This is the first article in a two-part series on the events in Israel-Palestine. Read Part 2 here.
When Hamas, which controls even though it does not govern Gaza, suddenly broke the fragile peace that had existed between Jews and Arabs in that enclave for the previous two years, entered Israel simultaneously from seven places, killed up to 1,400 Israeli soldiers and settlers in the West Bank, and dragged more than 200 hostages into Gaza, a world that has grown weary of wars being fought year after year in places it has barely heard of, for reasons that it can neither understand nor condone, reacted with shock and immediate condemnation.
This weariness with conflict has created the moral space for Israel’s hugely disproportionate retaliation. By October 24, when it announced that it was ending its carpet bombing of north Gaza and sending in ground forces to ferret out and kill Hamas’s leaders and fighters, Israel’s armed forces had killed 5,087 Palestinian civilians, of whom a thousand were women and more than 2,000 were children, and injured 15,273 others. This amounted to killing or maiming one in every hundred Gazans in 15 days of Israeli bombardment.
Despite this awful slaughter of a caged and unarmed civilian population, the world’s governments have remained largely silent. It took Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the president of Turkey, 13 days to call Israel’s carpet bombing of North Gaza a genocide. It has taken six days longer for the foreign ministers of the United Arab Emirates, Jordan, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Oman, Qatar, Kuwait, Egypt and Morocco to condemn Israel in a joint statement at the UN General Assembly.
In sharp contrast, the condemnation of Hamas by European and North American governments, and their open condonement of Israel’s return to the law of the jungle – ten eyes for an eye and ten teeth for a tooth – was immediate. Several of them even rushed to visit Israel in solidarity, with France’s President Emanuel Macron standing silently beside Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu while he described Hamas’s attack as the worst anti-Semitic act of violence since the Holocaust.
Not to be outdone, American President Joe Biden has accused Hamas of having committed ‘atrocities that recall the worst ravages of ISIS, and its unleashing of pure, unadulterated evil upon this world’. To do this he conveniently forgot the complicity of the government of which he was vice-president in not only condoning but giving logistical support to ISIS’s predecessors, the Jabhat al Nusra, Al Qaeda in Iraq and Syria, and the so-called Free Syrian Army, as they wreaked havoc on Syria for the crime of insisting that it would remain a secular Arab nation and supporter of Hamas, and the PLA.
None of what I have written above is intended to condone what Hamas did to Jewish settlers, but it helps to explain the desperation, and the feeling of abandonment, that drove its leaders to plan and commit an act that was not only a crime but would probably lead to their own deaths. The world has to ask itself what this suicidal desperation springs from. For if it does not do so, it will make itself complicit in the slaughter of innocent Palestinians that has now begun. For its continued silence has become the green light that Netanyahu has been looking for to pursue his openly declared ultimate purpose – the creation of a ‘homeland for the Jews’ from which every single trace of Palestine has been erased.
Netanyahu has never made a secret of his determination to do so. As chairman of Israel’s conservative major party, the Likud, he denounced the Oslo peace process in 1993, calling Israel’s recognition of the PLO and Yasser Arafat’s Al Fatah a ‘mortal threat to Israel’. By doing this he touched a nerve, particularly in the more recent immigrants from middle-eastern and African countries, and the former Soviet Union, that he has never hesitated to squeeze, to keep his hold on power.
That inflamed ‘nerve’ caused a Jewish fanatic to assassinate Premier Yitzak Rabin in November 1995 as punishment for agreeing to join in the Oslo Process. Having found it, Netanyahu has never let it heal. This has enabled him to remain the prime minister of Israel for more than 12 of the 14 years since he first came to power in 2009. His relentless extremism has paid him dividends because a huge inflow of Jews from Africa, the Middle-East and Russia, in the ‘90s, and a simultaneous emigration of descendants, numbering 30,000 to 45,000 a year, of the original European settlers who were the true victims of the Holocaust, has changed the character of the Israeli population in the past half century and pulled Israeli politics further and further to the Right.
Israel’s proportional representation voting system, and its low (3.25%) vote share threshold for political parties to gain representation in the Knesset, has made it fatally easy for this shift to get reflected in Israel’s politics. That has progressively reduced the space for the compromise with the Palestinians that is needed to negotiate durable peace.
Netanyahu owes his dominance of Israeli politics to the fact that he has been less troubled by this shift than any other major Israeli leader. He has demonstrated this by relentlessly espousing what he insists is the only solution to the “Palestine problem”. This is the complete ‘ethnic cleansing’ of Arabs from Gaza, East Jerusalem and the West Bank.
He unveiled his goal at the UN General Assembly session in New York in September, where he displayed a map of the future Israel that included Gaza, the entire West Bank that it had wrested from Jordan in 1967, and the Golan Heights that it had wrested from Syria in the 1967 war and formally annexed to Israel in 1981. It made no mention of Palestine. This was a repeat of the tactics he had used at the same forum in 2012 to stoke apprehension over Iran’s nuclear programme. On that occasion he had placed a large placard on the dais beside him depicting an atom bomb with a thick red line dividing its top tenth from the rest before beginning his speech. He had then pointed to the upper part of the diagram to illustrate how short a distance Iran had left to travel, in order to become a nuclear weapons power.
He succeeded then because the US Congressional Research Service’s Report on Iran’s nuclear weapons programme was still six weeks away from publication. That report revealed that Iran had stopped enriching natural uranium beyond the 5% U-235 content mark that is considered the starting point of enrichment to the 90% needed to make a nuclear warhead, as far back as in 2003. What is more, it had enriched only sufficient uranium to the 5% level to be able to make a single nuclear warhead, before abandoning the programme. But by then Netanyahu’s placard and speech had had their desired effect, and its misleading content had been largely forgotten. Netanyahu’s speech at the UN this year was intended to have the same effect.
The process of ethnic cleansing has already begun. As Mustafa Barghouti, a former finance minister in the Palestine Authority who broke with the PLO to create his own peace initiative, pointed out to Fareed Zakaria on CNN, while the PLO and Al Fatah had both recognised the State of Israel in the Oslo accords of 1993-95, to date the Israeli government had not recognised the PLA. Under Netanyahu’s premiership, since 2014 it had not even met with its leaders.
Instead, after unilaterally announcing its annexation of East Jerusalem, Netanyahu’s government had been building large multi-storey buildings for settlers to move into, and encouraging settlers to buy out Arab property in East Jerusalem, forcibly if necessary. Residents who resisted were shot. Since the annexation of East Jerusalem, bands of ‘settlers’, often aided by the Israel Defence Force, have killed 248 residents including 40 children.
In the West Bank, the Israeli government had cleared Palestinians out of 20 enclaves in order to build settlements for Jews. Barghouti saw no end to this process. That, he believes, was the genesis of the suicidal attack that Hamas launched upon Israel. Barghouti made no attempt to hide his distress. Although he did not say so explicitly, he made it clear that he considered this a losing game for the Palestinians who are its immediate victims, but also for Israel in the long run.
Barghouti is right because Netanyahu does not seem to have taken into account the fact that despite several waves of immigration of Jews from Africa, the Middle East and Russia, the Arab population of Israel, the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem is rising more rapidly than the Jewish. According to Israel’s Central Bureau of Statistics, continuing immigration of Jews from all parts of the world has sustained Israel’s population growth at an average of 2.2% a year between 1970 and 2020. But the rate of growth of the Arab population has been almost twice as high, at 4% in Gaza and 3.4% in the West Bank. At the end of 2022 , therefore, Israel’s Jews numbered 7.145 million, with another 890,000 living in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. The total Jewish population of Palestine therefore added up to 8.035 million. But despite the forcible eviction of three quarters of the original Arabs of Palestine in 1948, the Arab population of the mandate area had crept up once more till it was only a fraction below the Jewish, at 7.3 million.
If the current trends in population growth continue, Jews will become a minority in Palestine in less than 10 years. This could happen despite a recently noted rise in the fertility rate of Jewish women in Israel, because the immigration of Jews is bound to slow down in the coming decade, particularly if the violence now being witnessed in the West Bank and Gaza becomes a constant feature of life in Israel.
The Israeli far right’s dream of recreating ‘Eretz Israel’, a Jewish nation that will encompass all the land that was inhabited by Jews in Biblical times, is therefore destined to fail because of the simple working of biology. Given this disparity in population growth rates, Israel’s current attempt to expand the Jewish domain by building apartment blocks and pressurising reluctant Palestinians to sell their properties in East Jerusalem, and by clearing Arabs out, enclave by enclave, from the West Bank, will be like trying to climb onto a train that is moving faster than they are able to walk.
It would therefore have been surprising if the failure of the strategy of “annexation by incremental occupation”, pursued by the Netanyahu government for the past 14 years, had not increased the attraction of a quick, genocidal war to push most, if not all, Arabs out of Palestine. Hamas’s October 7 attack, and the western world’s instant and unqualified condemnation of it, has given the Netanyahu regime the opportunity to contemplate such a ‘solution’. The forced emptying of north Gaza, the continued cut off of power and water supply to, and occasional bombing of targets in, the hugely overcrowded south, the reluctant renewal of water supply to parts of south Gaza only upon American insistence, and the continuing cut-off of electricity and blockade on food supply, are almost certainly intended to create a desperate humanitarian situation that will force Egypt to open its gates to the Sinai and allow the population of Gaza to pour in. Needless to say, once they are gone, Israel will never allow them back, so the ethnic cleansing of Gaza will be complete.
Left to himself, Netanyahu would probably have baulked at going so far, for fear of drawing Turkey, Syria, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf Arab countries into the conflict. But Biden has obligingly lifted this threat by sending not one but two aircraft carrier-based strike groups to the Eastern Mediterranean to dissuade any such intervention. Mercifully, for the Palestinians, Russia’s warning on October 26 that “Israel’s war in Gaza could spread well beyond the Middle East” may provide the check to such madness that they, and the world, desperately need.
Prem Shankar Jha is a veteran journalist.