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The collapsed building occupied by news media, the Associated Press and Al Jazeera following an Israelis airstrike in Gaza. Photo by Reuters, Mohamed Salem

The Israel-Hamas Conflict is not new. One hundred years of conflict preceded this moment in time.

Ark Valley Voice (AVV) asked extremism expert Adam L. Silverman, PhD, who writes occasional columns for AVV, to provide a perspective on what underlies the current situation between Israel and the Palestinian group known as Hamas. Silverman served as the Senior Civilian Advisor and subject matter expert on Israel, the Palestinians, and the Israeli-Palestinian dispute assigned to the Commanding General of U.S. Army Europe from December 2013 through August 2014.

Where Things Currently Stand

Today is November 30, 2023. Just before 7:00 a.m. local time in Israel and Gaza – 10:00 p.m. MST – the fragile truce between Israel and Hamas almost ended when Hamas informed the Israelis that it could not deliver ten more women and children that it has been holding as hostages since the October 7 terror attack by Hamas on Israel.

Hamas wanted to turn over seven live hostages and what is assumed to be the remains of Shiri Bibas, her four-year-old daughter Ariel, and her ten-month-old son Kfir, but not the remains of their father Yarden. Hamas claims they were killed in an Israeli air strike, but there is no confirmation of that or, even, of they are in fact dead.

Hannah Katzir, one of the women returned to Israel alive as part of the November 24th exchange had been announced as also having been killed in an Israeli air strike. Just before the deadline of 7:00 a.m. local time, Hamas provided an updated list with three more living women included for a total of eight women and children hostages that would be returned. Israel agreed to this and gave credit for the two Russian-Israeli dual national women who were released yesterday in addition to the ten others that were released on November 29.

What occurred overnight has been and will continue to be the major potential point of failure for extending the truce for additional days. Specifically, Yayha Sinwar – the head of Hamas –  and his forces do not have all of the hostages, let alone all of the women and children being held hostage.

The Financial Times’ reporting confirmation of this four days ago:

Efforts to extend a temporary truce between Israel and Hamas depend on the militant group locating dozens of women and children held hostage in Gaza by civilians and gangs, Qatar’s prime minister has said.

But Qatari Prime Minister Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman al-Thani told the Financial Times that more than 40 other women and children were being kept captive in Gaza who were not believed to be held by Hamas. He said the truce could be extended if Hamas was able to use the pause in the conflict to locate those hostages. “We don’t yet have any clear information how many they can find because . . . one of the purposes [of the pause] is they [Hamas] will have time to search for the rest of the missing people.”

Sinwar and his Hamas forces never had all the hostages. The Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ) and some Gazan criminal gangs both have an unknown number of hostages, including women and children necessary for the hostages for Palestinian prisoners plus humanitarian aid exchange at the heart of the truce agreement. Additionally, Hamas has been trading hostages back and forth with these other groups.

As a result, it became clear over the past several days that Sinwar was running out of women and children to exchange. Even had this not been reported in the Israeli, Arab, and Western news media, Israel’s leadership would have been made aware of this reality by its intelligence services. It is clear that they are running out of patience as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Israel’s Defense Minister Gallant – two-thirds of the war cabinet leadership – have made it clear that as soon as the truce ends because all of the women and children hostages have been returned, or as soon as it fails because Hamas cannot/will not return them, then fighting will resume.

This is why Secretary of State Blinken is in Israel today meeting with Netanyahu to deliver America’s expectations and red lines for how Israel should operate once the fighting resumes. Specifically, that Israel must account for humanitarian and civilian protection needs in southern Gaza before hostilities resume.

We will know by late this afternoon/early this evening if Hamas can come up with ten more living women and children hostages, which will be necessary to extend the truce for another day. It almost collapsed this morning. Both Israel and Hamas put their forces on alert to resume hostilities.

The Road To the Israel Hamas War of 2013

On November 26, Daniel Seidemann, an Israeli attorney, commenter, and subject matter expert on all things Jerusalem including east Jerusalem, made a very astute observation:

Screen shot of a tweet by Daniel Seidemann. The text states: "That's precisely the point: the 1967 war has never ended. No one surrendered, no one withdrew. I hope that will not remain my generation's legacy."

When we teach about war and strategy at the senior leader colleges (the war colleges in U.S. professional military education), we often state that all wars end. Sometimes they end directly because one side defeats the other on the battlefield. Sometimes they end through a negotiated settlement. Sometimes they end simply because both sides just cannot or will not keep fighting even though there is not clear battlefield termination or a negotiated settlement.

The Korean War may be one of the best examples of this. There is an official armistice in place, but there have been no significant hostilities since it was signed on July 27, 1953. Officially there is no peace between the Republic of Korea and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, yet the armistice still holds creating a defacto resolution to a war that has officially never ended.

Despite the argument that all wars end, that is not actually always the case. Often they simply shift forms from interstate, to low-intensity, and back again. This was the case with World War I. Despite the armistice that ended it on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month of 1918 – as we just observed with Veterans Day in the U.S. and Remembrance Day/Armistice Day in Britain and Europe – followed by the Treaty of Versailles, the reality is that it did not actually end. Rather, it shifted its form and intensity and became a series of low-intensity contests between different ethno-national, ethno-linguistic, and/or ethno-religious groups in Europe who suddenly found themselves behind enemy lines once the post-war borders were established.

Historian Robert Gerwarth documents this history of rebellions and revolts, pogroms, ethnic cleansing, and mass expulsions after World War I was officially declared over. These low-intensity conflicts both created the opportunity for the extreme ideologies of fascism (national syndicalism) and racist fascism (Naziism) to take root and grow, ultimately leading to the second interstate war phase we call World War II.

That the war between Israel and the Palestinians has never actually ended is, ultimately, how the Israel-Hamas war of 2023 came about. This dispute extends back over a hundred years. It would be easy to cherry-pick one or more event as a starting point: The Palestinian revolt against the Yishuv, the Jewish settlement, of 1929, or the 1948 Israeli War of Independence/the Palestinian Nakba (disaster) that ended in an armistice between Israel and its Arab neighbors, but not the Palestinians.

However, I think Seidemann is correct; what we are seeing right now, what Israelis and Palestinians are experiencing, is the result of there never being any real, let alone just and proper resolution to the Six-Day War of 1967.

The Six-Day War ended with Israel in control of and occupying all of Jerusalem including the east Jerusalem, the West Bank, and the Gaza Strip. Prior to the 1967 war Jerusalem was partitioned. Jordan controlled the Old City including the Jewish Quarter, east Jerusalem, and the West Bank as a result of the territory they controlled after the 1948 war. Jordan officially annexed these territories and extended citizenship to the Palestinians living there.

Jordan’s annexation of these territories was not widely accepted, including by other Arab states such as Egypt and Saudi Arabia. Prior to 1967, and also as a result of territorial gains made during the 1948 war, Egypt controlled the Gaza Strip. Unlike the Jordanians, Egypt did not extend citizenship to the Palestinians living there.

The Six-Day War of 1967 changed the dynamics. As a result of success on the battlefield, Israel controlled the Old City, the rest of East Jerusalem, the West Bank, Gaza, and the Sinai. Israel formally annexed the Old City of Jerusalem into Israel proper in short order, while establishing occupation authorities for the West Bank and Gaza.

During the Carter administration, Israel exchanged Sinai for a peace agreement with Egypt. The remainder of the territories taken in the Six-Day War remained in Israel’s control. Seidemann’s observation is that the war never really ended because Israel and the Palestinians never came to a resolution that ended the occupation of east Jerusalem, the West Bank, and Gaza.

Despite ceasefires and eventual bilateral peace agreements between Israel and Egypt and Israel and Jordan, the failure of Israel and the Palestinians to come to terms with which both sides could live, left a lingering, simmering dispute.

This dispute has repeatedly boiled over leading to; two Palestinian intifadas (revolts) against Israel occupation, the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin by a Jewish Israeli religious extremist motivated by Netanyahu’s inflammatory extremist campaign rhetoric that painted Rabin as betraying Jews and being an existential threat to Israel, a prolonged terrorism campaign by Palestinian religious extremists in the mid to late 1990s and early aughts, a unilateral Israel withdrawal from Gaza by Ariel Sharon, the establishment of Hamas as an alternative to Fatah and the Palestinian Authority and its empowerment by Netanyahu as a way to derail a potential two state peace agreement or the establishment of a Palestinian state. Not to mention an ongoing expansion of Israeli settlements in the West Bank and settler-on-Palestinian attacks often followed by Palestinian responses.

I could spend thousands of words listing the dates, locations, and descriptions of the events that each side presents as justifications for their actions and as evidence of how they have been wronged. While all of that matters, it also does not matter. We are where we are because there are two groups – the Israelis and the Palestinians – that are in a long-standing, unresolved fight.

The extremists on both sides – Hamas, the PIJ, the ultra-religious and ultranationalist settlers and their representatives in Netanyahu’s coalition government – are mirror images of each other. Both believe the Deity has given them the same land and they are locked into a relationship with the land and the Deity.

Since God does not compromise, neither will they. Because they will not compromise, which is the necessary and sufficient condition for all politics and diplomacy, they are spoilers. They cannot and will not create anything useful or good for those they claim to represent. All they can do is destroy; first each other and then those they claim to represent and themselves.

Hamas’s terrorist attack of October 7, or something like it, was inevitable. The status quo of Israelis being occupiers who could also live in comparative safety and peace within a fortress Israel while the Palestinians in Gaza, east Jerusalem, and the West Bank live under perpetual occupation was a conceit. It was true until it wasn’t.

The last real effort to negotiate a settlement to the Israeli-Palestinian dispute occurred in 2013 and 2014. I was part of that effort assigned as the Senior Civilian Advisor to the Commanding General of the U.S. Army Europe as his subject matter expert on Israel and Palestine because his command was the operational element of the Department of Defense’s portion of the diplomatic effort. We failed.

We didn’t fail because we didn’t try or because we didn’t make a proper effort. We failed because at the end of the day the Israeli coalition government at the time – led by Netanyahu then as now – and the leadership of the Palestinian Authority – by and large the same then as now – were not interested in a two-state solution.

I have seen nothing over the past seven weeks to indicate that Netanyahu’s current and far more extreme coalition or the Palestinian Authority still led by Fatah is any more interested in a two-state solution, which is the only negotiated settlement that has any chance to really end this hundred plus years of misery and disaster.

The Israeli and Palestinian extremists in “Bibi” Netanyahu’s coalition and the West Bank settlements and in Hamas, the PIJ, Gaza, and the West Bank certainly have no interest in such a resolution. They are what they have always been: spoilers.

Eventually, Sinwar will run out of living women and children hostages to exchange for Palestinian prisoners. Israel will, and in this case rightly, not accept the remains of dead hostages as it would demonstrate that Hamas, the PIJ, and the Gazan criminal gangs holding the rest of the hostages could just kill them and turn over the corpses for Palestinian prisoners and humanitarian aid, which was what Hamas tried to pull in this morning’s exchange.

When this happens, when Sinwar runs out of hostages to exchange, the fighting will resume because that is what the spoilers want. All that Sinwar, Netanyahu, Hamas, the PIJ, the Israeli settlers have left is spite, anger, and hate all justified by ideology, theology, doctrine, and selectively interpreted scripture and history.

There are only three ways to end this:

  • The first is that Israel and Hamas exhaust each other on the battlefield. This most likely means Israel, because of the differential in military power that it has, degrades, destroys, and kills as much of Hamas’s leadership and fighters as is possible leaving much of Gaza a ruin.
  • The second is that cooler and more reasonable heads prevail and a negotiated settlement leading to meaningful negotiations for a two-state solution to begin.
  • The third is that a more powerful third party intervenes and applies overwhelming military power to force both Hamas and Israel to stop fighting.

There is only one, third party with that ability, which is the U.S. It is not going to happen for a variety of domestic and international political reasons. The second is unlikely with the current leaders of Israel, Hamas, and the Palestinian Authority. That leaves the first; Israel and Hamas resuming their fight tomorrow or the day after or sometime over the weekend when there are no more live women and children hostages to exchange.

Eventually, the 1967 Six-Day War will end. It would be better if a way could be found to end it once and for all now than to continue that five-decade-long war.