Israel aims to 'deradicalise' Gaza but it should deradicalise itself

Agree to a ceasefire, halt settlement construction – there are things that Benjamin Netanyahu could do if he were serious about his supposed aim

The National
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In an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal on December 25, nearly three months into the Gaza war, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu outlined what he would like to see in post-war Gaza. “Hamas must be destroyed, Gaza must be demilitarised and Palestinian society must be deradicalised,” he wrote.

It is unclear whether any of these objectives can be achieved, and the first two appear to be at odds with the third, since Israel’s efforts to destroy Hamas up to this point have gone so far towards destroying Gaza itself, making much of the densely populated area uninhabitable for its 2.2 million residents.

Military experts have warned that the devastation in Gaza and the grievance it causes will create new Hamas recruits, or something even more radical. US Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin, whose government is squarely aligned with Israel’s war efforts, said it clearly: “You see, in this kind of a fight, the centre of gravity is the civilian population. And if you drive them into the arms of the enemy, you replace a tactical victory with a strategic defeat.”

Unfortunately, Israel has never shown much appreciation for this kind of wisdom. For years, its approach to Palestinian society has veered between trying to ignore it and trying to force its will upon it – neither an approach likely to yield “deradicalisation”.

During the Second Intifada in the early aughts, then Israeli military chief of staff Moshe Ya’alon had an explicit approach to uprooting armed resistance to the military occupation in the West Bank that he called “searing consciousness”. He saw the need for a cognitive war that would use Israel’s military might to convince the Palestinian public to internalise the idea that the use of force (which many Palestinians see as a liberation struggle and Israel sees as terrorism) would never pay off.

Since that period, Israel has “disengaged from Gaza” in an effort to remove the territory from Israel’s responsibility, while escalating its de facto annexation of the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, limiting Palestinians to smaller and smaller spaces, trampling basic rights and livelihoods, suppressing protest, outlawing civil society organisations and killing (or enabling the killing of) Palestinians in increasing numbers. It is not the most promising foundation for a deradicalisation agenda.

The Israeli leadership has been pushing an extremist agenda in both rhetoric and action

Nor is it easy to see how, absent a dramatic course correction, things might change for the better. Putting aside the question of the feasibility of Israel’s war objectives in Gaza, and without downplaying the extreme nature of Hamas’s October 7 attack, the major factor prohibiting any progress toward a solution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is the growing normalisation of extreme views within the Israeli polity, which have been building up for years and are now on clear display in the current Netanyahu government. The Israeli leadership has been pushing an extremist agenda in both rhetoric and action, with the world watching it unfold in the West Bank, inside Israel and most vividly, in Gaza.

This trend was on display well before October 7, as the far-right government Mr Netanyahu formed a year ago was breaking records for the number of settlements approved, the number and gravity of incidents of settler violence against Palestinians in the West Bank, the number of Palestinians killed by Israeli forces in the West Bank and the number of Israelis out in the streets to protest the government’s plan to remove judicial checks on its power.

After the shock and trauma of October 7, what little restraint may have been left in Israel’s political class went out the window, as the leadership unleashed a relentless assault on Gaza, with unconditional US material support and robust political backing from European counterparts. While the humanitarian catastrophe has caused squeamishness among some Western diplomats and politicians, that has hardly been a uniform reaction, and extreme rhetoric – which in some cases appears to validate atrocious behaviour – is on the rise, both in Israel and among its overseas supporters.

It began with comparing Hamas to Nazis and to ISIS, moved on to claims there are no innocents in Gaza, to calls to “burn Gaza down” by the deputy speaker of Israel’s parliament, to a minister saying it was an option to drop an atomic bomb on Gaza. (Mr Netanyahu reprimanded the minister but stopped short of taking meaningful action against him.) A few members of Mr Netanyahu’s Likud party have called for the mass killing of Gazans, and an Israeli TV journalist said Israel should have started the war by killing 100,000 Gazans in one shot.

Such language has become so rampant that several Israeli academics and former public servants penned a letter to Israel’s attorney general warning that ignoring what they call incitement to genocide by public officials normalises it and risks influencing how Israel wages war. Giora Eiland, a reservist major general and a former head of Israel’s national security council, has been a frequent guest on the evening news advocating that Israel disconnect Gaza from food, water and fuel to create a humanitarian disaster in Gaza. That idea was implemented by Defence Minister Yoav Gallant at the outset of the war, when he imposed a total siege on the strip, which Israel had to fairly quickly lift in favour of woefully inadequate aid.

Inside Israel, Palestinian citizens have suffered a total crackdown on the right to protest and their freedom of expression, with hundreds arrested. A recent poll shows that 84 per cent of Palestinian citizens fear for their physical safety, and 86 per cent fear for their economic security.

In three months of war, Israel has killed over 22,000 Palestinians in Gaza (the majority civilians, even if we take into account Israeli claims that 8,000 of them are Hamas fighters) and left over 50,000 injured, with most hospitals barely operational. By mid-December, Israel had dropped 29,000 bombs and munitions on the strip, leaving nearly 70 per cent of Gazan homes and about half of its buildings damaged or destroyed. According to the UN, half the population in Gaza is at risk of starvation, and Human Rights Watch has accused Israel of using starvation as a method of warfare, a war crime.

With much of Gaza now largely unliveable, 85 per cent of the population have become internally displaced, and many fear that Israel will make good on some of its leaders’ proposals to empty the territory of its people through “voluntary emigration” – now framed as a humane step. Avi Dichter, a former head of Israel’s Shin Bet domestic intelligence agency who is now Minister of Agriculture, may have said it most candidly when he proclaimed that Israel is rolling out “Nakba 2023”, in reference to what Palestinians call the Nakba (“Catastrophe”), the mass expulsion of their people from their homes beginning in 1947. The next day Mr Netanyahu told cabinet ministers to be careful about what they say.

Mr Netanyahu then said at a party meeting on Christmas Day that he was actively pursuing a course of action to find countries that would be willing to take in Palestinians from Gaza. This came after a fellow Likud member, Danny Danon, and a centrist Knesset member from the opposition Yesh Atid Party, Ram Ben Barak, penned a joint op-ed in November introducing the idea of Gazans leaving the strip for western countries as a practical, moral and bipartisan position that Israelis can rally behind. (A security Israeli official has denied to me that population transfer of Palestinians from Gaza is part of Israel’s plan.)

Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich along with other ministers, including members of the regular security cabinet such as National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir, have taken it further by openly calling not only for Palestinian “emigration” from Gaza, but for Israel to establish Jewish settlements there once again. Mr Netanyahu, who has said Israel does not plan to occupy Gaza, but insists on indefinite security control, has neither endorsed nor condemned those statements. The US has.

It is thus hard to imagine how Israeli leaders expect to “deradicalise” a society over which they exercise so much control, and after largely destroying Palestinians’ ability to live in Gaza, then encouraging them to leave, while continuing to pursue annexation and displacement in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. These actions seem almost designed to do the opposite: to instil such terror and fear in Palestinians that many of them feel compelled to fight back, only perpetuating the cycle of violence.

Any serious effort to “deradicalise” Palestinian society would start by demonstrating respect for and take practical steps to enable Palestinian political, economic and social aspirations. It would recognise the Palestinian right to self-determination and statehood. It would state its desire to reach a negotiated solution to the conflict with a legitimate Palestinian leadership, the emergence of which it would encourage.

It would halt settlement construction in the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, and stop the mass violence by soldiers and settlers against Palestinians. First and foremost, it would agree to a ceasefire in Gaza since it is hard to imagine anything more radicalising than seeing one’s home and community destroyed and one’s family killed. But for Israel today, these common-sense ideas are too radical to contemplate.

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Published: January 05, 2024, 6:00 PM