This is the second in a two-part series on the events in Israel-Palestine. Read Part 1 here.
In a televised news conference on October 28, Israel’s President Benjamin Netanyahu announced that Israel had opened a “new phase” in the war by sending ground forces into Gaza and expanding attacks from the ground, air and sea. It’s “very clear objective” he said, was destroying Hamas’s military and governing capabilities. A past master at depicting every Israeli act of oppression as defence, he linked Hamas’s October 7 attack to the Holocaust and roared ,“We always said, ‘Never again’. Never again is now.” Only those for whom Israel can do no wrong will fail to recognise what Netanyahu had actually declared. This was that the ethnic cleansing of Gaza had begun.
Netanyahu did not say anything that would amount to an admission that this was his goal. What he claimed, repeatedly, was that Israel’s purpose was “the complete destruction of Hamas”. But he knows perfectly well that apart from the few Hamas leaders whom they can currently identify, the Israeli Defence Forces (IDF) will never be able to tell who is a member of the group and who among Gaza’s half to three-quarters of a million adult males and females are Hamas fighters and who are not. So the IDF will have no alternative but to keep bombing known and suspected hide-outs and tunnels in the hope of flushing out Hamas guerillas. For, as more than one army has learned to its cost during the last century, the casualties that an attacking force sustains in the alternative, of street to street fighting, are far greater than those sustained by the defendants. The only ‘economical’ way to regain control of a city therefore, is to pull it down on the defenders’ heads.
The leaders of Hamas must have been fully aware of how Israel would react even while they were planning their attack on the Israeli settlements, for the current Israeli bombing is the fifth they have faced in Gaza in the last two decades, with one of these having lasted 51 days. So they know that the safest place in which to hide their fighters is in the crowds of refugees that the bombing, and subsequent Israeli ground attack, will create. Netanyahu knows this too, so he knows that the only sure way to ‘destroy’ Hamas is to push the entire population of Gaza into either the Sinai desert, i.e Egypt, or transfer it forcibly from Gaza into tented camps in the Negev desert .
Either of these courses of action will make Israel a war criminal in international law. But as the latest Israeli assault on a refugee camp in North Gaza shows, this has not deterred Netanyahu, because of his conviction that the US will continue to support Israel irrespective of what he decides. What he may have underestimated, however, is the degree of opposition that exists among Israel’s Jewish population. This has been reflected by an explosive revelation in ‘+972’, a liberal Israeli magazine, that ‘The Intelligence Ministry’, a think tank within the Israeli defence establishment, had unequivocally recommended the total reoccupation of Gaza, and ejection of Palestinian civilians into Egypt or the Negev desert as early as October 13, six days after the Hamas attack. The map of an ‘Arab-free’ Israel that Netanyahu displayed at the UN General Assembly in September shows that he had probably been aware of, and may even have instigated, the preparation of that plan well before the Hamas attack.
It remains to be seen whether the US, which has so far blindly supported every Israeli action since that country’s inception, will continue to do so in face of the revelation that Netanyahu has been not merely contemplating an action that, only a century ago, gave birth to the word ‘genocide’ to describe the Armenian death march out of southern Turkey into Syria.
This could change if the democrats return to power in 2024. For, in the middle of the hysteria that Netanyahu has created in Israel over the Hamas attack, President Biden has not minced his words , and has told Israel that it needs to look for a two-state solution as a road to peace.
Biden’s exact words in his speech at Tel Aviv are worth quoting:
“That’s why, as hard as it is, we must keep pursuing peace. We must keep pursuing a path so that Israel and the Palestinian people can both live safely, in security, in dignity, and in peace. For me, that means a two-state solution. We must keep working for Israel’s greater integration with its neighbours. These attacks have only strengthened my commitment and determination and my will to get that done.”
In theory a two-state solution would be an improvement over the present Israeli tyranny over the West Bank and Gaza. But as the maps below show, creating it would require a mammoth displacement of both Arabs and Israelis from their present homes that neither community is likely to accept. A return of Israel to the Green Line is out because Israel’s unceasing expansion into the West Bank, and the subsequent Oslo agreements have made that line history. Today, not only does the barrier that Israel built to protect its settlers from PLO and Al Fatah attacks not follow the Green Line, but at places it penetrates as much as 18 to 20 kms to the east of it. Overall, the Wall has allowed Israel to annex 13.5% of the territory that was west of the original Green Line after the Armistice was signed in 1949.
In the 1993-95 Oslo accords, the PLO and Fatah accepted a further transfer of control of the bulk of the West Bank to Tel Aviv. This divided the West Bank into three areas, ‘A’, ’B’, and ‘C’. Area C was a contiguous territory occupying 61% of the West Bank that would be controlled completely by Israel. This was by then home to 400,000 Jews and 150,000 Palestinians, the latter living in 532 residential enclaves which are in effect isolated villages with 50-60 families living in each of them.
As the adjoining map shows, Areas A and B occupy 17 and 22% of the West Bank respectively. These are home to 2.8 million Palestinians who live in 165 enclaves, most of which are completely isolated from each other by the tortuous contours drawn to define Area C. Even in this small area, the Palestinian Authority actually administers only Area A, and even there has to share its security arrangements with Israel.
So is there any way to untangle this web in order to obtain a two-state solution? The short answer is not while Netanyahu remains Israel’s prime minister. Netanyahu is committed to pushing every Arab out of Gaza into Sinai, or at best the Negev desert in Israel’s far south. Till he is forced out of power, peace between Israel and Palestine will remain a mirage.
But should a miracle occur and a liberal government come to power in Israel, there is one example of a multi-ethnic, multi-religious and multi-cultural federation that it could well use as a model for Israel and Palestine. This is the ethno-federal democracy of India.
India’s citizens belong to more than 2,000 ethnic groups, each with its own history, language and culture, who speak 22 major languages, and innumerable dialects. Its constitution has harmonised this through a multi-tier democratic system with elected village councils making up the bottom tier, through 28 elected state governments, with a single national government at its apex.
Its constitution, which is by far the longest in the world, reserves defence, foreign affairs, international trade and finance, and the framing of criminal and civil law, to the Central government and leaves land, agriculture, health, education, culture and the administration of law, to the state governments.
India is home to eight major religions of the world– Jainism, Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam, Christianity, Judaism, Zoroastrianism and Sikhism, and their many branches. Its constitution protects not only their customs but also their religious laws. Within this framework, all of its citizens enjoy complete equality and the same civic rights and protections.
India’s success in forging a peaceful nation out of such enormous diversity without resorting to war has been so complete that it barely draws the world’s attention any longer. But the construction of its complex democracy has been an ongoing process, that began 12 years before India became independent, in 1935 and is still a work in progress, 88 years later.
The 1935 constitution gave India a federal structure that was based upon the British political structures that already existed at the time when they built their empire. The 1948 constitution, followed by the linguistic reorganisation of state borders in 1957, created the federal, ethnicity-based ‘Union of States’ that India is today.
Israel and Palestine could, if they desired, merge to create a similar ethno-federal nation, with Jerusalem as its capital, and Israel, the West Bank and Gaza as its federating units, each with its own state capital and, if desired, its own official religion. Jerusalem, however, would be open to all the faiths of the country, and the world.
Creating a single, federated nation will make it unnecessary to engineer any shift of population or exchange of territory within it. That will end the principal cause of the conflict that has bedevilled Palestine till today. Israelis and Palestinian Arabs will be able to live and work freely in any part of the country, and to buy and sell property freely if they wish to move elsewhere. This nation would need two official languages, but could, for a transitional period at least, use English as the link language between its governments and their subsidiary agencies. The greatest boon that it will confer upon both peoples is peace – the freedom to continue living where they live today with all the rights of a free people, and without fear.
As Gideon Levy, the famed columnist of the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, told the National Press Club at Washington in 2015, the two essential requirements of such a transition are mutual respect and a desire for peace. These have been noticeably absent among the Jews of Israel and the Arabs of West Bank because of the US’s unstinting support of every military or diplomatic initiative that Israel has taken regardless of its rights and wrongs. This blind support is what Netanyahu has capitalised upon to cage and progressively dehumanise Palestinian Arabs in the eyes of the world. If Hamas’s violent incursion on October 7 and Israel’s genocidal response in Gaza bring home the futility of perennial confrontation, then the thousands who have lost their lives, and the thousands more who will do so in the next few weeks, will not have died in vain.
Prem Shankar Jha is a veteran journalist.