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HomeSpecial StoriesOnce this war between Israel and Hamas is over, a deeper conflict...

Once this war between Israel and Hamas is over, a deeper conflict looms

By Jonathan Freedland


eneath the surface of the war between Israel and Hamas, another conflict rages. In this clash, the battle lines are drawn in a very different place, and the alliances and enmities take unexpected shapes. We got a glimpse of it this week – and when the current violence subsides, we shall see it even more starkly.

Right now, that moment – what diplomats and others refer to as “the day after” – seems a long way off, though the visit to Israel on Friday of the US secretary of state, Antony Blinken, suggests that Washington is already looking at its watch: proof that even some of Israel’s staunchest allies are alarmed by the mounting loss of life in Gaza. Blinken is urging Israel to do more to protect civilians; others demand a ceasefire, or at least a pause. Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, is under pressure. But this week, as he sought to make Israel’s case, he received help from an unexpected quarter.

Senior Hamas official Ghazi Hamad told Lebanese TV that his organisation was determined to repeat the massacre of 7 October, when the men of Hamas murdered some 1,400 Israelis, most of them civilians, torturing and maiming their victims in ways too cruel to recount. Hamad promised that 7 October was “just the first time, and there will be a second, a third, a fourth”. He was asked if Hamas was bent on Israel’s annihilation. “Yes, of course,” he replied.

It was as clear an answer as Israel could have hoped for as it seeks to explain why it cannot lay down its arms until Hamas is rendered incapable of doing again what it did four weeks ago, arguing that Israel should be granted as much leeway as the US (and UK) granted themselves when they set about the destruction of Isis.

The result has been an Israeli onslaught that has already taken some 9,000 Gazan lives, destroying entire families at a stroke. Though in explaining that appallingly high figure, here too Hamas offered some assistance. One Hamas official was asked by a TV interviewer if the organisation’s more than 300-mile network of underground tunnels could not perhaps shelter civilians. No, no, the Hamas man explained: “The tunnels are for us [Hamas]. The citizens in the Gaza Strip are under the responsibility of the United Nations.”

Perhaps the Hamas men felt they had a favour to return to Netanyahu. After all, he had done them more than one good turn, notoriously telling a 2019 meeting of his own Likud party – in words reported and never denied – “Anyone who wants to thwart the establishment of a Palestinian state has to support bolstering Hamas and transferring money to Hamas … This is part of our strategy.”

All of which goes to the poisonous, often-overlooked dynamic that has been present in the Israel-Palestine conflict for decades, and which will matter again when the current chapter ends. For then we’ll see that the contest that matters most is the battle of hardliners v moderates, or, to be more specific, maximalists v partitionists: those who insist on having the whole land for themselves v those who are ready to share it. Here’s how it could play out.

At present, there appears to be no Israeli plan, beyond the immediate objective of destroying Hamas as a military force. That will destroy Hamas as a governing power, too, not only leaving Gaza in ruins and rubble, but also creating a vacuum. There’s talk in some quarters of creating a “neo-trusteeship”, in which other nations step in to create order before a new arrangement is established: advocates cite Kosovo and East Timor as precedents.

The powers entrusted with that task could not be western, obviously, but perhaps a coalition of Arab states with Gulf money. Those countries may well say no anyway, but they will be certain to refuse unless the trusteeship is an interim step towards Palestinian self-rule. In testimony to Congress this week, Blinken hinted pretty heavily that, with Hamas out of the picture, the right body for that task would be the Palestinian Authority currently in place in the West Bank and dominated by Hamas’s rivals, Fatah – who remain partitionists rather than maximalists.

There is no way that the authority would even countenance such a plan unless it was a transition to genuine Palestinian statehood. But that would require a radical strategic shift by Israel, starting with a change of government and prime minister.

The latter is increasingly plausible. Netanyahu has provoked widespread revulsion in Israel with his refusal to attend even one funeral for the dead of 7 October or to take responsibility for the security failures of that day. The same goes for his tweeted – and then deleted – attempt to shift the blame on to his military advisers, reportedly at the prompting of his wife and son Yair, the Miami dauphin who has remained in Florida rather than return home to enlist with his fellow army reservists.

But removing Netanyahu will be the least of it. For Israel to pursue the two-state solution, which Netanyahu has spent nearly three decades working to render impossible, will require an end to the settlement project in the West Bank and the concession of territory. It will be an argument between those who believe the land has to be divided between the two peoples, and those who want all of it.

In a way, it will come down to a referendum over the meaning of 7 October and, indeed, of the last decade and a half. The partitionists will say that 7 October proves that the approach of recent years – leaving Hamas in place and allowing it to build up a fearsome arsenal; weakening the moderates of the authority by closing off a return to negotiations; expanding settlements and entrenching the occupation of the West Bank – has clearly failed to protect Israelis. The maximalists will say that it was Israeli withdrawal from Gaza in 2005 – pulling out every soldier and settler – that allowed Hamas to flourish and led to mass slaughter.

In this contest, the moderates will be depicted as fatally naive. After all, it was kibbutz peaceniks and longtime believers in Arab-Jewish dialogue who were disproportionately represented among those killed and taken hostage last month. In this task, of making the moderates look ridiculous, Israel’s extremists will have an unlikely ally – the same ally they’ve always had: the extremists on the other side.

Which is why that Hamas TV interview, promising more bloodcurdling massacres, was so on-brand. This is what Hamas do every time the prospect of an accommodation comes into view. They did it in the mid-1990s, in the era of the Oslo accords, blowing up buses in order to turn Israelis against Yitzhak Rabin, at the very moment a peace agreement seemed possible. They did it again during the election campaign that followed, thereby helping Netanyahu win his first term in office in 1996. And they did it last month, as they saw Saudi Arabia and Israel inch towards a normalisation of relations. Yes, some in Hamas say they want political negotiations, but past experience suggests if there’s a chance of an agreement that entails any outcome other than the annihilation of Israel, then the maximalists of Hamas will veto it with violence.

Israel has its own saboteurs, its own maximalists. Several of them are inside Netanyahu’s ultra-right government, ministers sharing their macabre fantasies of a flattened Gaza on social media, the likes of Bezalel Smotrich and Itamar Ben-Gvir, men apparently determined to deepen the current violence by ensuring it spreads to the West Bank and inside Israel itself.

This, then, is the battle to come. The only long-term solution is two states side by side. The only short-term solution for Gaza is a plan that promises Palestinian statehood. Every step of the way, the men on both sides who want the whole land for themselves will be on hand to derail progress – and, though sworn enemies, they will aid each other in that shared mission. It is a gruesome waltz they do together, this dance of death. Those on both sides who believe in compromise will not be able to fight them alone. They will need allies – including those taking to the streets who call themselves progressives – and the help of a world that finally decides it has seen too much bloodshed and cannot bear to see any more.

Source- The Guardian

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