The eyes of the world turned toward the Middle East on October 7th, when Hamas militants from Gaza launched a surprise attack on southern Israel, killing over one thousand Israeli civilians and taking over two hundred hostages. Coming on the fiftieth anniversary of the 1973 Yom Kippur War, the Hamas attacks have been met by a considerable ongoing air offensive from the Israeli government, which has resulted in a death toll of over ten thousand Gazan civilians as of November 6, 2023. With an impending humanitarian crisis, a still unresolved hostage situation, and growing fears of a larger regional conflict, the tragic loss of civilian life on all sides is far from over. As day-to-day developments continue to unfold, GJIA is pleased to sit down with Khaled Elgindy, a senior fellow and director of the Program on Palestine and Palestinian-Israeli Affairs at the Middle East Institute – and a professor of Arab Studies at Georgetown University – to discuss the structural circumstances that preceded this war and the potential long-term consequences for the region.
GJIA: To establish some context, why did Hamas conduct this attack on Israel now, and what were their strategic goals in conducting this attack, if any?
KE: Obviously, we cannot get into the minds of Hamas leaders, but on the surface, this appeared to me as an attempt to permanently shatter the status quo, which had become untenable for the 2.2 million people who live in Gaza.
Meanwhile, Israel had been quite comfortable with the status quo. For Israelis, the periodic eruptions of violence could be managed and minimized in terms of their impact. The rest of the world had similarly grown indifferent to the Palestinians, with even the region having moved on to developments like a Saudi-Israel normalization deal. It was in this context that Hamas decided to launch this very brazen and brutal attack in a bid to permanently shatter the status quo.
GJIA: Since this conflict began, there has been a lot of politicized discourse about the extent to which Hamas represents the will of the two million Gazan civilians who live there. Of course, there have not been elections in Gaza since 2006, but is the approach of violent resistance and armed struggle that Hamas pursues in the name of Palestinian liberation the view held by most citizens of Gaza?
KE: First, it is very hard to gauge public opinion, especially in a moment like this, when nobody is particularly concerned with responding to polls. That said, Palestinians hold a range of views towards Hamas.
Before October 7th, I think a lot of Palestinians in Gaza had grown quite frustrated with Hamas. Hamas is not democratic and is quite repressive, and Palestinians had grown tired of the fact that Hamas had no real answers to their dilemma. It was not Hamas’s blockade that was suffocating Gaza, but eventually, Palestinians in Gaza started to ask, “What is your plan for resolving this?”
Alternatively, Hamas had become more popular in the West Bank, where people didn’t have to live under Hamas rule but could admire their willingness to launch resistance from a distance. This was in stark contrast to Mahmoud Abbas and his leadership of the Palestinian Authority, which was seen as quiescent and accommodating in the best of terms and as collaborators with Israeli occupation in the worst of terms.
So, public opinion is complicated. Palestinian interests include day-to-day needs – jobs, infrastructure, education, and a functioning economy. But ultimately, it is also about freedom and which path is more likely to disrupt the very painful status quo.
GJIA: The Biden administration has thus far supported Israel both rhetorically in its diplomacy and militarily in its actions, though recently the administration has emphasized it is making sure Israel follows international law in its counteroffensive. Is the Biden administration handling this conflict responsibly? If not, what should it be doing differently?
KE: The Biden administration has not been handling this issue responsibly. I think it has actually been quite reckless. I understand the immediate need to show solidarity in the wake of a pretty horrific attack on Israeli civilians, but that solidarity has turned into a blank cheque for Israel to do whatever it likes. It would be very hard to argue that Israel is complying with international humanitarian law and the laws of war. First, Israel is cutting water, food, medicine, and fuel to two million civilians. Israel is also asking half of Gaza’s two million people to relocate while conducting an almost merciless bombing of Gaza, including civilian targets, which is compounding the humanitarian crisis by so much more.
At some point, there needs to be a grown-up in the room who is able to rise above the emotion, shock, and horror and see the bigger picture. Even setting the human element aside, there needs to be a recognition of the short, medium, and long-term implications that this counteroffensive will have on Palestinians as a whole. An entire generation of Palestinians in the Gaza Strip is now facing massive collective trauma, including the possibility of being forcibly removed from their homeland. When the bombs stop falling and there is a ceasefire and an international conference on the reconstruction of Gaza, you will have this group of human beings who have been so severely traumatized, that they will never trust the United States or the West, much less Israel, ever again. To not see that this is not going to make Israelis more secure in any way, shape, or form is astonishing to me.
GJIA: The Israeli government’s stated goal with their counter-offensive is to “destroy Hamas,” a goal that is complicated to measure. Let’s say that over the next couple of months or so, Israel eliminates Hamas’s senior leadership and destroys its political organization – what comes next? Do you fear what could take hold in that power vacuum?
Yes, I do, and this is part of why it is so irresponsible of the United States to simply green-light whatever Israel is doing. I do not think the goal of destroying Hamas completely is attainable, so it is not clear to me what Israel’s metrics are for success. It is clear that Israel is dealing with things on an ad hoc basis, without a real plan for the day after Hamas falls, because no one knows what the “day after” even means.
But even if we assume Hamas will no longer be the governing force in Gaza, which I think is likely, we do not know who will fill that vacuum. Israel does not want to set up a military government, pay teachers, rebuild infrastructure, and develop a healthcare system in Gaza. It wants to control two million Palestinians, but it does not want to govern them. The Palestinian Authority is also unlikely to fill that vacuum because doing so on the backs of Israeli tanks would destroy whatever tiny shreds of credibility they might still have among their people.
So, there are no clear answers. And that is part of why I think it is so alarming that the United States is kind of just allowing Israel to do as it pleases. The United States should be pulling Israel back, first and foremost, because of the toll that it is taking on human beings in the Gaza Strip. But even if they didn’t care for those human lives, they should be pulling Israel back for its own sake, because right now Israeli leaders are not acting rationally. Israeli leaders are traumatized, humiliated, and desiring vengeance.
So, again, I come back to this question, “Who is the grown-up in the room?” This is a colossal failure, not just of American leadership, but of the entire international order. No Palestinian, Arab, Muslim, African, Latin American, or Asian is ever going to trust the West and its proclaimed values of equality, freedom, and human rights ever again. The West’s claim of a rules-based international order will not be credible to anyone because we now know this only applies to the people we like, like Ukraine, but not to others.
GJIA: How does this all end? What will the outcome be in terms of human lives, political changes, and the elusive goal of peace in the Middle East?
KE: I think it is impossible to say now how this will end. It could end tomorrow with a ceasefire, or in a week, a month, or six months. It could end relatively soon without a ground invasion of Gaza or after several weeks following a ground invasion. Will Palestinians be pushed over in large numbers into the Sinai as some Israeli officials are now talking about? Will one to two million Palestinians still live in Gaza when this is all over? We just have no idea, and I do not think Israeli leaders even know what their end game is.
Another unknown is how this is going to affect internal Palestinian politics. There is enormous anger towards Palestinian leaders, including Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas. What will happen if Abbas and the Palestinian Authority are ousted from the West Bank, given they are not a state and only have jurisdiction over a tiny portion of the West Bank?
What is clear to me is that this is the end of whatever chapter came before; call it the Oslo Accords chapter, the peace process chapter, or the two-state solution chapter. That paradigm is over. Now we must ask, “What is the next stage of the Palestinian struggle? Will it be an anti-apartheid struggle? Will there be new leadership which replaces the current one?” These are questions that are going to be answered in the coming years and decades, not months and weeks. But any semblance of returning to the way things were has been permanently shattered.
This transcript has been lightly edited for clarity and length. The content and opinions expressed here are exclusively those of the interviewed expert and do not necessarily represent the stance of this journal, its staff, or its affiliates.
Interview conducted by Uri Guttman.
Khaled Elgindy is a senior fellow and director of the Program on Palestine and Israeli-Palestinian Affairs at the Middle East Institute. He serves as an adjunct instructor of Arab Studies at Georgetown University and is the author of the recent book, “Blind Spot: America and the Palestinians, from Balfour to Trump.” From 2004 to 2009, Elgindy served as an adviser to the Palestinian leadership in Ramallah regarding permanent status negotiations with Israel. His Twitter handle is @elgindy_.
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