We cannot let go of faith in the hope of making peace

The reservoirs of rage and hate are overflowing now, but we must plan for what comes next


ALEXANDRIA, EGYPT: Israeli Premier Menahem Begin (l) and Egyptian President Anwar al-Sadat converse and joke during a meeting in July 1979 in Alexandria. (Photo credit should read AFP via Getty Images)

December 14, 2023 15:01

In the wake of the atrocities of October 7 and the ensuing catastrophic war, the reservoirs of rage and hatred in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict are overflowing.

We need to face the question not only of how so many Gazans participated in acts of scarcely imaginable violence on October 7, but why so many Palestinians supported them. Videos filmed by the perpetrators and eyewitness accounts testify to the blood lust and sexual violence of the terrorists. But the accounts of residents of Kibbutz Nir Oz testify to a wider participation of people from Gaza who followed them. They describe how after gunmen had overrun the Kibbutz, with families still cowering in safe rooms, more Gazans arrived, including women and children, to loot their belongings, help themselves to meals from fridges, and settle down to watch Netflix on televisions. This was a kibbutz where Gazans had been able to come and find work when Israel increased the number of work permits in recent years.

No less disturbing are the surveys showing widespread support among Palestinians — around 75 per cent — for the actions of Hamas.

There are many complex reasons for this. They include both the jihadist ideology that promotes violent extremism across the Middle East and the lack of a meaningful political process.

But they also include the leadership failures, not only of Hamas which always celebrated and perpetrated violence, but also of the Palestinian Authority. The PA receives diplomatic recognition and huge quantities of international donor aid — including from the UK — on the basis that it embraces diplomacy and non-violence. But it incites violence and antisemitism through its media and educational curriculum, as well as its policy of paying salaries to convicted terrorists in Israeli jails.

Rather than condemning the October 7 atrocities, the PA has fuelled the conspiracy theories that have spread across the Arab world and among some supporters of the Palestinians in the west. Monitoring group IMPACT-SE has identified multiple examples of PA schools in the West Bank celebrating the events of October 7, as evidenced through their Facebook accounts. In parliament, Labour Friends of Israel colleagues and I repeatedly raised the need to tackle incitement and antisemitism in the PA curriculum. In Israel, too, incitement and hate speech have been granted legitimacy, not least by Netanyahu’s decision to bring far-right ministers into his coalition.

But the conflict is a human tragedy, not a natural disaster. History shows that attitudes can change, even in the wake of terrible wars, and another kind of politics is possible. In 1977, just four years after the Yom Kippur War, Egyptian President Anwar Sadat flew to Israel to address the Knesset and called for peace. He forged a relationship with the right-wing Israeli prime minister Menachem Begin that led to the Israel-Egypt peace accord which has held for more than 40 years.

In 2020, Mohammed Bin Zayid, president of the UAE, upended years of rejection by agreeing to normalise relations with Israel, with the peace treaty declaring: “Jews and Arabs are descendants of a common ancestor, Abraham.” A year later, Mansour Abbas, the Arab-Israeli leader of an Islamic party in Israel, transformed the Israeli political map by entering a pragmatic rainbow coalition led by right wing Israel leader Naftali Bennett.

We should also look to Jewish Israeli politicians who sought compromise and peace. Menachem Begin, a right-winger, made peace with Egypt. Yitzhak Rabin, a former defence minister not regarded as a peacenik, negotiated the Oslo Accords. Tzipi Livni, a one-time hardliner, became Israel’s foremost advocate of a two-state solution. She tried twice, as foreign minister in 2008 and justice minister in 2014, to negotiate it, only for PA President Mahmoud Abbas to snub the proposals. His predecessor, Yasser Arafat, also rejected a substantial offer made by Israeli prime minister Ehud Barak in 2000. As recently as last September, then-Israeli prime minister Yair Lapid took a major political risk by outlining his support for a two-state solution before the UN General Assembly.

Nor should we ignore grassroots organisations like the Bereaved Families Forum which even at the height of war are maintaining dialogue across the divide. Such civic society peacebuilding projects have long been ignored by international donors. David Lammy’s pledge last week that, if elected, Labour will help establish an International Fund for Israeli-Palestinian Peace is a welcome recognition of this failing. Modelled on the International Fund for Ireland, it has been described by British negotiators as the “unsung hero” of the Good Friday Agreement.

To forge peace in the aftermath of this war, there is much that the international community must do. It must garner the resources for reconstruction, find a new way to govern the Gaza Strip and chart a new diplomatic route towards a sustainable two-state reality. But it must also confront leaders who incite hatred and embrace those who challenge it. And it must invest in a culture of peace: providing resources to those at the grass roots with the courage to build bridges for peace.

Dame Louise Ellman was Labour MP for Liverpool Riverside from 1997 to 2019

December 14, 2023 15:01

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