sunday at the 21st Doha Forum in Qatar, Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov seemed to revel in what is becoming a groundswell of international frustration with the United States over its policies in Israel. Despite Russia’s own near-isolated status after its 2022 invasion of Ukraine, Lavrov glibly characterized the U.S. as on the wrong side of history, the leader of the dying world order, and the purveyor of its own brand of “cancel culture.”
“I think everybody understands that this (Gaza war) did not happen in a vacuum that there were decades of unfulfilled promises that the Palestinians would get their own state,” and years of political and security hostilities that exploded on Oct. 7, he charged. “This is about the cancel culture, whatever you don’t like about events that led to the current situation you cancel. Everything that came before February 2022, including the bloody coup (in Ukraine) and the unconstitutional change of power … all this was canceled. The only thing that remains is that Russia invaded Ukraine.”
Lavrov, beamed in from Russia to the international audience in Doha, went fairly unchallenged, though his interviewer James Bays, diplomatic editor at Al Jazeera, attempted to corner him on accusations stemming from Russia’s own bloody record in Chechnya in the 1990s and and 2000s and its ongoing military campaign in Syria, which Lavrov noted was at the “behest” of the Syrian government.
On the issue of the failed ceasefire vote at the UN Security Council, of which Russia is a permanent veto member, Lavrov said, “we strongly condemn the terrorist attack against Israel. At the same time we do not think it is acceptable to use this (terrorist) event for collective punishment of millions of Palestinian people.” Did he condemn the United States for vetoing the ceasefire measure? “It’s up to the regional countries and the other countries of the world to judge,” he declared.
When asked if there was a “stalemate” in the Russian war in Ukraine, and what the Russians may have gained from their invasion in 2022, he said simply, “it’s up to the Ukrainians to understand how deep a hole they are in and where the Americans have put them.”
On whether a ceasefire may be in the offing in that war Lavrov said, “a year and half ago (Zelensky) signed a decree prohibiting any negotiations with the Putin government. They had the chance in March and April 2022, very soon after the beginning of the special military operation, where in Istanbul the negotiators reached a deal with neutrality for Ukraine, no NATO, and security guarantees…it was canceled,” he added, because the Americans and Brits wanted to “exhaust (Ukrainians) more.”
Lavrov gleefully piggybacked on themes from an earlier forum panel on the Global South. He accused “the United States and its allies” of building “the model of globalization, which they thought would serve them well.” But now, Lavrov contends, the unaligned are using “the principles and instruments of globalization to beat the West on their own terms.” As for Russia, Lavrov deployed a little “cancel culture” of his own, cherry picking the high points of his country's history over the last 200 years to project a nation that he boasts will emerge unscathed by Western assaults today.
“In the beginning of the 19th century Napoleon (rose European armies) against Russia and we defeated him; in the 20th century Hitler did the same. We defeated him and became stronger after that as well,” he said. With the Ukraine war, the West will find “that Russia has already become much stronger than it was before this.”
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UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres speaks in opening session of the Doha Forum in Qatar, December 10. (vlahos)
DOHA, QATAR — The U.S. veto of the UN Security Council vote for a ceasefire in the war in Gaza is being met with widespread anger and frustration by the international community and especially in the Arab world, as reflected in opening remarks at the 21st Doha Forum in Qatar on Sunday.
Addressing the forum, UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres said the vote was “regrettable…that does not make it less necessary. I can promise that I will not give up.” He said since the Oct. 7 attack by Hamas in Israel and the ensuing Israeli retaliation in Gaza, “the Council’s authority and credibility were seriously undermined” by a succession of failed votes to respond to ongoing civilian carnage on the Strip.
Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al-Thani, foreign minister of Qatar, said the current crisis and the U.S. reaction to it, including its thwarting of the ceasefire call (it was the only vote of disapproval; the UK abstained) was exposing the “great gap between East and West ... and double standards in the international community.” He pointed to those drawing attention to war crimes in “other contexts” (no doubt referring to Russia in Ukraine ) “hesitating to call for the end of these crimes in the Gaza strip.”
He repeatedly called for the creation of new multipolar world order that "respects justice and equality between the people where no people are more powerful than the other."
The U.S. said it did not approve the ceasefire resolution Friday because of the lack of condemnation of Hamas in the language, and that it not include a declaration of Israel’s right to defend itself. U.S. ambassador Robert Wood said halting Israel’s military action would “only plant the seeds for the next war.”
The result is that people here at the forum say they are more convinced than ever that U.S. policy is reflexively and intimately intertwined with Israel's activities in Gaza. As Mohammad Shtayyeh, prime minister of Palestine, charged, Washington has given the “greenest of green lights” to what Israel is doing on the ground. This was exacerbated this weekend with news that the Biden Administration is bypassing Congressional review to send 13,000 tank rounds to Israel. This, despite efforts by Democrats in his own party to condition the transfer of offensive weapons to prevent their use against civilians.
Meanwhile, humanitarian advocates repeatedly called the situation on the ground “unprecedented.” In an interview with Al Jazeera reporter Stefanie Dekker on the dais, Philippe Lazzarini, commissioner-general of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, said his own organization is “on the brink of collapse.” They have lost 134 relief workers in Gaza since Israeli operations began. He described staff in silent stupefaction over the loss of homes, families. “There is no doubt a ceasefire is needed; we want to put an end to hell on earth right now in Gaza.”
Khaled Saffuri, executive director of the National Interest Foundation in Washington, told RS he was struck by the backlash against American brands in his own travels in Kuwait and Qatar over the last week, citing customer and restaurant boycotts of Coke, Pepsi, MacDonald’s, and Starbucks. “It’s horrible,” he said of the lopsided UN vote. “America is losing a lot in the Muslim world.”
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