Panel examines Israel-Hamas conflict

As the armed conflict between Israel and Hamas unfolds, observers and news reports depict the prospect of a near-term halt in warfare as being unlikely. A panel of experts at an MIT public event on Nov. 1 evaluated the dynamics of the conflict, and discussed the elements that could be necessary for longer-term stability — while noting that any ideas about a lasting resolution are necessarily speculative.

The purpose of the discussion was “to better understand some of the historic antecedents and strategic pressures facing various parties, including for Israel, Hamas, other actors in the region, and the United States,” said event moderator Evan Lieberman, director of MIT’s Center for International Studies, in his opening remarks. “We’re here to understand how such extraordinary levels of violence could occur, and what this might mean for the future.”

The current fighting is a reaction to the Oct. 7 terror attacks by Hamas on Israeli civilians in Israel. In response, Israel has launched military action in Palestinian-populated Gaza, where Hamas is centered. The conflict appears to be one that other countries, for all their concern about limiting escalation in the region, have little ability to influence.

Among other things, “The United States at this point doesn’t have a whole lot of control over events,” observed Steven Simon, a former member of the U.S. National Security Council (NSC), and a former Robert E. Wilhelm Fellow at MIT’s Center for International Studies (CIS).

The public discussion, “The Israel-Hamas conflict: Expert perspectives on the ongoing crisis,” was held online, with an audience of almost 500 people. The Starr Forum is a public event series held by CIS, focusing on leading issues of global interest.

In moderating Wednesday’s event, Lieberman, who is also the Total Professor of Political Science and Contemporary Africa, called the ongoing events “a calamity of epic proportions, with regional and global implications.”

The speakers at the MIT event on Wednesday were Peter Krause PhD ’11, an associate professor of political science at Boston College who studies international security, Middle East politics, and terrorism and political violence, among other subjects; David Kirkpatrick, a staff writer at The New Yorker, who previously served as a reporter on international politics for The New York Times

Krause, who spoke first, noted his research shows that violence tends to increase when there are divisons within a movement, and suggested the attacks by Hamas may have occurred, in part, “to improve its position of power” among Palestinians.

And while Israel has clearly stated what its military goals are, Krause observed, when it comes to the postmilitary status of Gaza, “There is no clear consensus among Israeli political and military leadership about what should come next.” Still, he said, it is important to “have a plan for the day after.”

Krause then evaluated the likelihood of several potential postmilitary outcomes, including Israel annexing Gaza, a mass expulsion of Gaza residents, or an Israeli resettlement of Gaza, all of which he regards as highly unlikely. Krause also suggested it is at least possible that Israel might develop a new buffer zone at the edge of Gaza, or even try West Bank-style mixed control of the area. It is still a bit more plausible, he offered, that Israel might continue a policy of ongoing strikes against Hamas in the area, even after its main military operations finish. Finally Krause noted, it is at least “in the realm of possibility” that Hamas could maintain power in Gaza, despite Israel’s stated aims.

Ultimately, Krause suggested, some kind of modus vivendi is necessary, since “the Israelis and Palestinians are destined to live side by side in one form or another. Peace, security, and prosperity for one is significantly dependent on peace, security, and prosperity for the other. Strategies for the current conflict in Gaza and the broader Israeli-Palestinian relationship that reflect this realization at least have a chance of improving the situation over time.”

Why did Hamas choose to deliver this attack at this time, especially given the reprisals it has generated? In his remarks, Kirkpatrick discussed that issue based on recent reporting he has published in The New Yorker, particularly an interview with Mousa Abu Marzuk, a leader on the political side of Hamas’ operations.

Kirkpatrick emphasized that this reporting is simply to examine the stated thinking of those involved with Hamas, and does not imply any alignment with those views.

“Let’s be clear, there is no justification for the wanton killing of civilians, and I am in no way intending to at all justify the attack on October 7,” Kirkpatrick said.

Kirkpatrick cited four factors Abu Marzuk mentioned while discussing the attacks: A sense that the situation of Palestinians has been overlooked globally, the dispute over the West Bank, control over the al-Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem, and a belief that largely Arab-populated countries have been less vocal in recent years in support of Palestinians.

Hamas may have been further trying to establish itself as the sole leadership group of the Palestinian people, he noted.

“It’s reasonable to think that an element of this was Palestinian politics, that what [Hamas was] hoping to do on that day was … to finish the erasure of the Palestinian Authority and to establish themselves as the strongest, the main, the last voice of the Palestinian people,” Kirkpatrick said.

Kirkpatrick also recounted asking Abu Marzuk whether Hamas, in launching its attacks, regarded itself as acting from a position of strength or weakness. Abu Marzuk, Kirkpatrick stated, “tried to have it both ways,” emphasizing that Hamas was weaker than Israel overall, but had shown its capacities by fighting on Israel’s soil. However, Kirkpatrick said on Wednesday, discussing his own view about Abu Marzuk’s answer, “Obviously, I’m not convinced by that. This kind of violence seems to be much more evidence of weakness than strength. When you’re strong, you don’t need to kill civilians like that.”

Kirkpatrick added that he thought renewed discussions of a two-state plan for Israelis and Palestinians were currently unrealistic.

“All in all, it is a very dark picture,” Kirkpatrick said.

Alshamary, in her comments, focused on the regional reaction to the war, connecting popular opinion to government responses. While most countries in the Middle East are not democracies, she noted, “they are still in a sense vulnerable to public pressure, and that has been mounting in recent weeks,” as pro-Palestinian protests have swelled.

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 have formal diplomatic ties to Israel; as a result, Alshamary stated, Egypt has been positioning itself as a “mediator” to an extent. Jordan’s links to the U.S. mean some leadership statements decrying Israel’s military response have been a matter of “salvaging public opinion,” she added, while Turkey, which has a longer history of diplomatic relations with Israel, has been “riding a fine line” and seeking a balance in its public pronouncements.

Other countries in the Middle East have been calling for de-escalation of the war, Alshamary noted, including Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates, Morocco, and Sudan — which, along with Saudi Arabia, have recently been considering normalization of relations with Israel.

And yet, Alshamary said, she did not expect that to yield new steps toward a longer-term resolution of the situation. For instance, she suggested, Saudi Arabia “really hasn’t signaled dedication to using normalization as a tool to achieve any gains for the Palestinians.” Instead, she added, Saudi Arabia may well see normalization as something that will yield more gains for itself, from the U.S.

And while some Middle East autocracies are relatively immune from public pressure, those with a greater need for support are bound to be sensitive to it, she observed.

“In the future, any steps that Arab leaders take toward Israel without a concurrent commitment to achieving gains for the Palestinians will be costly and likely publicly scrutinized,” Alshamary said. “This doesn’t mean an end to the peace process by any means, especially the one that has been envisioned, but I think we need to have a more frank discussion … about the likelihood of achieving [accords] in any meaningful and true and genuine way.”

Simon spoke to a greater extent about U.S. aims and actions, while acknowledging that there are clear limitations 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,” despite Israel and the U.S. being longtime allies.

Still, Simon noted, the U.S. foreign policy apparatus is also evaluating what might occur after this phase of Israel’s military operations conclude — and allowing for many possibilities, he said.

“The U.S. government now is just beginning to wrap its heads around the day after, and they’re thinking about this pretty carefully, without having drawn any conclusions,” Simon stated.

Simon also noted that no one is actively pursuing the two-state peace process, which had its greatest momentum in the 1990s. Still, Simon outlined, there are hypothetical scenarios in which Israel could hand off control of Gaza to some kind of multilateral entity. But that scenario, or a handoff to the Palestinian Authority, he suggested, depends on the political orientation of the Israeli government that emerges from the crisis. In turn, he noted, the longer-term effects of the current crisis on Israeli public opinion are uncertain.  

And without support inside and outside government, Simon concluded, a more enduring resolution “will not be possible.” In lieu of that, he added, in his view, “the future for Palestinians in Gaza, as well for Israelis, I believe, will be really rather dark.”

The Starr Forum event was part of MIT’s pursuit of open engagement and dialogue on difficult issues. After Oct. 7, MIT President Sally Kornbluth released a statement condemning the terror attacks. MIT’s Muslim and Jewish chaplains have also issued a joint statement calling for mutual respect among all on campus.