Following Hamas’s terrorist attack on October 7, the world is rightly affirming Israel’s right to defend itself. But political leaders on the front lines, and the international community more broadly, must start thinking about how to put the region on a path toward lasting peace and stability.
ABU DHABI – Gaza is now at risk of sinking into a new hell. There are no excuses for Hamas’s vicious attack on Israel, which killed around 1,600 people, many of them innocent civilians, nor for its hostage-taking. The world is rightly affirming Israel’s right to defend itself.
Gaza’s Never-Ending Catastrophe
DAOUD KUTTAB draws parallels between the current war and the events that led to Palestinians’ deepest national trauma.
But we also must consider how we got here, and whether there is still any viable path toward regional peace and stability for both Israelis and Palestinians. Though it is early days in this latest war, we have a duty to think through the various scenarios.
Following Syria and Egypt’s coordinated surprise attack against Israel almost exactly 50 years before, in October 1973, Israel stared the possibility of defeat in the eyes. But the Israelis eventually turned the tables and emerged victorious, creating the conditions for a gradual process to end the hostilities in the region.
After peace was achieved between Israel and two of its neighbors, first Egypt and then Jordan, everyone could turn to the issue of the Palestinians who had been living under Israeli occupation since 1967. To that end, the 1993-95 Oslo Accords created the possibility of a future in which a Palestinian state would exist peacefully alongside Israel, with the two states even sharing Jerusalem as their common capital.
Tragically, however, the two decades of diplomatic progress after the Yom Kippur War were followed by three decades of regression. Forces opposed to reconciliation and a peaceful compromise gained the upper hand on both sides. The Palestinian fundamentalists in Hamas and related organizations have grown stronger, and Israeli zealots have expanded their illegal settlements on occupied land that was supposed to become the territory of a future Palestinian state. Together, fanatics on both sides have destroyed the bridge that the Oslo Accords built.
But the international community also bears responsibility for this failure. The European Union and the United States have been too divided and distracted to engage seriously in a sustained peace process. Everyone found it easier simply to forget about the Palestinian issue. Even before the October 7 attack, there was almost nothing left of what Oslo had created.
For now, everyone will be pointing fingers. Illegal Israeli settlements have continued to expand, establishing a system of de facto apartheid in the West Bank, and the Palestinian Authority has lost all credibility. Younger Palestinians despair for their future, and some have concluded that violence is the only answer.
The recent Abraham Accords, which paved the way for normalization of diplomatic relations between Israel and the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, were undoubtedly a positive development. But it was a mistake to believe that the Palestinian issue could be shunted aside. It was bound to reappear sooner or later, and with Hamas’s appalling terrorist attack, now it has.
The world’s attention is understandably focused on Israel’s stated intention of eradicating Hamas. We will soon witness a massive Israeli armed operation to destroy the group’s leadership and infrastructure within the heavily populated Gaza Strip. But what will come after that goal has been achieved? Will Israel reassert direct control over a Gaza that has been laid to waste? Will it allow the hundreds of thousands of displaced Palestinians to return to their homes? Or will it simply withdraw, and risk allowing a new threat to its security to take root? No one knows, because there is no real solution. In today’s Middle East, an isolated Gaza will always be a problem, regardless of who is trying to govern it.
After the guns have gone silent and the dead have been counted, political leaders will have a duty to renew the quest for peace. Obviously, emotions on all sides are raw. But we must ask ourselves if it is possible – and what it would take – to make 2023 the start of a new peace process, a new 1993.
To be sure, the situation today is very different, because positions have hardened on both sides. But a good starting point would be to return to the basic principles of the 2002 Arab Peace Initiative. The proposal, on which Saudi Arabia took the lead, was to offer diplomatic normalization with Israel in exchange for ending the occupation and giving the Palestinians a new future. After a generation of failure, perhaps new leaders will emerge – on both sides – to return to this framework.
As always, the devil will be in the details. But any peace process must start with an acknowledgement of basic principles, and it must be embedded in a larger international context that includes major powers such as the US, the EU, and perhaps now China. For the moment, this is just a dream. But without such a vision, the best that can be achieved is a pause until the next tragedy.
Horrors lie in store during the days and weeks ahead. As tanks start rolling into Gaza, one can only hope that the war will be conducted in such a way as not to destroy the possibility of peace in the future. Respect for international law, especially international humanitarian law, is paramount. It is the foundation on which a peaceful future might be built.
Once upon a time, these lands instilled in humankind the hope of heaven. We must not allow them to sink into hell. These are dark days. It is more important than ever to keep the light of hope aglow.