There are many areas of tension and potential flashpoints in the world, but conflict in the Holy Land has the ability to divide and outrage like little else. I have been a keen student of Middle East affairs for over 50 years. I have worked in Israel, Jordan, and Iraq. I have visited the West Bank often. I spent a lot of time on Kibbutz Lohamei Hagetaot at the Holocaust Study Centre. Over all that time I have come to realise more and more that Arab Israeli history is a complex tragedy that’s been unfolding since at least 1917.

Nor are there simple good guys and bad guys – Lehi was as bad as Fatah, Operation Peace for Galilee led to the massacres in Sabra and Shatila Refugee Camps. Men of peace were assassinated by extremists from their own side. Israeli cities were rocketed, Palestinian houses were blown up, a never-ending cycle of low intensity violence, punctuated by all out wars.

Yet somehow until the horrors of October 7 and the subsequent tragedy of Gaza I always felt some hope that the future would be brighter, despite the extremists within Gaza and in the Israeli administration. Now I can only see more developing tragedies in the future as well as the past. I need to look backwards to see how we arrived here.

The Tragedy of Israel

The British columnist Matthew Parris recently wrote that  Israel “is an idea that, when I was young, attracted my generation to go to Israel and work in kibbutzim — a gesture of support for a brave little nation, recoiling from the Holocaust and ‘making the desert bloom’. The appeal to us was not anti-Palestinian but pro-Israeli: a Jewish homeland founded for a people who were survivors of unimaginable horrors, a refuge, a place of safety. Both victimhood and innocence were part of the idea” I felt like that too. The 1967 and 1973 wars were violent, but in the end led to peace with Egypt and Jordan. I could feel some hope.

But then came the death of Yigal Allon, the assassination of Sadat, and the ascension of a new right wing in Israeli politics, personified by Ariel Sharon. Israel didn’t seem a plucky little nation any longer but more and more a regional power and often a bully. The last straw for me was 1982’s Operation Peace for Galilee when Sharon unleashed the Phalangists into the massacres  at the Sabra and Shatila Palestinian refugee camps in Israeli-occupied Beirut. There was still some hope though, as long as men like Yitzhak Rabin could hold the right in check and envisage peace rather than unending war. But he was assassinated in 1995, not by an Arab terrorist but by an extremist Jewish settler. A tragedy indeed.

The Israeli right has grown in power ever since, under Sharon, and ultimately under Netanyahu, who now leads the most right-wing government in Israel’s history. Once it took power, Netanyahu’s government announced that expanding Israeli settlements in the Palestinian West Bank was a priority, vowing to annex the occupied territory. It endorsed discrimination against LGBTQ people and called for generous payments to ultra-Orthodox men so they could engage in religious study rather than work. It also tried to push through changes to the judicial system to give far more power to the government, despite protesters turning out in the streets in huge numbers.

The Government  includes settlers like Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich and Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir. In 2007 Ben-Gvir was convicted of incitement against Palestinians and support for terrorism. In August this year in an interview on Channel 12 News, he said “My right, the right of my wife and my children to move around Judea and Samaria is more important than freedom of movement for the Arabs” 

For years the various governments led by Benjamin Netanyahu have taken an approach that divided power between the Gaza Strip and the West Bank — bringing Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas to his knees while making moves that propped up the Hamas terror group. That policy has largely led to what is a tragedy indeed.

“The idea was to prevent Abbas from advancing toward the establishment of a Palestinian state. Thus, amid this bid to impair Abbas, Hamas was upgraded from a mere terror group to an organization with which Israel held indirect negotiations via Egypt, and one that was allowed to receive infusions of cash from abroad.

Since 2014, Netanyahu-led governments have practically turned a blind eye to the incendiary balloons and rocket fire from Gaza. Most of the time, Israeli policy was to treat the Palestinian Authority as a burden and Hamas as an asset…at a Likud faction meeting in early 2019, Netanyahu was quoted as saying that those who oppose a Palestinian state should support the transfer of funds to Gaza, because maintaining the separation between the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank and Hamas in Gaza would prevent the establishment of a Palestinian state.”     Times of Israel,  8th October 23

With the Hamas attack, Israelis have come together until the crisis is resolved, but Netanyahu’s grip on power is massively reduced. His ability to stay in power depended in large part on his promises that he would keep Israelis safe. The events of October 7 on his watch—the worst attack on Jews since the Holocaust—shattered that guarantee. Polls show that Israelis blame his government, and three quarters of them think he should resign. Sixty-four percent think the country should hold an election immediately after the war. 

The Tragedy of the Palestinians

In 1993 Israeli and Palestinian leaders met on the lawn of the White House in Washington to sign a deal many believed could be a precursor for peace in the region. The first Oslo Accord brought together Yitzhak Rabin and Yasser Arafat, the Israeli prime minister and the leader of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO). And the  handshake that followed was a significant gesture.

The Oslo Accords (1993 and 1997) were supposed to bring about Palestinian self-determination, in the form of a Palestinian state alongside Israel. This would mean that Israel,  formed on the land of historic Palestine in 1948 in an event Palestinians know as the Nakba, would accept Palestinian claims to national sovereignty.

The Accords were opposed by Israeli and Arab extremists, but the US administration kept trying and in July 2000 at Camp David, Clinton had a proposal he thought could bring about peace. Erud Barak reluctantly accepted the US plan and on 18th July the President took Arafat through it point by point. The proposals included the establishment of a demilitarised Palestinian state on some 92% of the West Bank and 100% of the Gaza Strip, with some territorial compensation for the Palestinians from pre-1967 Israeli territory; the dismantling of most of the settlements and the concentration of the bulk of the settlers inside the 8% of the West Bank to be annexed by Israel; the establishment of the Palestinian capital in east Jerusalem. Arafat, perhaps hoping he could get more, said no. An enraged Clinton is supposed to have banged on the table and said: "You are leading your people and the region to a catastrophe." 

The peace process that the deal was supposed to begin was stillborn, with Israel continuing its illegal occupation of Palestinian territory, and the Palestinian people no closer to – and some would argue further away from – an independent state. A tragedy indeed.

Since then what efforts there have been to make some sort of peace in the Middle East have largely relied on bringing Arab governments towards acceptance of Israel and normalisation of relations with the Jewish state, with Iran being viewed as the greatest danger in the region. The Abraham Accords and the thawing of relations with Saudi Arabia were part of this approach. The Palestinians were largely ignored. This short-sighted approach, together with Netanyahu’s policy of emasculating the PA while viewing Hamas as a minor irritant was one contributing factor to the atrocities of October 7.

Khalil al-Hayya, a member of Hamas’s leadership team currently in Qatar, told the New York Times that Hamas’s goal in their attack was to make sure the region did not settle into a status quo that excluded the Palestinians. Al-Hayya told the reporters that in order to “change the entire equation and not just have a clash,” Hamas leaders decioded to commit “a great act” that Israel would respond to with fury. “Without a doubt, it was known that the reaction to this great act would be big,” al-Hayya said, “but we had to tell people that the Palestinian cause would not die.” 

Now Gaza is under relentless Israeli bombardment. Israel Defence Forces (IDF) troops have entered Gaza City. More than 12,000 Gazans, nearly half of them children, have been killed. Hamas is in the process of being annihilated as a military and political force. But when this war is over, Gaza City will be in ruins. The fate of the south, where most of the strip’s 2.2 million residents are sheltering in appalling humanitarian conditions, is less clear, though the area has also been heavily bombed. And it is clear that Israel’s current government has no exit strategy, no clear idea of how Gaza will be administered in the future. It seems likely that, after the war is over, it will be reoccupied by the Israeli military.

That is not a prospect the IDF relishes. In fact, many of the people in charge in Israel want nothing to do with Gaza after the war. Some think they can withdraw and close Gaza off: no exit permits, no electricity, no water, leaving its population to work things out for themselves. Some actually want a forced expulsion from Gaza of all Arabs, without any clear idea of where they will go. Others accept that in order to reduce security threats to Israel it will have to reoccupy the territory. There is no road to peace, no clear strategy. In Gaza the tragedy is one of civilian suffering. King Abdullah of Jordan perhaps summed it up best in a recent article in the Washington Post “The fact is that the thousands of victims across Israel, Gaza and the West Bank have been overwhelmingly civilians…. Leaders everywhere have the responsibility to face the full reality of this crisis, as ugly as it is… It is up to responsible leaders to deliver results, starting now.” But where are those responsible leaders? Instead extremists dominate. A tragedy indeed.

The Centre Cannot Hold

The war in Gaza is not just a battle fought with rockets and tanks. It is an information battle for hearts and minds that consumes and corrodes all who take part in it. The ruthlessness of the Israeli response and the comments of some on the Israeli right has allowed Hamas to win major battles in the propaganda war.


In a radio interview on November 4, Israel's Heritage Minister Amihai Eliyahu said there were “no non-combatants” in Gaza before adding that providing medical aid to the enclave would amount to a “failure”. Dropping a nuclear bomb on the Gaza Strip would beone of the options for dealing with Hamas, he said. He was suspended - but not fired!


"Jews murdered in the West Bank are more important than Jews murdered in Gaza, because the former are right-wing settlers and the latter are left-wing kibbutz members", from Simcha Rothman of the far-right Religious Zionist Party. 


Despite the shock waves that have swept through Israeli society since 7 October, the far right seems focused on longstanding goals: the "transfer" of Palestinians from Gaza and the West Bank and the eradication of the Israeli secular left. “Their ultimate goal is to have a very different Israeli state – religious rather than secular – and it starts in the West Bank,” one Israeli friend said recently. “Keeping the eyes of the world on Gaza allows them and their followers to advance extreme right-wing agendas in the West Bank, even violence against Palestinians there; the bigger the war in Gaza, the less oversight there is in the West”


And of course extreme comments from ‘pro Palestinian’ governments do not help to reduce the febrile temperature.  This from Algiers “Algeria is following with great concern the development of the brutal Israeli attacks on the Gaza Strip, which claimed the lives of dozens of innocent sons and daughters of the Palestinian people who fell as martyrs in light of the Zionist occupation’s persistence in the policy of oppression and persecution that it imposes on the brave Palestinian people”


Or, not unexpectedly, from Tehran “Operation Al-Aqsa Flood was a spontaneous move by the resistance groups and the oppressed Palestinian people in defense of their inalienable and undeniable rights. He added that the operation was the Palestinians’ natural reaction to the war-mongering, provocative and incendiary policies of the Zionists, especially the usurping regime’s extremist and adventurous prime minister.”

There are some moderate voices of course, though few. On November 14, former secretary of state Hillary Clinton, called for the destruction of Hamas on the one hand and “a new strategy and new leadership” for Israel on the other. “Instead of the current ultra-right-wing government, it will need a government of national unity that’s rooted in the center of Israeli politics and can make the hard choices ahead,” she wrote. Central to those choices is the long-neglected two-state solution that would establish a Palestinian state. Biden and Blinken and a number of Arab governments have backed the idea, but to many observers it seems impossible to pull off.

There are serious, bordering on insurmountable, problems. The West Bank is home to three million Palestinians and half a million Jewish settlers, who have built large cities and towns, as well as wildcat outposts, on the land earmarked by the Oslo accords as part of a future Palestinian state. The settlers believe they have a biblical imperative to live on the land between the Jordan river and the Mediterranean Sea, and they have over the years taken over large tracts of Palestinian-owned land, pushing or violently forcing the Palestinians away. Any two-state solution is likely to mean thousands of these settlers have to move off land they believe was granted to them in the Bible, and where they have built schools, hospitals, homes and universities. That is not going to go smoothly.

The future of Gaza

Gaza is in ruins as Israeli troops continue their ground operation. Other than demanding that it be Hamas-free, Israel has offered no credible vision for the aftermath of the war and its long-term relationship with the Palestinian people. But Gaza needs that. For the purposes of reconstruction an effective system of governance is needed. If Israel leaves a territory descending into anarchy, then it cannot expect long-term security. If both Hamas and Israel are disqualified from running Gaza then others — the leading Arab states, the US and Europeans — will have to come up with a governance and reconstruction plan.


The least that can be offered those who have suffered so grievously in recent weeks is that measures can be implemented to prevent further violence and offer some hope for a better future. But it is hard to see the leaders who will stand up and offer that hope.

Some concluding thoughts

King Abdullah of Jordan again, from his Washington Post op-ed “If the status quo continues, the days ahead will be driven by an ongoing war of narratives over who is entitled to hate more and kill more. Sinister political agendas and ideologies will attempt to exploit religion. Extremism, vengeance and persecution will deepen not only in the region but also around the world”


October 7 was more than another bloody day in the ghastly calendar of atrocities in the Middle East. The barbarous invasion by Hamas is turning our politics upside down, and not in a good way. The reversion to ethnic and religious tribalism that is engulfing much of the world — and here I include Putin’s Slavic chauvinism — is lapping at our shores. We will have a job to hold it at bay.