Atrocities committed against Israeli civilians by Palestinian militants from Gaza shocked Israel and the world. But, argues Israeli activist Amos Gvirtz, they were also a blow to Israel’s fundamental strategy of power over Palestinians and Arab neighbours.  An urgent rethink of strategy is vital for the life and peace of all.

Fifty years after the strategic shock of the 1973 Yom Kippur War Israel has once again been taken by surprise. Masses of fighters from the Gaza Strip infiltrated Israeli army bases and civilian communities near the Gaza border on 07 October and perpetrated horrifying crimes, killing, maiming, and abducting unprecedented numbers of Israeli citizens. For the first time in half-a-century, Israel’s fundamental security conception – based solely on its military superiority vis-à-vis its enemies – has received a crushing blow. 

In the years following its overwhelming victory in the 1967 war, Israeli governments refused open and secret peace proposals by the Egyptians. We in the Israeli peace camp were an insignificant voice in our demand for a readiness to return all of the occupied territories in exchange for peace. The government claimed that our military superiority was such that neither the Egyptians nor the Syrians would dare to start an overall war. The surprise and the cost were terrible!

Only after the trauma of the 1973 war and American pressure did the Israeli government agree to turn toward the path of peace with Egypt (with overwhelming public support), and agree to return all of the territory captured from Egypt. As a result, the existential security threat from Egypt was significantly diminished.

This did not happen on the Palestinian front. Here there was no real pressure on Israel to return occupied territory. There was pressure to engage in peace negotiations, where it is always possible to make demands you know the other side cannot accept and then blame them for the failure of the negotiations. The difference in military power between Israel and the Palestinians – who have neither a state nor an army – is so great that the Israeli leadership didn’t even bother to seriously consider the unprecedented Arab League peace initiative of 2002, whereby in exchange for an end to the occupation and an agreed solution to the refugee problem, all the Arab states would recognize and make peace with Israel – an assurance of Israel’s existential security!

Since Israeli governments preferred to rely on military superiority and continue their policy of territorial expansion, rather than to assure our existential security, they found another way to be accepted by part of the Arab world. They turned the secondary conflict between Iran and Israel (which are separated by two states, Iraq and Syria, and 900 km) into the primary conflict. In exchange for Israeli aid in preventing the danger of (Shia) Iranian expansion at their expense, some Sunni Arab countries have signed normalization agreements with Israel since 2020, which has reduced the pressure on Israel with respect to the occupation of Palestinian lands and the Syrian Golan Heights.

Israeli leaders call the normalization agreements peace agreements. This is a deception. Peace agreements end a state of war between the sides, while the normalization agreements are dependent on Israel maintaining an active state of war with Iran! This is attested to by the continuous anonymous attacks on Iranian military targets in Syria. All this is in order to avoid the security of real peace and continue the policy of territorial expansion at the expense of Palestinians and Syrians. 

The present government in Israel, which includes messianic zealots, opposes any compromise with the Palestinians and the Syrians. This is a government which has accelerated the unilateral war conducted by the army and settlers against the defenseless Palestinian population in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. This is a government which acts to undermine the status-quo on the Temple Mount. There are elements within it which want to demolish the mosques on the Temple Mount and to build the Jews’ Third Temple in its place. If that should happen it would lead to a world war between the Muslim world and the Jewish world. They endanger not only Israel but all of world Jewry. They are liable to cause a Muslim anti-Semitism that would potentially dwarf even Christian anti-Semitism.    

The contempt for Palestinian power in Gaza led to the transfer of military forces from the Gazan border to reinforce the unilateral war being waged by Israel against the Palestinians in the West Bank.

As happened in the surprise attack by Egyptian and Syrian armies in October 1973, the recent surprise attack by Hamas and Islamic Jihad forces has delivered a shocking blow to Israel’s security conception. At present feelings of vengeance on the Israeli side – abetted by the solidarity and support of US, British and European governments – are obscuring the capacity for serious strategic thinking. It is to be hoped that with the cessation of the fighting and the subsequent period of self-examination, Israel will begin to listen to the Israeli peace camp, which demands a change in strategy and an understanding that peace is essential to our ability to survive in the Middle East.

Amos Gvirtz is a founder of Palestinians and Israelis for Non-Violence, former Israeli representative of International Fellowship of Reconciliation and co-founder and former chairperson of the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions.

The views and opinions expressed in posts on the Rethinking Security blog are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the position of the network and its broader membership.

Image Credit: IDF via Flickr; cropped. Rockets fired from the Gaza Strip towards Israel, July 2014.