The war in Israel/Palestine represents a reverberating continuation of the quarrels of the last two millennia. All Eurasia has been involved in the disputes over this patch of land. The three Abrahamic religions cover most of Eurasia. After the Holocaust, Christians evolved the idea of a Judeo-Christian civilisation. Yet no parallel reconciliation with Islam has taken place from either of the two other Abrahamic faiths – Christianity or Judaism.
There is no feasible solution to this dispute. The western countries are unquestioningly pro-Israel and the Muslim countries of the Middle East are neither united nor powerful enough to change the status quo. The United Nations has not succeeded in solving the two-states-within-one-territory problem.
Hamas has reawakened the world to this unsolved problem. In prospect is a much longer and more violent war. It will go on at least as long as the Russia-Ukraine conflict. China will stay out until it is opportune to get involved as it wants to see the US lose face. In declaring the aim of Hamas’ complete destruction, Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, has probably overplayed his hand. Many Muslim nations of the Middle East will wish to prolong the fight and gain from higher oil prices. Few others apart from Russian President Vladimir Putin will derive clear benefit.
The new world order
The war is being fought under new conditions . The US is no longer as powerful. It is politically divided, as seen in the displacement of the Speaker of the House of Representatives. Even if it is over-aiding Israel, the US has suffered repeated reverses in the years since 9/11. While it succeeded in killing Taliban leader Osama Bin Laden, the US lost its battle in Afghanistan and had to scuttle away in humiliation.
ISIS caused problems for the US. The war against Saddam Hussein was not as clean a success. The US has never won a straight victory since 9/11 against Muslim insurgency. Post-1945, it has never won an Asian war.
While Russia has lost power, not just China, but also Iran in the neighbourhood of Israel, is no longer subject to US control.
Expect a long, drawn-out war on Israel’s territory. The UN is already warning Israel about likely war crimes if the civilian population of Gaza or West Bank is subjected to inhumane treatment. So virtue may not lie solely with Israel. The Israel-Hamas war may get bogged down in disagreement in the UN Security Council. The G20 meeting in India serves as a warning.
Long-running resentment in Islamic world
The dismantling of the Ottoman Empire created long-run resentment in the Islamic world. Al-Qaeda and various other groups spawned under the rubric of Islamist terrorism bear witness to unsettled quarrels among the Abrahamic faiths.
Since the end of the empire, Iraq, Syria, United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Lebanon, Jordan, Qatar, Oman are now all separate. Yet Palestine has not stayed a single independent state. It was run by Britain as a Treaty obligation under the League of Nations. In 1948, it was set up as a dual state of Israel and Palestine. But the reluctance of the surrounding Muslim nations to accept Israel has resulted in the many wars.
Consequently, there are Palestinian refugees all over the Middle East. Over the 75 years since Israel was set up, the space for Palestinians inside their old home has steadily shrunk. As a result, resistance movements such as the Palestine Liberation Organisation, Fatah, Hezbollah and Hamas have cropped up.
The creation of Israel
The Ottoman dismembering gave way to the present-day Middle East. In their secret Sykes-Picot Treaty, France and Britain split up the regions. Britain took Jerusalem along with Palestine, France got Lebanon, and so on, under the League of Nations Trusteeship. But it enabled Britain to encourage Jewish settlement in Palestine, through the Balfour Declaration. Of course, an assurance was given that those already living there, Palestinian Arabs, would not be displaced.
The atrocities against the Jews by Nazi Germany gave way to the creation of the state of Israel by a UN Resolution, sharing the territory of Palestine. Then began the repeat of the old Crusades with Islamic states of the old Ottoman Empire challenging Israel’s right of existence. Those wars ended in decisive defeats for the Islamic states and the triumph of Israel. The two-state solution became an irrelevance, despite decades of debate within the UN.
It is difficult to calculate the length and destructiveness of the war. But it is unlikely to stay confined to the territory of Israel. Perhaps even the two-state solution, long delayed, may become a reality, with partition of the territory which was once Palestine and now is Israel.
This cannot happen until defeat of one side by another or a long stalemate where the world decides it cannot allow more senseless killing of civilians. When will this stage be reached? The Russia-Ukraine war has gone on for a year and a half. The North Atlantic Treaty Organisation powers have not been able to settle it, partly because Ukraine is not a member of NATO, but also because Russia will not be stopped until total defeat or total victory.
Logic and history indicate this war will not just be a local battle. Hamas must be aware of the size of its gamble. Israel so far seems to be treating it like an internal civil war within its borders. Hezbollah may infiltrate from the North. Therefore, neighbouring Middle Eastern countries – Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Jordan – may not remain passive.
Israel sees this as a terminal battle to clear Hamas from its territory for all time. It is difficult to envisage that it will durably have its own way.
Meghnad Desai is Emeritus Professor of Economics at the London School of Economics and Political Science, Chair of the OMFIF Advisory Council and Crossbench Peer in the House of Lords.