We were waiting for the plumbers who had promised to come early on Saturday morning to our house in Ramallah when the news broke of Hamas’s surprise attack against Israel. When they arrived they were a team of two. The younger couldn’t stop watching the video clips Hamas was posting. I could see him smile every time a new one arrived of Palestinian gunmen tearing down the walls and gates that have hemmed in Gaza for the last sixteen years. There’s an inevitable euphoria as the imprisoned anywhere break their chains and escape their incarceration.
The eldest was more somber and able to concentrate on his work. He compared what was happening in Israel to an action film. But, alas, in a movie when the shooting is over the actors change costumes and the dead arise brushing off their clothes. Not so here. Every death of an Israeli or Palestinian is one too many, and so far at least nine hundred Israelis and over 750 Gazans have perished, many of them civilians, including children.
The plumber was a decade and a half younger than me. Like me he has lived through several wars and uprisings. Yet we both agreed that this latest audacious attack was unlike anything we have seen previously. It proves both that no Israeli fortification will keep oppressed Palestinians at bay forever, and that Israelis will never be safe as long as they keep 2.3 million humans locked in an area of 140 square miles and the population of the West Bank confined in unconnected enclaves surrounded by Jewish settlements. The tragedy is that, in the absence of any real political opposition, the present right-wing government will heed neither of these obvious conclusions.
All of us living in the occupied territories have been feeling tension rise over the past six months as settlers undertake continuous criminal attacks against Palestinian civilians in the West Bank and express an ever-growing appetite for our land. They no longer restrict their claims to the 62 percent of that land claimed by Israel—called Area C—but have encroached on areas, such as those adjacent to Nablus, that the Oslo Accords stipulate come under the direct control of the Palestinian Authority (PA). So much for Israel’s respect for agreements signed with its adversary.
There were other causes for despair. The siege of Gaza seemed interminable, and the 4,499 Palestinian prisoners in Israeli prisons have seen the minister of national security, Itamar Ben-Gvir, work to deplete their few, hard-won rights. Looming large in the minds of most Palestinian believers, too, was the slow but persistent effort by fanatic Israelis to carry out their rituals in the Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem, the third holiest site in Islam, making us feel that there was nothing sacred left that we could claim as our own. It was this development that gave the Hamas attack its name: Aqsa Flood.
Israel was no longer offering Palestinians promises, however flimsy, for future resolution of the conflict. The peace process was moribund; Israel felt secure in “managing the conflict” and preserving the division between Gaza and the West Bank. The present government has made it abundantly clear that Israel claims all of geographic Palestine as its own. Just two weeks ago Netanyahu stood before the UN and announced, in the words of a subsequent press release, that “Israel can become a bridge of peace and prosperity, paving the way for a new Middle East.” He showed a map of the region in which Palestine was obliterated. “We must not,” he said, “give the Palestinian State a veto against a peace process.”
Israelis should have known that violence will erupt when people have no hope and no other options. It was to Hamas’s advantage that the Israeli government arrogantly dismissed the possibility that acting as supreme masters over the Palestinians could engender such a reaction. When desperate Israelis in the southern communities called for help against Hamas’s attacks, their calls reportedly went unanswered for several hours because the army had been deployed to protect the settlers in the West Bank as they celebrated Sukkot and went on their rampages against Palestinian villagers.
It’s likely that Netanyahu had been hoping for a war. Indeed this one might temporarily save him from the protests that have swept Israel in recent months. The public will be mobilized to save the country—it will be time to unite rather than rebel. Yet Netanyahu is well aware that this reprieve will be short-lived. An attack on this scale under his watch should have occasioned his resignation, but as long as the war against Gaza continues he will remain in power. Perhaps by escalating the severity of the reprisals he is trying to prove his mettle to the Israeli public, hoping it will win him more time.
Now Netanyahu and his defense minister, Yoav Gallant, will be given extended powers, and Palestinians, whether in Gaza or the West Bank, have good reason to worry that in the hands of these extremists greater tragedies can be expected even than in the past. “The enemy will pay an unprecedented price,” Netanyahu said on Saturday. “We are at war and will win.” Later he threatened to turn Gaza into a “deserted island.”
Since the first day of the attack Israel has been bombarding Gaza, despite the fact that Hamas is holding at least 150 Israeli hostages in unknown locations throughout the strip. Yesterday the group claimed that four of the hostages had been killed in the bombardment—whether this is true is not yet known—and threatened to execute others if Israel again carried out unannounced attacks on civilians in the enclave. The hostages’ families may well put pressure on the military to slow its reprisals, but Israel’s army will surely find a way to proceed with killing thousands of fighters and civilians, as it did in its previous full-scale war with Gaza nine years ago. Israel’s announcement that it would impose a “complete siege” on the enclave—“there will be no electricity, no food, no fuel, everything is closed,” Gallant said—was only one war crime. Both sides, in their indiscriminate killing of civilians, were committing others with abandon.
Will Israel win? Wars are usually harbingers of change. Yet this region’s previous wars have achieved no fundamental progress toward peace. Israel has continued to claim it has no partner for peace rather than cultivate one. Mahmoud Abbas, the head of the PA, who has consistently opposed armed resistance and repeatedly called for a negotiated settlement, was recently belittled by a senior Israeli official close to Netanyahu as “the mayor of Ramallah.”
There is something self-deceiving about Israel’s determination to pursue only revenge against Hamas rather than peace with the Palestinians. When he announced the siege of Gaza, causing horrific suffering to the civilian population there, Gallant said that “we are fighting against human animals.” But it will never be possible to destroy the Palestinians or force them to leave. It should be clear to Israelis that we are here to stay, and as my father, Aziz Shehadeh, concluded after a life of working for peace, the only real victory is when we have mutual recognition and self-determination.