By Mandy Turner

Abstract: Israel’s war on Gaza is not only an attempt to annihilate Palestinian existence but is also threatening peace and security in the Middle East, provoking deep divisions amongst and within states around the world, and having severe repercussions on the architecture of global governance. This article argues that the insights made by Arundhati Roy in her seminal essay ‘The pandemic is a portal’ can be equally applied to the current context of Israel’s war against Palestinians in Gaza. What happens next will not only affect Palestinians (although, of course, predominantly so), it will also determine the future of the region, international relations (particularly between Western states and those in the Global South), and the right to dissent in many Western countries.

Citation: Turner, Mandy, 2024. “Palestine is a portal. It is a gateway that will determine the future of the Middle East and the world we want to live in,” Security in Context Policy Paper 24-07. May 2024, Security in Context.

Israel’s war on Gaza is not only an attempt to annihilate Palestinian existence but is also threatening peace and security in the Middle East, provoking deep divisions amongst and within states around the world, and having severe repercussions on the architecture of global governance. What happens next will not only affect Palestinians (although, of course, predominantly so), it will determine the future of the region, international relations (particularly between Western states and those in the Global South), and the right to dissent in many Western countries. We are living through a defining moment of an already fractured and violent epoch. Now is the time of monsters. 

Four years ago, in April 2020, as Covid-19 was unleashing its wave of destruction around the world, best-selling Indian author and activist Arundhati Roy wrote “The pandemic is a portal.” In this essay, Roy made three important arguments. First was that the tragedy unfolding due to Covid-19 was “immediate, real and epic,” but was not new – it fed on and amplified already-existing inequalities, injustices, and disparities of power. Second, that these disparities operate at both the global and the local level, which permit some to live (safely and comfortably) and condemn others to die (violently and hungry). And third, that it exposed an ever-widening disjuncture between the priorities of political elites and those of their populations – in this case represented by spending on weapons rather than healthcare. 

Palestine is also a portal. Roy’s insights can be equally applied to the current context of Israel’s war against Palestinians in Gaza and the crisis expanding across the Middle East. And it maps on in very similar ways. 

First, Israel’s war against Palestinians in Gaza is immediate, real, and epic – violence so extreme that human rights experts and countries such as South Africa, Namibia, Nicaragua, and Brazil (amongst many others) argue it constitutes genocide. We should not underestimate or downplay how much death and destruction Israel has unleashed against Palestinians in the past seven months. But Israel’s violence against Palestinians is not new; it has been going on for over 75 years, right back to the Nakba in 1948. 

Second, this current crisis is yet again exposing the disparity in power locally between Israel and Palestinians, as well as the disparity in power globally between Western states (particularly the United States, the UK, and the EU) and Global South states. Most states want a permanent ceasefire and a just solution which upholds Palestinians’ right to self-determination. But a minority of powerful states are blocking it. 

And third, inside powerful Western states, the scenes coming out of Gaza in the past seven months has accelerated the disjuncture between political elites and their populations towards Palestine and Israel. Public opinion polls show opposition to weapons sales to Israel, support for an immediate ceasefire, and the desire to see an end to Israel’s rule over Palestinians – these are attitudes that stand in direct opposition to their governments’ policies. 

Which side you stand on – either supporting Israel or supporting Palestinians – has become the fundamental fissure between Western states and Global South states, as well as inside certain Western states between elites and civil society. 

This tragedy is immediate, real, and epic 

Israel’s violence against Palestinians is epic and immense – and this current escalation is far from over. In Gaza, between 7 October 2023 and 1 May 2024, Israel killed at least 34,568 and injured 77,765 Palestinians, displaced 75 percent of Gaza’s population, and has created the conditions for mass starvation. But these are only estimates; we may never know the full extent of the casualties. More than 10,000 Palestinians are still missing, most likely under the rubble of collapsed buildings or buried in mass graves. In April, nearly 400 bodies, many bearing signs of torture and execution, were discovered in mass graves in the grounds of al-Shifa and Nasser hospitals by Palestinian civil defence workers after Israeli soldiers withdrew. Back in early January, the Euro-Mediterranean Observatory for Human Rights reported there was nowhere left for Palestinians to bury their dead and that Gaza was becoming “a large open-air graveyard.” That was four months ago. The images coming out of Gaza in the past seven months are monstrous because these are the visual displays of Israel’s genocide against Palestinians. 

It is unimaginable what Gaza will look like when there is a final and permanent ceasefire. In early April 2024, the World Bank estimated that Israel had caused damage of around $18.5 billion to Gaza’s infrastructure – no doubt this number will continue to rise until there is a permanent ceasefire. Businesses, residential buildings, places of education and worship, hospitals, government buildings, vital infrastructure services, agricultural land, and Gaza’s rich cultural heritage have been destroyed. Through its current actions, it looks like Israel is trying to completely obliterate Gaza from the map. The UN Development Programme has estimated that it will cost $40 billion to rebuild Gaza and could take up to 16 years.

Meanwhile in the West Bank, Israel has gone on an unprecedented repressive rampage, killing nearly 500 Palestinians, arresting well over 7,000, destroying infrastructure, bombing refugee camps and cities, continuing to expand its illegal settlements (more accurately referred to as colonies), and supporting heavily-armed messianic settlers to carry out violent pogroms against Palestinians and their property. Even the United States, the most staunch and reliable supporter of Israel, deemed that five units of the Israeli military were responsible for serious human rights violations on Palestinians in the West Bank, although it did not take action. The United States and the European Union have already imposed sanctions on Israeli groups linked to settler violence. 

Every day brings fresh horror stories from Palestine.  Do not avert your eyes or block your ears from all this – it is brutal and is happening now. 

… But it is not new

Israel continues to explain its actions as a legitimate response, as “self-defence,” to the Hamas attacks on 7 October. But, as others have repeatedly pointed out, history did not begin on that date. Israel’s genocidal war against Gaza and its most repressive military campaign in the West Bank since the Second Intifada (2000-05) is rooted in over a century of settler colonialism and counterinsurgency campaigns designed to dispossess, oppress, uproot, and annihilate Palestinians. This is a conflict over land – Israel wants all the land from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea with the least number of Palestinians on it. This is not a religious conflict, although religion has been weaponized because Israel is an ethnonationalist Jewish supremacist state which has imposed military rule and apartheid over millions of Palestinian Christians and Muslims. 

What is usually referred to as “the Israel-Palestine conflict” is a highly unequal struggle between a modern, wealthy, sovereign State which has a hi-tech army and enjoys the support of the United States and the European Union, and an occupied, colonised people living in Bantustans with a divided political leadership. Palestinians have no control over land, borders, airspace, water, movement, or economy – and live entirely at the whim and command of the Israeli military authority, the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories (COGAT). The 1993 Oslo Accords and the creation of the Palestinian Authority did not alter this: the power disparities between Israel and Palestinians remain stark. 

It is often countered that Palestinians have the support of the rest of the Middle East, so it is not Israel against Palestinians, but rather Israel against the whole region. Palestinians have the support of most citizens in the Middle East, but the support of the region’s political elites is more chequered. Middle Eastern states have moved in and out of relationships with Israel due to changes in their own leadership and foreign policy. The United States facilitates “normalization” with promises of trade and military assistance to states in the region to secure Israel’s existence. This underpinned the Camp David Accords between Israel and Egypt in 1978; the Wadi Araba Treaty between Israel and Jordan in 1994; and the Abraham Accords between Israel and Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates, Morocco, and Sudan in 2020. 

There are open hostilities towards Israel from Lebanon, Syria, and the Houthis in Yemen, but the “normalization” process, most recently expanded through the US-sponsored Abraham Accords, has survived. Discussions about its extension to include Saudi Arabia are proceeding despite Israel’s genocide in Gaza. The days of the Arab boycott and the oil embargo are long gone, and are unlikely to re-emerge because many of the region’s authoritarian regimes are reliant on the United States as a guarantor of their survival, both in terms of domestic opposition and in terms of regional rivalries. It is revealing that the countries still “at war” with Israel – Syria and Lebanon – are the ones that have yet to regain parts of their territory that has been illegally occupied by Israel since 1967.

But even looking back to 1967 does not adequately capture what is going on. Israel’s military rule over Palestinians did not begin in 1967; it started in 1948 over Palestinians left inside Israel’s borders after the Nakba and this only ended for them in 1966. The mechanisms and strategies that Israel developed to control, dispossess, and repress its own Palestinian citizens – that only applied to them, not to Jewish citizens – are the same ones Israel applied (with some modifications) to Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza after 1967. 

This is what Palestinians have been resisting. Israel’s brutal counterinsurgency strategies against this resistance include mass arrests, incarceration without trial, assassination, deportation, collective punishment, indiscriminate killings, punitive home demolitions, and disproportionate levels of military violence. Israel has always employed draconian measures to crush Palestinian resistance whether that be inside the “green line,” inside the occupied territory of the West Bank and Gaza, or in neighbouring states, particularly in Jordan and Lebanon. Israel’s settler colonial apartheid regime has destabilised the whole region. 

All decades of this history have been brutal and repressive. But in the past 15 years, Israel’s violence against Palestinians has reached new heights, particularly in Gaza. Operation Cast Lead in 2008-09 was Israel’s most destructive war against Palestinians since 1967. The current military campaign – Operation Swords of Iron – is Israel’s sixth war against Gaza since it imposed its blockade in 2006. In addition to Cast Lead, there was Operation Pillar of Defense (2012), Operation Protective Edge (2014), the Gaza Border Protests (2018-19), and Operation Guardian of the Walls (2021). After each of these wars, the UN held commissions of inquiry, all of which reported on Israel’s grave human rights abuses, including war crimes and crimes against humanity. On no occasion has Israel been held accountable. Not one.

Israel’s current counterinsurgency war against Palestinians is epic in its violence and destruction, but it is not new. 

Israel’s war on Gaza exposes global power inequities 

Israel’s current war against Palestinians is deepening an already-existing division between states that support Israel and states that support the Palestinians. It is also further revealing fundamental power inequities in the international system because the vast majority of states support an immediate and permanent ceasefire and self-determination for Palestine, but a tiny number of very powerful states support Israel no matter what it does to Palestinians. 

Votes and debates at the UN General Assembly and the UN Security Council are illustrative of this. While there are exceptions, there is a very visible difference of opinion and policies between Western states and Global South states. The majority (139 out of 193) of UN member states have recognized Palestine as a state – in fact, more recognise Palestine than recognise the State of Kosovo – but amongst those that have not are the United States, the UK, France, Germany, Australia, and Canada. The most recent UN Security Council vote on Palestinian statehood, which took place on 18 April 2024, was supported by 12 states out of 15, but was blocked by a United States veto, while the UK and Switzerland abstained. On 10 May, the General Assembly overwhelmingly passed a resolution, with 143 member states in favour, which upgraded Palestine’s rights at the UN and urged the Security Council to “reconsider the matter [of statehood] favourably.” But still no recognition and no sovereignty for Palestine, despite it being the majority wish of UN member states.  

Majority support for an immediate and permanent ceasefire is also being ignored. On 12 December 2023, the UN General Assembly passed a resolution calling for a “humanitarian ceasefire,” with only 10 against and 23 abstentions amongst its 193 member states. This has highlighted the inaction of the UN Security Council – completely crippled by the US veto, which it has exercised in nearly all votes for a ceasefire. While this is stark and utterly disgraceful given the circumstances, this is also not new. Between 1945 and the end of 2023, the United States used its veto power in the UN Security Council 89 times – 45 of these occasions were to block resolutions critical of Israel. UN Security Council Resolution 2728, which was passed on 25 March 2024 (due to a US abstention but not a veto), that demanded an immediate temporary ceasefire, is significant. But, as with all UN resolutions, political will (i.e., US action) is needed to impose its recommendations – and this is still highly unlikely. 

The United States is the main source of military assistance, weapons, and diplomatic support for Israel’s war in Gaza. But other Western states appear equally wedded to support for Israel. The EU has a very strong relationship with Israel codified in the EU-Israel Association Agreement, which gives Israel preferential economic, commercial, technological, and research cooperation. Whereas only eight of the 28 Member States of the EU recognise Palestine as a state. Yet this war, particularly its viciousness and longevity, is exposing divisions between EU member states; Ireland and Spain, for instance, are more critical of Israel compared with Germany and France. Now outside of the EU bloc, the UK is staunchly pro-Israel and always has been.

Global South support for Palestinian rights has generally persisted despite geopolitical shifts and changing alliances in the past few decades. Russia and China, aspiring hegemons and opponents of Western global dominance, have been openly critical of Israel. Russia has questioned Israel’s “right to defend itself” because it is an occupying power. China has confirmed its support for Palestinians’ right to self-determination and has been critical of how the United States shields Israel at the UN – although less critical than Russia because it wants to retain and enhance commercial links with Israel. India has been pro-Israel – a huge shift from its traditional support for anti-colonial struggles – which is a product of the Hindu chauvinism (“Hinudtva”) of the ruling BJP party, which mirrors the ethnonationalist ideology of Zionism. Despite this, India’s votes in the UN General Assembly have been in line with its past diplomacy i.e., supporting Palestinians’ right to self-determination and the two-state solution. 

Most Latin American states recognise the State of Palestine, irrespective of their political orientation, and unlike the US and the EU do not classify Hamas as a “terrorist” organisation, (although there are exceptions, such as Paraguay). Middle East states always vote for Palestinian rights in international forums, such as the UN, and regional bodies such as the Arab League and the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation have repeatedly called for a ceasefire. On the African continent, right from the get-go, on 7 October 2023, the African Union Commission emphasised that the root cause of Hamas’s attacks lay in Israel’s suppression of Palestinians’ right to self-determination. The African Union has repeatedly called for a ceasefire and condemned Israel’s bombing of Gaza, including at its February 2024 heads of state summit

Not all Global South states are aligned against Israel, but a significant number are, with some still guided by solidarity with Palestinians rooted in a shared experience of Western colonialism, imperialism, and racism – and anger at how the security interests of the West and its allies dominate world politics. Nowhere is this clearer than in the two public hearings at the International Court of Justice. The first, in January 2024, heard South Africa’s request for interim measures against Israel for committing genocide. The second, in April 2024, heard Nicaragua’s request for interim measures against Germany for facilitating Israel’s genocide by providing financial and military assistance. These cases have received widespread support from Global South states and institutions, but not from Western states. Indeed, Ireland is the only Western state which has offered its support, announcing in March 2024 that it would intervene in the South African case. But the example of Ireland merely confirms how a shared historical experience of Western colonialism and imperialism shapes contemporary political support for Palestine.

The pro-Israel bias of Western states was further exposed in their responses to Israel’s allegations – made on exactly the same day, 26 January, as the ICJ judges gave their interim ruling in the South Africa-Israel case – that 12 UNRWA employees had taken part in the 7 October attacks. The United States, the UK, Germany, Canada, Australia, and others immediately suspended funding to UNRWA, which cut the humanitarian agency’s budget by $450m – in the middle of a genocide. This is disgraceful by any standards, particularly because one of the ICJ interim measures was that Israel needed to cooperate with the UN to facilitate more humanitarian aid into Gaza. Israel has provided no evidence to support its allegations, so most donors have reinstated their funding to UNRWA. But this well-timed announcement diverted attention from the ICJ ruling, and Israel’s accusations – spurious though they were – inflicted huge damage to the UN agency’s reputation. Yet these classic diversion tactics only worked because Western states are too quick and willing to prioritise Israel over Palestinians.

The issue of Palestine highlights the democratic deficit inside Western societies

The disparity of power between those supporting a ceasefire and Palestinians’ right to self-determination compared to those supporting Israel also exists at the local level inside Western societies. Clashes between political elites and civil society are increasing and state repression against dissent is intensifying, even though – or more likely because – public opinion is strongly diverging from elite support for Israel. The criminalisation of support for Palestinians has reached McCarthyite levels in many Western societies, particularly the United States, Germany, and the UK. All three countries have passed legislation banning or condemning the Palestinian Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement, equate criticism of Israel with antisemitism, and have created a hostile environment for people who support Palestinian rights. In this context, people are being dismissed from jobs or study and censored; prizes, job offers and invitations to speak are being rescinded; and some are experiencing “doxing” designed to ruin reputations by false accusations of antisemitism or support for terrorism. There have also been arrests and detentions, rescinding of visas, and deportations. 

In the United States, discontent and opposition to the Biden administration’s pro-Israel stance has been growing. An opinion poll in March showed that only 27 percent of the US public approve of how President Joe Biden is handling the situation and only 36 percent approve of Israel’s actions. This came on top of months of warnings from civil society leaders. In January, a coalition of over 1,000 Black faith leaders called on Biden to support a ceasefire, warning that the Democrats were losing the support of a new generation of Black voters because of its partisan support for Israel. In February, a group of prominent Palestinian-Americans refused to meet with Secretary of State Antony Blinken. In the same month, 100,000 Michigan voters in the Democratic primary selected “uncommitted” as a protest vote against Biden’s position. 

This opposition accelerated in the final week of April, when the “Gaza encampment movement” started by students in east coast universities – NYU, Yale, Columbia, and Harvard – quickly spread across the continent. Campuses were shut down, university senior management called in the police leading to hundreds of arrests of students and staff, and student protestors at UCLA were violently attacked for hours by a pro-Israel mob of white men while police and campus security stood by and watched. These instances of the deployment of state violence and the facilitation of attacks by Zionist thugs is momentous: it brings to a crescendo the suppression of criticism of Israel and support for Palestine in the United States, not only over the past seven months, but over many decades. This is widely regarded as a “Vietnam moment” because it replicates campus clashes between students and police in 1970 over the United States’ war in Vietnam. 

Over in Germany, similar stark differences have been emerging between the political elite and the public. For decades, Israel’s security has been regarded as a fundamental part of Germany’s “reason of state” – in other words Germany must support Israel no matter what. This belief, which unites politicians across all mainstream political parties, is regarded as a necessary atonement for the Holocaust, when Nazi Germany and European collaborator regimes massacred six million Jews. In recent years, Germany has provided 30 percent of Israel’s arms imports, making it second behind the United States which provides 69 percent. Germany has also intervened at the ICJ and International Criminal Court in support of Israel. But these actions do not have the support of the German public. In November 2023, only 30 percent supported their government’s stance on Gaza and only eight percent supported Germany supplying Israel with weapons.

Long before 7 October, the German authorities were censoring pro-Palestinian voices, including those of Jewish activists, and banning events. But in the past seven months, repressive state measures have increased. In November 2023, the German government banned the phrase “from the river to the sea.” The Christian Democratic Union, one of the biggest German political parties, denounced the words “Free Palestine” as meaning that Jews will not be free – a bizarre conclusion to make by any interpretation. In December 2023, one state in Germany (it has a federal system), Saxony-Anhalt, made citizenship conditional on applicants swearing allegiance to Israel as well as Germany. If this sounds weird and worrying, consider the optics of German police smashing up a Palestine solidarity event in Berlin in April 2024, where they arrested Jewish organiser Udi Raz, banned the former Greek finance minister Yanis Varoufakis, and blocked entry and deported Ghassan Abu-Sittah, a British-Palestinian doctor who had just spent months volunteering in Gaza. The German public, however, seems more capable of making a distinction between Germany’s historic obligation to Jews and Israel’s repression of Palestinians. In an April 2024 opinion poll, nearly 69 percent of Germans said they do not consider Israel’s actions in Gaza are justified. 

Similar democratic deficits exist in the UK. The Conservative government’s responses and policies, ministers’ speeches and social media, as well as the policies, speeches, and social media of the main opposition party, Labour, have been unequivocal in their support for Israel. The first ceasefire motion submitted to the House of Commons in November 2023 was defeated. The second vote in February 2024 ended in chaos due to a breach of parliamentary procedure, and although it was passed, it is not binding on the government, so it has chosen to ignore it. Instead, the government has sent UK ships and spy planes to the Mediterranean to support Israel, exports weapons to Israel despite opposition from its own civil servants, and is considering deploying troops to Gaza ostensibly to assist in distributing aid. Despite this overwhelming bias towards Israel from UK politicians, opinion polls since 7 October have consistently shown public support – around 75 percent – for an immediate ceasefire. And a majority – 58 percent – think the UK should stop selling arms to Israel. 

The UK public has shown its opposition to government policy through regular large demonstrations, sit-ins of railway stations and other public spaces, walk-outs and occupations by school and university students, as well as petitions, trade union solidarity motions, and boycott activities in support of a ceasefire and for Palestinian rights. In the first few months after 7 October, the Palestine Solidarity Campaign experienced an unprecedented level of growth: its membership grew by 24 percent over its 74 local groups and there were requests to set up 20 new local groups. In response, the government has threatened legislation to ban expressions of support for Palestinians such as waving the Palestinian flag and the use of certain slogans. It has also dismissed protestors as “Hamas sympathisers,” and has tried to ban demonstrations. The largest ceasefire march, which took place on 11 November 2023, drew 800,000 people onto the streets in defiance of an increasingly hostile and punitive government. By the end of April, there had been 13 demonstrations in central London, and countless numbers in other cities around the UK, thus showing up the widening divisions between the attitudes of the British political elites and those of the public.

Democratic rights in Germany, the United States, and the UK are being undermined because its elites are trying to defend the indefensible – to shore up support for Israel as an ethnonationalist apartheid state, while their publics are heading in the opposite direction. 

Conclusion: Breaking with the past 

Roy concluded her seminal essay by arguing that momentous events such as the Covid-19 pandemic have historically “forced humans to break with the past and imagine the world anew.” This was a call to action from Roy to “rethink the doomsday machine”; for people to acknowledge the injustices the pandemic had exposed and be prepared to fight against them – to allow us to take a step into a better world.  

Israel’s current war against Palestinians is a momentous event: it has killed more Palestinians than all the years since 1948 combined, is turning Gaza into a wasteland, and is considered by many human rights experts and Global South states to constitute genocide. It has provoked regional instability and international disagreement, and has highlighted global and local disparities of power. In addition, it has helped to expose fundamental differences between elites and civil society as well as shrinking civic space for opposition politics and democratic dissent in many Western societies.  It seems astonishing that political elites in a small number of powerful Western states have brought us to this point. 

Palestine is a portal. It is a gateway. The step we take next determines the future. We can either allow the violence embedded in over a century of Palestinian dispossession to continue or we can try to forge a new path so that, one day, from the river to the sea, all people will be free. 

Mandy Turner is a senior researcher with Security in Context and a visiting senior research fellow at the International State Crime Imitative-Queen Mary University of London

Article or Event LinkPalestine is a portal. It is a gateway that will determine the future of the Middle East and the world we want to live in PDF
May 16, 2024



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