The death of a civilian in conflict is an unimaginable tragedy. The death of thousands is beyond comprehension. Yet we must comprehend it. For the last month our screens, social media and newspapers have shown spiralling slaughter in Israel and Palestine. Soon that coverage will trail off. Perhaps it has begun to do so already. But the fundamental drivers of the conflict will remain. Israel and Hamas may well continue to commit atrocities because, ultimately, too many of those in power have more to gain from war than from peace.
Since December 2022, the Likud/far right coalition government in Israel has pursued a massive expansion of Israeli settlement in the occupied West Bank and Gaza. Palestinian civilians are, almost daily, forced from their homes at gunpoint. This is a war crime. Tragically but unsurprisingly, this violence provokes violence in response by Palestinian paramilitaries. That, in turn, provokes reprisals by the IDF and armed gangs of extremist settlers. In the last year hundreds of Palestinian civilians (including children) in the West Bank and Gaza have been killed, hundreds more kidnapped, and thousands of homes bulldozed. Palestinian forces responded in kind. Albeit without the same level of destruction or lethality.
Understanding or even discussing the Israel-Palestine question is, in the UK, extremely difficult. The government mandates unequivocal support for Israel. Corners of both the left and right still stray too often into antisemitism. It’s almost impossible to engage in public discourse without someone demanding that, in effect, one states whether Israeli or Palestinian lives are worth more.
Both Israel and Hamas have committed atrocities which almost certainly amount to crimes against humanity or even genocide. Both have indiscriminately killed civilians. Both stripped their victims’ corpses naked, humiliating them in death. Both have killed children. Israel’s forced relocation of millions of Palestinians, describing them as “human animals”, evokes shades of genocides in Rwanda and Kosovo. Hamas’ rampage through Southern Israel on 7 October is reminiscent of the most horrific days of ISIS.
Most Israelis and Palestinians condemn the violence. Haaretz, Israel’s largest newspaper, placed the blame for the 7 October attack on “one person: Benjamin Netanyahu… [because he] completely failed to identify the dangers he was consciously leading Israel into when establishing a government of annexation and dispossession…”. The Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, called for both sides to de-escalate. Palestinian and Israeli women marched together through Jerusalem together demanding peace.
Too many of those in power have more to gain from war than peace
Ironically, Likud (in Israel) and Hamas (in Palestine) have a lot in common. Both have autocratic tendencies. Hamas has not permitted elections in Gaza since 2006. The Likud/far right coalition has restricted protest, politicised the police, and is in the process of banning judges from ruling against the government. Both regimes are riddled with allegations of corruption. Both are dominated by their most extreme factions. Both are wholly committed to continuing the conflict. Netanyahu came to prominence opposing a negotiated settlement. Many in Israel still blame him for inciting the assassination of his predecessor, Yitzhak Rabin, to prevent ratification of the Oslo Accords (the closest the two sides have ever come to peace).
Sir Alex Younger, the former head of MI6, points out that Israel’s invasion of Gaza is precisely the opposite policy that one committed to neutralising Hamas would pursue. It will radicalise more young Palestinian men (swelling Hamas’ ranks) and puts Israel’s allies in an increasingly impossible position. Similarly, Hamas’ incursion on 8 October likely set back over a decade of international diplomacy by the Palestinian Authority.
Peace, however, is not in the interests of either Likud or Hamas. The conflict is their raison d’etre. A two-state solution (generally agreed to be the only viable route to ending the conflict) would be the end of both Likud and Hamas’ political projects. Netanyahu has publicly acknowledged this. His governments have facilitated funding to Hamas for more than a decade. A strong Hamas maintains the political narrative of an Israel under constant attack by terrorists (and therefore requiring a strong/authoritarian leader who will persecute Arabs to take revenge). Similarly, a more moderate government in Israel would be a disaster for Hamas, which thrives on the radicalisation caused by Likud’s policies of oppression.
Those with something to gain from the conflict are not confined to the Middle East. Iran and Russia see it as essential to their geopolitical interests (Iran is believed to have encouraged the 7 October incursion to disrupt the normalisation of relations between Israel and Saudi Arabia). In the US and Europe different factions use the conflict as a wedge issue. It took just days for commentators to weaponise the atrocities for domestic political gain. Traditional culture-war targets (the BBC, “woke” athletes) were quickly condemned for not taking the “right” side in the conflict.
Atrocities don’t happen in a vacuum. Every massacre, torture, forced displacement, and war crime in history has directly or indirectly benefited someone in power. The victims are almost always the least powerful. Unarmed civilians unable to defend themselves or escape. Finding peace is a fiendishly difficult task. It has defeated many of the greatest statesmen and women of our age. The conflict cannot be explained by any single factor. But the fact that so many powerful people stand to gain from its continuation may be a good place to start.
Sam Fowles is a barrister, Director of the ICDR, and a lecturer at St Edmund Hall, Oxford. He tweets at @SamFowles