The Hamas attacks on Israelis on 7 October shattered a growing regional and international consensus that the Israel–Palestine conflict was dormant. The violence was a horrifying reminder that regional transformation, grounded in integration and normalization between Arab and Israeli states long hostile to one another, remains far off.
Some watching and reading analyses of this month’s events across much of English-language media may think that Hamas’ attack represented the end of a period of peace in the Palestinian–Israeli conflict.
Former Israeli prime minister Naftali Bennett stated the attack was ‘unprovoked’. Shadow UK Foreign Secretary David Lammy insisted ‘these events started on Saturday’.
These claims imply that a peace was broken by Hamas on 7 October. But what they ignore is the Palestinian reality of a conflict that has never ended.
Understanding this context is not to justify Hamas’s actions but to explore the roots of it. As UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres stated, ‘the attacks by Hamas did not happen in a vacuum.’ Israel has rejected Guterres’ remark and demanded his resignation.
The Netanyahu government had long insisted its conflict with Palestinians was under control. Many Israelis lived relatively stable lives and either believed or tolerated their government’s narrative of ‘post-conflict’.
However, for Palestinians, their lives and lived conditions were only getting worse. By September this year, according to the UN, Israeli forces had killed more Palestinians in the West Bank than in any year since the UN began recording fatalities.
Meanwhile, claims of regional stability, regional integration, and normalization – reconciliation agreements between Israel and various Arab countries – have dominated headlines on the Middle East.
But this ignored the many forms of violence that Palestinians continued to live through. In overlooking this suffering, these narratives expanded a blind spot that helped to cover up the roots of this conflict.
The violence of expanding settlers
Understanding these roots also requires looking at Israel’s actions which have at times been directly violent: bombing civilians, destroying infrastructure, and forcibly removing hundreds of thousands from their homes.
According to B’Tselem, an Israeli human rights organization, between 9 December 1987 and 30 April 2021, almost 14,000 people have died from this violence, with 87 per cent of those killed being Palestinian.
A key form of violence in the occupied Palestinian territory (oPt), which includes West Bank, Gaza, and East Jerusalem, comes from Israeli settlers who, in conjunction with the Israeli military, have forcibly displaced Palestinians from their homes.
The UN estimates that 670,000 Israeli citizens live in 130 illegal settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, and this year had already set an all-time record for settlement construction in the West Bank.
Israeli settler take-over of lands, particularly in the West Bank’s Area C (some 330,000 hectares of land), violates the interim agreements under the 1993 Oslo Accords signed between Israel and the Palestinian Liberation Organization, the umbrella group recognised by Western states as the representative of the Palestinian people.
Referred to as settler colonialism by the UN Special Rapporteur Francesca Albanese, settlers are able to take these lands because they are supported by the Israeli military and Israeli political leaders, as well as the Israeli judiciary.
The current Netanyahu-Ben Gvir coalition government was brokered by an agreement to make West Bank settlement expansion a priority.
Last year, the UN’s Special Coordinator, Tor Wennesland, argued that ‘Israel’s settlement expansion continues to fuel violence in the Occupied Palestinian Territory, further entrenching the occupation and undermining the right of Palestinians to self-determination and independent statehood’.
Months before Hamas’s 7 October attack, hundreds of settlers entered the village of Turmusaya in the West Bank. They attacked and set fire to houses and cars, fired at residents and killed a Palestinian man, Omar Jbarah.
Violence from living under a blockade
Palestinians have also died as a result of the governance apparatuses that structure their everyday lives.
Four out of five UN Special Rapporteurs have described this situation as apartheid. Israel has rejected the term, as has the European Commission, but it has also been used by a number of Palestinian, Israeli, and international human rights organizations.
The blockade on Gaza kills people when it limits medical supplies and denies travel to Palestinians requiring access to properly functioning hospitals. It also kills when residents of Gaza die from diseases caused by a lack of access to water.
Over half of Gaza’s population falls below the poverty line and 80 per cent depend on food aid to survive. Almost 50 per cent of the population is moderately or severely food insecure. Many die because of these structural realities that stem from Israel’s blockade.
UN Special Rapporteur Albanese found that ‘the occupied Palestinian territory had been transformed as a whole into a constantly surveyed open air prison. The occupying power framed the Palestinians as a collective incarcerable security threat, ultimately de-civilianising them, namely eroding their status as protected persons’.
These realities are evidence of what is academically referred to as structural violence – a persistent condition that results in casualties not from guns alone, but also as a consequence of the Palestinians’ unequal position in society, both socially and politically.
This structural violence is a central root of the continuing conflict.
Scholars have argued that when inequality and corruption are widespread, a political settlement is twice as likely to collapse into some form of armed confrontation.
A recent Chatham House study found that political settlements in MENA countries were ineffective in ensuring sustainable stability because they did not address structural violence.
This has resulted in political settlements that are short-lived or prone to violent eruptions.
How to move past cycles of violence
For Israel, responding to the killing of over 1,400 of its citizens with overwhelming military force, putting Gaza under siege in pursuit of Hamas, and locking down the West Bank will not address the roots of the enduring conflict.
In almost three weeks, Israeli bombing has already killed over 7,000 Palestinians, including more than 2,900 children, wiped out neighbourhoods, damaged over 165,000 homes, and left 1.4 million Palestinians internally displaced – roughly 75 per cent of Gaza’s population.
The violence is not solely in Gaza, as 110 people have been killed in the West Bank. Seven UN Special Rapporteurs warn that the numbers in Gaza will likely increase exponentially and these actions risk a genocide.