Six weeks ago, this talk would have had a different title and offered somewhat different content. I would then have given the historical background to the present moment via the framework laid out in my book, The Hundred Years’ War on Palestine: A History of Settler-Colonialism and Resistance. This book explains events in Palestine since 1917 as resulting from a war waged on the indigenous Palestinian population over different stages by a variety of great powers that were allied with the Zionist movement—a movement that was both settler colonialist and nationalist. These powers were later allied with the Israeli nation-state that grew out of that movement.
I still see that framework as the best way to explain the history of the past century and more. Thus, this is not an age-old conflict between Arabs and Jews, and it has not been going on since time immemorial. It is an entirely recent product of the irruption of imperialism into the Middle East and of the rise of modern nation-state nationalisms, both Arab and Jewish. Moreover, this war was not just one between Zionism and Israel on one side and the Palestinians on the other, with the latter occasionally supported by Arab and other actors. It always involved the massive intervention of the great powers on the side of the Zionist movement and Israel: Britain until World War II, and the U.S. and other powers since then. These great powers were never neutral, were never honest brokers, but were and are active parties to this war on the side of Israel. Given these facts, far from there being an equivalence between the two sides, this has been a war between colonizer and colonized, between oppressor and oppressed, and there has always been a vast imbalance between the two sides in Palestine in favor of Zionism and Israel.
However, while I think that framework has been reinforced over the past six weeks by the muscular level of U.S. participation and the relatively limited nature of that of Iran and the Arab states, we may be seeing a paradigm shift because of new elements that have appeared since October 7. What I am about to put forward is highly tentative. As a historian, I am reluctant to predict how events might develop. But, in light of the course of this war over more than a century, it is clear that new elements have appeared that may possibly indicate that this war is entering a new phase. I want to single out five of these elements.
I. The first is the Israel death toll of over 1,200, the third highest in the country’s history. Over 800 Israeli civilians were killed, as well as over 350 army and police personnel, all in the space of little more than a single day. 64 Israeli soldiers have been killed since then. This is probably the highest Israeli civilian death toll ever [719 civilians were killed in the second intifada over four years; most of Israel’s 6,000 killed in 1948, its highest death toll in any war, were soldiers]. Israeli military and police casualties, combined with those incurred since the ground invasion started several weeks ago, have already gone well over 400. This will soon approach the number of Israeli soldiers killed during Israel’s 1982 invasion of Lebanon [when over 450 were killed].
The current Palestinian death toll of over 11,500, like that of Israel, is not yet a final one, and will be increased by high rates of preventable death from disease, infant mortality, and other causes, as well as the probable addition of most of the 2,700 people who are missing. This already makes it the second highest Palestinian death toll since 1948, when about 20,000 were killed, mostly civilians, and it is probably higher than the Palestinian death toll during the 1982 Israeli war on Lebanon, when 20,000 people were killed, more than half of them Palestinians and the rest Lebanese [during the second intifada about 5,000 Palestinians were killed].
I recite these grisly statistics as evidence of one element of what may be a paradigm shift. The Israeli casualty tolls, particularly the number of civilians killed, have created a traumatic shock that has reverberated in Israel, in Jewish communities around the world, and throughout the West. Its long-term political effects are impossible to predict, but they have already significantly affected both Israeli and American government decision-making, making both countries more aggressive and intransigent. Meanwhile, the long-term political impact of such an enormous number of Palestinian deaths over a short period, not only on the Palestinians, but also on the Arab world, and perhaps farther afield, is also incalculable and may well affect the internal politics of several Arab states, as well as the future of Israel in the region.
II. These figures have to be seen in the context of two other features. The first is that the surprise attack by Hamas, its overwhelming of Israel’s defenses, including the defeat of an entire division of the Israeli army (the Gaza division), the complete failure of Israeli intelligence and surveillance technology, and the slaughter of so many Israeli civilians, represent the first time that war has been waged with this ferocity on Israeli soil since 1948. Israeli has suffered severe attacks on its civilian population before, from rockets and suicide bombers, but since 1948, all major Israeli wars—1956, 1967, the 1968-70 War of Attrition, 1973, 1982, the second intifada, and all the wars on Gaza—were essentially fought on Arab soil. Nothing like this has happened to Israel in 75 years.
III. Another feature is that this war represents the temporary collapse of Israel’s security doctrine. This is often misnamed “deterrence,” but it is, in fact, derived from the aggressive doctrine first taught to the founders of Israeli armed forces by British counter-insurgency experts like Orde Wingate. This doctrine holds that by attacking preemptively or in a retaliatory fashion with overwhelming force, the enemy can be decisively defeated, permanently intimidated, and forced to accept Israeli terms. Where Gaza was concerned, this meant periodically pounding Gazans and killing large numbers of them to force them to accept a siege and blockade that have lasted for 16 years.
I say the temporary collapse of this doctrine because while what happened on October 7 should have shown its utter bankruptcy, the Israeli security establishment has clearly learned nothing and has doubled down on it. They seem to have forgotten the Clausewitzian dictum that war is a continuation of politics by other means. It is apparent that the Israeli leadership has no clear political objective in waging this war, beyond revenge for the civilian casualty toll and the humiliating military defeat of October 7, which is presented as restoring “deterrence.” Instead of having a precise political aim for this war, the Israeli government and military have posited the impossible aim of the destruction of Hamas, a political-military-ideological entity that can perhaps be defeated militarily but cannot thereby be destroyed. Whether Hamas is weakened or strengthened in the end, something that we will only know well after this war is over, it will not be destroyed as a political force and an ideology as long as occupation and oppression of the Palestinian people continue.
IV. Another new element that may be part of a paradigm shift is that after broad initial sympathy for Israel globally at the outset, there have been intense negative reactions to Israel’s war on Gaza. This has been the case across the Arab world, in most Muslim countries, and in most of the rest of the world (or rather the real world, excluding the U.S. and a few Western countries). There has been a similarly intense negative reaction even among broad segments of the American and European populations. It is impossible to say whether this reaction will have a lasting effect. It has certainly had almost no discernable effect on the Biden administration’s policy of blanket support for Israel that rises to the level of active participation in its war on Gaza, and which may lead to the commitment of U.S. forces to combat if, heaven forbid, this conflict develops into a wider war.
The reaction in Arab countries at least proves the utter ignorance of Western and Israeli policymakers and pundits who airily claimed that “the Arabs do not care about Palestine.” In confidently asserting this, they mistook the autocrats and kleptocrats who rule most Arab countries for their peoples, who very clearly do care a good deal about Palestine, launching the largest demonstrations seen across most Arab capitals in a dozen years. As any serious historian could have told them, for well over a century, the Arab peoples have shown a deep concern for Palestine. It is impossible to say whether this strong negative reaction to Israel will be lasting, and whether and when the anti-democratic regimes that blight the region will succeed in cracking down on the expression of these sentiments. What is clear is that in their future policies towards Israel, they will have to be much more careful than they were previously in taking into account the passionate support of their peoples for the Palestinian cause.
V. There is a fifth and last element to this possible paradigm shift. The unequal measures whereby Western elites and politicians value brown or Arab lives on the one hand, and white or Israeli lives on the other, has engendered a toxic atmosphere in the spaces dominated by these elites, like the political arena, corporations, the media, and universities like Columbia. These elites, and many others, regard massacres of Israeli civilians as being fundamentally different from the massacres of over a dozen times as many Palestinian civilians. The suffering of Israeli civilians, and of them alone, was expressly cited yet again by President Biden as recently as November 15, while he simultaneously whitewashed the Israeli bombing of Gaza, and, in his characteristically incoherent way, repeated rote Israeli talking points.
This blatantly unequal approach is a double-edged sword: while it may serve Israel in the short run, the bias and double standards inherent in it are naked to the world, and to growing segments of opinion in the West, especially younger people. This is generally true of all those who are not intoxicated by the heavily slanted offerings of the mainstream corporate media, which generally present all the news Israel sees fit to print. The support of 68% of Americans, including a large majority of Democrats, for a cease fire in Gaza, a measure fiercely opposed by the Israeli government and its enabler in the White House, is an indicator of significance, if not a harbinger of a paradigm change.
Nevertheless, in spite of the crude political exploitation of Israeli civilian deaths and the kidnapping of civilian hostages, it is vital to recognize that these issues present a grave moral problem, as well as legal and political ones, for supporters of Palestinian rights. The moral element is obvious: women, children, the aged, and all unarmed noncombatants should unquestionably be protected in wartime. The legal one should be obvious as well. One may choose not to apply the standards of international humanitarian law (IHL). However, if one does want to employ them, they must apply to all. Israel falsely claims to adhere to IHL, although it has explicitly admitted, via its “Dahiya doctrine” enunciated in 2007 by a former general, Gadi Eizenkot, who is now a member of the Israeli war cabinet, that it does not do so. Israel’s leaders have repeatedly and openly stated that it does not obey at least two of the key elements of IHL, proportionality, which requires that the loss of human life or property should not be excessive in relation to the advantage expected from the destruction of a military objective, and distinction, which requires distinction between the civilian population and combatants. In its daily attacks on Gaza, as many times in the past, Israel has shown its utter disregard for these principles by obliterating the lives of untold numbers of civilians in purportedly seeking to kill a militant or militants.
It is true that under international law, peoples under occupation have the right to resist, and this is true, of course, of the Palestinians. However, if one wants to demand the application of IHL to Israel, it must be applied equally to Palestinian actors, and one must admit that notwithstanding Israel’s egregious violations of these laws, the violations of Hamas and others must be subject to the same standards.
The political problem is that while Israel violates IHL with complete impunity and with blanket approval from the U.S. and some Western governments, Palestinian violations of morality and of IHL involved in the killing and kidnapping of civilians, which flout these moral and legal principles, are exploited to smear and delegitimize the entire Palestinian cause, and not just the perpetrators. As is evident from the political, media, and institutional blowback in the U.S. and Europe since October 7 that is entirely keyed to these violations, such as we have seen at Columbia and on other campuses, it is the struggle for Palestinian rights that is thereby targeted.
What happens in the hostile political, media, and institutional space in the U.S. and the West that many of us occupy matters enormously. If we accept that Israel is a settler colonial (as well as a national) project, then the U.S. and the West are its metropole. As the Irish, Algerian, Vietnamese, and South African liberation movements understood, it was not sufficient to resist colonialism in the colony. It was also necessary to win over opinion in the metropole, which often involved limitations on the use of violence, as well as the use of non-violent means (difficult as that is to do in the face of the massive violence of the colonizer). That is how the Irish won their War of Independence from 1916 until 1921, how the Algerians won in 1962, and how the Vietnamese and the South Africans won as well. In the hostile political and media spaces in which those who support Palestinian rights operate in the U.S. and Europe, absolute clarity on these matters is essential, not just for moral and legal reasons, but for political ones as well.
Although the outcome of this war is obviously impossible to predict at this stage, it has at least led to the changes I have outlined. Will it lead to profound humanitarian and political paradigm shifts? I see three major questions:
- Will the expulsion of a million and a half people from the northern part of the Gaza Strip, including Gaza City, which is already a new Nakba of sorts, lead to the permanent ethnic cleansing of this northern region?
- Will the international community, or the U.S. (which often acts as if it alone constitutes the international community), present an original and novel political resolution to the conflict based on equality and justice?
- Or, as is more likely, will it simply reestablish some form of the previous oppressive status quo of occupation and enclosure of Palestinians in smaller and smaller spaces, while pumping more formaldehyde into the moldering corpse of the long-dead “two-state solution”?
It is impossible to answer these questions today, although my guess is that the answers respectively might be yes to the first, no to the second, and yes to the third.
However, one can hope that one outcome may be excluded: this is the ethnic cleansing of part or all of the population of the Gaza Strip and the West Bank by driving them out of historic Palestine and into Egyptian Sinai and Jordan. During his earliest visits to the region after the outbreak of the war, Secretary of State Anthony Blinken, apparently acting as an errand boy for Israel, exerted pressure on the rulers of Egypt, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia to accept this outcome. All of them decisively rebuffed him. In so doing, these governments were acting on the basis of their states’ national interest and in the interest of the preservation of their regimes, but also in the interest of the Palestinians, who know from 75 years of bitter experience that Israel has never allowed anyone it expelled from Palestine to return.
The smoking gun proving the malign intentions of the Biden White House can be found in the Office of Management and Budget’s budget request of October 20, 2023, to Congress for billions of dollars for military aid for Ukraine and Israel. This includes a request for funding under the heading of “Migration and Refugee Assistance” for “potential needs of Gazans fleeing to neighboring countries,” for “displacement across border[s],” and for “programming requirements outside of Gaza.”
To the short-sightedness of the Biden administration in slavishly aligning with an Israeli war effort involving multiple probable war crimes, and that has no discernable or achievable political outcome, must be added its domestic political folly. It has resolutely ignored the growing opposition to its unlimited support for Israel’s war on Gaza from many of its own officials, as well as key elements of the Democratic party base. This is largely made up of youthful voters, liberal and progressive elements in the Jewish and Christian communities, Arabs, Muslims, and leading elements of Black and other minority communities. As Israel’s assault on Gaza continues with the administration’s full support, it is increasingly hard to see how large numbers of these groups, notably those located in crucial swing states, will bring themselves to vote for Joseph Biden in 2024.
Beyond American support for Israel in forcing over a million people out of the north of the Gaza Strip, were it not for the resolute opposition (thus far) of a few Arab governments, there would have been added the disgraceful participation of the United States in a new phase of the 75-year process of Israel’s ethnic cleansing of Palestinians from their homeland. We have not reached that point, and hopefully never will. However, while it has so far been prevented from complicity in that specific atrocity, the Biden administration has already plunged headlong into an abyss of moral depravity by supporting Israel materially in massacring thousands of Palestinians and rendering Gaza uninhabitable, and in condoning its ethnic cleansing within Gaza.