A better future can be built for Gaza

Israelis and Palestinians are traumatised by an endless cycle of violence, says a mediator who has worked with both sides. Escaping it will be difficult but essential work

November 25, 2023
Former Egyptian president Anwar Sadat (centre) met with ex-Israeli prime minister Golda Meir (left) for peace talks in 1977. Image: Associated Press / Alamy
Former Egyptian president Anwar Sadat (centre) met with ex-Israeli prime minister Golda Meir (left) for peace talks in 1977. Image: Associated Press / Alamy

The absolute horror of what happened in Israel, what has been happening in Gaza, and what is expected to continue after the four-day ceasefire ends, can make us lose faith in humanity. A terrible insanity has emerged, in which each act of violence is another nail in the coffin for peace. It is only by creating a better future for the Palestinians that we can make this madness subside and let Israel feel safe. 

I have led and supported peacemaking efforts in Israel and Palestine for the past two decades and met with the leadership of all major factions, including Hamas. The nihilistic violence committed by Hamas against innocent Israelis speaks to the tragedy of this conflict, with its endless cycles of violence compounding earlier trauma. Israel’s counterattacks have been even more deadly in Gaza, carrying a terrible toll in human life and suffering. Over time, a terrifying predictability emerges. We condemn the actions of Hamas, we then condemn Israel, while doing nothing to deal with the root causes of the violence.

When Egyptian president Anwar Sadat addressed the Israeli Knesset in 1977, he spoke about a psychological war between Arabs and Israelis and said that the psychological barriers constituted 70 per cent of all problems existing between the two sides. The Israel-Palestine conflict is predominantly understood through the prism of politics and its power relationships, but the emotional trauma both past and present runs through everything and fuels this conflict.

I first travelled to Israel in 2001, at the height of the Second Intifada, as a group analyst training other group analysts who were working with people traumatised by the conflict. It was not just individual Palestinians and Israelis who had been traumatised: the political system on both sides had been traumatised, which made it very difficult to take some of the bold steps necessary for peacemaking. I made a decision to work in the political space. It was clear to me that, if peacemaking was to be possible, a bold new leadership would need to understand the painful past and present a vision of a better future. 

Most politicians and officials do not understand the trauma of violence and have little appetite or patience to deal with it. They live in a fast-paced, outcome-driven world. As an exception, Ben Rhodes, Obama’s former Deputy National Security Advisor, on learning of Hamas’s 7th October attacks, wrote that “here was violence unleashed in a way that would force us to reckon with history’s ghosts at a time when we are particularly ill-equipped to learn history’s lessons.” Without recognising and taking responsibility for the depth of the disturbing emotions on both sides and the desire for retribution, individuals and countries risk doing greater harm to each other. Leaders need to name the ghosts of history.

Israeli and Palestinian trauma

Palestine’s historical trauma collides directly with Israel’s own. The Holocaust—in which six million Jewish people were unable to defend themselves against systematic, state-sponsored murder by Nazi Germany, which was largely ignored by the rest of the world while it was happening—was part of the genesis of the state of Israel. Israeli society is still haunted by the Holocaust. In the minds of many Israelis, it was the Jews’ impotence that made them victims, and this was never again to happen. We hear the same language of never again, reverberating and mirroring the traumatic past and present.

For Israel, 1948 was the moment of independence. For Palestinians it was the Nakba (“catastrophe”), when an estimated 750,000 Palestinians were expelled from their homes or fled, with hundreds of Palestinian villages depopulated or destroyed. This sense of displacement has been compounded by Israel’s military occupation, and the accelerating construction of Israeli settlements in the territories that Israel seized during the 1967 war.

Today in Gaza, many Palestinians still dream of returning to their grandparents’ homes. They walk around with the key to their forebears’ house hanging on a loop around their necks. Palestinians mourn the times when their families lived in cities such as Jaffa or Safed. They remember intimate details about their lost family homes and yearn to return to lands in Israel. But most live in cramped, squalid conditions, no more able to leave Gaza than they are to fly to Bali. The Nakba is not a just a memory. It is a living nightmare. 

The Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard said that “life can only be understood backwards but it must be lived forwards.” For Palestinians to live forwards, the memory of the past needs to be replaced by a better present and future, so the past can function more like a subtle collage of both remembering and forgetting, honouring Palestine and Gaza’s history while at the same time not being stuck in the past. But this would require fluid psychological change among millions of people: impossible to achieve amid the violence and despair of the present. 

Many Israelis feel at risk of reliving the trauma of the Holocaust. Among Israelis, there is a constant, vigilant awareness; a great fear that the historical massacres of European Jews will be repeated. It leads to a troubling anxiety, a deep shadow that is ever-present. 

Today Israel stands as a regional superpower, but has all the hopes and fears, the insecurities and paranoia, of its own tragic history. Israel has one of the most powerful militaries in the world, in contrast to Hamas, with its makeshift arsenal of homemade rockets and old Soviet machine guns. In spite of the recent horrors enacted on Israeli civilians, there is no symmetry to the suffering. Most Gazans live in abject poverty with complete dependency on humanitarian aid. There is no escape from the conflict: constant wars and exposure to violence and death has made it impossible to live life with hope for a better future. 

Under the protection of Israel’s vastly more powerful military, the majority of Israelis have been able to live their lives relatively normally, for the most part unimpeded by the conflict. Yet each Israeli killing reinforces a constant sense of threat that is multiplied by Jewish historical trauma. Most Israelis see Hamas as suicide bombers or young men in the streets of Gaza, wearing balaclavas and carrying Kalashnikovs. Now there is a third image: gunmen massacring families, in kibbutzim running with blood.

This has created a mindset that is progressively hardening against peace—and especially now, after the latest Hamas attacks. To resolve this conflict, it is necessary to address people’s states of mind, which will not be turned around overnight. 

Shortly after the Hamas victory in the Palestinian elections in 2006, I was passed information from a senior figure in the newly elected Hamas government indicating that the leadership wanted to start communicating with Israel about the transfer of goods across the Gaza border. The thinking among Hamas officials was that starting to cooperate on practical issues might lead to the building of a transactional relationship with Israel, based not on trust but on pragmatism. 

I approached a senior Israeli official to communicate the message: normally a rational, thoughtful man, he started yelling at me. I had touched a raw nerve. Most Israelis had been so deeply disturbed by the Palestinian suicide bombing campaign and haunted by the daily threat of bombings at restaurants and bus stations during the Second Intifada that Hamas’s offer could not even be heard, let alone considered. On countless occasions, the traumatic events of the recent and less recent past collide, closing down political openings. This conflict’s history is littered with missed opportunities, when those involved were not in the right state of mind to respond to pragmatic initiatives that may have been in their best interest. 

For everyone living with this conflict, each new wave of violence, each new loss or injustice reinforces the collision of the traumatic past with the traumatic present. Against this deafening backdrop, the humanity of the other cannot be recognised. Many in Gaza hailed Hamas’s massacres of Israeli civilians in the 7th October attack, while some in Israel have called for the obliteration of Gaza and the “animals” within. The other becomes dehumanised and without a human face. In this context, smart politics depends on being psychologically savvy and understanding how the past shapes the present.

Is destroying Hamas possible?

Israel has said its military objective is to wipe out Hamas. As much as Israelis think this is desirable, it may not be feasible. Hamas is one political expression of the Islamist tendency in Palestinian and Arab political life more generally over the past century. If it were to be destroyed politically and organisationally it would re-emerge under a different guise. Many Palestinians see Hamas fighters as their defenders against the occupation. Unless there is a satisfactory political resolution of the conflict, many will continue to support Hamas. Even if Hamas is militarily defeated, it will remain politically relevant.

Hamas draws its identity from the marginalised and dispossessed of society. It has access to many disaffected young men. Each Palestinian civilian or fighter killed creates new recruits and militant supporters. Hamas is part of a religious and political movement that cannot be easily dismantled. In response to the social, economic, and political inequalities in its society, Hamas offers social welfare programmes for its citizens. It espouses a culture of violent resistance, but the group’s psychology speaks to the disenfranchisement of the Palestinians, their sense of powerlessness and desire to be heard.

When Hamas, to its great surprise, achieved national power in 2006, their candidates at the time were viewed by Palestinians as honest, clean individuals who were good administrators—in stark contrast to Fatah, who were seen as exactly the opposite. Many people misunderstand the cause of the internecine fighting in Gaza in mid-2007, when Hamas violently expelled Fatah officials and fighters from Gaza. The usually accepted argument is that Hamas seized power at that time; however,, they were pre-empting a coup against them led by Fatah and covertly supported by Jordan, Egypt and Israel.  

The current language on both sides is one of violence. People are not born violent; they become violent through pain, powerlessness and humiliation. When there is no legitimate means of being heard and people are excluded from access to power and resources, they are more likely to seek ways to express themselves through the politics of resistance, the politics of revolt and the politics of violence.

The politics of the war

It can sound politically naïve to talk about peacemaking at the height of war. Yet as long as this conflict continues, violence will reverberate throughout the region—in Palestine, but also in Israel, in Lebanon, Syria, and many other countries. Over decades, multiple options for peace have been put on the table, including a two-state solution, a confederation, and a single state. There are real and difficult challenges to their implementation, but the deepest challenge is to create the psychological conditions to make them possible. 

The question now is whether Hamas will still be politically relevant if there is to be serious engagement with peacemaking. It is now on the terrorist list in most western capitals. But the real question has to be: can there be an end of violence, and serious preparation for a lasting peace, without involving Hamas? Spain has offered to host an international conference in six months’ time. But without addressing the thorny issue of Hamas, the old pattern of missed opportunities will be repeated, leading us down the familiar path of failure.

For as long as it continues, the violence only entrenches states of mind that are toxic, adversarial, and closed to any real possibility for peace. Only by ending the latest cycle of violence—currently expressed through Israel’s retaliatory siege and bombardment of Gaza, with its daily civilian death toll in the hundreds—can there be any movement forward. No Palestinian or Israeli will live free from the threat of war without this vision. 

Hamas has no hope of victory against the might of Israel’s army, but in spite of the horrors, Hamas may see itself as already winning a victory on its terms—simply because of the huge psychological impact it has had on Israel's security. Israel may yet crush Hamas, but as long as the Palestinians are exposed to the devastating power of Israel’s military force and denied their political and economic rights, new groups will emerge, and they will attack Israeli civilians.

In 2017, Hamas issued a policy document which stopped short of official recognition of Israel but accepted a Palestinian state including the Gaza Strip and the West Bank, with a capital city in East Jerusalem. It called for a long-term ceasefire, known as a “Hudna”, as a starting point for peace negotiations. This was reaffirmed by the military leader of Hamas, Mohammad Deif, in his statement at the time of 7th October attack, with a call for an independent Palestinian state. To Israelis and many others, it sounded like cruel and empty words after the horrors just perpetrated. 

Israelis have every reason to be mistrustful and cynical about the sincerity of Hamas’s statements. Third-party mediation will be required, as it will be impossible for Israel to hear or believe what the political wing of Hamas is saying. The traumatic history of the conflict has meant that even when Hamas puts a political opportunity on the table that could constitute progress towards peace, one side provokes the other into a terrible round of violence.

An idea worthy of exploration is some form of an international protection to help Gazan society, which would prevent the parties from re-initiating violent hostilities, including attacks on Israeli civilians. Western governments’ involvement would be toxic. Support could be resourced through a coalition of the willing, ranging from Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan and the Gulf States to the Palestinian Authority. In addition, a technocratic government could be established to help improve the lives of the people. This would have no validity without a parallel serious peace process.

It will be vital to assure protection of the Gazan population. Netanyahu’s current assertion that Israel will retain security control in Gaza would be an obstacle. The aim would be to rebuild Gaza after the devastation of the war. The politics would need to done with both Hamas and the Palestinian Authority, and incentives would need to be created for the two rival groups to work together.

Animosity between them in recent years has been greater than their hatred of Israel. So far, the politics of the region have been about divide and rule; Israel has exercised this to what it has considered its best advantage. An inclusive approach that works with all the parties, including regional and global allies of all sides, could prove to be more in everyone’s interest.  

At the heart of regional tensions is the geopolitical faultline between Iran and Saudi Arabia. In recent months, before the 7th October, momentum had built around America’s efforts to negotiate a normalisation agreement between Israel and Saudi Arabia. This has now been paused. Deep hostility between Iran and the west incentivises Tehran to undermine all moves towards peace. As difficult as it may be, it will be necessary to try and bring Iran out of the cold and into any future process. If Iran is excluded, it will try and create a place for itself at the table by using its influence over Hamas and Hezbollah to undermine the process.  

A better future?

A vision of a better future would involve many things—a long-term ceasefire, economic and political regeneration and a psychological state of mind that carries hope for a future worth living. The economic future does not have to be bleak: Gaza has a highly educated population and one of the highest literacy levels in the world. It has a beautiful Mediterranean coastline. There is gas on its coastal shelf, and plenty of sun for solar power. Investments could take place that could benefit all Gazans. New desalination projects, sewage plants and the rebuilding of the airport would all be part of a better future.

Following a lasting ceasefire and the possible creation of some form of protection for Gaza, perhaps with a technocratic government, political negotiation would need to be accompanied by real improvements in the living conditions of people in Gaza. A consortium of Gulf States could invest in Gaza’s future and could be part of any future agreement of Israel’s normalisation of relations with Saudi Arabia and other Arab states, long tied to the resolution of the Palestinian question. The financial resources of traditional development donors in the US and Europe could also be drawn on. Israel must lift its partial blockade—dependent on careful negotiations—if condition are to be improved and hope for a better future in Gaza is be provided. This is impossible to imagine at present, and would require Israel to strengthen its military defences on the Gaza border to increase its own sense of security. 

Prior to Hamas’s October attack, there was talk of development in this area, but no real practical application. The EU signed a €60m investment deal in Gazan businesses in 2022; restrictions on goods and materials entering into the Gaza Strip were loosened and Gaza’s fishing zone was expanded. Former foreign minister Yair Lapid presented a long-term plan aimed at advancing economic prosperity, security and stability for the Gaza Strip. 

In the first stage Israel could facilitate the rebuilding of Gaza’s electricity, water, healthcare, housing and transport in exchange for a coordinated effort against Hamas’s military build-up. The second stage would include construction of a port and a transportation link between the Gaza Strip and the West Bank. But talk is cheap, and at the height of war it is impossible to imagine any of these things. What will matter is not words but action that improves people’s lives—and none of this will happen without some kind of reciprocal security agreement.

Netanyahu’s preliminary approval for the development of the Gaza Marine gas fields last summer offered a rare glimmer of hope for the Palestinians. But it is possible that this would have been exploited by an international hydrocarbons company and the gas would have flowed into the Israeli-Egyptian network of pipelines for export to Europe. For any development to be meaningful for the Palestinians, they would need to have control over their energy which would enable them to no longer to buy it from the Israelis. 

This would provide a boost to Gaza’s stagnating economy and the cash-poor Palestinian Authority. Negotiations on such a deal would need to benefit future Gazan and West Bank governments, which could be in partnership with the hydrocarbon companies. The deal is lying in tatters in the wake of the war, but could be revitalised.  

All of this would also need to be attached to a serious peace process. Palestinians will not be satisfied by economic regeneration without political empowerment. They want the same freedoms as all of us. A serious peace process accompanied by economic regeneration is a small investment compared to the costs of war. It is not an idealistic dream: it is pragmatism, if our true goal is a peaceful, prosperous and stable life for all those who live in the region. 

A better vision of the future can easily be dismissed at moments like these, but doing so means committing to endless rounds of violence. Peace is in the rational self-interest of all sides. Yet for as long as people are in these traumatised states of mind, opportunities will continue to be missed. 

Only when people carry hope for a better future can the violence be transformed. The Israeli writer David Grossman said that “behind the deafening noise of shrill political rhetoric, in every Israeli and Palestinian’s soul there is a dark, silent place in which they know all of the horrible suffering of this conflict was utterly futile and useless.” To not pursue a serious investment in peacebuilding is to continue down this path of endless war and human suffering. Nothing can bring back the dead or remedy the past. Despite the abject horrors of this war, the future is still of our making.