- Israel cannot afford to illegally occupy Palestinian lands and Hamas can’t get away with its sporadic violent attacks on civilians anymore.
The October 7 Hamas attack on Israel garnered worldwide denunciation but surprised all in equal parts as to how the vaunted Israeli military and intelligence services with its state-of-the-art surveillance system did not see the attack coming or be prepared for it.
There seems to be a global trend of populist strongmen coming to power riding the wave of chest-thumping nationalism. They promise the kind of national security that no one else other than them seems capable of providing. But the irony lies in the fact that once in power, they are most likely to become the biggest threat to it. The world is finally comprehending that security breaches cannot be prevented just by building high boundary walls. Nor can technology be a longstanding shield from security dangers. Security ruptures are generally a reaction to unresolved territorial and long-standing political disputes. To fill the security gaps permanently you need a leader who is willing to resolve thorny disagreements through proactive engagement and dialogue and keep the people of his nation united.
The best-selling author and historian, Yuval Noah Harari stated in his recent interviews that Israel did not see the attack coming because it had chosen the wrong man to lead it. Israel is paying a hefty price for allowing a populist strongman under criminal indictment to rule it again by voting for him in 2022. Along with elevating radicals and extremists in the country and basing his political career on intentionally dividing it, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu avoided telling or hearing the truth and instead spread conspiracy theories about the central institutions of the state.
Israel saw massive street protests earlier this year as Netanyahu proposed to strip the judiciary of the power to overturn laws. Intelligence officers and other military personnel threatened to resign from volunteer duty over his anti-democratic judicial overhaul bill. Haaretz editorial board observed how Netanyahu reacted and “marked the army, the Shin Bet security service, and a majority of the public as enemies of the people” in pursuit of his own evasion of accountability.
By sowing division and distrust, and by prioritizing his lust for power and self-interest while undermining the judiciary to escape legal accountability, Netanyahu lost the trust of military leaders and failed to keep the country secure.
The pillars of modern democracy are its institutions like legislature, executive, and judiciary as well as a free media. It takes decades to build them up and render them independent but just one wrong leader at the top to dismantle them in no time. Netanyahu was reelected in 2022 when he staked his re-election upon his tough, strongman reputation. In exchange for the loss of democratic rights and an erosion of the rule of law, he had promised to keep the nation safe. But that promise was shattered on October 7.
What happened to Israel is also a cautionary tale of how economically and militarily strong nations can also face great danger from comparatively weaker neighbors if they neglect to be mindful of their needs and plights and as a result underestimate their propensity to take risks. This is where understanding irregular forces or non-state forces in urban terrain is essential. It requires understanding not only military capabilities but also unique sets of political pressures that shape their actions. Historian Sophie Bessis in her discussion of twentieth-century armed conflicts and independence struggles shows that when the dominant refuse to acknowledge the demands of the dominated, the latter radicalize and are convinced that only violence can free them from oppression. “These struggles have shown that the despair of the dominated, the lack of prospects resulting from the occupiers’ stubborn determination to occupy, eventually convinced the former that violence alone could liberate them. They then became terrorists,” she states in a Le Monde article.
What has conveniently gone unsaid by the western media but need to be pointed out today is that it is the Israeli leaders who are responsible for the rise of Hamas. A spin-off of the Palestinian branch of the Muslim Brotherhood, the group’s roots date back to the Palestinian uprising in 1987 during the first Intifada, when Israel chose to turn a blind eye to the rise of Hamas, to focus on what they saw as an even greater threat at the time— the secular Palestinian group like the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) led by Yasser Arafat. It grew in power as leftist secular groups, such as Fatah and PLO, lost influence.
Israel, the U.S., and its other allies over the years allowed Hamas to raise tens of millions of dollars by skimming off humanitarian assistance and taxing economic activity stirred by trade opening into its Gaza Strip stronghold. Hamas was included in discussions about the increase in the number of work permits Israel granted to Gazan laborers that kept money flowing into Gaza. It used the auspices of peace that Israel so longed for as a cover for its training and since 2014, the Netanyahu-led governments ignored their sporadic attacks and minor military operations every few years. After taking over Gaza in 2007 Hamas morphed into a hybrid actor—part terrorist organization and part pseudo-state and became a textbook example specializing in employing modern asymmetric warfare, which is usually bloodier and more savage than regular wars between states. Bessis reminds us in her article that the Israeli leaders haven’t understood that in asymmetric warfare, the weak usually win out over the strong.
The broader lesson drawn from this 70-year Israel-Palestine struggle is that history should at times be treated as just that. The past. The historical archives are full of new nations being carved out of once glorious kingdoms, boundaries have been redrawn, treaties settled, populations displaced, homes and livelihoods broken apart. At some point, all the displaced people had to decide how much of the past to hold on to and how much to let go of to establish peace for themselves and their future generations. Of what purpose is a nation full of dead bodies and lost, orphaned children? The time has come to resolve the territorial disagreements between the two sides. In this day and age, Israel cannot afford to illegally occupy Palestinian lands and Hamas can’t get away with its sporadic violent attacks on civilians anymore. The willingness to end the bitterness is the only long-term solution, everything else is a sham and a waste of time and resources.
Sreya Sarkar is a public policy analyst based out of Boston.