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Analysis | Israel makes a desolation and may call it peace

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The Roman historian Tacitus famously conjured a line that still resonates from antiquity. “They make a desert, and call it peace,” concluded a bitter Caledonian enemy of the Romans, whose speech reproduced in Tacitus’s chronicle decried the injustices wrought by the powerful empire as its legions rampaged across the land.

Israeli politicians, including Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, cast their ongoing campaign in the Gaza Strip as a war of justice and retribution against the savagery of Islamist group Hamas, which is responsible for the single deadliest assault on Israel since the Jewish state’s founding. In a shock Oct. 7 raid, militants infiltrated across the fortified border and killed some 1,400 Israelis in numerous town and kibbutzim, while abducting more than 230 hostages.

In their zeal to punish Hamas, Israel has already triggered a deep humanitarian crisis for the besieged enclave of 2.3 million people and killed more than 8,500 people, including over 3,500 children, and destroyed thousands of buildings in the crammed territory amid relentless aerial bombardments. A statement from UNICEF, the U.N. children’s agency, called Gaza “a graveyard for thousands of children” — such is the shocking rate by which Israeli airstrikes are pulverizing homes and the families sheltering within. “It’s a living hell for everyone else,” the statement said.

The latest brutal hit took place Tuesday when Israeli forces dropped bombs on the densely populated Jabalya refugee camp in northern Gaza, ostensibly to eliminate a senior Hamas military commander. But the bombs flattened a whole neighborhood — destroying some 20 buildings, according to local accounts — and killing more than 100 people. My colleagues reported that Israel also carried out subsequent strikes on the area.

“I was waiting in line to buy bread when suddenly and without any prior warning seven to eight missiles fell,” an eyewitness, Mohammad Ibrahim, told CNN. “There were seven to eight huge holes in the ground, full of killed people, body parts all over the place. It felt like the end of the world.”

The scale and speed of what’s taking place has horrified many onlookers. Over the weekend, Craig Mokhiber, the director of the New York office of the U.N. high commissioner for human rights, resigned his post, arguing that the United Nations was once again failing to thwart what he described as a “textbook case for genocide.”

“The current wholesale slaughter of the Palestinian people, rooted in an ethno-nationalist colonial settler ideology, in continuation of decades of their systematic persecution and purging, based entirely upon their status as Arabs … leaves no room for doubt,” Mokhiber wrote in a letter that was widely circulated on social media and panned by some defenders of Israel as effectively calling for the dissolution of the Jewish state.

Any determination of “genocide” is both highly fraught and usually anchored in clear legal precedents. Raz Segal, an Israeli historian of the Holocaust, argued two weeks ago that Israel was already complicit in violating at least three of the five acts of the U.N. Genocide Convention in its war on Hamas in Gaza, which has triggered a huge dislocation of the Palestinian population there and raised the specter of potential mass expulsion from Gaza.

On Tuesday, an Israeli military spokesman described the loss of civilian life in Jabalya as an unfortunate “tragedy of war.” But that sentiment belies the views of many in Israel who seek a more definitive outcome — not merely the full defeat of Hamas, but the flattening of Gaza and the entire context where Hamas emerged. Segal cited the rhetoric of numerous Israeli politicians calling for de facto collective punishment of Palestinians living in Gaza in the immediate aftermath of the Hamas attack — a body of statements that’s only grown in the days since.

On Wednesday, Galit Distel Atbaryan, a former minister in Netanyahu’s government, called on social media for the “erasing all of Gaza from the face of the earth” and urged the mass eviction of Palestinians — “that the Gazan monsters will fly to the southern fence and try to enter Egyptian territory, or they will die.”

Israeli strikes on Gaza refugee camp offer glimpse of war’s destruction

Even for more sober-minded Israelis, there’s a hardened belief that the old status quo over Gaza cannot return. The Hamas strike was interpreted by some in Israel as an indictment of old policies, including the 2005 withdrawal of settlers and troops from the Gaza Strip that ended the military occupation of the territory — though Israel has nevertheless exercised deep control over much of what happens within Gaza through an asphyxiating economic blockade and a tight security regime.

“The lesson many are arguing now is that Israel should never relinquish territory, should always maintain complete security control over all territory and that Palestinians should never be allowed to have self-determination,” Dahlia Scheindlin, an Israeli political scientist, told me during a Tuesday panel that I moderated at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

Scheindlin pointed to the vague ideas of an endgame floated by Israeli officials and commentators in the still-remote scenario that Gaza is effectively purged of Hamas fighters. These include a desire to at least temporarily reoccupy Gaza, transfer authority for the territory to the Palestinian Authority — which holds sway in the West Bank and has already ruled out any postwar role in Gaza absent a broader political solution between Israelis and Palestinians — or some form of international peacekeeping arrangement whenever hostilities die down. The Israeli publication Local Call reported this week about a leaked internal document within Israel’s Intelligence Ministry suggesting the wholesale depopulation of Gaza and de facto ethnic cleansing.

One of the reasons there may be an Israeli “preference for moving Palestinians into Egypt” as opposed to ushering in PA control of the territory, observed Zaha Hassan, a fellow at the Carnegie Endowment, at the same panel, is that successive Israeli administrations have capitalized on Palestinian disunity to extend control over the occupied territories and expand settlements in the West Bank.

“Israel has had a strategic interest in not seeing a unified Palestinian entity that could make peace with Israel and advance a two-state solution,” Hassan said, invoking the moribund vision of separate Israeli and Palestinian states existing side-by-side.

Paradoxically, even as Israel lays waste to swaths of the Gaza Strip, the need for such an arrangement is only growing more urgent. “No one has any utopian illusions that a diplomatic process which failed to yield a solution for over three decades will suddenly succeed after the deep trauma inflicted on Israel by Hamas’ October 7 attack and the destruction being caused in Gaza with Israel’s resulting war to destroy Hamas,” Anshel Pfeffer wrote in Haaretz. “However, to bring this war to an end, there will be no choice but to at least be open to such a possibility.”

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