October 16, 2023 | Matt Kucinski

A man in suit coat's headshot inset over a map of Israel

For the past 10 days, the world’s been watching what’s unfolding in Israel. The situation has dominated international headlines. While the Israeli-Palestinian conflict isn’t new, Joel Westra, a professor of politics at Calvin University with expertise in international relations, international security, and international law, says this latest iteration is quite dramatic. Westra notes the conflict began almost to the day on the 50th-anniversary of the Yom Kippur War, which was a war between Israel and a coalition of Arab states led by Egypt and Syria. On October 13, we sat down with Westra to better understand what’s happening, how this compares to the Yom Kippur War, and to predict how this war might end. He advises those watching from around the world to not rush to judgment, but rather to dig deeper, seek understanding, and reflect.

What is happening, and why?

We’re seeing the latest iteration of a longstanding conflict between Israel and Palestine that dates back to 1948, when Israel was established as a state following the end of World War II and the Holocaust. Israel was established on territory that had been ruled by the Ottoman Empire until the end of World War I, alongside what was supposed to become a Palestinian State. Israel’s current boundaries roughly correspond to the 1948 boundaries but also extend beyond them, and that’s a crucial point. Following attacks by neighboring Arab states that had entered Palestinian territories in 1948, Israel expanded its borders to be more defensive, occupying and annexing some of the territory that Palestinians believe to be theirs. Jordan and Egypt eventually ceded control of the West Bank and Gaza, but Israel and Palestine have never agreed on those boundaries, and a Palestinian state has never been established on this territory. Throughout the decades, there’s been ongoing Palestinian resistance to Israeli occupation, which frequently has escalated into armed conflict.

How does Hamas play into this?

Hamas emerged in the 1980s as one of several Palestinian resistance groups opposing Israel. Hamas is one of the more extreme groups and has controlled Gaza since 2007. Another group, Fatah, controls the West Bank. Fatah has come to some accommodations with Israel, though they are at disagreement regarding boundaries. Hamas, however, has never disavowed its goal of removing Israel from the map. So, for Fatah, it’s about how do we co-exist, what will that relationship be, but there’s at least some recognition of Israel as having some legitimacy. Hamas, however, does not recognize Israel having legitimate statehood. Hamas, which both the United States and European Union consider a terrorist organization, is a more militant group engaged in armed resistance against Israel.

How does this current conflict compare to the Yom Kippur War of 1973?

I think a lot of Israelis are making the comparison, and I think the comparison is partially warranted. In both instances, Israel was caught by surprise by a significant military attack. In both instances, the attack came on multiple fronts.

As far as level of threat, the Yom Kippur War was an existential threat to Israel, and there was an alliance attacking on multiple fronts in a conventional way. This is not an existential threat. But the sensationalist terrorist tactics used by Hamas multiply the psychological impact of this conflict.

In the early 1970s, Israel knew it was surrounded by enemy states, but it underestimated how much military power those states could assemble. Nonetheless, Israel had a better estimate of the level of threat it faced then than it had now, before Hamas attacked. In recent years, Israel has relied on border fortifications and missile defenses and largely ignored Hamas, thinking it to be more of a nuisance than a threat. But we’re seeing now Hamas demonstrating that it is a threat, not on the level of the threat of Israel’s adversaries in 1973, but Hamas has certainly caught Israel by surprise here.

What has changed since the Yom Kippur War of 1973 that makes our experiencing this war different?

There are two related changes here.

First, the nature of news coverage, 24-hour news cycles, and having the internet provides a lot more moment-by-moment awareness of things happening around the world, especially dramatic things.

Second is a fundamentally changed global environment. In 1973, as part of the Cold War, the Arab-Israeli conflict (including the Israel-Palestine conflict) was perceived as part of the broader U.S./Soviet conflict, with the United States supporting Israel and the Soviet Union supporting several Arab states. It was dangerous and it was scary, because it was always in people’s minds that this could escalate to a nuclear World War III. Yet, it was not an immediate, tangible, and dramatic sort of fear, like we are seeing in this current conflict.

You put those together, the 24-hour news cycle and the changed global environment, and this conflict looks very different. You have information and video of dramatic things from a different sort of enemy, a non-state actor who uses indiscriminate means of violence and, for many Americans, awakens memories of 9/11. You are seeing militants who can evade traditional systems of defense and sow panic, chaos, and death. A nuclear threat seems abstract because it’s almost unimaginable, whereas this is very imaginable. You put that all together and the impact is much different and much greater on many observers around the world.

In war, there’s a tendency to want to vilify, to choose sides. Why should we tread carefully in doing so?

One thing I tell my students whenever we discuss politics and particularly politics and use of military force is not to rush to declare people innocent. There’s this problem of trying to maintain clean hands in a dirty world. Our Reformed Faith calls us to go into that messy environment and try to redeem and transform it. In doing that, we find ourselves in circumstances where sometimes it’s impossible to maintain clean hands. As Christians, we understand that none of us are innocent but that we are called to serve God in a broken and fallen world.

When we look at this situation, the first thing we tend to notice is the most dramatic: the atrocities committed by Hamas against Israeli civilians. We rightly can be enraged by evil and violence and condemn such atrocities unequivocally, but we shouldn’t rush to exonerate those not directly involved in the most execrable actions as innocent of any role in the overall situation. Nor should we rush to condemn those who are caught up in a situation over which they have no direct control.

We can and should make judgements about policies and actions taken in response to the situation, but we shouldn’t rush too quickly to proclaim innocence on a grand scale.

How might this recent conflict end?

I often tell my students that it’s a lot easier to start a war than to end one. I don’t know how long this is going to drag out, but it won’t subside quickly because of the way this has affected Israelis. I think many of them will demand a more enduring solution, a military solution. The Israelis are preparing significant ground forces, which they did in 2014 and in 2008, and neither of those situations were particularly short. It took weeks, not days. I think this will be similar, perhaps even longer.

At most extreme we might see something like a re-occupation, by that I mean reimposing a more military occupation like that which existed prior to 2005. It also could look like a significant ground operation and shorter-term military occupation, maybe something like Iraq and Afghanistan on a shorter timeframe, where the main force is defeated and then the military stays to find other leaders of the group. Either way, it’s hard for me to see this ending quickly.

From the Israeli-Palestinian perspective, this makes working toward a stable solution to the Gaza side of the disagreement much harder to reach. Each cycle of violence leads to subsequent cycles of retaliation, and an increasingly desperate situation leads to increasingly desperate responses.

Right now, things look relatively calm along the northern border with Lebanon, and it seems unlikely that Israel will take direct action against Iran absent clear evidence that Iran was directly involved in planning or executing these attacks. So, at this point it seems that the danger is not an immediate and significant expansion of the conflict so much as longer-term consequences of the conflict for regional stability.

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