What if this war should end, as it must, not by a cease-fire or a truce, like other wars with Hamas, but with a comprehensive resolution to the 100-year-old conflict between the Palestinian and Israeli people?
To imagine anything good coming out of such a destructive war is not easy, especially for those of us witnessing its cruel prosecution from Ramallah, on the Israeli-occupied West Bank. And yet, as bad as things are, I feel compelled to resist giving in to despair. I may be clutching at straws, but I feel a moral responsibility to seek any grounds for hope.
One hopeful sign I detect is the recurring mention of the Nakba, as Palestinians call their tragedy during the 1948 war, when more than 700,000 people were forced to leave their home and become refugees. Israel has never officially recognized this collective catastrophe—largely because the Zionist movement, from its early days, denied the existence of the Palestinian people and consequently refused to recognize the Nakba.
Admittedly, today’s recognition is at best backhanded and at worst threatening. It points not to restitution but to repetition. On October 8, the Israeli Knesset member Ariel Kallner posted on X (formerly Twitter): “Right now, one goal: Nakba! A Nakba that will overshadow the Nakba of 48.” Violent Israeli settlers in the West Bank distributed pamphlets on October 26, warning of a second Nakba for the Palestinians: “You have a last opportunity to escape to Jordan. Afterward, we’ll drive you away by force from our holy land that God dedicated to us.”
I take some cold comfort from the recognition of the Nakba that this ugly rhetoric contains, in spite of itself. For decades, Israeli propaganda justified the exodus of three-quarters of the Palestinian population in 1948 with various claims; one—the contention that Palestinians left primarily because Arab leaders called on them to do so, rather than because of Jewish terrorism and systematic ethnic cleansing—has been rebutted by several generations of scholars.
Another persistent Israeli line held that the Palestinian Arabs had 21 Arab states to go to, while Israeli Jews had only one state. David Ben-Gurion, a 1948 war leader and Israel’s first prime minister, believed that after a few generations Palestinians would have integrated into new host countries and forgotten about Palestine. But 75 years after the Palestinians were pushed out of their home in Palestine, they continue to believe in the possibility of return, and many remain in the refugee camps where they were settled after the Nakba in the West Bank, Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, and Gaza.
Before 1948, many Palestinians saw the Jews as a tiny minority who would never be able to establish a state in Palestine. The famous Palestinian educator Khalil Sakakini, who worked as an educational inspector under the British Mandate, describes in a 1934 diary entry a trip he took throughout the country. He wrote: “If the Jews have a few impoverished colonies, the Arabs have thousands of villages … What is owned by the Jews compares as nothing to what is owned by the Arabs in Palestine.” The Palestinians also believed that they had the backing of the Arab states, which would help them quash the Jewish dream of establishing a state in Palestine.
Before the 1948 war, few Palestinians were aware of the extent of European Jews’ suffering in the Holocaust, or of how that experience affected the survivors who immigrated to Palestine—the insecurity and dread that blunted them to the feelings of Palestinians and engendered extreme determination to succeed in their nation-building project. Likewise, after 1948, the Israelis failed to understand the enduring meaning of the Nakba for the Palestinians.
Despite this history, and in addition to the almost inadvertent recent recognition of the Nakba, I see a second, slender ground for optimism arising out of the terrible violence.
“When this crisis is over, there has to be a vision of what comes next … There’s no going back to the status quo as it stood on October 6,” President Joe Biden told reporters. The White House said that Biden conveyed the same message directly to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during a telephone call.
We Palestinians have heard such invocations before, and they have proved empty promises. Even now, the United States, Israel’s staunchest ally, continues to block the UN Security Council from calling for a humanitarian cease-fire. But maybe, just maybe, after this latest horrific cycle of violence, the United States and the rest of the international community will follow through.
The Oslo Accords of 1993 are often viewed as a development that could have brought real peace, if not for the assassination of then–Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin by a right-wing Israeli fanatic. Yet Oslo was largely a false beginning. From the start, Israeli extremists denounced the agreement because it would force them to relinquish parts of “Greater Israel,” which they considered to be their God-given land. After the accords were signed, they built settlements on occupied Palestinian land at a faster pace than ever before. Some on the Israeli left opposed this policy, but to little avail.
In the aftermath of what was supposed to be a historic peace accord, therefore, Palestinians witnessed the loss of ever more land to Israeli settlements on the West Bank. They saw Israel withdraw from Gaza, only to impose a tight blockade restricting the movement of people and goods and affecting every aspect of life in the strip. These developments together gave credence to the argument, propounded by Hamas, that only through armed struggle would Palestinian rights be restored.
The mirror image of this view is the prevailing Israeli belief that only military action can defeat Hamas. To destroy Hamas will be impossible without ending the occupation of the West Bank and the siege of Gaza. Israel should know this from long experience, but instead persists in the delusion that Hamas’s appeal can be reversed without offering an alternative vision for a path to Palestinian freedom.
The Oslo Agreement established the Palestinian Authority, whose moderate head, Mahmoud Abbas, espoused nonviolent resistance to the Israeli occupation and to denounce violence. He was willing to settle for a smaller state and to struggle through peaceful and legal means to achieve it. Yet Netanyahu cynically supported Hamas in Gaza to make sure that the PA would not succeed. The PA, for its part, became unpopular because of its corruption, its security cooperation with Israel, and its failure to protect the Palestinians in the West Bank.
Now Israel is waging a destructive war against Hamas in Gaza that will carry a high economic cost, as well as a high reputational cost around the globe. Although Western governments proclaimed their solidarity with Israel after the October 7 horror, many are urging Israel to exercise restraint, and to cooperate with the provision of humanitarian aid. If the United States continues opposing calls for a cease-fire as the war goes on, it may find itself isolated even among its Western allies.
Israel/Palestine is a small, precious land with lovely beaches in Gaza; soft, attractive hills in the West Bank; and sites of exquisite beauty in Israel. But its people, rather than enjoying their mutual land for its bounty, are tormented by exclusivist attitudes and policies that stretch the limit of their endurance. The vision that peace could follow the eviction or destruction of one people, whether through a second Nakba or through bombing, is cruel and false.
Unfortunately, the United States’ policy is one of blind support for Israel. Over the years, Washington has failed to convince its ally that choosing the path of peace with the Palestinians through recognition of their rights is best for the future of all—for ending the violence, and for the possibility that one day, the two nations of Israelis and Palestinians can live together in peace and security.