The many layers of the Gaza-Israel conflict

Helena Cobban
12 min readOct 23, 2023

This terrible conflict, which since October 7 has killed 1,400 Israelis and more than 5,000 Gaza Palestinians and in which the United States is very deeply entangled, has many different layers-from the anguish of individual families in Gaza as they continually see their loved ones killed or maimed, and their children terrified… right through to the stability of the global system itself.

At this point in history, these layers are all pancaked in on each other. Perhaps like those many high-rise apartment buildings in Gaza that have been pancaked by massive U.S.-made and Israeli-delivered bombs.

My aim in this essay is to start digging through the different layers of the broadening geopolitics of the Gaza-Israel crisis. Here goes.

Two initial observations:

  1. The immediate conflict is one between Israel and the Palestinians of Gaza, but this is just a part-though a key part-of the much broader conflict that Israel has waged against the indigenous Arab residents of historic Palestine since long before the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948. Right now, in addition to pummeling Gaza, Israeli settlers and security forces are waging harsh crackdowns on the Palestinians of the occupied West Bank (including E. Jerusalem), where they have killed 95 Palestinians since October 7 and detained scores or even hundreds of others…. Plus, it should be remembered that a strong numerical majority of the Palestinian people have been forced by Israel to live outside their homeland, though international law and U.N. resolutions still underline that the exiles’ rights within their homeland have never been annulled. All of these dimensions of the long-festering Palestine Question need to be addressed.
  2. This is the first major Arab-Israeli conflict to erupt in the era in which the nearly complete hegemony that the United States previously enjoyed within global politics has entered a phase of rapid erosion. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1990–93, U.S. power has been unmatched across West Asia, and such challenges as it met from Iran could easily be contained. But today, we are in a much more fluid period of geopolitics, as I’ve previously noted, e.g. here or here.

A third, and absolutely central, observation has to be about the collapse of two key institutions on which U.S. diplomacy has long relied to “manage” or “contain” the potentially explosive, decades-long conflict between Israelis and Palestinian. One is the PA, the Ramallah-based “Palestinian Authority” that since 1994 has exercised a tightly limited degree of local governance over some splotches of land within the West Bank. The other is the Government of Israel, an extremely rich and militarily powerful (indeed, nuclear-armed!) body that since October 7 has shown itself incapable of either devising or implementing any coherent strategy to deal with the crisis posed by the 2.3 million Palestinians of Gaza and their leaders.

Every so often I have tiny, fleeting shards of sympathy for the super-deep dilemma in which Israel’s prime minister, Binyamin Netanyahu, and his generals now find themselves. (That is, when my stomach is not tied into a big ugly knot of dread and sadness as I hear repeated drumbeats of tragic news from and of my friends in Gaza.)

But Netanyahu: what can he, his generals, and their security forces do? Can they actually hope to-as they have repeatedly promised their people-”destroy Hamas”? No, they can’t. Not even if they invade all of Gaza and/or wipe out every living soul within the Strip (as they currently seem intent on doing…)

As I explained in my recent piece in Boston Review, Hamas’s leadership and its popular base extend far, far beyond Gaza. And the more harshly the Israeli military attacks the people of Gaza, the more rapidly will Hamas’s support among Palestinians, Arabs, and Muslims everywhere continue to grow.

Can Israel’s leaders think of planning and undertaking a ground invasion of all of Gaza? Can they even think of planning and undertaking a limited invasion of part of Gaza? If we assume for a moment (as perhaps we can) that Jewish-Israeli society was so deeply traumatized by the events of October 7 that a strong majority of Jewish Israelis would be super-happy to see the casualties that any large-scale invasion of Gaza would inflict on Palestinian families, can we also imagine that Jewish Israelis would also be happy to see the casualties that such an operation would inflict on the 200-plus Israelis and non-Israelis being held captive in Gaza by Hamas and other groups?

I doubt it.

Also of note: the Israeli hostages/captives being held in Gaza are-along with all the Israeli families who were bereaved or whose members were injured during Hamas’s breakout of October 7-potent reminders to all of Israeli society of the many mistakes that their political and military leadership committed prior to October 7, that had led to the stunningly broad security collapse of that day.

So now, in addition to having failed those Israeli families through the mis-steps and security breaches that led to the events of October 7, would the government be willing to launch a big ground operation into Gaza that very likely would lead to killing many scores more of Israelis? That doesn’t sound like a winning strategy…

There are a couple of other factors militating against the prospect of a big Israeli ground invasion. One is the unreadiness (in many senses of the term) of the Israeli military forces to undertake such an operation. For many years now, the Israeli military has planned and trained on concepts centered on”stand-off control”, through technological quick fixes, of the large captive populations of Gaza and the West Bank. The last few times the IDF tried to undertake large-scale ground invasions-especially, their horrendous invasion of Lebanon in 2006-turned out to be humiliating routs. (And the depth of that humiliation strengthened the determination of Israel’s commanders to rely even more heavily on stand-off control.)

Another factor discouraging a big ground operation is Washington’s increasingly evident insertion of its own priorities into Israeli decisionmaking, which also push against such a prospect. I think it’s fair to say that Pres. Biden does not want to see a big conflagration in West Asia at this point, such as the Hizbullah and Iranian leaderships have threatened to ignite in the event of a big IDF invasion into Gaza. Thus far, indeed, the Iranian-Hizbullah deterrence of U.S.-Israeli escalation seems to have been effective…

So in the absence of a big Israeli ground operation, what can the already devastated people of Gaza expect? I am afraid to say it is more and more and more of the same kinds of horrendous air assaults that they have already lived through for 16 days now. The Israeli leaders have tried to present those assaults to Israeli and world publics as “pinprick-accuracy bombings” that periodically succeed in “eliminating key Hamas leaders.” And the air attacks apparently continue to be extremely popular among Jewish Israelis: for many or most Jewish Israelis these assaults seem, until now, to have fed into a crude but powerful desire for vengeance while somehow expiating or masking the deep dread and fear that the events of October 7 sparked. But their appeal to publics elsewhere, never high, fairly speedily turned to increasing shock and horror.

Until now, Pres. Biden and much of the U.S. body politic has also shared with Jewish Israelis, even if at one remove, in celebrating the IDF’s demonstration of vengeance/punishment duly enacted.

Thus for now, just continuing to bomb Gaza from the air seems to be something that Israelis and the U.S. political leadership can all agree on. (Hence, the completely shameful vote that Biden’s ambassador at the U.N. cast at the Security Council October 18, that vetoed the call for a ceasefire.)

But once Israel’s airborne guns and missiles fall silent, two things will likely happen:

  1. The day of intense political/military reckoning that PM Netanyahu has for so long feared will very speedily come due. Given the deep rifts that were already rending Israeli society prior to October 7, it’s probably fair to guess that when the post-ceasefire day of reckoning comes for Netanyahu, Israel’s whole political system will be in a near-meltdown.
  2. The differences of interest between the leaders of Israel and the United States will become much more evident. (And this will not be helpful for Biden in his presidential bid next year.)

Hence, the leaders in both capitals seem to have agreed for now simply to continue the air-raids. 400 additional Palestinians were reportedly killed in the raids last night, bringing the total of dead to over 5,000, with more than 1,000 persons still unaccounted for under the rubble.

My friends in Gaza probably have several days more of this bombing to endure. I cry even as I write these words. (The tiny trickle of humanitarian aid that’s been going into Gaza does shockingly little to meet even their most basic needs.)

As I’ve noted elsewhere, the sharp new challenge that this crisis poses to Washington’s position in the world comes at a time when it has already been facing serious international setbacks over the Ukraine war and a far-reaching erosion of its previous near-hegemony of global politics. By having enthusiastically thrown himself and his administration into the vortex of Israel’s war on Gaza, Pres. Biden has completely disqualified Washington from occupying the position it had previously occupied continuously since 1973, of dominating (and since 1991, monopolizing) all the post-crisis diplomacy. This time it will have to listen to, and to a very large extent accede to, the voices of all the leading powers in the Global Majority that have been calling for:

  1. U.N. authority, rather than U.S. authority, over all the post-crisis diplomacy
  2. The Security Council’s urgent convening of a peace conference aimed at reaching (and implementing) a final peace agreement between Palestinians and Israelis on the basis of U.N. resolutions 242 and 338 and the establishment of an independent Palestinian state alongside Israel.

See, for example, the recent statements on the Gaza-Israel situation made by leaders of China and other members of the BRICS and G-77 groupings.

This shift to addressing the Palestine Question on the basis of international legitimacy, full Palestinian independence, and a robust two-state outcome may well be seen by many Americans as extremely radical, and a big challenge to the longstanding status quo. After all, ever since 1967, Americans have been systematically “groomed” by powerful pro-Israeli interests to think such things as that:

  • The Palestinians are somehow not “ready” for statehood. (That, though truth be told it was Palestinian specialists who set up the apparatuses of state in most of the Gulf Arab countries.)
  • Jewish settlers somehow have “historic” or “Biblical” rights of land ownership in the West Bank, and those rights should take precedence over the actual property and grazing rights of the indigenous Palestinians.
  • The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is somehow so very “complicated” that it cannot be resolved all at once but may need many decades of careful, U.S.-led “confidence building” before it can be resolved. And in the meantime, the most that well-meaning Americans can hope for is to limit (just a little) the growth of the Jews-only settlements in the West Bank and dole out endless demeaning gobs of humanitarian aid to the Palestinians there or in Gaza.
  • Israel is anyway very democratic and more “like us” than the Palestinians.
  • If Donald Trump gave official recognition to Israel’s annexation of Greater East Jerusalem and the (Syrian) Golan, and if Pres. Biden then kept those recognitions in place, then that shouldn’t matter too much, should it?
  • Why on earth do Palestinian refugees continue to believe they have some rights to return to the lands and properties their forebears were expelled from in 1948, or compensation for those lands and properties? Surely all those rights have gone away by now?

Not one of the above propositions is true. International law is crystal clear on such matters as the inadmissibility of the acquisition of territory by force and the illegality of an occupying power implanting members of its own population into lands held under military occupation. And the interests of powerful international actors-including, I would argue, the actual interests of the U.S. citizenry-now urgently require that the Palestinian-Israeli conflict be resolved fully and in a timely manner. The events of the past two weeks have brought the whole world spiraling unacceptably close to a massive, global vortex of violence, all of it geared tightly into Washington’s incestuously “special” relationship with the government of Israel.

It is time for strategies that are calm, compassionate, and based on international law and respect for the principles of human equality. In 1947, the United Nations decreed that there should be two states within the area of Mandate Palestine: a Jewish state and an Arab state. The Jewish Zionists got their state (and immediately set about enlarging its boundaries and expelling as many of the Arab residents from it as they could.) The Palestinian Arabs never did: the areas of Mandate Palestine that were not gobbled up by Israel were administered by Jordan (in the West Bank) and Egypt( Gaza). In 1967, Israel’s military gobbled up those two territories, too. Now, 56 years later, it is absolutely time that it withdrew from those lands it took in 1967; and it is time the Palestinian Arabs can finally realize their long-promised right to a state of their own.

There is, I know, a very important question-mark hanging over the matter of which Palestinian body should get to negotiate for and then run the envisioned Palestinian state. I did write a little about this matter here, last week. My basic thesis there was that Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) and the whole of the “PA” administration he has been running in the West Bank over recent decades has now been totally immobilized by the powerful upsurge of Palestinian-wide support for Hamas. I argued there, too, that the Arab states which historically had played a key role in the founding of the original Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) could surely come up with plans for a renewal of the PLO leadership. I think everyone should be realistic, however, and should understand that Hamas and its allies will have to be an important part of any revamped Palestinian national leadership if this leadership is to be effective at all.

Is your reaction to this proposal one of shock or horror? Honestly, it shouldn’t be. When I was growing up in England in the 1950s, there were so many horror-stories circulating about the “vicious, inhumane” actions of the clandestine leaders of the national-independence movements that were erupting in many corners of the British Empire. But then, as the power of the British Empire declined, very often it was the leaders of those movements who became the presidents of the independent states that emerged-and with whom, in many cases, the British government and British companies built strong and even highly profitable longterm ties. And it was true that the Mau Mau in Kenya or other independence movements may have committed some atrocities. But it was also true-as has emerged very spectacularly in Britain in recent years-that the British colonial authorities committed strings of horrendous atrocities throughout the whole of the Empire (including, as it happened, against the Arabs in Palestine) in their lengthy campaigns to suppress the independence movements.

As children growing up in 1950s Britain, we heard a lot about the atrocities committed by the colonized. But we were told almost nothing at all about the atrocities that had kept the Empire in place for nearly three centuries. Today’s “propaganda war” over Palestine has lengthy antecedents.

So, returning to the matter of how the Palestinians’ national leadership can be revamped to meet the challenges of the coming phase, I would just note a few things:

  • There has been a lot of animosity over the years between Hamas and some of the powerful factions within the major PA/PLO group, Fateh. That animosity has, of course, been amply stoked by Israel; but it has some deep roots, especially I think on the Fateh side.
  • However, Fateh has never been at all monolithic, and there are other sizeable factions within it who are much more amenable to the idea of finding a way to work with Hamas.
  • My judgment (which may be wrong, or based on dated information) is that Hamas’s political leadership is much more functional, unified, and stable than of Fateh. And right now, the Hamas leaders and their allies in Palestinian Islamic Jihad are riding a high wave of national popularity.
  • Also, in the past Hamas has shown itself well able to operate through thinly-veiled “front groupings” when it suited its purpose. For example, when it participated in the 2006 PA legislative elections it did so under the name of the “Change and Reform Party.”
  • There are also of course numerous other Palestinian political parties, movements, professional networks, and respected individuals who can all play a serious role in the process of national renewal that’s so urgently needed. Of these, I could mention the PFLP, the “Mubadara” party, and many others.
  • Clearly, all the Palestinian figures who take part in the (post-PA, post-Oslo) renewal movement will be wary of coming too closely under the thumb of any Arab state or other external party. Navigating among the shoals of inter-Arab or Arab-Iranian rivalries has always been a tough challenge for Palestinian political movements. But at least right now, the reconciliation effected earlier this year between Saudi Arabia and Iran along with other regional developments should make such navigation less hazardous than it would have been, earlier…

But meantime, the killing and destroying of the people of Gaza continues its truly sickening course. Ceasefire now!

Originally published at https://globalities.org on October 23, 2023.

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Helena Cobban

Veteran analyst of global affairs, w/ some focus on West Asia. Pres., Just World Educational. Writes at Globalities.org.