Horrifying images of death, devastation and distress in Gaza are upending the world, and outrage is convulsing it. The highest United Nations court, the International Court of Justice, is examining if Israel commits genocide in Gaza. Since Israel launched its military operation in response to the Hamas massacres of 7 October, some 20,000 Palestinians have been killed, tens of thousands have been injured, and hundreds of thousands are on the brink of starvation. The destruction is all-encompassing and the human suffering heartrending. Across the world, people demonstrate against Israel and for a liberated, decolonized Palestine that, so the widespread belief, has been the victim of decades of unmitigated aggression, occupation, oppression and deprivation. Not so much against the barbarous Hamas spasm.
History is more complicated, though, and the conflict is rooted in the hard to reconcile fact that Israelis and Palestinians claim ownership of the same land. Over the past decades, the conflict was driven by both parties, with extremists gaining ever more power and potential peacemakers becoming ever more discouraged, not least because of the involvement of outsiders, mainly the U.S. on the side of Israel, and Hezbollah, Qatar and Iran supporting Hamas. The latter has spared no effort to surround Israel by hostile forces.
Also, there is a pronounced intra-Palestinian conflict pitting the more moderate Fatah against the more militant Hamas, Palestinian Islamic Jihad and other factions. To view it mainly, or only, as the consequence of Israel’s decades long unjust treatment of Palestinians is facile.
As appalling as the Hamas-Israel war is, there are other dreadfully violent conflicts going on. Far more casualties are to be deplored in Syria (over 300,000), Sudan (also over 300,000), Yemen(over 200,000) and Ethiopia (over 100,000). In 2023, over 100,000 Armenians were expelled from Azerbaijan. These tragedies are largely ignored by much of global public opinion. Gaza and the West Bank are not the only territories taken over by a hostile neighbour. Internationally unrecognized, China occupies Tibet, Morocco Western Sahara, Russia parts of Moldova, Georgia and Ukraine, and Turkey Northern Cyprus.
International law distinguishes between the legality of the use of force (ius ad bellum) and proper military conduct once war has begun (ius in bello). In respect of the latter, there is much to be criticized about Israel’s military campaign in Gaza: disproportionate force, widespread killing and destruction, displacement of civilians, blocking of humanitarian assistance. However, Hamas is embedded in Gaza’s civilian infrastructure and operates from an extensive tunnel network, including hospitals, schools, and mosques, which impedes Israeli pinpoint strikes. Since Hamas cannot, in fact, be destroyed by military means, Israeli army operations are unnecessarily cruel. Inflaming hatred in the Palestinian population—before October 7, polls found that the majority of Gazans did not support Hamas and favoured a peaceful resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict—the Israeli military campaign is also counterproductive. But genocidal it is not.
An important part of the drama is that Hamas also egregiously and persistently violates ius in bello principles, beginning with the outrage of October 7 that shocked Israel to the core. The butchering of women, children, and old people, as well as the unspeakable sexual violence, was not done under the cover of darkness but gleefully filmed, streamed, and uploaded to the internet. Hamas still holds over one hundred civilian Israeli hostages, continues to fire rockets into Israel, and seems intent—certainly content—to provoke Israel’s overreaction and expose its own defenceless civilian population to atrocious violence. Israeli attacks would likely stop if Hamas were to announce the release of the hostages and a cease fire.
What about the ius ad bellum case? International law recognises self-defence as the only legitimate act of war. Hamas’s vicious attack on October 7 unquestionably justifies Israel’s pursuit to destroy Hamas, which resolutely confirms Israel’s obliteration as its ultimate war aim. The suffering Palestinian population and the worldwide revulsion are weaponized to further Hamas’s strategic objective. Israel’s fanatically right-wing government stumbled into this trap, well laid over many decades.
In 1947, Israel accepted the UN partition plan, but the Arab world rejected it as unjust and “contrary to the Palestinian Arab people’s right of self-determination to establish a single unitary state over the whole territory." Clashes between Israelis and Palestinians broke out immediately and intensified in May 1948, after Israel’s declaration of independence. Egyptian planes bombarded Tel Aviv, and the combined forces of Egypt, Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, Yemen, and Saudi Arabia simultaneously attacked Israel and were repulsed. Israel then forced out a hostile populace that could threaten its existence. Arab countries expelled almost a million Jews. Egypt provoked the 1967 Six-Day War and was joined by Jordan and Syria (there was no Palestinian state). After defeating all three, Israel occupied the West Bank, which was administered by Jordan; the Sinai and Gaza, which were administered by Egypt; and the Golan Heights, which were administered by Syria. In response, the Arab League (Egypt, Syria, Jordan, Lebanon, Iraq, Algeria, Kuwait, and Sudan) famously issued the three Noes: no peace with Israel, no recognition of Israel, and no negotiations with Israel. In 1973, a broad coalition—Egypt and Syria—joined by Algeria, Iraq, Jordan, Libya, Kuwait, Morocco, Tunisia, Saudi Arabia, even Cuba, and North Korea—attacked Israel and were defeated. Invited to Camp David by United States President Jimmy Carter, Egypt and Israel concluded a peace treaty in 1979.
The first half of the 1990s was a high point of hope with the conclusion of the Oslo Accords, a Nobel Peace Prize shared by the Palestine Liberation Organisation Leader Yasser Arafat, the Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres, and the Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, and the Israel-Jordan Peace Treaty. A major push at Camp David sadly failed. Successful negotiations a few months later at the Taba Summit were rendered moot by the election of Ariel Sharon.
For the past decades, a lasting peace has been thwarted by ever more right-wing Israeli governments, ever more dysfunctional Palestinian leaders in the West Bank, and ever more destructive Palestinian leaders in Gaza. The cycle of expanded, ever more unforgiving occupation, uprisings, and terrorism—the power of the weak, as it has been called—accelerated, and extremism on both sides grew.
Gaza has been an open-air prison since 2006, governed by Hamas, a terrorist organisation that declared the destruction of Israel as its goal in its 1988 founding charter and essentially reiterated it in a 2017 update.
The West Bank is under military occupation and contains over 500,000 illegal Israeli settlers, and East Jerusalem contains 200,000 more. The daily humiliation and hopelessness of the Palestinian population are pervasive, and self-government as well as a sovereign Palestinian state alongside Israel are not on the horizon. Israel is shifting to the right, and even if Prime Minister Netanyahu is forced from office, after the heartbreaking trauma of October 7, there is even less support for a two-state solution than there was before.
After more than 75 years, there are plenty of narratives on both sides to fuel the conflict at infinitum, empowering extremists and discouraging potential peacemakers. Since both sides have legitimate claims, it is a tragedy of Greek proportions, especially since both polities are currently controlled by fanatics: on the Palestinian side, terrorists who refuse to recognise the legitimacy of Israel’s existence, and fascists on the Israeli side who refuse to recognise the equality and legitimacy of the Palestinian people and their aspiration—supported by the UN Security Council as well as the General Assembly and by many countries, including the U.S.—to have their own sovereign state.
Since Israel cannot militarily defeat Palestinians, nor can Palestinians, or in fact anyone, defeat nuclear-armed Israel, the killing will stop if and when broad coalitions of countries—the U.S. and EU in the case of Israel, Arab countries, and Iran in the case of Hamas—throw their weight behind a just, sustainable peace and long-term reconstruction. Tragically, this is not on the cards any time soon.