By Arab News
By Yossi Mekelberg
Once again, the Middle East is in turmoil as a consequence of a major confrontation between Israel and Hamas in Gaza, and all of a sudden there is global interest in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Everyone wants to know how this calamity could have happened. How will it unfold? And how can it be resolved once and for all?
However, what they — world leaders, international organizations and even the media — ignore is that, for years, this conflict has been neglected, relegated in international priorities, due to the unsubstantiated belief that, although it is an unpleasant situation, it is nevertheless being managed and that, realistically, containing the conflict is the best that can be done. Resolving it has been considered too complex for everyone concerned. This perception is accompanied by referring to the present condition of Israeli-Palestinian relations as being the “status quo.”
Nothing could be further from the truth and this misleading term is hindering our ability to detect new challenges and dangers. A status quo (literally, the existing state of affairs) does not exist in politics and international relations and it should have been erased from diplomatic and political jargon a long time ago, not only because it is an illusion but because it creates a false sense of security, of a stable situation that faces no challenges.
The term also serves to normalize situations where one side is the beneficiary at the expense of others, which creates the conditions for more war and conflict. This was Israel’s situation when it was caught by total surprise by the Hamas attack on Oct. 7. The status quo is an illusion invented by those in the driving seat, a story told by those in a privileged position to provide themselves with certainty when none exists, as is the case in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Moreover, by falling into the trap of the status quo fallacy, governments believe they are in control of the situation and there is no challenge powerful enough, sufficiently motivated or courageous enough to disturb it.
Needless to say, although necessary to repeat, is that while it is understandable that Palestinians of all political persuasion would be determined to defy the so-called status quo in their relations with Israel, nothing can ever justify the brutal massacre conducted by Hamas against innocent civilians and its taking hostage of hundreds of innocent people. We are now witnessing weeks of more war and bloodshed, in which so many innocent Palestinians are being killed — and who knows what lies ahead?
Yet, even now, we need to go back in time and learn the lessons of what brought us to this horrendous point in time. Only an unvarnished look at history will help build a better future for the Israelis and the Palestinians, one that excludes violence, oppression and brutality. Nevertheless, to achieve peace there is first a need to walk away from status quo thinking and, in doing so, avoid the policies that derive from its demonstrably false assumptions of stability.
In Israeli government thinking, at least until Oct. 7, the situation with the Palestinians was stable, it was being successfully managed and there were no emergent problems that the military could not deal with. The country’s security, according to this thinking, was guaranteed firstly by Gaza being blockaded and surrounded by a sophisticated fence, within which the Gazan people were little more than prisoners in this small strip of land. Moreover, this attitude was complemented by the belief that Hamas had lost its appetite for a military confrontation with Israel due to the money that was coming in from Qatar, much of it in suitcases overflowing with cash, to help alleviate poverty and also fund a range of reconstruction projects in Gaza; and also more Gazans being allowed to work in Israel.
Meanwhile, the West Bank appeared to have entered a routine of violent confrontations between Israeli security forces and militant Palestinian groups, with the expansion of the settlements being relentless and settler violence becoming part of the political reality, with little international protestation, while the Palestinian political system was on hold waiting for the succession issue to resolve itself.
Moreover, under the current and most far-right Israeli government in history, the language of annexation and Jewish supremacy had entered the heart of government and increasing numbers of Palestinians were expressing their support for resorting to armed struggle. Does this look to you like a status quo? Hardly. Rather, it was the exacerbation of an already intolerable situation waiting to explode.
Yes, we were all surprised and shocked by the brutality of Hamas. But what should not have surprised us was that the people of Gaza would want to bring down the fences that they had been surrounded by for so many years. To assume that people living under blockade or occupation will not look for a way to shatter that situation is a position that ranges from extreme misjudgment to clinical delusion.
Furthermore, how can anyone suggest that a status quo prevails, in the sense that things are frozen or at least stable when, for instance, since the Oslo Accords were signed in the mid-1990s, the number of Jewish settlers in the occupied West Bank has risen almost fivefold to half a million, including the 200,000 who have settled in East Jerusalem? This has staggeringly changed the demography of the West Bank and made the idea of a peace based on the two-state solution extremely difficult, if not impossible. And it only increases Palestinian despair and hopelessness, which in turn becomes fertile ground for radicalization and extremism to spread.
In Gaza, we must consider not only the 16 years that the Strip has been blockaded by land, sea and air, which keeps its inhabitants in an open-air prison and under the authoritarian and oppressive government of Hamas. But also that, during these years, the people of Gaza have endured round upon round of violence with Israel, in which thousands of civilians have been killed, injured or maimed and much of its sparse infrastructure destroyed. This has not been a status quo, but a situation where an implosion was just a matter of time.
In the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the tragedy of the self-deception of permanence makes a peaceful solution ever more difficult to achieve and what continues to develop year by year, decade by decade, only makes things worse. Impasse or deadlock in attempts to end the conflict are what characterizes the relations between Israel and the Palestinians — not any “status quo.” And the events of the last few weeks have demonstrated how quick is the road to the abyss. It is understanding the dynamic of the conflict in this light that will help us get out of the deep hole that is the Israeli-Palestinian tragedy.
- Yossi Mekelberg is professor of international relations and an associate fellow of the MENA Program at Chatham House. He is a regular contributor to the international written and electronic media. X: @YMekelberg