Israel Can’t Win Peace Militarily. Palestinian Democracy Is the Solution.

Israel is meting out lethal collective punishment in Gaza and floating plans of ethnic cleansing to try to restore its security. But peace will not be won without democracy for Palestinians.

Israeli soldiers along the border of the Gaza Strip in southern Israel, on November 14, 2023. (Fadel Senna / AFP via Getty Images)

Does Israel want to execute a second nakba, expelling Palestinians from Gaza in a repeat of the first nakba at Israel’s founding?

Already on October 7, Likud lawmaker Ariel Kallner tweeted: “Right now, one goal: Nakba! A Nakba that will overshadow the Nakba of 48.” More recently, Minister of Agriculture Avi Dichter explained on Israeli TV: “We are now actually rolling with [the] Nakba of Gaza.” Another lawmaker, Ram Ben Barak, who sits on the Knesset’s Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, stated flatly: “Let’s distribute them [Palestinians] all over the world. There are 2.5 million Gazans . . . each country takes 25,000.”

There’s even a plan put together by the Israeli Ministry of Intelligence. The policy paper, entitled “Alternatives for a Political Directive for the Civilian Population in Gaza” and dated October 13, 2023, advocates for the ethnic cleansing of Palestinians from Gaza. Granted: the Intelligence Ministry is not a powerful one. Benjamin Netanyahu’s war cabinet is overseeing the assault on Gaza. And Israel’s most far-right minsters (namely, Bezalel Smotrich and Itamar Ben-Gvir) are excluded from the war cabinet.

Nevertheless, the brazenly public nakba discussion indicates a normalization of forced population transfer as policy within the Israeli government.

The Paper

The expulsion paper outlines three alternatives before settling on one: Plan C, or “Evacuation of the Civilian Population From Gaza to Sinai.” It states: “tent cities will be established in the Sinai region . . . and the construction of new cities in a resettlement area in Northern Sinai.” Israel will physically occupy Gaza and decimate Hamas’s fighters and tunnels, while also seeking “to promote a wide diplomatic initiative aimed at recruiting countries willing to assist the displaced population and agree to accept them as migrants.”

The logic here is to scatter the refugees — “it’s better to be a refugee in Canada than Gaza,” as the Likud lawmaker put it — and, through collective punishment, restore the security and deterrence it lost so catastrophically on October 7. At least until the next round.

No doubt this is what Israel wants. It is consistent with its settler-colonial regime in which Palestinians live without rights and are needed for nothing, dispensable and replaceable by foreign cheap labor, enclaved and gradually dispossessed in the West Bank and besieged in Gaza for years on end — controlled by permanent war.

And no doubt it’s a violation of international law and the Palestinian right of self-determination — a war crime if not a crime against humanity.

Unrealistic and Immoral

But is it a realistic plan? Is it deliverable? Will it bring peace and security? The simple answer to all these questions is no.

Egypt won’t accept the expulsion and has effectively blocked it. The Palestinians want to rebuild their destroyed homes in Gaza. Regionally, another mass nakba would usher in a period of massive instability. The United States has been forced to publicly redline expulsion into Sinai as well as the Israeli resettlement of Gaza and even its permanent reoccupation. Though internal expulsion and forced displacement have persisted on a horrifying scale for more than a month, affecting 70 percent of Gazans, external expulsion is not realistic and can now be ruled out.

So where does this leave us? What is the end goal of Israel’s invasion and savage decimation of Gaza?

The one thing Israel was certain about after October 7 was that it needed to exact revenge and retribution. Given the unprecedented loss of Israeli life, and following several massively popular wars on Gaza (with 94 percent support among Israelis) that ramped up the demonization and dehumanization of Palestinians, most Israelis were bound to unify behind a big war that would collectively traumatize Palestinians forever.

But exacting revenge on a defenseless civilian population is not a rational strategy. Even Joe Biden, who has backed Netanyahu to the hilt, cautioned Israel early on: “While you feel that rage, don’t be consumed by it.”

There are also real fears, voiced by several military strategists, that Israel is warring with no exit strategy in mind. As Anthony Cordesman recently wrote, “The real issue now is not how this war will end, but why it won’t. Escalating to nowhere is not a strategy — it is a disaster.”

Well into the war, Israel’s defense minster articulated the assault’s raison d’être as eliminating Hamas by wiping out its military and governmental capabilities. “We are in the first phase,” Yoav Gallant said on October 20, “in which a military campaign is taking place with [airstrikes] and later with a [ground] maneuver with the purpose of destroying operatives and damaging infrastructure in order to defeat and destroy Hamas.”

Bibi and Biden

Israel has killed now over eleven thousand Palestinians in Gaza (including 4,600 children). It has destroyed or damaged 45 percent of Gaza’s housing units; starved and collectively punished a besieged population; indiscriminately bombed hospitals, schools, and refugee camps; and shown the world yet again that it won’t hesitate to use massive and wanton force against civilians — in the spirit of the Dahiya Doctrine of destroying for destruction’s sake. All with impunity.

But if its overall strategic objective remains obscure, its plan for the day after the war seems nonexistent. Since reoccupying and resettling Gaza is not a serious option, what realistic course of action is Israel considering?

There are two postwar scenarios being touted in the press: Netanhayu’s and Biden’s. Both focus on guaranteeing Israeli security, but in different ways. Both also assume that Hamas can be dismantled using military means. After well over a month of bombarding Gaza, that is far from certain — Hamas is still intact and fighting, and there is no new security regime in Gaza.

The first option is to eradicate Hamas militarily but leave it (or find new local enforcers) to govern as a civilian authority. Here you get a clear Israeli military victory, gradual withdrawal, and perhaps an eventual return to the now-depopulated North Gaza — with Israel controlling the timeline.

This option is consistent with Netanyahu’s sixteen-year policy of keeping the West Bank and Gaza politically separate, fragmented, and governed by two weak and competing entities — through empowering Hamas and enfeebling the Palestinian Authority (or PA, the governing party in the West Bank). It’s a rerun of the pre–October 7 status quo, sans Hamas’s armed wing.

The second option is Biden’s and Blinken’s plan. As expected, it’s a revival of the dead Oslo Accords. It involves bringing in the PA to govern Gaza and initiating a mini peace process that would rebuild Gaza through Arab Gulf investment.

The US would control the war and its outcome, thus ensuring regional stability and security through the containment of Iran and China, while protecting US regional allies from the radicalization and popular challenge that the ongoing assault on Gaza is generating. It’s also the United States’ response to massive domestic popular pressure to end the war and restrain its client state.

As the ex-head of the Israeli army’s Strategic Planning Division Eival Gilday, who has exhaustively outlined postwar options recently, argued in Haaretz: “The United States has joined the campaign militarily, diplomatically and economically, and is involved in managing the situation to allow the IDF the time it needs, and to influence postwar policy.”

The US option also assumes that the Palestinians would accept a collaborationist PA riding on the back of Israeli tanks to Gaza. That’s a pipedream. Having the PA in government means that Israel would enter Gaza when it sees fit — exactly as it does in the PA-controlled areas of the West Bank. For Israel, there is no forgoing of overall security control to Palestinians, no sovereignty to speak of.

How can that be a recipe for long-term stability and security for anyone?

Palestinian Democracy

Neither the Israeli option nor the US option will work. They are temporary measures, bad stopgaps in an ongoing conflict that will never end until a just solution is found for the question of Palestine.

From the perspective of peace and justice, only halting the occupation can bring peace, stability, and security for both Israelis and Palestinians. That remains a huge task, even bigger than before, with many more prerequisites. It will involve a radical change in Western policy toward Israel — one supported by a growing number of Americans — that holds Israel accountable for its illegal occupation.

Crucially, it requires ending the Israel-US-EU ban on Palestinian democracy. For Palestinians to overcome a second nakba, they need democracy. That’s the only way to reactivate popular politics and mobilization, and to determine collectively what a successful national strategy for liberation will look like.

Palestinians need a way beyond the failed politics of the PA and the bloody resistance of Hamas. No one can tolerate another three decades of bad options: of living between either a subservient collaborationist regime or a form of military resistance that violates international law and that Israel immediately exploits to undercut national resilience and criminalize a just cause globally.

The war on Gaza must end now. Prolonging it fosters endless violence and colonial fantasies that bring peace and security to no one. To uphold the Palestinian right of self-determination is to uphold Palestinian democracy — a first step toward justice.