The Second War for Palestine has continued longer than any Israel-Palestinian conflict since Israel’s establishment. Neither Gamal Abdel Nasser’s army nor Hafez al-Assad’s tanks fought as long as the Izzedine al-Qassam Brigades still battling in Gaza.

Contrary to the facile declarations of many observers, who date history from their experience of it, the war did not commence on Oct. 7. Rather, Oct. 7 is the price everyone is paying for the failure of diplomacy, led for decades by the United States, to produce an equitable division of the land between the River and the Sea.

One need not search for complicated explanations for the burning Palestinian hatred of Israel in this latest and most bloody chapter in the century-old contest for Palestine.

Palestinians are simply fed up with their lot — huddled in the prison that is Gaza, begging Israel, which has long sung the praises of keeping Gaza’s more than 2 million men, women, and children on a “diet,” to loosen the noose that today threatens an unbelievable famine.

The multi-generational misery among Palestinians in Gaza is not new, nor is the still-burning desire for a solution to their predicament.

An illuminating insight is gained by recalling Moshe Dayan’s heartfelt, iron-fisted eulogy for Roi Rutenberg, killed along the Gaza border in 1956:

“Let us not cast the blame on the [Palestinian] murderers today,” Dayan counselled. “Why should we declare their burning hatred for us? For eight years they have been sitting in the refugee camps in Gaza, and before their eyes we have been transforming the lands and the villages, where they and their fathers dwelt, into our estate.”

“We are a generation that settles the land and without the steel helmet and the canon's maw, we will not be able to plant a tree and build a home. Let us not be deterred from seeing the loathing that is inflaming and filling the lives of the hundreds of thousands of Arabs who live around us. Let us not avert our eyes lest our arms weaken,” Dayan said.

Kibbutz Be’eri, Re’im, Nahal Oz — the monuments to the Zionist imperative to both settle and guard — are all within spitting distance of the abiding misery in Jabaliya and Shati.

Like the US, Israel is a nation of settlers, and the contest for sovereignty and security in its homeland has been brutal and not for the fainthearted. Far more than the wars against Egypt, Syria, or the Arabs in general, the threat posed by Palestinians has always been ideological, existential, and without the power of (territorial) compromise.

The Palestinian attack on Oct. 7 struck uniquely at the core of Israel’s national ethos — Israeli settlements long revered as the instruments of security and sovereignty were attacked, destroyed, and their inhabitants defiled and slaughtered. The vaunted Israeli army, the defining Zionist instrument of security, sovereignty, and settlement for a century, failed to fulfill its central mission.  

War aims: Realistic and imaginary

The declared Israeli policy after Oct. 7 is to “destroy” Hamas as a political, administrative, and military presence; to return the hostages held by Hamas; and to retain forever security primacy in Gaza.

There is hardly a murmur of opposition in Israel to this agenda. The entire country is mobilized in support. “Together,” notes the slogan seen throughout the country, “we will prevail.”

Gaza will henceforth be treated by the Israel Defense Forces like Area B is in the West Bank — that is, under absolute, unchallenged Israeli security control.

“We want, in effect, to bring about the demilitarization of Gaza,” announced Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in February. “This requires our security control and our comprehensive security responsibility over all territory west of the Jordan River, including Gaza. There is no alternative to this in the foreseeable future.

"We are also saying this to the international community, and to the president of the US, and to all leaders. There is no alternative to this. This is to say, security control will always be ours, and if this requires a presence inside, then there will be a presence inside. If it requires that we be able to go in anywhere ... at any time, this will be ... the case in the future."

Israel, according to war cabinet minister Benny Gantz, will retain “full security control but zero civil presence” — that is, Israel, will empower some other authority to collect (and pay for) the garbage, administer the hospitals, and run the schools. No one — not Saudis, not Egyptians, not Palestinians, or Swedes — is lining up to volunteer.

There is, however, an all-important subtext in which this Israeli policy is formulated and executed. For Israel, there are well-understood but implicit war aims that are more important than the declared ones.

First and foremost, at the heart of Israel’s response to Oct. 7, is a steely determination to punish Palestinians for daring to challenge its power and mastery over the Land. These punishments — the loss of land, homes, and family — are not unintended byproducts of a policy. Rather, they are intentional actions at the core of Israel’s warfighting strategy “to burn defeat” into the Palestinian consciousness.

To expel

Gaza, especially in the north, has been made uninhabitable. When they think of returning home today, the progeny of the Nakba generation will yearn for their destroyed homes in Gaza. No longer will they even dream of returning to Ashkelon in Israel. This, at least, is what the Netanyahu government intends.

Aside from their homes, Israel is imposing upon Palestinians the permanent loss of territory in Gaza. This is to answer Israel’s expansive security demands certainly, and perhaps even to reestablish civilian settlements in Gaza, but first and foremost it is to punish and to exact a terrible cost in the most important currency of sovereignty — land.

The much-discussed “day after” is today. Indeed, the day after was yesterday. For months already, Israeli bulldozers have been flattening large areas of Gaza around its perimeter with Israel. New roads are being built to facilitate Israel’s military operations, and to control or limit the movement of Palestinians. Meanwhile, the international community dithers, anticipating a debate on the day after, even as Israel is busy forging a fait accompli in asphalt and concrete.

To starve

Palestinians in Gaza are being punished, as a matter of policy, by literally starving them. The extraordinary impact of this policy is unprecedented in the century-long history of the conflict.

Prime Minister Netanyahu, faced with public opposition to the supply of any aid into Gaza, has been clear — at least in Hebrew — in explaining Israel’s policy in this regard. Israel will do the absolute minimum, he notes, permitting only minimal food into Gaza to defuse international pressure and thus enable Israel to continue its war against Hamas.

The US, almost alone among nations, has yet to declare this policy as a violation of Israel’s humanitarian commitments.

There is no evidence whatsoever that Israel will surrender its absolute control over the entry of goods — by land, sea, or air — into Gaza. By embracing the idea of a seaport, the international community is solving a problem — the availability of food — that doesn’t exist. Instead, it supports remedies that do not address the central problem: Israel’s determination to use food as a weapon in its war against Palestine by restricting its passage into Gaza.

To distance Gaza from Israel

There is a broader policy objective animating Israel’s policy in this regard. Israel is not simply of a mind to starve Palestinians in Gaza. This policy also promotes a more strategic policy objective, originally identified by Ariel Sharon in his “disengagement” plan of 2005.

Like Sharon, the Netanyahu government intends to reduce Israel’s responsibilities for Gaza’s well-being, even as it insists on controlling it. Instead of maintaining transit to Gaza via Israel, an international maritime gateway under effective Israeli control, but not Israeli responsibility, moves Israel that much closer to its strategic objective of making Gaza a foreign country for which it has no responsibility.

Israel is not all powerful. But it can exert considerable force in many domains to establish the postwar rules of the game in Gaza. All the more so because the international community, Washington included, has mere aspirations, while Israel views Gaza as an existential interest.

That leaves the Palestinians all alone facing a powerful and determined enemy.

Yet the Palestinians have succeeded in once again placing the question of Palestine on the international agenda. They may not be able to impose their demands, not least of which is Israel’s retreat from Gaza, but they still retain the power to frustrate Israel’s vision of a nation pacified and cowed.


Geoffrey Aronson is a non-resident scholar at MEI. 

Photo by MOHAMMED ABED/AFP via Getty Images

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