‘A new abyss’: Gaza and the hundred years’ war on Palestine

Rashid Khalidi

For people everywhere, myself included, the awful images that have come out of Gaza and Israel since 7 October 2023 have been inescapable. This war hangs over us like a motionless black cloud that gets darker and more ominous with the passage of endless weeks of horror unspooling before our eyes. Having friends and family there makes this much harder to bear for many of us living far away.

Some have argued that these events represent a rupture, an upheaval, that this was “Israel’s 9/11” or that it is a new Nakba, an unprecedented genocide. Certainly, the scale of these events, the almost real-time footage of atrocities and unbearable devastation – much of it captured on phones and spread on social media – and the intensity of the global response, are unprecedented. We do seem to be in a new phase, where the execrable “Oslo process” is dead and buried, where occupation, colonisation and violence are intensifying, where international law is trampled on, and where long-fixed tectonic plates are slowly moving.

But while much has changed in the past six months, the horrors we witness can only be truly comprehended as a cataclysmic new phase in a war that has been going on for several generations. This is the thesis of my book The Hundred Years’ War on Palestine: that events in Palestine since 1917 resulted from a multi-stage war waged on the indigenous Palestinian population by great power patrons of the Zionist movement – a movement that was both settler colonialist and nationalist, and which aimed to replace the Palestinian people in their ancestral homeland. These powers later allied with the Israeli nation-state that grew out of that movement. Throughout this long war, the Palestinians have fiercely resisted the usurpation of their country. This framework is indispensable in explaining not only the history of the past century and more, but also the brutality that we have witnessed since 7 October.

Seen in this light, it is clear that this is not an age-old struggle between Arabs and Jews that has been going on since time immemorial, and it is not simply a conflict between two peoples. It is a recent product of the irruption of imperialism into the Middle East and of the rise of modern nation-state nationalisms, both Arab and Jewish; it is a product of the violent European settler-colonial methods employed by Zionism to “transform Palestine into the land of Israel”, in the words of an early Zionist leader, Ze’ev Jabotinsky; and it is a product of Palestinian resistance to these methods.

Moreover, this war has never been one just between Zionism and Israel on one side and the Palestinians on the other, occasionally supported by Arab and other actors. It has always involved the massive intervention of the greatest powers of the age on the side of the Zionist movement and Israel: Britain until the second world war, and the US and others since then. These great powers were never neutral or honest brokers, but have always been active participants in this war in support of Israel. In this war between coloniser and colonised, oppressor and oppressed, there has been nothing remotely approaching equivalence between the two sides, but instead a vast imbalance in favour of Zionism and Israel.

This thesis has been starkly confirmed by the events that followed 7 October, with the imbalance of power evident in the disproportionate levels of death, destruction and displacement: the ratio of Palestinians to Israelis killed so far is about 25-1. It is further reinforced by the overwhelming level of US political, diplomatic and military support for Israel, combined with that of the UK and other western countries, in contrast with the relatively limited military and financial backing for the Palestinians by Iran and several non-state actors.

While much has changed since 7 October, the events of the past six months are not unique, and do not stand outside history. We can only properly understand them within the context of the century-long war waged on Palestine, notwithstanding efforts by Israel to deny the relevance of context, and to explain them in terms of the “barbarity” characteristic of its enemies. While the actions of Hamas and Israel since 7 October might appear to represent a change or a departure, they are consistent with decades of Israeli ethnic cleansing, military occupation and theft of Palestinian land, with years of the siege and deprivation of the Gaza Strip, and with an often violent Palestinian response to these actions.

However this episode in the long war on Palestine ends, it has clearly had a profound traumatic impact on both Palestinians and Israelis. This is true in terms of the exceptional number of those killed, wounded, missing, captured or detained; the unprecedented destruction of homes and infrastructure in the Gaza Strip; the huge number of families affected, especially among Palestinians; and the intense psychological impact of these events.

An immense degree of harm has been done to Palestinian and Israeli civilian populations in a short period. The reported Palestinian toll of more than 33,000 killed, together with perhaps 8,000 missing and presumed dead, the overwhelming majority of them civilians, is by far the highest in any phase of this century-long war. In the 1947-49 war about 15,000 Palestinian civilians and combatants were killed; in 1982, during Israel’s invasion of Lebanon and siege of Beirut, it killed more than 19,000 Palestinian and Lebanese civilians and combatants. In the six months since 7 October, the numbers of dead and injured – roughly 120,000 – amount to around 5% of the Gaza Strip’s population of 2.3 million.

Israel’s civilian death toll of more than 800 is the highest since the 1948 war. More than 685 Israeli soldiers, police and security personnel have been killed so far – more than the number of soldiers killed in the 1956 Sinai war, the 1982 Lebanon invasion, the second intifada, and the 2006 war on Lebanon. Total Israeli casualties, including soldiers and civilians killed and wounded, have surpassed those of the 1967 war. Additionally, about 250 Israeli civilians, soldiers and foreign nationals were taken captive in October last year, with more than 100 still held hostage.

Over the entire course of this long war, never have such large numbers of Palestinians and Israelis been driven from their homes. While about 750,000 Palestinians – more than half of the Palestinian population at the time – were ethnically cleansed from what became Israel between 1947 and 1949, and about 300,000 from the West Bank and Gaza Strip after the 1967 occupation, these numbers have been dwarfed by the approximately 1.7 million Gazans whom Israel has displaced since 7 October. Meanwhile, at least 250,000 Israelis have been displaced from settlements and towns in areas bordering the Gaza Strip and Lebanon.

Palestinians look at the destruction after an Israeli strike on residential buildings and a mosque in Rafah, Gaza Strip, Thursday, Feb. 22, 2024. (AP Photo/Fatima Shbair)
Palestinians in residential buildings in Rafah, February 2024. Photograph: Fatima Shbair/AP

These traumatic shocks have had a huge impact on both societies. In Israel, the violence of 7 October, especially the elevated numbers of civilians killed, wounded and captured, with the gruesome results live-streamed via social media and repeatedly played on television, has had a visceral impact on the entire country. The attacks evoked historical memories of violence and persecution, and shattered the sense of security that Israel supposedly provided for its citizens. It almost seems as if, in the Israeli public consciousness, time has stood still since October 7 as the searing effect of this collective trauma plays on a loop. The result has been to accelerate the ongoing rightward shift in Israeli society, with politicians and public discourse becoming even more aggressive and intransigent. The attacks provoked an intense thirst for revenge, evident from the brutal manner in which Israel’s war has been conducted, and the nation’s sense of perpetual victimhood has been reinforced, despite the immense power imbalance between Israel and the Palestinians.

The unending stream of images of Gaza’s devastation, the enormous casualty tolls, the scores of families completely wiped out by Israel’s AI targeting, and the starvation and disease caused by crippling Israeli restrictions on the transit of water, food, medicine, fuel and electricity into the Gaza Strip – blatant violations of international humanitarian law – have traumatised Palestinians everywhere. Parents and grandparents had told them about the Nakba and other tragic episodes in their people’s history. But looking at the moonscape that Israel has turned Gaza into, Palestinians have nevertheless been shocked by the ruthless murder of thousands of civilians and the vast destruction of homes, hospitals, schools, places of worship and infrastructure, in what has been described by a US military historian as “one of the most intense civilian punishment campaigns in history”. Beyond their grappling with these hideous realities for months, Palestinians are haunted by historical memories of the Nakba, and by the question of when and whether this war will end, and how Gazans can ever have a normal life again.

These shocking events have reverberated around the world, as the seemingly endless series of atrocities Israel has inflicted on Gazans has been viewed in real time on mainstream, alternative and social media. This is the first time a generation of young people across the globe has watched such images of carnage for months. In January, a poll found that almost half of 18- to 29-year-old Americans believe Israel is committing genocide. Palestine has become a central cause for activists young and old, uniting various streams of opposition to the global status quo. At the same time, it has divided families along generational lines, shattering the complacent consensus among western liberals that, in spite of its flaws, Israel is a force for good.

Israel has been accused by South Africa of genocide in Gaza before the international court of justice, which by an overwhelming vote agreed to consider the case and ordered interim measures. This is not the first time that Israel has been accused of violating international law, accusations that it scorns, but this process has accelerated during this war, inflicting a mounting toll on Israel’s increasingly tarnished global image.

The suffering Israel is visiting on Gaza has further diminished its already gravely impaired legitimacy globally. Beyond the possibility of a major escalation of the war to other parts of the Middle East, the aftershocks may well have long-term ramifications for the internal politics of Israel, the Palestinians and Arab and regional states, as well as on Israel’s future in the region, and perhaps even the outcome of the US presidential election.

This war will undoubtedly produce changes in Israel’s long-term strategy towards the Palestinians. The surprise attack of 7 October and the cascading battlefield failures that followed exposed the weaknesses of Israeli military planning, intelligence and its vaunted surveillance technology. These failures resulted in the killing or capture of more than 1,000 Israeli troops and civilians, and the overrunning of multiple border settlements, some of which were not retaken until 10 October. This was one of the worst defeats in Israel’s military history. This is also the first time since 1948 that war has been waged with such a degree of ferocity inside Israel. With the partial exception of the second intifada, in 75 years Israel has been exposed to nothing comparable to this direct assault on its civilian population on its territory.

FILE PHOTO: U.S. President Joe Biden meets Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Tel AvivFILE PHOTO: U.S. President Joe Biden, left, pauses during a meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, right, to discuss the war between Israel and Hamas, in Tel Aviv, Israel, Wednesday, Oct. 18, 2023. Miriam Alster/Pool via REUTERS/File Photo
Joe Biden, left, with Benjamin Netanyahu, in Tel Aviv on 18 October 2023. Photograph: Miriam Alster/Reuters

Shaken by this catastrophic defeat, the Israeli government has indicated that it will maintain long-term security control over the Gaza Strip, refusing to withdraw its troops fully, which in practice would amount to an extended full or partial reoccupation. Given the enclave’s history since 1948 as the most intense site of resistance to Israel’s dispossession and rule over Palestinians, there may be no clear ending to this new phase of the conflict in the near future.

Another shift rooted in the military fiasco of 7 October is that it represents the temporary collapse of Israel’s security doctrine. This is often misnamed “deterrence”, but it is in fact derived from the aggressive approach first taught to the founders of Israel’s armed forces – officers such as Moshe Dayan, Yigal Allon and Yitzhak Sadeh, chosen members of the Haganah and Palmach militias who were trained in the late 1930s by veteran British colonial counter-insurgency experts. The doctrine holds that by attacking pre-emptively or in a retaliatory fashion with overwhelming force, and by striking directly at civilian populations considered supportive of insurgents, the enemy can be decisively defeated, permanently intimidated and forced to accept the terms of the coloniser. In the past, where Gaza was concerned, this doctrine – described by Israeli analysts as “mowing the lawn” – involved periodically pounding the population and killing large numbers of them to force them to accept a status quo of siege and blockade that has lasted for 17 years.

I call this a temporary collapse of the doctrine, because while the events of 7 October exposed the bankruptcy of a force-based approach to an essentially political problem, the Israeli leadership has clearly learned nothing. Instead, it has doubled down on previous practices, in keeping with the Israeli adage: “If force does not work, use more force.” Israeli leaders seem to have forgotten Clausewitz’s dictum that war is a continuation of politics by other means.

In the words of the Israeli political sociologist Yagil Levy, in its war on Gaza, Israel’s “political framework is a military framework. Netanyahu shapes policy within a world of military concepts. There is no political exit strategy and no political vision, which are the ABCs of any war.” Driven by a desire for revenge for their humiliating military defeat, and in blind adherence to Israel’s outmoded security doctrine based on force, a divided leadership has no unified political objective in this campaign. Instead, it brandishes the empty slogan of “complete victory” and the notion of restoring an aggressive posture of “deterrence”, which is futile because it manifestly failed to deter attacks in the past, and is likely to be equally ineffective in the future.

There is ample evidence that the Israeli government originally desired to exploit the opportunity provided by the war to carry out further ethnic cleansing of Palestinians, whether by their expulsion to Egypt or Jordan, and that, disgracefully, the US tried to persuade both countries to go along with this, which they categorically refused to do. The strong settler faction within the government still advocates this, and possibly even hopes to resettle the Gaza Strip.

Instead of defining a precise political aim, an Israeli government lacking a consensus on policy has declared that its goal is the complete destruction of Hamas, a political-military-ideological entity with branches throughout Palestine and the Palestinian diaspora – a manifestly impossible mission. It may or may not be feasible for the Israeli army to defeat decisively Hamas’s military forces in the Gaza Strip. However, if Hamas manages to retain even a fraction of its military capacities after many months of fighting, it can claim a pyrrhic victory. As Henry Kissinger once wrote: “The guerrilla wins if he does not lose. The conventional army loses if it does not win.” Whatever the military outcome, Hamas will not be destroyed as a political force and an ideology.

In light of the devastating impact on Israel of the October attack, and despite the savage toll of Israel’s response, Hamas’s philosophy of armed resistance is unlikely to disappear as long as there is no prospect of an end to military occupation, colonisation and oppression of the Palestinian people, or of a political horizon promising true Palestinian self-determination and equality. Thus, an upheaval that might have been a catalyst of change may in fact produce continuity of colonisation and occupation, of the Israeli establishment’s exclusive reliance on force, and of armed Palestinian resistance.

If Israeli prospects are unclear, the postwar political horizon for the Palestinians is also murky. In purely military terms, the scale and scope of Hamas’s October attack was unprecedented. Still, referring again to Clausewitz, it is hard to discern Hamas’s political objectives. At various times in the past, Hamas has proclaimed its willingness to accept a Palestinian state alongside Israel, as in its 2017 statement of principles, which considered “the establishment of a fully sovereign and independent Palestinian state with Jerusalem as its capital along the lines of 4 June 1967, with the return of the refugees and the displaced to their homes from which they were expelled, to be a formula of national consensus.”

On the other hand, in the same document, Hamas called for the “full and complete liberation of Palestine, from the river to the sea,” and it has consistently refused to accept Israel’s legitimacy or to renounce violence. Both tendencies have been present in contradictory statements made by Hamas leaders since October, and in previous and current efforts to join the PLO and unite with other Palestinian political forces, or alternatively to treat them as rivals to be superseded.

Both of these tendencies have been reinforced among different segments of the Palestinian people since 7 October, with armed resistance finding new advocates, especially among the young, and others cautiously hoping for a breakthrough in the direction of a Palestinian state – although the Palestinian Authority in Ramallah is disdained by most Palestinians as a security sub-contractor for the Israeli occupation.

Hamas fighters enter Israel through the border fence in Gaza City on 7 October 2023.
Hamas fighters enter Israel through the border fence in Gaza City on 7 October 2023. Photograph: Hani Alshaer/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

One constant in the 100 years of this war is that Palestinians have not been allowed to choose who represents them. As in the past, their preferences may be unacceptable to the powers that be, whether Israel, the western states or their Arab clients. These powers are once again likely to attempt to impose their choice of who represents the Palestinians and who is not allowed to do so, with the Palestinians themselves having no voice in this decision. In the absence of Palestinian agreement on a unified and credible political voice representing a national consensus, this would mean that crucial decisions about the future of their people will be made by outside powers, as has happened so many times in the past.

Israel has presented this war as one targeted exclusively at Hamas, claiming that it has scrupulously obeyed international humanitarian law, using “proportional” and discriminate force, and that civilian deaths were unintentional “collateral damage” because Hamas used civilians as “human shields”. Western governments and mainstream media repeated these essentially false claims, although they are belied by the death of more than 33,000 civilians, including 13,000 children according to Unicef, the displacement of 1.7 million people, and the obviously intentional destruction of most of the Gaza Strip’s infrastructure through the targeting of hospitals, water purification and sewage plants, electrical, telephone and internet systems, schools, universities, mosques and churches. After six months of war, the scale of this devastation and slaughter, and of the mass starvation caused by Israel, seem to be breaking through the fog of group-think perpetuated by western governments and most of the mainstream media that previously parroted Israeli talking points however obviously deceitful they were.

Most observers not blinded by this false Israeli narrative correctly see this war as directed against Gaza’s population in a form of collective punishment, if not genocide. The resulting outraged response has been almost universal across the Arab world, in most Muslim countries, and in most countries of the Global South. Growing segments of American and European populations have responded similarly. Until very recently, this reaction has had little discernible effect on the Biden administration’s policy of blanket support for Israel, beyond mild and patently insincere rhetorical reproaches. For many observers, American deliveries of arms and ammunition bypassing congressional safeguards, diplomatic protection of Israel at the UN, rote repetition of Israeli talking points and the callousness of Biden and his officials regarding Palestinian suffering are seen as constituting active participation in the commission of war crimes and genocide, earning Biden the epithet of “Genocide Joe”.

Since 7 October, the strong sympathy of the peoples of the Arab countries for the Palestinians, and their public support for their cause (where such expressions are allowed, and often even where they are not) have exposed the wilful ignorance of western and Israeli policymakers and pundits who claimed that the Palestine cause is not important to the Arabs, and that it can be ignored. In response to Israel’s attacks on Gaza there have been months of the largest popular demonstrations seen across numerous Arab cities in a dozen years, including Cairo, Amman, Manama and Rabat, capitals of countries that have diplomatic relations with Israel. The autocratic regimes that blight the region may eventually succeed in repressing their citizens’ sympathy for the Palestinians and hostility towards Israel. Nevertheless, in future, these governments will be obliged to take more carefully into account their peoples’ passionate sense of identification with the Palestinian cause and tailor their policies accordingly.

Since October, another element has emerged with great salience: the unequal value that western elites place on Israeli lives (coded as “white”) on the one hand and Arab lives (coded as “brown”) on the other. This egregious double standard has produced a toxic, repressive atmosphere in the spaces dominated by these elites in the US and to a lesser extent in Europe, notably the political arena, corporations, the media and university campuses. The resulting wave of congressional, corporate, cultural and university witch-hunts has centred on accusations that advocacy of Palestinian freedom and critiques of Israeli policy or Zionism are somehow antisemitic.

This assertion accepts the contention that Israel and Zionism are coterminous with Judaism, while ignoring the prominent place of more progressive and younger Jews in supporting Palestinian rights and opposing the Israeli government’s actions. It is utterly absurd to claim that opposition to Zionism or Israeli settler colonialism is antisemitic in principle. If those who settled Palestine were persecuted Scandinavian Christians who saw themselves as on a divinely mandated mission to seize the country from its indigenous population, there would be nothing “anti-Christian” in resistance to their efforts.

The political, media and other western elites fostering this McCarthyite atmosphere of repression have shown that they regard the killing of Israeli civilians as more worthy of attention than the killing of 25 times as many Palestinian civilians. Thus, with some exceptions, the mainstream media generally individuates in detail Israeli civilian deaths, which it describes as resulting from atrocities perpetrated by Hamas. In contrast, it most frequently describes the far greater number of Palestinian civilian deaths collectively and in passive terms, and without naming the Israeli agent of their killing, as if unknown or natural phenomena caused their deaths. Thus, Israel does not kill: Palestinians die; Israel does not starve Palestinians, they suffer from famine.

This blatantly biased approach is a double-edged sword: while it may serve Israel in the short run by shoring up the diminishing core audience for its skewed portrayal of reality in Palestine, the inherent double standards are transparent to most of the world. They are also apparent to growing segments of opinion in the west, especially younger people. Rather than getting their information from the offerings of the mainstream media, which present the news largely through an Israeli lens, these younger audiences have a varied range of sources, accessed mainly through alternative and social media, which offer a range of images of the death, destruction and misery Israel inflicts on Gazans. As a result, they understand perfectly that a high degree of censorship of these realities is imposed by the biases of mainstream media, for which they have fully justified contempt.

Protestors Rally At Los Angeles City Hall Against War In Gaza
A protest against US support for Israel’s invasion of Gaza in Los Angeles last month. Photograph: David McNew/Getty Images

In spite of a ferocious wave of repression of Palestinian advocacy in the public sphere, among young people the greater availability of a broader variety of information has begun to have a political effect in the US, particularly after the initial surge of sympathy for Israel in response to the Hamas attacks was supplanted by sympathy for massacred and starved Palestinian civilians. In one survey, more than 68% of Americans polled support a permanent ceasefire in Gaza. Another showed that 57% of those polled disapproved of Joe Biden’s handling of the Gaza war, a figure that rose to nearly 75% among 18- to 29-year-old voters.

Since his election as a senator in 1972, Biden has been wedded to the myths about Israel and Palestine that are prevalent in American political and media discourse. His administration has not reversed any of the policies clearly favouring Israel that were enacted by the Trump administration. Biden thus kept in place a range of significant deviations from previous US policies, including the transfer of the US embassy to Jerusalem, the closing of the US consulate in East Jerusalem and of the Palestine mission in Washington DC, recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and recognition of Israel’s annexation of the Golan Heights.

Beyond this, far from abandoning the Trump administration’s signature approach, dubbed “the Abraham Accords”, of downgrading the Palestinian issue while focusing on normalising relations between Israel and Arab states, the Biden administration praised these measures that led to open diplomatic relations between Israel and the United Arab Emirates, Morocco and Bahrain, and enraged the Palestinians. Biden and his team went even further. They pressed hard for a Saudi-Israeli normalisation deal that would have aligned the most influential Arab state with Israel, further weakening the Palestinians and diminishing further the prospect of their achieving any of their national objectives.

Although the chimera of a Saudi normalisation deal collided forcefully with reality after 7 October, revealing the difficulties the Arab regimes would face by entering relations with a country that vast majorities of their peoples consider to be committing genocide, the Biden administration has never wavered in its aggressive promotion of the idea. It did so while undermining its Arab clients with unlimited support for Israel’s savaging of the Gaza Strip, which it has resolutely endorsed as “self-defence”. This support encompassed the categorical rejection of a permanent ceasefire and the emergency delivery of planeloads of ammunition and weapons, without which Israel could not have sustained its military campaign. More F-15 and F-35 fighter-bombers have recently been promised.

By these actions, and by his constant echoing of Israeli rhetoric, Biden reinforced the sense that the US was viscerally hostile to the Palestinians. Even when, months late, he finally insisted that Israel end its mass starvation of Gazans, this was in response not to images of emaciated Palestinian babies, but to the deaths of white foreign aid workers.

Even the administration’s call for a “two-state solution” rang hollow. There was no sign that the US would demand implementation of the essential prerequisites for such a solution: a rapid and complete end to Israel’s nearly 57-year military occupation and to its usurpation and colonisation of Palestinian land, which has planted nearly 750,000 illegal settlers in 60% of the West Bank and East Jerusalem. Nor has the administration indicated that it would accept the Palestinians democratically choosing their own representatives.

Without firm enforcement of these measures, a call for a “two-state solution” has always been meaningless, a cruel Orwellian hoax. Instead of Palestinian self-determination, statehood and sovereignty, it would effectively maintain the status quo in Palestine under a different form, with an externally controlled Quisling “Palestinian Authority” lacking real jurisdiction or authority replaced by a Quisling “Palestinian state” similarly devoid of the sovereignty and independence that attach to a real state. It would be a travesty: a disjointed archipelago of Bantustans under the ultimate control of Israel, with financial and security supervision by the US and its western European and Arab allies.

Looking back over the past six months – at the cruel slaughter of civilians on an unprecedented scale, the millions of people made homeless, the mass famine and disease induced by Israel – it is clear that this marks a new abyss into which the struggle over Palestine has sunk. While this phase reflects the underlying lineaments of previous ones in this 100 years’ war, its intensity is unique, and it has created deep new traumas. Not only does no end to this carnage appear in sight: we seem to be further than ever from a lasting and sustainable resolution, one based on dismantling structures of oppression and supremacy, and on justice, completely equal rights and mutual recognition.

(Source: The Guardian)