Like the avenging God of the Old Testament, Israel is raining down death and destruction on the people of Gaza. Ordinary citizens, who have no say over Hamas, have to pay the price for a militant organisation’s murderous assault. Both Israel and Hamas are blind to the sufferings of the people caught in this meaningless bloodletting.
Israel’s relentless onslaught has cost more than 11,700 lives—the majority of them helpless children and women. Al Shifa and Al Quds, the two biggest hospitals in Gaza, have shut down. Doctors who had kept the hospitals working—despite lack of medicines, food, electricity and water—have now been forced to close their doors.
On the other side is the fate of the over 200 hostages taken by Hamas. What of them? Among them, many are old; there are several children too. But no one has a clue. Civilians on both sides are pawns in the power game between Israel and Hamas. At a time of acute shortage in Gaza, are innocent civilians being provided with food or water? Hamas has claimed that 50 of the captives were killed in Israeli bombardment.
Pressure is mounting on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to get back Israeli civilians taken hostage by Hamas fighters on October 7. On November 11, demonstrations were held in several places in Israel for their release, the main gathering was in Tel Aviv. The demonstrators vented their anger against Netanyahu for not being able to bring back the hostages. Several relatives of hostages said the priority should be to rescue the hostages. “Do not talk to me about conquering; do not talk to me about flattening [Gaza]. Do not talk at all. Just take action… bring them home now,” Noam Perry, the daughter of a 79-year-old hostage, said.
The world’s only superpower and America’s friends in Europe have quietly abetted Netanyahu and given him the green signal to act against terrorists. The one notable exception is French President Emmanuel Macron, who has called for a ceasefire and asked Israel to stop killing children.
Yet, the desperate plight of the people of Gaza have touched the hearts of ordinary people around the world, including in the US and Europe. They feel the pain of war. Thousands have taken to the streets to ask their governments to stop the blood-letting. On November 11, central London witnessed one of the largest demonstrations in recent history as a crowd over 500,000 called for a halt to the killings. The disconnect between the country’s citizens and their leaders is quite obvious.
What is the endgame for Israel?
As the war enters its second month, and the humanitarian crisis deepens, it is time to ask: what is the endgame of this military action? Soon after the Hamas attack, Israel vowed to eliminate Hamas and rescue the hostages, so that October 7 will never be repeated. The military action is aimed at smashing and breaking the network of underground tunnels that had given Hamas the capability to launch a surprise attack on Israel, denting the reputation of the invincibility of the Israeli army. But before the military action ends, Israel is supposedly trying to get at least some of the top Hamas leaders; the Israeli public will not accept anything less. So far, while the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) has pushed ahead and bombarded Gaza relentlessly, they have not been able to claim that they have got any of the top Hamas leaders.
On the top of Israel’s most wanted list is Yahya Sinwar, the leader of Hamas in the Gaza Strip. He founded Majd, the Hamas security service, which manages the internal security and investigates suspected Palestinians who work as Israeli agents, of whom there are plenty. “I tell the residents of Gaza—if you reach him before us, it will shorten the war,” is the open call from Israel’s defence minister, Yoav Gallant. Israel believes that the kingpin of the October 7 attack is Sinwar. There are reports that the IDF has surrounded his underground bunker and is closing in on him. Another important Hamas leader is Mohammed Deif, who heads the Izz al-Din al-Qassam Brigades, the military arm of the Hamas movement. He helped engineer the construction of the tunnels inside Gaza. Marwan Issa, Deif’s right-hand man, and deputy commander-in-chief of the Izz al-Din al-Qassam Brigades, is another big name. Ismail Haniyeh, considered to be Hamas’s overall leader in Gaza, is another wanted man. There are many other second-rung leaders, and when Israel declares the military operation a success, some of these people will have to be eliminated. The military campaign cannot come to a close without some trophies to show to the public.
But it is also important to rescue the Israeli hostages. A successful military campaign without the hostages safely back home would be an empty victory. Negotiations have been on for some time for a prisoner swap, with Qatar talking to both Hamas and Israel. On November 12, Netanyahu, appearing on a US television talk show, hinted at a deal: “We are ready to conduct an immediate prisoner exchange deal that includes the release of all Palestinian prisoners from Israeli jails in exchange for all prisoners held by the Palestinian resistance.” Prisoner exchanges have happened in the past. In 2011, Israel freed 1,027 Palestinian prisoners in exchange for a single soldier held by Hamas in 2006. Hamas was confident when they took the hostages, that Israel would negotiate to get back its citizens.
The Day After
The war will end at some point in time, but what happens the day after is a question that is looming in the air. Will Israel remain in Gaza as an occupation force? It appears unlikely. Another view is that large swathes of land will be taken over by Israeli settlers near the border areas and the Jewish state will continue to expand its frontiers into more Palestinian territory. That experiment has been on in the West Bank where the Jewish settlers, backed by the military, are extending the frontiers of the Zionist state. Those who speak of genocide and ethnic cleansing believe that Israel is determined to do so and move Palestinians out of Gaza.
The US has a rough plan in mind for Gaza. Secretary of State Antony Blinken recently gave the outline of the US blueprint. “The US believes key elements should include no forcible displacement of Palestinians from Gaza—not now, not after the war. No use of Gaza as a platform for terrorism or other violent attacks. No reoccupation of Gaza after the conflict ends. No attempt to blockade or besiege Gaza. No reduction in the territory of Gaza. We must also ensure no terrorist threats can emanate from the West Bank.” No forcible displacement from Gaza is to reassure Palestinians that they will not be forced out of their homes and made to take refuge in Egypt’s Sinai desert. Cairo has ensured that this does not happen. Blinken has also spoken against the reoccupation of Gaza by Israel.
During his latest trip to the region, Blinken met with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in Ramallah and discussed the possibility of Fatah—the former Palestinian movement—taking over control of Gaza. “It must include Palestinian-led governance and Gaza must be unified with the West Bank under the Palestinian Authority,” Blinken said. Netanyahu has ruled out allowing the Palestinian authorities to take over Gaza. However, considering Israel’s reliance on the US, it is likely, especially at this point, for the US to get Netanyahu to toe the line—but convincing him may take time.
Fatah is happy to take on the responsibility for Gaza. “It is important to highlight the fact that the Palestinian authorities are not new to the scene; it has always been in Gaza, although in the last few years, since 2007, the Palestinian authorities have not been in daily control. But it had provided the financial cover for all basic services, including water and electricity as well as support for development projects, paying salaries for its employees and managing the health files as well as accommodation and other services. The Palestinian authorities will adhere to its commitment to the people, but would like to emphasise the importance that any resumption of normal life in Gaza must be coupled with the international community’s fulfilment of its obligation to recognise the Palestinian right of self-determination and the establishment of a Palestinian state with Jerusalem as its capital,” says Sabri Saidam, an Oxford-educated deputy general of the Fatah central committee and former minister of education in the Palestinian Authority government. Speaking to Outlook, he said that Fatah’s first priority is to stop the fighting and call for a ceasefire. “Humanity has to wake up. What is happening is a stain on the forehead of humanity and the world for allowing such massacres to take place,’’ he adds.
Israel must know that it can be the foremost military power in the region, but a military state cannot prevent a desperate people from risking all for freedom. What is to prevent another extremist group taking over?
This simple truth seems difficult for Netanyahu and his assorted group of hard core ministers to digest. Netanyahu is unpopular and despite a seeming victory in Gaza, he is likely to be thrown out of power in the next elections. A show of military strength is not enough either for his domestic constituency or for the Palestinians. The obvious answer is to hammer out a political solution. But that will take time to take shape.
(This appeared in the print as 'All Eyes on Israel')