This Gaza war didn’t come out of nowhere

A truck is seen breaking through a fence.
Palestinians groups break over a fence with the help of a digger as the clashes between Palestinian groups and Israeli forces continue in Gaza City, Gaza, on October 7, 2023. | Ashraf Amra/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

Everyone forgot about the Palestinians — conditions have been set for two decades, and Biden’s focus on Israel-Saudi talks may have lit a match.

It took Hamas’s deadly attack today to remind Israel, the United States, and the world that Palestine still matters.

The militant group based in occupied Gaza launched aerial attacks and broke through the heavily secured fence into the State of Israel. Hundreds of Israelis have been killed, a historic scale of violence for the country. The Israeli counterattack will inevitably lead to more death and destruction for Palestinians and a tightened occupation.

It comes after nearly two decades of the US and world leaders overlooking the more than 2 million people living in Gaza who endure a humanitarian nightmare, with its airspace and borders and sea under Israeli control. The attack comes amid an ongoing failure to grapple with the dangerous situation for Palestinians in the West Bank where Israel’s extreme-right government over the past year has escalated the already brutal daily pain of occupation.

Instances of Israeli security forces and Israeli settlers antagonizing Palestinians through violence are on the rise, from the pogrom on the city of Huwara to a new tempo of lethal raids on Jenin. Israeli government ministers have been pursuing annexationist policies and sharing raging rhetoric; both incite further violent response from Palestinians and appear at a time when new militant groups have emerged that claim the mantle of the Palestinian cause. The now-regular presence of Israeli Jews praying at the Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem, one of Islam’s holiest sites, have further pressurized the situation. A Hamas commander cited many of these factors in his statement.

But the ongoing reality of the occupation has not featured prominently in US or Arab leaders’ engagement with the region in recent years, even as circumstances for Palestinians worsened.

The question must thus be asked to the Israeli government, the Biden administration, and Arab leaders: How did they forget about Palestinians? How did they so brazenly ignore Gaza?

President Joe Biden has not reversed his predecessor Donald Trump’s policy of putting aside the question of Palestine and instead has exerted immense capital on the normalization of Israel’s relations with Arab states, no matter how extreme the policies of the Israeli government.

In the current US-led diplomatic equation, there is no space for Palestinians, except for talk of minor concessions to ease daily humiliations. Biden said recently, as many of his surrogates often do, that the US remains intent on “preserving the path to a negotiated two-state solution.”

But negotiations between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization have been frozen since 2014 under President Barack Obama, and most Palestinian analysts at this point acknowledge that US administrations since President Bill Clinton have engaged in a failed, asymmetrical process that never would have allowed for the conditions of an independent, sovereign state of Palestine.

And so the symbolism of Hamas breaking through Israeli security barriers and wreaking havoc on Israel — including the kidnapping of at least one Israeli soldier as well as civilians — will resonate across Palestine, the Arab world, and beyond.

Israel’s conflicts with Hamas, along with the 2006 Hezbollah-Israel conflict, have largely been rocket and artillery exchanges. Even in decades of large-scale Arab-Israeli wars, the battles were fought outside. “No Arab army has entered the territory of Israel since the 1948 war,” the preeminent Palestinian scholar Rashid Khalidi of Columbia University told me. “This is a huge strategic surprise.”

Israel and the United States have wished away Palestinians. The terrible bloodshed of today’s attacks underscores the cost of doing so.

How Biden missed the plot on Gaza

I’ve been to several Mideast policy conferences this month and spend probably too much of my time interviewing Washington experts and attending lectures on Middle East history.

Palestinians are hardly represented in panels and keynotes. The Biden administration’s key players bring up Palestine as a secondary issue. Gaza does not come up anymore.

But it remains central to how Palestinians and Arabs see Israel-Palestine and the Middle East — and how many Arabs perceive the US role in the world.

Trump exacerbated the hopelessness for Palestinian political rights by cutting the Palestinians entirely out of the process, and instead helped seal normalization deals between Israel and the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, and Morocco. But the autocratic Arab leaders who made “peace” with Israel never represented their own citizens.

With Biden’s Middle East team prioritizing a long-shot deal between Israel and Saudi Arabia, Biden’s inner circle has avoided talking about Gaza entirely. It’s all the more surprising because the two-week war between Israel and Hamas in May 2021 should have been an indication of Palestine’s enduring centrality to Middle East affairs. But as far as I can tell, there has been no policy reckoning in Washington about that war. No policy reviews.

There was complacency. “The Middle East region is quieter today than it has been in two decades,” Biden’s national security adviser Jake Sullivan said only last week.

It’s not even the first time that someone like Sullivan, who also served as a senior official in the Obama administration, has worked with his Egyptian counterparts to negotiate an Israel-Hamas ceasefire, as he is likely doing now. But now it’s clear that he and others treated Gaza peacemaking as a sideshow. It is not integral to Biden’s approach.

The humanitarian crisis in Gaza, which Hamas administers some level of control over, remains as acute as ever. But because the US has long designated Hamas, the Palestinian militant political group with an Islamist worldview, as a terrorist organization, US officials can’t contact them and must work through third countries. It means that the US knowledge base and expertise on Gaza is not just low — it’s absent.

The Palestine Liberation Organization’s leadership, with Chair Mahmoud Abbas still hanging on at 87 years old, lacks legitimacy among Palestinians. The Palestinian Authority, the body that exercises some administrative control over the occupied West Bank and that Abbas also runs, is seen by Palestinians as a collaboration arm of the Israeli occupation. A grassroots movement of Palestinian youth who engage in violent resistance against the Israeli security state, against settlers, and against civilians has emerged.

Between the radical Israeli government and the sclerotic Palestinian leadership, the Biden administration chose to continue the path of Trump’s normalization deals, with Saudi Arabia as the prize. Biden’s team still states an allegiance to the pursuit of a Palestinian state while doing little more, all which exposes the emptiness of the two-state solution.

What this means for Palestinians

Early on Saturday, Hamas sent bulldozers through the barriers that have hemmed in Palestinians in Gaza from Israel and the rest of the world. That image of resistance to the occupation will be widely circulated in the Arab world, and will endure long beyond this war. Its symbolic power cannot be underestimated.

Gaza is in essence a refugee camp (about 70 percent of those living in Gaza come from families displaced from the 1948 war) and an open-air prison, according to human rights groups. The United Nations describes the occupied territory as a “chronic humanitarian crisis.” Israel has blockaded Gaza since Hamas assumed control of the territory in 2007, and neighboring Egypt to the south has also imposed severe restrictions on movement.

Between them, Israel and Egypt monitor the entry and exit of all people, vehicles, and goods. They have not allowed enough construction materials and humanitarian items into the occupied Gaza Strip to enable the battered territory to rebuild from recurring episodes of deadly Israeli bombardments that are allegedly meant to target Hamas, but that often include civilian death tolls in the very dense territory.

The current Israeli government has aggravated these realities, Khalidi explained, by increasing pressure on the Palestinians on multiple fronts: in Jerusalem, squeezing Gaza, assaults on Palestinian villages by settlers, with settler-politicians leading ministries in the Israeli government; and with annexationist policies like the recent major policy change putting the Israeli civilian government (not the Israeli military) in charge of the occupied West Bank. Hamas’s attacks on Israel won’t change life for Palestinians, and Israel’s government will now use the full force of its advanced military in response. And given Israel’s state of emergency, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is now in talks with the opposition parties to pull together a unity government for the country. But even if some of the most extreme settler voices currently in the Israeli cabinet are replaced by more mainstream Israeli voices, harsh policies against Palestinians across the West Bank and Gaza will continue.

“This pressure being put on Palestinians — it just assumes that they’re insignificant and they will tolerate any degree of humiliation, and that’s just not true,” Khalidi told me. “If you had lifted the siege of Gaza, you would not have had this happen.”

Now Israelis are experiencing terrible loss and a tremendous sense of danger, and Palestinians living in Gaza will endure more violence, including Israeli troops entering the territories and the extensive bombardment of alleged military sites that typically have a significant civilian toll.

Global powers have been ignoring Gaza, but some in Israel haven’t forgotten.

“The dread Israelis are feeling right now, myself included, is a sliver of what Palestinians have been feeling on a daily basis under the decades-long military regime in the West Bank, and under the siege and repeated assaults on Gaza,” writes the Israeli journalist Haggai Mattar in 972 Magazine. “The only solution, as it has always been, is to bring an end of apartheid, occupation, and siege, and promote a future based on justice and equality for all of us. It is not in spite of the horror that we have to change course — it is exactly because of it.”

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