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10 Conflicts to Watch in 2024

Palestinians search for casualties at the site of Israeli strikes on houses in Jabalia refugee camp in the northern Gaza Strip, October 31, 2023. REUTERS/Anas al-Shareef
Palestinians search for casualties at the site of Israeli strikes on houses in Jabalia refugee camp in the northern Gaza Strip, October 31, 2023. REUTERS/Anas al-Shareef

Gaza

The Hamas-led attack on 7 October and Israel’s subsequent destruction of Gaza have taken the decades-old Israeli-Palestinian conflict into an awful new chapter. Nearly three months in, it is ever clearer that Israel’s military operations will not finish off Hamas, as Israeli leaders argue, and that trying to do so could finish off what remains of Gaza.

The horror and scale of 7 October, which saw Palestinian militants massacre more than 1,100 people, mostly civilians, in Israel and seize more than 200 captives, have left Israelis traumatised, their sense of security shattered. The distrust many felt toward Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu before the attack has deepened due to his government’s failure to prevent it. Still, Israelis overwhelmingly agree with Netanyahu that they cannot live alongside Hamas. They consider the threat it poses too severe.

Israel’s campaign in Gaza, a densely populated coastal enclave ruled by Hamas and blockaded by Israel and Egypt for sixteen years, started shortly after the 7 October attack. Israel besieged the strip for weeks before allowing limited aid in. Heavy bombardment and calls for residents of the enclave’s north, including Gaza City, to evacuate south paved the way for ground operations that saw troops encircle then move into Gaza City. In late November, a short pause, mediated by Qatar with U.S. and Egyptian support, saw Hamas free 105 hostages (81 Israelis and 24 others) and Israel release 240 Palestinians held in its prisons. On 1 December, the assault resumed, with ground operations also in Gaza’s south. Fierce bombing and fighting continue throughout the strip.

Israeli operations have been devastating, levelling much of the strip; killing upward of 20,000 Palestinians; wiping out generations of families; and leaving untold numbers of children dead, maimed or orphaned. Israel has dropped massive payloads – including 2,000-pound bombs – on packed areas. (For comparison, the coalition fighting the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria hesitated before dropping bombs a quarter of that size on areas more sparsely populated.) Reports suggest that the destruction is of a pace and scale unparallelled in recent history. More than 85 per cent of Gaza’s 2.3 million inhabitants have left their homes, according to the UN, which also warns of a public order collapse, famine and infectious disease, which aid agencies say could soon claim more lives than military operations. Many Palestinians, some already displaced several times, have fled farther south to makeshift camps along the Egyptian border. Some Israeli officials openly say they hope conditions in Gaza will lead Palestinians to leave; Israel denies this is official policy.

Israel has also locked down the occupied West Bank. It has stepped up the pace and aggressiveness of its security operations there, whether out of retaliation for the October attack or to forestall attacks by Palestinians as Israeli officials argue. Israeli settlers (backed and armed by Netanyahu’s government, which features several ministers who are themselves settlers) have escalated violence against Palestinians, forcing out the inhabitants of several villages, in what Israeli and international human rights groups are calling acts of forcible transfer.

The U.S. government has so far backed Israel virtually without condition. U.S. officials argue that Washington is employing a “bear hug” strategy to marshal influence: support in public to sway Israeli leaders in private. U.S. diplomacy helped deliver the November pause in fighting and has perhaps tempered some Israeli tactics, though the toll in Gaza suggests not much. In recent weeks, U.S. officials have started questioning the campaign’s cost and duration more openly. But Biden has refused to call for a ceasefire, and in early December the United States vetoed a UN Security Council resolution demanding one (two weeks later, the council passed an opaque text mentioning a cessation of hostilities without entreating the parties to seek one). Biden also rejects conditioning U.S. military aid to Israel. Most of the world sees Washington as complicit in the strip’s devastation.

Netanyahu has given little detail on his endgame for Gaza, except that Israel will retain security control over the strip. He dismisses the idea, which Washington promotes, that the Palestinian Authority (PA), which governs some of the West Bank and is dominated by Fatah, Hamas’s main Palestinian rival, can play a role in Gaza’s post-war governance. He maintains Israel will fight until it eliminates Hamas. (A cabinet decision early in the war specified narrower war aims: destroy Hamas’s military and governing capabilities.) Military gains, Netanyahu says, help secure hostage releases. But his government is evidently putting the gains before the hostages. On 15 December, three Hamas-held civilian hostages, who were half-disrobed and raising a white flag, were shot by Israeli soldiers, leading their and other hostages’ families to intensify protests in Tel Aviv.

In reality, little thus far suggests Israel can erase Hamas. Even destroying its brigades will be a tall order; and whatever happens, the wider political and social movement will survive and armed resistance will continue in some form while the occupation persists. Israeli forces claim to have dismantled militant infrastructure, including many of Gaza’s underground tunnels, and killed perhaps 8,000 Hamas fighters and arrested thousands more. If accurate, that represents less than half the group’s armed wing. In Gaza City, now supposedly under Israeli control, ambushes by militants continue, suggesting Hamas is still operational. Washington seems to hope that exhorting Israel to improve civilian protection will yield a more precise campaign. But Gaza is too small and Hamas too intermingled among civilians. There is no credible case that the atrocities Israelis suffered on 7 October justify the destruction wrought upon the strip and its society, much less for an end that appears ever more evidently unachievable.

Instead, Washington should press more urgently for another truce, leading to the release of all the Hamas-held captives in exchange for Palestinian prisoners. Interim arrangements for Gaza, which would be harder still to negotiate, might perhaps see Israeli troops withdraw, the blockade ease and outside powers guarantee an extended ceasefire. Hamas would give up any role in government to some form of temporary Palestinian authority. Some Arab officials float the idea of Hamas’s military leaders or even fighters departing Gaza. Ideally, interim provisions for the strip would pave the way for renewed efforts to resuscitate some wider political track between Israelis and Palestinians, though obstacles are formidable. More Israelis now share Netanyahu’s long-held rejection of Palestinian statehood or at least think today is not the time to put that question back on the table. PA leaders are reviled by Palestinians as feckless and corrupt. Negotiations would require world leaders to make far greater investments than they have in recent years.

As things stand, though, more probable are major operations lasting weeks (perhaps months) more, followed by a rolling, less intense campaign during which Gaza will remain in limbo. An extended military occupation seems likely, even if Netanyahu denies that is his intention. Israeli forces will hold swathes of the strip, continuing raids, while Palestinians crowd into smaller and smaller so-called safe zones or camps, kept alive to the extent possible by humanitarian agencies.

It could get worse. Despite Egypt’s determination to keep Palestinians on the Gaza side of the border, it is not a stretch to imagine refugees crossing over – particularly if the campaign drags on and Israel’s assault extends to ground operations and heavier bombardment of the border town of Rafah. Palestinians and much of the Arab world would view that as a repeat of the 1948 Nakba, when hundreds of thousands of Palestinians fled or were expelled from their homes in what is now Israel – many of them ending up in Gaza or neighbouring countries.

Overall, the war’s continuation seems more likely to spell not the beginning of efforts to revive a peace process, as some Western leaders claim, but the end of any recognisable political track. Never in the conflict’s bleak history has peace seemed further off.

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