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Q&A: Gaza, Israel, and the possibility of a Palestinian state?

‘There is so much that Western governments could do regardless of what they do on Gaza or what they do on Hamas.’

Pictured is a large group of Palestinians fleeing north Gaza walk towards the south, amid the ongoing conflict between Israel and Palestinian Islamist group Hamas, in the central Gaza Strip, 9 November, 2023. Mohammed Zaanoun/TNH
Palestinians fleeing northern Gaza on 9 November amid Israel's bombardment and siege of the enclave, and intense fighting between the Israeli military and Hamas fighters in the north.

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More than a month and half into Israel’s war in the Gaza Strip, there is no end in sight. The ongoing bombardment, siege, and ground invasion of the enclave are exacting a horrendous toll on Palestinian civilians. But when and how it will end is almost entirely unclear, according to Yezid Sayigh, a Palestinian academic and senior fellow at the Carnegie Middle East Centre, a think tank in Beirut.

“I have absolutely no clarity on the endgame in Gaza, and I don’t believe anyone has clarity. I don’t mean that nobody can predict, but I mean that nobody even has a plan,” Sayigh told The New Humanitarian. “That includes US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, it includes Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the general staff of the Israeli army. It covers absolutely everyone.”

After Hamas, the Palestinian political and militant group that governs Gaza, launched a deadly raid into Israel on 7 October – killing around 1,200 people, mainly civilians, according to Israeli authorities – Netanyahu vowed to destroy the group militarily. Last week, he added that Israel will maintain security control over Gaza “indefinitely” after the war. 

Details about what that means and where it might lead are scant. But there is a growing chorus of voices making the argument that Israel cannot bomb its way to security, and that destroying Hamas militarily and re-occupying Gaza won’t address the underlying causes of conflict between Israel and the Palestinians.

Even US President Joe Biden, who has given vocal and broad support to Israel’s response to Hamas’ attack, has said “there has to be a vision of what comes next, and in our view it has to be a two-state solution”.

But any real progress towards a peace deal has been stalled for at least two decades while Israel has gone about making the creation of a Palestinian state a “physical impossibility” through the building of settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, and through the nurturing of Palestinian political divisions, according to Sayigh, who was an adviser and negotiator in the Palestinian delegation to peace talks with Israel from 1991 to 1994.

“I think Joe Biden has put his finger on the right thing. There is no stable arrangement for Gaza unless it includes an overall peace deal for Palestine as well as for Israel,” Sayigh said. “But I don’t see that on the cards… There is no day after in that sense.”

But is a two-state solution still possible, and if not, what’s the alternative?

The New Humanitarian sat down with Sayigh to discuss this question as well as the status quo in Gaza prior to 7 October, how Hamas has factored into Israel’s strategy toward the Palestinians, the impact of Hamas’ attack on 7 October on the Palestinians struggle for statehood, and what the future might hold.

Since the conversation took place, the death, displacement, and destruction in Gaza continued unabated. Israel’s bombardment and ground invasion has killed more than 11,000 Palestinians and more than 27,000 have been injured, according to the Health Ministry in Gaza. But the death toll has not been updated since 10 November when communication and services at key hospitals in northern Gaza collapsed, according to the UN.

All but one hospital in northern Gaza, which has effectively been severed from the south by Israel’s ground invasion, have now stopped working due to intense fighting in their vicinity and a lack of fuel to power backup generators, according to the UN’s emergency aid coordination agency, OCHA. The situation in the hospitals is reportedly dire.

More than 1.5 million people, out of around 2.3 million who live in Gaza, have been displaced from their homes, and an estimated 200,000 have fled the north of the enclave by foot in recent days along a corridor to the south left open by the Israeli military, according to OCHA.

A group of independent UN experts have warned that people Gaza face “a grave risk of genocide”.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

The New Humanitarian: What was the status quo in Gaza in terms of Israeli control over the territory and its impact politically and on day-to-day life before 7 October?

Yezid Sayigh: Gaza has been very heavily dependent on access to Israeli markets, both for employment and for import and export, since 1967 when Israel occupied the Gaza Strip.

This continued up to the First Intifada of 1987 and then until the Oslo Accords in 1993 and the introduction of the Palestinian Authority in the following period. That fundamental dependence on Israel didn’t diminish entirely because, although the Palestinian Authority received international assistance and provided a lot of jobs in the civil service and in the police force, the economy was still very heavily dependent on Israel.

Now, that takes us right up to 2005, this pattern of dependence but also of extreme vulnerability to Israeli border closures, which were increasingly used after the First Intifada and even during the peace process era, from 1993 to 2000. Border closures were often used as a means of pressuring or coercing the Palestinian Authority into certain forms of behaviour.

With the start of the Second Intifada, the general situation obviously worsened until then-Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon pulled out all Israeli soldiers and settlers from Gaza in 2005.

That whole trajectory there, going from 1967 to 2005, is one of initially sort of quite free access to Israel for Gaza, but again, always centred on Israel, which shifted to one where Gaza became more of a closed off enclave that didn’t have the same level of free access for movement of labour and goods and tradespeople, and also for access from Gaza to the West Bank, whether for personal reasons, family visits, study, medical care, trade, and so on. 

Now, in 2005, Israel tried to put out the claim that, by withdrawing its soldiers and settlers from inside the Gaza Strip, it was no longer in belligerent occupation, as that is defined in international law. In reality, Israel both remained the belligerent occupier while also exercising a very extensive blockade or a siege on Gaza. It controlled the airspace, coastal waters, the water and electricity supply, and the overall supply of food as well as medication, fuels, cement, building materials, and any other kind of supplies into Gaza.

The Egyptians agreed to work with Israel in maintaining whatever Israeli security restrictions were demanded. So Israel maintained complete control, basically, over access in and out of Gaza for goods and for people after 2005, and right until the present day. 

The New Humanitarian: What was the nature of the relationship between Hamas and Israel prior to 7 October, and how did Hamas being the governing party in Gaza relate to the strategic interests of successive Israeli governments? 

Sayigh: In the last decade, and especially under Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, it’s now very much on record, him saying repeatedly over the years that he was deliberately encouraging Hamas government in Gaza because this would divide the Palestinians and enable the Israelis to extend their agenda inside the West Bank and East Jerusalem, which is to colonise these territories and fully settle them with Jewish Israeli settlers. 

So the Israeli government, up to 7 October, had lived in this comfortable, complacent view that they could rely on Hamas to keep Gaza quiet. If and when Hamas tried to change the terms of this arrangement by firing rockets in order to get the blockade lifted, the Israeli government felt that it could, so to speak, “mow the lawn” every few years by killing off a certain number of Hamas militants or others, along with four or five times as many civilians, and that would always push Hamas back into accepting the status quo.

So this became Israeli policy, and for a long time, Israeli authorities, both the security establishment and the government led by Netanyahu, felt they could maintain the situation indefinitely of a blockade that would be tolerated by Hamas, enjoying a ceasefire that would be policed by Hamas, while doing everything they could to weaken and marginalise the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank.

The New Humanitarian: And this helped create conditions that prevented the negotiation of a political solution to the conflict? 

Sayigh: Benjamin Netanyahu was pushed hard by the Obama administration in his first term and was obliged basically to make an explicit, unequivocal statement in 2009 endorsing and accepting the principle of a two-state solution with Palestinian statehood. But in the last several years, Netanyahu has equally publicly spoken – at least to his own domestic audiences – saying that his whole aim and his strategy all along has been to prevent Palestinian statehood, that there will never be a Palestinian state.

He said this openly, and Western governments have basically shown no pushback and demonstrated that this prime minister, the same prime minister who had supposedly made a commitment in 2009, could walk that back completely and repeatedly over the years without incurring any kind of consequences.

All this is primarily because the core goal of Netanyahu, and of people further to the right in Israel, including his current government coalition partners, has been to reclaim the entirety of the West Bank and East Jerusalem as the historical, biblical land of Israel, what they call Judea and Samaria, and to keep building more settlements in that territory. 

The New Humanitarian: You have said that Hamas’ attack on 7 October has threatened 50 to 60 years of what Palestinians have fought for in terms of recognition of their cause and international support for Palestinian statehood. Can you explain what you mean by that?

Sayigh: Palestinians have struggled in various forms and in various locations since their first mass dispossession in 1948 to gain international recognition. Palestinian civilians paid a very high price. I feel that Palestinians have often paid a higher price than they needed, and in many cases achieved fewer gains than they could have. But they did achieve international recognition.

They achieved the invitation of PLO leader Yasser Arafat to speak to the United Nations General Assembly in 1974, the recognition and endorsement of the entire non-aligned movement, the Soviet bloc, other socialist countries, led by China in particular, but also increasing recognition in the West, already in the 1970s and certainly in the 1980s, and finally open diplomatic recognition and exchange all major countries, not only with Israel, but also with the United States and with all of Western Europe from 1993 onwards. 

These are major achievements for a scattered, dispersed people living at least half in exile or else under direct and indirect Israeli military occupation in various parts of Palestine, and of course the significant minority of Palestinian citizens of Israel who, under the stewardship of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his right-wing ideology, live in a state that excludes them by definition. 

Despite all of this, I think Palestinians have made significant gains. I think what Hamas did on 7 October was to make it enormously easy not only for Israel to go to war in Gaza in ways that have inflicted far higher levels of civilian casualties than Israel has ever inflicted in the past, but also to do so with the entire, open, vocal, official diplomatic, political, and even military support of the major Western governments, starting with the United States administration of President Joe Biden.

We have gone far from the moment in March 1998 when the European Council in its Berlin statement asserted its unconditional support for Palestinian statehood, which it said it expected to be achieved within one year of the so-called final status negotiations that were set to start in 1999, and that Palestinian statehood was a right that was not conditioned on Israeli approval or even on negotiation. We have gone from that to where we are now with Palestinian voices being basically made illegal, where Palestinian flags and symbols such as the kaffiyeh are actually banned on the streets of Germany. This is an extraordinary sea change.

I think that Palestinians have to take stock of how their errors, their mistakes, have contributed to this. But it’s not all their fault. Israel is responsible for waging an ultranationalist, colonisation in the 21st century of the kind that was more familiar in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, with the type of nationalist ideology that took root in eastern and central Europe in the early 20th century. This is what we face today in the 21st century, and we face it with the overt, vocal blessing of supposed liberal democracies in the West. 

Israel is responsible for what it’s doing; Palestinians are responsible for their mistakes in confronting this. But I think that what Hamas did has made that sea-shift all the more powerful and all the more extreme, and has allowed it to happen more easily at less cost to those who are finally finding an opportunity, and frankly an excuse, to come out and cloak their frankly racist world views in the mantle of fighting anti-semitism and fighting Hamas’ war crimes.

The New Humanitarian: What do we know about the endgame Israel is seeking in Gaza? When the bombardment and ground invasion eventually come to an end, do you think Hamas will still be in power?

Sayigh: Policy is being made on the hoof. US President Joe Biden went from simple and absolutely unconditional support for Israel with no thought of Palestinian civilians, let alone the day after in Gaza, and then started a week or two into this ghastly war to talk about a two-state solution, which I think is absolutely the right response.

But that doesn’t mean he’s got a plan or any sense of how we go from here to there or why or how. Having let Israel off the hook for the last 20 years or more, in terms of making a Palestinian state a physical impossibility in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, the US can now help bring that about. But the task now is much harder than when it abdicated the much greater opportunity to do so in the 1990s and early 2000s.

I think that the Israeli government also has no idea of what to do next. Netanyahu’s latest statement is that Israel will maintain overall security responsibility for Gaza indefinitely. That really just ducks the question of how do you rule over 2.25 million people if you’re not involved in providing for their normal lives as civilians and for the civilian economy? How exactly do you control security when you don’t control these people directly? Why is that really going to be any different than what we’ve had in that past?

Suppose even that this works for the next three years, five years, 15 years, or 30 years. Then what? There is still no answer. 

Furthermore, this Israeli government, and every Israeli government before – and this includes ones led by labour party leaders, even though they were different in significant, key ways from the right-wing in Israel – maintained the colonisation of the West Bank and East Jerusalem every single day before there was ever a peace process, and every single day after there was a peace process, and every single day after the peace process collapsed.

The New Humanitarian: Is the idea of a two-state solution still viable? 

Sayigh: At one level, a two-state solution remains the only possible solution, if there is ever to be a solution. I don’t think it’s going to happen anytime soon. This is a view I had already long prior to the 7th of October. In fact, this was my conclusion in October 2000 after the start of the Second Intifada, that the window for the two-state solution had closed.

I thought that within 10 or 15 years a new Palestinian national agenda would emerge that would focus on maybe some other kind of idea, which I didn’t think would be a one-state solution either, for that matter. I proved to be enormously optimistic in thinking this was a 10- to 15-year vista. We’re now 23 years later, almost to the day, since I came to that conclusion. I now think in terms of the next century. Whether that means 2100, 2050, 2048, 2088 is sort of irrelevant. I don’t think that we are at a time in world history that will produce a Palestinian state.

The West is threatened by the collapse of the liberal international order that it helped build after 1945. Through their stupidity, greed, and self-centredness, Western leaders have directly been dismantling, weakening, and undermining the legitimacy and credibility of their own international order, the rules-based international legal order. This is something historic, and it’s got nothing to do with Palestine as such, but Palestine is going to be the victim of it.

There was a moment of convergence following the end of the Cold War, following the Gulf War and the destruction of Iraq as a military power, and following developments within Israel and within the Palestinian movement and society, that allowed some kind of compromise deal to happen. That was a moment of opportunity. That died 23 years ago.

We are now in almost an opposite moment in history, whether it's regional, international, or domestic within Israel and Palestine. So I don’t see a two-state solution happening, probably in the rest of my lifetime.

The New Humanitarian: What would a one-state solution look like, and is it a viable idea?

Sayigh: I think that is so off the wall, I’m just not going to engage with it. Palestinians might like it, they might have very different opinions of what it should look like. Islamists might want an Islamic endowment across the whole land of Palestine. Others would want a secular democratic state. Much of the young generation of Palestinian activists in the West are people who basically bear humanist universalist ethics and culture and principals. They believe in rights-based solutions, and their Palestinian advocacy is one that is not exclusivist or ethno-nationalist.

Despite their anger at the moment, despite their, at times, inadequately critical stance or reading of Hamas, this young generation, if they want a one-state solution, it’s because they believe in the fraternity and equality of Arabs and Jews and other nationalities and religious communities and so-on. They come from a good place, in my view. They don’t come from a racist perspective, let alone an anti-semitic one. But that doesn’t make the one-state solution something that is feasible in this world and in my lifetime.

In very pragmatic terms, right now, this is something that is likely to be seen by Jewish audiences as exterminationist or eliminationist – as denying their peoplehood. At the end of the day, however crucial it is to be able to stand in a common, united front with Jewish communities around the world, certainly in the fight against anti-semitism and all forms of racism, the challenge for Palestinians is to come up with political proposals, political visions, practical arrangements that Israelis, that those Jews who are Israeli citizens, who live in Israel, can engage with, believe in, and agree to.

Anything short of that is just pipe dreams and a case of people sitting, talking to themselves in their own echo chambers. I don’t blame Palestinians who do that. I understand why they do that, but we’ve got to move out of that and move beyond that. Israel is there to stay, the people of Israel are a people, and it behoves Palestinians to deal with that head on, and to internalise and mainstream that in how they think about the politics of the future.

The New Humanitarian: If one-state is not viable and two-states died 23 years ago, what other possible political resolutions could there be that would address Palestinian grievances and aspirations?

Sayigh: There is no alternative, better solution that I can think of. This is the real world we have. There has been a century of thinkers, going all the way back to Palestinians in the early 20th century who petitioned the British, who petitioned the Ottomans before the British, who proposed democracy – including for Jews in Palestine, who accounted for not even 5% of the population at the time – as early as testimony to the King-Crane Commission in 1919, as Lori Allen detailed in her excellent A History of False Hope: Investigative Commissions in Palestine. Jewish philosophers, like Martin Buber, also looked for a bi-national country or state.

We’ve had a century of thinking; there aren’t further alternative proposals.

What maybe you’re shying away from, is that since there is no one-state solution and since a two-state solution, which is the more pragmatic and, if you like, even more ethically viable or desirable solution, since that too is not a realistic prospect for years and probably decades to come, then what we’re looking at is actually a particularly ugly situation in Gaza, in the West Bank, in East Jerusalem, and inside Israel for Palestinian citizens of Israel. 

Palestinians in each of those locations live under different administrative, legal, judiciary, security conditions of life, all determined by Israeli authorities. That picture is not going to change, so that is the third scenario: one in which Israel rules over as many non-Jews as it does Jews with only one group having full, unequivocal, undeniable equality and rights under the law, and with all others living in lesser categories but also in an environment of growing right-wing, ultra-nationalist thuggery, vigilante violence aided and abetted directly and openly by the state and state agencies and state actors, such as National Security Minister Ben Gvir. 

This is all happening in a small space where Palestinian civilians will be increasingly brutalised, if they are in outlying communities or in villages that are isolated, where it’s easier to harass them, maul them, assault them. More than 170 Palestinians have been killed, mostly by Israeli soldiers, but at least eight so far by Israeli settlers, in the West Bank and East Jerusalem while the world has watched Gaza.

If you were to project this on a 12-month timescale, we’re talking about something like just under 2,000 dead. That’s twice the level of fatalities in a single year that the Stockholm Institute for Peace Research considers the threshold for an intensive armed conflict. That is going on in the West Bank today.

That is the future, and it is going to look uglier and uglier. 

But just as the international community, and especially Western so-called liberal democracies lived with apartheid in South Africa and other ugliness in other countries for decades, I see no reason to expect them now, as they cater to right-wing ideologies within their own ranks, not to live comfortably with what comes next under Israeli rule.

The New Humanitarian: This might sound a bit naive considering the reality you were just laying out, but what would need to happen to prevent future violence and hostilities like we saw on 7 October from Hamas and what we’re seeing in Gaza now and in the West Bank? 

Sayigh: First, let’s be clear: the kind of violence I foresee is going to come almost entirely or predominantly from Israeli soldiers and settlers. Once the fighting is over in Gaza, that fighting is going to happen in the West Bank and East Jerusalem in particular.

But with the kind of far-right government partners Netanyahu has, the kind of space he has created for far-right, racist, ultra-nationalist ideology, that he has mainstreamed over many years, deliberately and knowingly, the violence is going to occur inside Israel too. Just a week ago, hundreds of right-wing thugs surrounded a university dormitory in Netanya and surrounded a few dozen Arab students there. These are citizens of Israel. 

And all of this is happening under the direct gaze of the US, the UK, and the European Union, both collectively and in terms of its individual member governments. All of them see this, all of them know this, and the only question is whether they will do anything about it. 

That they can do something is incontrovertible. They absolutely can. To take the simplest example, the European Union already has laws on its books making it illegal for Israeli goods produced in Israeli settlements in the Occupied Palestinian Territories to be sold in Europe labelled as “made in Israel”; they have to be labelled as made in the settlements. This is routinely violated. The Europeans have done nothing about this, and yet, the law is already on the books. There’s no political battle to be waged there. It’s already been waged.

There is so much that the US, the EU, and the UK could do to combat this trend in Israel, to be vocal about it, to say that people engaging in this will be sanctioned. People like Ben Gvir should not be allowed entry to any Western capital or any Western country. 

Many of the more militant, violent, and racist settlers in the West Bank and East Jerusalem are US nationals; some are British nationals or European nationals. They should be pursued in American and European and British courts. The people who fund them are often based in the US, UK, and Europe. They should also be subject to legal proceedings and judicial investigations by their police forces and prosecutors. 

There is so much that Western governments could do regardless of what they do on Gaza or what they do on Hamas. If they are to be seen as credible in denouncing Hamas for its war crimes, then they have to be seen as credible and not just picking one particular battle to fight while totally abandoning and abdicating their responsibility in all other areas. That is exactly what they have done for the 30 years since the Oslo Accords were signed. 

Edited by Andrew Gully.

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