The Israel-Palestine Crisis
Sanjiv Khanna

It was 1916, and the World War I was not going too well for the imperial powers Britain and France. These powers then started thinking in two directions – one, by weakening the adversary - the Central Powers comprising of the German, Austro-Hungarian and the Ottoman Empires - and two, strengthening its own ranks by persuading the US to join the war effort.

The British government strongly believed that the Jewry in the US was influential enough to nudge the government to shed its isolationism and join WW I on the side of the Allies. This led to the famous ‘Balfour Declaration’ in the Year 1917, which laid the foundations of the state of Israel. The then British PM David Lloyd George speaking in the House of Commons in 1936, said : “It was one of the darkest periods of the war that Mr. Balfour first prepared this Declaration. At that time the French army had mutinied; the Italian army was on the verge of collapse; America had hardly started preparing in earnest. There was nothing left but Britain confronting the most powerful military combination that the world had ever seen. It was important for us to seek every legitimate help that we could get. The Government came to the conclusion, from information received from every part of the world, that it was vital that we should have the sympathies of the Jewish community. We certainly had no prejudices against the Arabs because at that moment we had hundreds of thousands of troops fighting for the Arab emancipation from the Turk. Under these conditions and with the advice they received, the Government decided that it was desirable for us to secure the sympathy and cooperation of the most remarkable community, the Jews, throughout the world. They were helpful to us in America to a very large extent, and they were helpful even in Russia at that moment because Russia was just about to walk out and leave us alone. Under those conditions, we proposed this to our allies. France, Italy, and the United States accepted it…The Jews, with all the influence that they possessed, responded nobly to the appeal that was made.” [1]

Immediately preceding the Balfour declaration for securing their interests in the aftermath of the collapse of the Ottoman empire, Britain and France entered into an agreement known as Sykes-Picot Agreement. This foresaw the fragmentation of the Middle East to suit the interests of the imperial powers. As France had historical links with the Levant, Syria and Lebanon would go to them. The importance of oil was already emerging, so Britain would acquire influence in Southern Mesopotamia; additionally Britain was keen to have Palestine in order to be in the vicinity of the Suez Canal to secure the sea route to the jewel of the British crown - India.

At the end of WW I, in 1918, the spoils of the war were distributed amongst the winners. By then, the League of Nations, the forerunner to the UN, had been founded and the ‘Mandate’ for Palestine was announced which envisaged British administration over the territories of Palestine and Trans-Jordan parts of the defeated Ottoman empire. British administration began in Palestine in July 1920 and continued until 15 May 1948. The Mandate included the implementation of the Balfour Declaration, i.e. creation of a home for the Jewish people alongside the Palestinian Arabs. There was a huge drawback in this imperial scheme, Palestine was not a wilderness – an uninhabited place. What in fact Britain did was to promise the land of the Palestinians to the Jews, without any consultation, thus the seeds of discord were sown. And true to their imperial DNA, Britain always sided with one or the other as demanded by the situation.

In November 1947, the UN passed the plan for the Partition of Palestine, mandating the creation of Jewish and Arab States, with Jerusalem remaining under the UN trusteeship. The British announced the end of their mandate in May 1948; immediately thereafter, the Jews declared the formation of the State of Israel on 15 May 1948. The first Israeli-Arab war started within a day of the formation of the State of Israel, and the rest is history. This unleashed a vicious cycle of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians losing their homes, and in retaliation, thousands of Jews being expelled from neighboring Arab Countries. The sad story of Israel-Palestine has been in perpetual conflict between Arabs and Jews ever since. It would not be an exaggeration to state that the region continues to be tormented by the relics of the imperial orgy that took place in Asia until the mid of last century.

The Israel-Palestine Scene

Palestinians have struggled to survive, amidst a chain of violence and counter-violence in two non-contiguous enclaves of West Bank and Gaza. However, Israel rose spectacularly and extremely fast in less than seven decades to emerge as a vibrant economic and technological power. Of course, Israel enjoyed the unstinted support of France until the 1960s, which also helped Israel go Nuclear. Subsequently, the US stood like a rock behind Israel to the even at the expense of hurting its own interests, as Former US Centcom chief Gen David Petraeus said: “The enduring hostilities between Israel and some of its neighbours present distinct challenges to our ability to advance our interests…Arab anger over the Palestinian question limits the strength and depth of US partnerships with governments and peoples in the Middle East and weakens the legitimacy of moderate regimes in the Arab world.” [2]

IDF, Israeli Defence Forces, is the envy of all the world powers, both aspiring and established. IDF has earned its reputation of invincibility by prevailing in the incessant conflicts that Israel has faced since its birth. The ubiquitous fascination for muscular foreign policy always distracts from the most profound attribute of Israeli society – Israel is a vigorous democracy that allows a diversity of opinions – as is evident in the wide spectrum of views, often unremittingly critical of the government, in the aftermath of the recent tragedy. This criticism imparts the essence of democracy – establishing accountability of the government to the citizens who are the sovereigns in a democracy. Notwithstanding an ambiance that demands fierce accountability, the citizenry always rallies around the flag to fight the challenges, thus debunking the thesis that criticism of the government during a crisis impairs its capabilities. On the contrary, diversity of views provides the desired feedback for course corrections, and the systemic robustness to navigate successfully through the crisis.

Working of the Israeli society underlines the fact that dissent is the lifeblood of a living and thinking society, that provides a solid edifice for being the world leader in innovation. Following excerpts from the media or Israeli authors provide a glimpse of Israeli responses in times of crisis - Gideon Levy, columnist for Haaretz, one of the largest newspapers of Israel, wrote on 09th Oct, “On Saturday they were already talking about wiping out entire neighbourhoods in Gaza, about occupying the Strip and punishing Gaza ‘as it has never been punished before’. But Israel hasn’t stopped punishing Gaza since 1948, not for a moment. After 75 years of abuse, the worst possible scenario awaits it once again. Threats of ‘flattening Gaza’ prove only one thing: We haven’t learned a thing. The arrogance is here to stay, even though Israel is paying a high price once again. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu bears great responsibility for what has happened, and he must pay the price, but it didn’t start with him and it won’t end after he goes. We now have to cry bitterly.”[3]

The Atlantic magazine writes, “Following the Yom Kippur War in 1973, a lone reservist named Motti Ashkenazi began a hunger strike outside the office of Prime Minister Golda Meir, demanding that she take responsibility for the joint Egyptian-Syrian surprise attack and resign. The Agranat Commission, a government-appointed inquiry headed by Israeli Supreme Court Chief Justice Shimon Agranat, focused on the failures of the military leadership and avoided blaming the politicians. But an enraged public rallied around Ashkenazi and, six months after the war, the prime minister resigned.”[4]

The Hamas

As opposed to Fatah (political arm of the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO), Hamas has advocated an armed struggle to attain an independent Palestine. Hamas won legislative majority in the legislative council elections, in 2007, and took control of Gaza.

Hamas for all its existence has never accepted Israel’s right to exist. Now, Hamas has stuck with extreme violence, with the expectation that Israel will retaliate far more ferociously, thus further deepening the hate and pushing away any possibility of peace. The immediate provocation for Hamas to unleash this gruesome terror could be Israel’s signing of the peace deal with Saudi Arabia and pushing the Palestinian issue off the radar for good. The other aim could be to extend Hamas’ influence to the West Bank, at present nominally under the al-Fateh which is perceived to have failed in preventing Israeli expansion of Jewish settlements.

Israel is obligated to its citizenry to avenge, to boost the morale of IDF, salvage its image of invincibility, and most importantly bring back the hostages taken by Hamas. But it has very difficult choices to make. Carpet bombing could be good optics domestically, but the staggering death toll which a prolonged recourse to this option will ensue could put off international support. Furthermore, aerial attacks will not be effective in actual destruction of Hamas as a military threat. Therefore, in order to achieve its aims, IDF will have to start ground operations. Israel faces an adversary that operates underground - they have underground honeycombs of kilometers of underground tunnels. A densely populated Gaza makes the situation even more messier. These facts on the ground might necessitate a very prolonged ground operation to degrade the Hamas militarily. Due to the very nature of urban warfare, ground operations are even more ugly and bloody not only for Palestinians but also for the IDF.

Political Relook

In a show of solidarity with Israel, the US has promptly stationed two carrier battle groups in the Mediterranean, in addition to 2000 Marines for any ground operations. However, sooner rather than later, the US will resume its focus on the Asia Pacific towards the purpose of containing China; it has China as a strong competitor in the domains of economy, military, and technology. US is already struggling to continue with supporting Ukraine, and it is quite likely that Ukraine will be left in the lurch. That is evident from the statement of US National Security Council spokesman John Kirby, who said that the support provided to Ukraine is not going to be indefinite. “In the near term, we’ve got appropriations and … But you don’t want to be trying to bake in long-term support when you’re at the end of the rope.”

The US has already pivoted away from the Middle East, and this is already triggering the emergence of a new order. The Abraham Accords can be seen as part of this process. Accordingly, countries in the region will have to recalibrate their relations based on their interests and capabilities. Therefore, in the not-too-long future, Israel will have to carry forward its policy of Abrahamic Accords and continue establishing normal diplomatic relations with its Arab neighbours sans the broad shoulders of the lone superpower. And so, most likely, Israel would have to do so with an altered power projection capability.

This gruesome tragedy should act as a wake-up call to the world that the festering wounds of the Palestinians cannot be left unattended. The Palestinian cause has dropped off the radar not only of the West but also of Arab neighbours. The recent incident underlines the potency of the issue to upend the order in the Middle East. To reiterate the above mentioned Haaretz columnist’s quote that “it has never been punished before, but Israel hasn’t stopped punishing Gaza since 1948, not for a moment”, it is time Israel ponders over what Einstein had said,” Doing the same thing over and over and expecting different outcomes is the definition of insanity."

Noted Prussian general and military theorist Carl von Clausewitz said that war is a continuation of politics by other means. So it is incumbent upon world leaders to enable politics to prevail over war.

Evocation of India Factor

India’s geostrategic space of interests extends from the Gulf of Aden in the West to the Strait of Malacca in the East, and it is imperative that India have friendly states that straddle these geographical features. Therefore, India must avoid leaving the space open for outside powers such as China to take the lead in the Palestine-Israel Peace Process.

India is eminently eligible to mediate between the Israelis and the Palestinians. US’ close embrace of Israel might not qualify it as an honest broker, while China is relatively new to regional politics notwithstanding that it has made some headway in mediating an understanding between Saudia and Iran. Of all the countries, it is India that has not only good relations with both the belligerents but also with the Arab world at large.

Arising out of its own freedom struggle, India has steadfastly supported the Palestinian cause, and India also enjoys very strong strategic relations with Israel. India can use its political capital in the wider Gulf region to prevent escalation. We need not be complacent with the status quo in our policy, India needs to earnestly work towards a two-state solution. India with its legacy of civilization that has tolerance at its core, will carry weight when it embarks on this exercise that roundly abjures the obsession to rectify the past. As noted historian Yuval Hariri says: “Let old injuries heal rather than serve as a cause for fresh injuries.”


[1]Robert Fisk, Fifty Thousand Miles from Palestine: The Great War for Civilization, Harper Perennial, 2006, pp. 449-450
[2]Hilary Leila Krieger, ‘Arab-Israeli conflict hurts US’, Jerusalem Post, March 18, 2010
[3]Gideon Levy, ‘Israel Can’t Imprison Two Million Gazans Without Paying a Cruel Price’, Haaretz, Oct 09, 2023
[4]Yossi Klein Halevi, ‘The Reckoning’, The Atlantic, 0ct 10, 2023.

(The paper is the author’s individual scholastic articulation. The author certifies that the article/paper is original in content, unpublished and it has not been submitted for publication/web upload elsewhere, and that the facts and figures quoted are duly referenced, as needed, and are believed to be correct). (The paper does not necessarily represent the organisational stance... More >>

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