The kidnapping of innocents (yes, there still are such in this era of total war) is appalling—as is the killing of innocents—in a seemingly-endless set of reprisals.
The late November deal: “cease-fire” for return of some hostages, brought a brief breather and illustrated the sharp differentials in each side’s value of their own nationals’ lives on the one hand and their anger and power (and PR sensitivities) on the other. It also highlighted the plight of those millions who live(d) in Gaza as hostages themselves. That they are subject to the potential overwhelming power of Israeli armed force has been plainly demonstrated over the past three months. But they have been held hostage not only by their nominal foes, but also by their nominal brethren and, worse, by those who claim leadership/power directly over them.
As I have noted previously (see my “Three State Solution” piece of 051421), I am dubious of historical claims of Palestinian nationhood prior to the creation of Israel in 1948. Unlike many other nationalisms premised on a distinctive commonality of language and culture, this version seems to be based on a sort of derivative and negative case: those who lived and fled from the land claimed by Israel, but who could not secure inclusion in adjacent lands of their apparent brethren—similar (if not identical) in language, beliefs, and culture—in Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, and Egypt. Despite centuries of a pre-modern commonality under a caliphate, the concept of pan-Arabism or pan-Islam proved to have serious limitations. Palestinians are those who were ousted but not welcomed. All they had left was to construct their own new national identity. And even this was compounded by the geographic split between Gaza and the West Bank. (Shades of Pakistan following the partition of Greater India in the same timeframe).
The Arab states adjacent to Israel were previously just part of a congeries of administrative districts under the Ottoman Empire for some centuries. Even as that sprawling empire started falling apart in the 19C, there was little pretense of difference between the peoples on one side of a border and the other. As the British and the French divvied things up in the post-WWI land grab, borders were hardened and especially so as the concentration of Jews in Palestine increased during the inter-war period. But from Versailles to Israel was less than thirty years; hardly enough for any serious nationalism differentiations to harden. Yet in their effort at nation building, Britain and France constructed new monarchies and administrative proto-states which, as they moved toward an expected independence following WWII, saw Palestinian Arabs as outside their borders and, therefore, outside their direct responsibility.
Palestinian Arabs, now refugees after fleeing the new Jewish State, were of greater use to these new political entities as a tool to berate Israel and to distract their own populations from their domestic economic and political exploitation. Integrating these refugees would have been humane and pan-Arab. (But it would also have meant a de facto recognition of Israel). Since that time both adjacent and (more oil-rich) distant Arab states have provided modest financial and political support; but the squalid life of the Palestinian Arabs continued. In effect, they have been held hostage for 75 years by their “friends and families” for political purposes.
Which brings us to the Palestinians themselves. The PLO was founded in 1964 to represent those Palestinian Arabs ousted by Israel or who remained as Israeli citizens. The Oslo Accords of 1993 set the PLO on the path to “normal” statehood and governance, embodied in a Palestinian Authority for Palestinians living in both Gaza and the West Bank. Sharp disputes over relations with Israel within the Palestinian Arab electorate in 2006-07 led to armed conflict and the de facto separation of Gaza (under Hamas) from the West Bank (under the PLO/Palestinian Authority). A modus vivendi between the PLO and Israel has evolved to no one’s satisfaction or security. The PLO has not conducted a Presidential election since 2005. Meanwhile, Hamas has administered Gaza (also with no elections since 2006). And this top-level analysis doesn’t begin to comprehend the factionalism within each region or political grouping.
The result has been that Palestinian Arabs have been without democratic representation for close to twenty years. (Not that this is unusual in the Arab world where the country closest to having a democracy is Iraq.) For their leadership, too, the ordinary life and aspirations of the population of Palestinian Arabs has remained tertiary to a stance vis-à-vis Israel and the preservation of the incumbent political elites. They have become hostages in their own country.
This sad/horrible state moved to a new level with Hamas’ October attacks on Israel and the resulting military reprisals. The latter were only to be expected due to the intentional brutality of the attacks and undermining of Israeli security. Apparently, Hamas was willing to put their own people at risk of death and vast suffering as part of a classic resistance move of instigating a crackdown in the hope that confrontation would lead to outrage and a change in the fundamental power structure. In this way, Hamas—which has sponsored any number of suicide bombings against Israel—effectively strapped the entire population of Gaza into a bomber’s vest.
I wish I could bring this to a close with a proposal for some elegant solution to the whole catastrophe. Or even a kludgy solution. But the purpose of the study of history is merely to help us comprehend the complexity of life/politics/society. There is likely no situation in the modern world that is more complicated than this one. All I have tried to do is think through one segment of the story.