It may be the case for those who live through any war that, for their own mental health, they need to see it as of such scale and scope that it has the capacity to bring ever-lasting peace. One of the key struggles for Israel and the Middle East as a whole is our inability, even while war is ongoing, to hold fast to that particular dream.
With casualty figures mounting – each one of them a whole world that has perished according to the teachings of the Rabbis – we are engaged in a desperate search for comfort. It is tough to find. Especially since Israel’s legitimate defence of its people in the wake of the events of October 7 against a barbaric movement committed to its total annihilation, seems to have been replaced by a very different global narrative.
All credit to The Times of Israel, for including details of the events – none of them of Israel’s making – that triggered the start of this war in almost every update article. It may be the case as foreign media around the world announce, with their direct access to Hamas propagandists, that Gaza’s citizens are now desperate for peace. Most sane and objective observers might however note that sending 3,000 terrorists across a national border in order to rape, torture, kill and take citizens hostage is not usually a means to that end.
For Israelis there is a weariness when conversation turns – as every conversation at some point does – to the war. There is the naked fear for the well-being of family members, for sons of friends, for fathers, for sisters, for wives and for grandchildren. There is the sorrow for those who have fallen, and the belief and comfort that they did so fighting for a just cause. But it is impossible to believe that their deaths will mean that others will not in the future have to go out to fight for Israel. It is hard to believe in any possible ending that means we can all live happily ever after.
Unsurprisingly, politicians and military leaders have placed less emphasis over time on the goal of annihilating Hamas. It is no reflection on the campaign – which from the perspective of an armchair observer seems to be going as well or better than might reasonably have been expected. It is simply that there is no expectation that this will be the last war.
Those alive in 1918 called the four years of battles which wiped out a whole generation of young men The Great War or The War to End All Wars. They could not imagine another global conflict in their lifetime, which helps to explain the now almost incomprehensible desire for appeasement in the 1930s, and their reluctance to recognise the threats of German rearmament and nationalism.
In medieval Europe, though the names only gained currency afterwards, the Thirty Year and the Hundred Year wars were fought as recurring campaigns between opposing forces, and periods of uneasy peace between bouts of fighting. It is 75 years since the State of Israel first went to war to defend its existence, and though individual peace treaties have been signed, and some old enemies have morphed into new semi-friends, we are still fighting for the same things – the right of a Jewish State to exist in the territory which Jews have consistently lived in for the last several millennia.
Even if Hamas is knocked out, the fundamentalist Islamist forces supported by Iran will regroup and pose new and different threats to Israel – or even the same threat under different leadership and a new name.
There are ways to break the cycle – but they take time and require measures which it is perfectly clear the world outside Israel will resist. They require a level of honesty about Palestinian identity and nationalism which is not readily forthcoming, and for those who call themselves Palestinian to be willing and ready to change.
- To make meaningful progress, the UN needs to end UNWRA’s mission. The status of Palestinians as refugees needs defining by using the definitions which apply in every other part of the world. And there needs to be a clear commitment which is followed through to allow the next generation to be educated for peace rather than militancy.
- As has happened in other areas of terrorism-driven conflict – Northern Ireland and Colombia spring to mind – a new political leadership committed to brokering an unsatisfactory peace on both sides needs to emerge from the many Palestinian terrorist groups, and perhaps more importantly needs to be able to control its militant wing.
- Those Arab countries committed to a relationship with Israel need to broker a settlement that proceeds step by step, conditional on the absence of aggression, and which can last.
- The world needs to tackle Iran, which is currently fighting a proxy war against the West via Israel – and to end the practice of turning a blind eye to that country’s nuclear and terrorist ambitions.
If these steps were to be taken, a fairytale ending for everyone is not entirely implausible. But the possibility is remote. And so we mourn the loss of life even more keenly, knowing that almost certainly despite its costs, this great war will not be the war to end all wars.