After 75 years of conflict, it’s clear persistent war in Gaza isn’t the answer

by Storer H. Rowley

The Middle East once again perches on the precipice of all-out war.

Thousands of Israeli and Palestinian civilians are dead or wounded, many of them children. More than 200 Israelis and others remain hostages of Hamas in Gaza as that 25-mile-long coastal strip devolves into a humanitarian catastrophe. The U.S. military is sending more ships, planes and Marines, while American forces come under fire in Iraq and Syria and retaliate with airstrikes.

As Israel expands ground operations and Israeli tanks have rolled into parts of the Gaza strip, it is worth remembering this conflict between Israelis and Palestinians has gone on for 75 years, and if one thing has been proved again and again, war after war, it’s this: There is no military solution to this seemingly forever war.

With the worst violence and carnage unfolding since the 1973 Yom Kippur War, it should be agonizingly evident by now that peace can never be achieved without a long-term strategy to seek agreements between Israelis and Palestinians. Even families of the hostages have called for a pause in Israel’s ground assault.

Since the collapse of the 1993 Oslo peace accords, key final status issues remain unresolved between the parties, including competing claims to security, justice, Jerusalem and fair shares of the Holy Land — not to mention what to do about Israeli settlers and Palestinian refugees. The bloodshed of October has extinguished any prospect for peace for now, perhaps for years to come.

The war is more awful evidence that the current Israeli strategy regarding Palestinians is not working. Five wars between Israel and Hamas over the past 15 years should make it manifestly obvious that managing the conflict is not viable. Violence grows in the West Bank while the besieged Gaza Strip remains an open-air prison that some now call a graveyard.

Eventually, the parties must return to serious negotiations, even though those seem ineffably distant. U.S. support for a two-state solution sounds like a naive dream right now, but that remains the most likely plan for a successful, permanent solution.

America has lived through this kind of bloody scenario after the 9/11 attacks by al-Qaida, and President Joe Biden reminded Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that the U.S. made errors in its rushed response. When Biden visited Israel recently, he wisely cautioned the Israeli government “not to be blinded by rage,” noting, “We felt enraged as well. While we sought and got justice, we made mistakes.”

Israel has every right to defend itself after Hamas terrorists slaughtered at least 1,400 Israelis on Oct. 7 — the largest massacre of Jews in a single day since the Holocaust. There is no justification for Hamas atrocities. Iran-backed Hamas is not interested in making peace with Israel. Per its charter, this group is dedicated to killing Jews and destroying the Jewish state. It is classified by the U.S. and the European Union as a terrorist organization.

But the Israeli bombing campaign in Gaza since Oct. 7 has killed more than 7,000 Palestinians, more than a third of them children; displaced 1 million people; and destroyed thousands of buildings. If Israel moves in next with a major ground offensive, many more will die in Gaza in close urban battles.

Biden was right to tell the world the U.S. stands with Israel, but he was also wise to caution Netanyahu to follow the laws of war, minimize civilian deaths and not to reoccupy Gaza. More important, Israel needs to think through its endgame and an exit strategy and who will be in charge of Gaza once it crushes Hamas and its leaders.

The moderate self-rule Palestinian Authority, which governs parts of the Israeli-occupied West Bank, is the logical choice, and it has recognized Israel and agreed to negotiate the final status issues. However, it will be loath to take over Gaza — and have little credibility with Palestinians — if it is installed after an Israeli invasion. More likely, an international, Arab League or United Nations peacekeeping force will be needed first.

Netanyahu’s government is the most extreme in Israel’s history and includes racist and anti-Arab cabinet ministers determined to expand illegal Jewish settlements in the West Bank and kill the possibility of a two-state solution. Unless Netanyahu can offer Palestinians a vision of a brighter future or a path back to peace talks and eventual statehood, there is little incentive for Palestinians to work for peace. Crushing Hamas will not eliminate the resistance to an occupation most of the world considers illegal under international law.

Moreover, Mideast experts see Netanyahu’s strategy through successive governments as a way of keeping Hamas propped up in Gaza with aid from Qatar, while keeping the rival Palestinian Authority under President Mahmoud Abbas weak and ineffectual in the West Bank — in effect, giving Israel an excuse for not negotiating with Abbas on Palestinian statehood.

In the Mideast conflict, stalemate creates a vacuum, and violence always fills the gap. The U.S. should stand with Israel but also for a free Palestine. The two are not mutually exclusive. Only a political decision by both sides to create a path to peace, as impossible as that seems right now, can bring an end to persistent war.

Storer H. Rowley, a former national editor and foreign correspondent for the Chicago Tribune, teaches journalism and communication at Northwestern University.