Netanyahu, the Palestinians, and the Price of Neglect

Aluf Benn in Foreign Affairs: One bright day in April 1956, Moshe Dayan, the one-eyed chief of staff of the Israel Defense Forces (IDF), drove south to Nahal Oz, a recently established kibbutz near the border of the Gaza Strip. Dayan came to attend the funeral of 21-year-old Roi Rotberg, who had been murdered the previous morning by Palestinians while he was patrolling the fields on horseback. The killers dragged Rotberg’s body to the other side of the border, where it was found mutilated, its eyes poked out. The result was nationwide shock and agony.

If Dayan had been speaking in modern-day Israel, he would have used his eulogy largely to blast the horrible cruelty of Rotberg’s killers. But as framed in the 1950s, his speech was remarkably sympathetic toward the perpetrators. “Let us not cast blame on the murderers,’’ Dayan said. “For eight years, they have been sitting in the refugee camps in Gaza, and before their eyes we have been transforming the lands and the villages where they and their fathers dwelt into our estate.” Dayan was alluding to the nakba, Arabic for “catastrophe,” when the majority of Palestinian Arabs were driven into exile by Israel’s victory in the 1948 war of independence. Many were forcibly relocated to Gaza, including residents of communities that eventually became Jewish towns and villages along the border.

Dayan was hardly a supporter of the Palestinian cause. In 1950, after the hostilities had ended, he organized the displacement of the remaining Palestinian community in the border town of Al-Majdal, now the Israeli city of Ashkelon. Still, Dayan realized what many Jewish Israelis refuse to accept: Palestinians would never forget the nakba or stop dreaming of returning to their homes. “Let us not be deterred from seeing the loathing that is inflaming and filling the lives of hundreds of thousands of Arabs living around us,’’ Dayan declared in his eulogy. “This is our life’s choice—to be prepared and armed, strong and determined, lest the sword be stricken from our fist and our lives cut down.’’ 

On October 7, 2023, Dayan’s age-old warning materialized in the bloodiest way possible. Following a plan masterminded by Yahya Sinwar, a Hamas leader born to a family forced out of Al-Majdal, Palestinian militants invaded Israel at nearly 30 points along the Gazan border. Achieving total surprise, they overran Israel’s thin defenses and proceeded to attack a music festival, small towns, and more than 20 kibbutzim. They killed around 1,200 civilians and soldiers and kidnapped well over 200 hostages. They raped, looted, burned, and pillaged. The descendants of Dayan’s refugee camp dwellers—fueled by the same hatred and loathing that he described but now better armed, trained, and organized—had come back for revenge. 

October 7 was the worst calamity in Israel’s history. It is a national and personal turning point for anyone living in the country or associated with it. Having failed to stop the Hamas attack, the IDF has responded with overwhelming force, killing thousands of Palestinians and razing entire Gazan neighborhoods. But even as pilots drop bombs and commandos flush out Hamas’s tunnels, the Israeli government has not reckoned with the enmity that produced the attack—or what policies might prevent another. Its silence comes at the behest of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who has refused to lay out a postwar vision or order. Netanyahu has promised to “destroy Hamas,” but beyond military force, he has no strategy for eliminating the group and no clear plan for what would replace it as the de facto government of postwar Gaza. 

His failure to strategize is no accident. Nor is it an act of political expediency designed to keep his right-wing coalition together. To live in peace, Israel will have to finally come to terms with the Palestinians, and that is something Netanyahu has opposed throughout his career. He has devoted his tenure as prime minister, the longest in Israeli history, to undermining and sidelining the Palestinian national movement. He has promised his people that they can prosper without peace. He has sold the country on the idea that it can continue to occupy Palestinian lands forever at little domestic or international cost. And even now, in the wake of October 7, he has not changed this message. The only thing Netanyahu has said Israel will do after the war is maintain a “security perimeter” around Gaza—a thinly veiled euphemism for long-term occupation, including a cordon along the border that will eat up a big chunk of scarce Palestinian land.

But Israel can no longer be so blinkered. The October 7 attacks have proved that Netanyahu’s promise was hollow. Despite a dead peace process and waning interest from other countries, the Palestinians have kept their cause alive. In the body-camera footage taken by Hamas on October 7, the invaders can be heard shouting, “This is our land!” as they cross the border to attack a kibbutz. Sinwar openly framed the operation as an act of resistance and was personally motivated, at least in part, by the nakba. The Hamas leader spent 22 years in Israeli prisons and is said to have continually told his cellmates that Israel had to be defeated so that his family could return to its village.

More here.

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