An Israeli Trail of Tears

October 12th, 2023 by Tom Lynch

Last Saturday, 7 October, in a well-organized and highly sophisticated operation, aided and abetted by Iran, Hamas terrorists invaded Israel from Gaza.  They launched an attack on various Israeli areas with a hatred and savagery that would have made Adolph Hitler proud. More Israeli non-combatant men, women, and children died by violence on Saturday than in any single event since the Holocaust. This atrocity was of monstrous proportions without a scintilla of justification. It was barbaric. In addition to the hundreds of Israelis who died in the attack,  14 Americans were killed, and more than 20 remain unaccounted for. Hamas took about 150 people hostage, ferried them back to Gaza, and is now using them as human shields, pledging to kill one every time Israel bombs something in Gaza without warning.

The people of Israel, divided and fighting among themselves since the most far-right government in the nation’s history took power in January, instantly united and are responding with a ferocity that has already turned large chunks of Gaza into rubble and killed hundreds, mostly innocent civilians. Last night was the fifth consecutive night of ferocious bombing in Gaza. Yesterday, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu agreed to form a war cabinet, focused entirely on the conflict, with former defense minister and centrist opposition party leader Benny Gantz, a joint statement from Gantz’s National Unity party said.

With the possible exception of Iran, this will not end well for anyone.

Amid all the anguish, can we take a step back to cast a broader view at the “why” of all this? Right now, we are at a single point in time. It’s like catching a glimpse of an arrow whizzing past a crack in a door. In my view, it would be advisable to swing wide the door and understand a little bit about how we got to this awful moment. When we do, we see that none of the events of the last few days had to happen. Everything was preventable. All this, the deaths of innocents, the hostages, the God knows what to come might have been prevented if only in 1971 Golda Meir had made a different decision and if Israel had fulfilled its commitments in the Oslo Accords of 1993. To be clear, Hamas is absolutely responsible for the totality of this latest carnage, but there were two opportunities, which, if seized, might have led to a different outcome.

Let me explain.

Arabs have occupied what is now Israel for many centuries. Israel’s current population is 21% Arab and 73% Jewish, with 6% comprising other demographics. Three-quarters of the Arabs in Israel are Israeli citizens. Some Arabs from the Gaza Strip have Israeli citizenship. They are Palestinian by heritage, but Israeli by citizenship.

But before 1948, there was no state of Israel; there was Palestine. Jews were there, but most people who lived there were Arabs, Palestinian Arabs. Hence, the people of Gaza think themselves Palestinian. The Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO), created by the Arab League in 1964, represents Palestinians living in the West Bank and the rest of Israel — with the exception of Gaza where Hamas rules.

Gaza is a coastal strip of land that sits on ancient trading and maritime routes along the Mediterranean shore. The Gaza Strip is 139 square miles. It is narrow, about 25 miles long and 5 miles wide — about the size of Philadelphia — and is bordered by Israel in the east and north, Egypt to its southwest, and the Mediterranean to the west. Its population is ~2.22 million people. That’s three-quarters of a million more than in Philadelphia. So, Gaza is a crowded place.

Hamas, which started out as an underground terror group more than three decades ago and hasn’t changed much since, is today, along with the PLO, one of the Palestinian territories’ two major political parties. It governs more than two million Palestinians in the Gaza Strip. It has, quite rightly, been labeled a “terrorist organization” by most western countries, a reputation it more than lived up to on Saturday. The PLO has renounced violence; Hamas has not. The terror Hamas has caused over the years led to Gaza now being surrounded by a seemingly secure (until Saturday) 35-mile, 20-foot-high, barrier wall built by the Israelis. To get to work and return home, the people of Gaza must go through permanent, as well as mobile, checkpoints  — this can take an hour, it can take a minute, and at times of political stress, the checkpoints close completely. The people never know. There is one other checkpoint just for goods.

The barrier wall (sometimes called the “iron wall”) infuriates the Palestinians of Gaza, 57% of whom express at least a somewhat positive opinion of Hamas. But the wall would not be there were it not for Hamas. The wall is Israel’s way of protecting itself from evil incarnate.

Gaza has a painful history. It and its people have been controlled by somebody else for more than 500 years. In 1516, the Ottoman Empire moved in and stayed until the end of World War I, when, as part of negotiations to divide up the spoils of war, the League of Nations created the British Mandate, and Britain assumed control of Palestine. A crucial piece of the British Mandate was its incorporation of the Balfour Declaration of 1917,  in which the British government committed itself to a “national home” for the Jewish people. In part, the Balfour Declaration also states, “… it being clearly understood that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine.”

The British left in 1948, and Israel became an independent state, whereupon, under the agreement that created Israel, Egypt took control of Gaza. Jordan got the West Bank. However, Palestinians in what was the new State of Israel revolted, and a civil war, the first of many such battles, ensued. Many Palestinians made the long march to Gaza, under the protection of Egypt. And there they stayed.

During the Six-Day War of 1967, Israel captured Gaza from the Egyptians and the West Bank from Jordan.

And then came the Yom Kippur War of 1973.

In October of 1973, Egypt, Syria, and Jordan surprised Israel by invading it from the south, east, and north. The first few days were perilous, but Israel triumphed.¹ In the Yom Kippur War, 2,688 Israelis, and nearly 29,000 Arabs, died.

But before and after the Yom Kippur War, there were two moments when the course of history might have changed. Here’s how.

First,  in 1971, in response to a long-term peace proposal from Egyptian President Anwar Sadat and a similar one from Swedish diplomat Gunnar Jarring, Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir formed a committee to examine the proposal in depth. The committee unanimously concluded that Israel’s interests would best be served by full withdrawal to the internationally recognized lines dividing Israel from Egypt and Syria, in other words, the pre-1967 borders. The Committee’s recommendations meant returning the Gaza Strip to Egypt, as well as most of the West Bank to Jordan. Meir became angry and rejected the Committee’s proposal.² Meir’s rejection of the Committee’s unanimous proposal left Gaza in Israel’s hands.

Why did Prime Minister Meir reject her Committee’s unanimous recommendations? Two reasons. First, her entire life had been driven by a fervent desire to provide Jews a place of safety, and Israel was that place. If she took the recommended actions, Israel would suddenly become only nine miles wide along the West Bank. Second, she could not bring herself to trust the Arabs who had done everything in their power to destroy her “place of safety.” After all, the pre-1967 border lines had led to the Six-Day War, the first full-out attack on Israel.

The other moment in time when history might have changed course happened in 1993 with the Oslo Accords. In these agreements, Israel agreed to leave the majority of the West Bank in Palestinian hands and remove Israeli settlements from most of the area. This never happened.  The result is the West Bank Settlement map below.

Clearly, when one looks at the map above, which was prepared in the spring of 2015 for President Obama by Frank Lowenstein, a senior State Department official, one has a hard time imagining how a two-state solution could ever happen. Since 2015, the settler population has risen nearly 16%, now reaching more than half a million, according to Israel’s Ministry of the Interior.

“We’ve reached a huge hallmark,” said Baruch Gordon, the director of a settler organization and a resident of the Beit El settlement. “We’re here to stay.”

We’ll never know what would have happened if Golda Meir had accepted her Committee’s recommendations, or if Israel’s government had moved ahead with removing settlements in 1993. But history had amply shown that trust in Israel’s Arab neighbors could be seriously naive and of deadly consequence.

You can follow the tragic 106-year trail of tears beginning in 1917 as if it were a bright, red rope in the snow leading to Saturday, 7 October 2023 . We didn’t have to end up here, but here we are.


¹ After the war, Israel fired its top four intelligence and Military leaders for the intelligence failures that led to the surprising invasion. Makes one wonder what will happen after the current conflict is over.

² Podeh, Elie (2015). Chances for Peace: Missed Opportunities in the Arab-Israeli Conflict (first ed.). Austin, TX: University of Texas Press