As the armed conflict between Israel and Hamas grows, observers and media outlets describe the prospect of a near-term end to the war as unlikely. A panel of experts at an MIT public event on November 1 assessed the dynamics of the conflict and discussed what elements might be necessary for long-term stability – while noting that any idea of a lasting resolution is necessarily speculative.
The aim of the discussion was to “better understand some of the historical background and strategic pressures facing various parties, including Israel, Hamas, other actors in the region and the United States,” the moderator said. event, Evan Lieberman, director of the MIT Center. for international studies, in his opening speech. “We are here to understand how such extraordinary levels of violence could occur and what this could mean for the future. »
The current fighting is a reaction to the October 7 terrorist attacks carried out by Hamas against Israeli civilians in Israel. In response, Israel launched military action in the Palestinian-populated Gaza Strip, where Hamas is concentrated. It seems that other countries, despite their concern to limit escalation in the region, have little capacity to influence this conflict.
Among other things, “at this point, the United States does not have much control over events,” observed Steven Simon, a former member of the U.S. National Security Council (NSC) and former Robert E. Wilhelm Fellow at the Center of International Studies (CIS) from MIT.
The public debate, titled “The Israel-Hamas Conflict: Expert Perspectives on the Ongoing Crisis,” was held online, before an audience of nearly 500 people. The Starr Forum is a series of public events hosted by CIS, focused on key issues of global concern.
Moderating Wednesday’s event, Lieberman, who is also a general professor of political science and contemporary Africa, called the unfolding events “a calamity of epic proportions, with regional and global implications.”
Speakers at the MIT event Wednesday were Peter Krause PhD ’11, an associate professor of political science at Boston College who studies, among other topics, international security, Middle East politics, terrorism, and political violence; David Kirkpatrick, editor at The New Yorkerwho was previously a reporter on international politics for The New York Times; Marsin Alshamary PhD ’20, an assistant professor at Boston College who focuses on religion, civil society, and social movements in the Shiite Middle East; and Simon, who served as NSC senior director for the Middle East and North Africa during the Obama administration and NSC senior director for counterterrorism during the Clinton administration.
Krause, who spoke first, noted that his research shows that violence tends to increase when there are divisions within a movement, and suggested that the Hamas attacks may have occurred, in part, “to improve its position of power” among the Palestinians.
And although Israel has clearly stated what its military objectives are, Krause observed that regarding the post-military status of Gaza, “there is no clear consensus among Israeli political and military leaders on this who should follow. ” Still, he says, it’s important “to have a plan for the next day.”
Krause then assessed the likelihood of several potential post-military outcomes, including Israeli annexation of Gaza, mass expulsion of Gaza residents, or Israeli resettlement of Gaza, which he considers highly unlikely. Krause also suggested that it was at least possible that Israel would develop a new buffer zone on the edge of Gaza, or even attempt mixed control of the area in the style of the West Bank. It is still somewhat more plausible, he proposed, that Israel could continue its policy of continued strikes against Hamas in the region, even after its main military operations end. Finally, Krause noted that it is at least “within the realm of possibility” that Hamas could maintain power in Gaza, despite Israel’s stated goals.
Ultimately, Krause suggests, a kind of modus vivendi is necessary, since “Israelis and Palestinians are destined to live side by side in one form or another. Peace, security and prosperity for one are largely dependent on peace, security and prosperity for the other. Strategies for the current conflict in Gaza and broader Israeli-Palestinian relations that reflect this awareness have at least a chance of improving the situation over time.
Why did Hamas choose to launch this attack at that time, particularly given the retaliation it generated? In his remarks, Kirkpatrick addressed this issue based on a recent report he published in The New Yorkerin particular an interview with Mousa Abu Marzuk, a political leader of Hamas operations.
Kirkpatrick stressed that this reporting is intended simply to examine the stated thinking of those involved in Hamas and does not imply any alignment with those views.
“Let me be clear, there is no justification for the wanton killing of civilians, and in no way do I intend to justify the October 7 attack,” Kirkpatrick said.
Kirkpatrick cited four factors mentioned by Abu Marzuk when discussing the attacks: the feeling that the Palestinian situation has been neglected globally, the conflict over the West Bank, control of the al-Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem, and the belief that countries with large Arab populations have been less vocal in recent years in favor of the Palestinians.
Hamas may have been trying to establish itself as the sole ruling group of the Palestinian people, he noted.
“It’s reasonable to think that an element of this was Palestinian policy, that what (Hamas hoped) to do that day was… complete the obliteration of the Palestinian Authority and impose itself as the loudest, the main, the last voice of the Palestinian people,” Kirkpatrick said.
Kirkpatrick also said he asked Abu Marzuk whether Hamas, in launching its attacks, considered it to be acting from a position of strength or weakness. Abu Marzuk, Kirkpatrick said, “tried to have it both ways,” emphasizing that Hamas was weaker overall than Israel, but had shown its capabilities by fighting on Israeli soil. However, Kirkpatrick said Wednesday, discussing his own views on Abu Marzuk’s response: “Obviously, I’m not convinced by that. This type of violence seems to be much more a demonstration of weakness than of strength. When you are strong, you don’t need to kill civilians like that.
Kirkpatrick added that he believed further discussions of a two-state plan for Israelis and Palestinians were currently unrealistic.
“Overall, the picture is very bleak,” Kirkpatrick said.
Alshamary, in her comments, focused on the regional reaction to the war, linking popular opinion to government responses. Although most Middle Eastern countries are not democracies, she noted, “they remain, in some sense, vulnerable to public pressure, and this has increased in recent weeks.” , as pro-Palestinian demonstrations have increased.
Different countries also have varying relationships with Israel, which – along with the extent of authoritarian control in a given country – helps explain their responses. Egypt and Jordan maintain formal diplomatic relations with Israel; as a result, Alshamary said, Egypt has to some extent positioned itself as a “mediator.” Jordan’s ties to the United States mean that some statements by leaders denouncing the Israeli military response have been a matter of “rescuing public opinion,” she added, while Turkey, which has a longest history of diplomatic relations with Israel, “walks a fine line” and seeks balance in its public statements.
Other Middle Eastern countries have called for a de-escalation of the war, Alshamary noted, including Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates, Morocco and Sudan – which, along with Saudi Arabia, have recently considered normalizing relations with Israel.
And yet, Alshamary said, she doesn’t expect it to lead to further progress toward a longer-term resolution of the situation. For example, she suggested, Saudi Arabia “has not really demonstrated a willingness to use normalization as a tool to achieve gains for the Palestinians.” Instead, she added, Saudi Arabia may well see normalization as something that would bring it more gains, from the United States.
And while some autocracies in the Middle East are relatively immune to public pressure, those most in need of support are bound to be susceptible, she observed.
“Going forward, any action taken by Arab leaders toward Israel without a simultaneous commitment to achieving gains for the Palestinians will be costly and likely publicly scrutinized,” Alshamary said. “This by no means means the end of the peace process, especially the one that has been envisaged, but I think we need to have a more frank discussion… about the likelihood of reaching (agreements) in a meaningful, true and meaningful way. authentic way. »
Simon spoke more about the goals and actions of the United States, while acknowledging that there are clear limits to the country’s influence.
“The administration’s strategy is essentially crisis management,” Simon noted, while observing that the U.S. government “has little control, I think, at this point,” although Israel and the United States are long-time allies.
Yet, Simon noted, the U.S. foreign policy apparatus is also assessing what might happen after this phase of Israeli military operations ends — and considering many possibilities, he said.
“The U.S. government is just starting to think about it the next day, and they are thinking about this very carefully, without having drawn any conclusions,” Simon said.
Simon also noted that no one is actively pursuing the two-state peace process, which saw its greatest momentum in the 1990s. Yet, Simon pointed out, there are hypothetical scenarios in which Israel could cede control of Gaza to a sort of multilateral entity. But this scenario, or a transfer to the Palestinian Authority, he suggested, depends on the political direction of the Israeli government that emerges from the crisis. In turn, he noted, the long-term effects of the current crisis on Israeli public opinion are uncertain.
And without support within and outside of government, Simon concluded, a more lasting resolution “will not be possible.” Instead, he added, in his view, “the future of the Palestinians in Gaza, as well as that of the Israelis, I believe, will really be rather bleak.”
The Starr Forum event was part of MIT’s quest for open engagement and dialogue on difficult issues. After October 7, MIT President Sally Kornbluth issued a statement condemning terrorist attacks. MIT’s Muslim and Jewish chaplains also issued a joint statement calling for mutual respect among all on campus.