The Origin and Prospects of the Question of Palestine
-Transformation of Israeli Politics and "10/7" as a Boiling Point-

Aiko Nishikida


The clashes between Israel and Gaza-based armed groups that began on October 7, 2023, with a military attack against Israel by Hamas and other Palestinian militants brought the long-standing Palestine issue once again to world attention. The attack, dubbed "10/7" by Israelis and compared to the 2001 September 11 attacks (9/11) on the United States, is considered a historical turning point.

This paper is intended to review the structural background of this conflict and to discuss what is necessary for long-term stability in the region and the resolution of inherent problems. We will also explore the possibility that "10/7" could provide an opportunity to give rise to a different political situation and how it could affect the future Israeli-Palestinian relationship.

1. Structural Changes in the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict Leading up to "10/7"

(1) Origin of the Conflict and Zionism

We should begin with a review of the origin of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the political structure behind it to understand on what basis the changes leading to the current political situation have evolved. The Question of Palestine has its origin in the discrimination against Jews in Western Christian societies. It may be safe to say that the current Israeli-Palestinian conflict began with the transfer of this discrimination in Palestine, a region in the Middle East. In this sense, this conflict deeply relates to Western societies from its very origin. The transfer was not merely a geographical relocation but also entailed a transformation into the quest for Jewish national self-determination in Palestine—a transformation that was a deliberate strategy based in Zionism.

Zionism was a political movement initiated among Jews at the end of the 19th century. It falls into several currents and its dynamics had a major impact on Israeli politics. The post-WWI era, when Zionism began, was when nationalism became linked to the right to national self-determination and it gained political support. Zionists sought to establish an independent Jewish state by defining the Jews as an ethnic or racial group rather than religious one. At the same time, Arabs under Ottoman rule also sought to establish an Arab state, and, as a result, a confrontation between the different nationalisms arose over the same land—Palestine.

Thanks to Britain's equivocal diplomacy, Zionists gained endorsement for the building of their "national home" in Palestine. They pushed on with settlements there in parallel with diplomatic efforts. Following Britain's abandonment of the Mandate for Palestine and the withdrawal of British troops, the National Council, consisting of representatives of the Zionist movements, issued a declaration of Israel's independence on May 14, 1948. As a result, the 1948 Arab-Israel War broke out between Israel and neighboring Arab states along with the Palestinian resistance movements. Winning a military victory, Israel occupied and put under its control a broader territory than proposed in the 1947 UN Partition Plan adopted as Resolution 181 (II).

At the time of the founding of Israel, the most mainstream form of Zionism was Socialist (Labor) Zionism. The first Israeli government took over the roles of different organizations responsible for Jewish autonomy under the British Mandate; its representatives consisted of the political leadership at that time.1 David Ben-Gurion, Israel's first prime minister and the second-longest serving premier in its history, was the founder of the Mapai Party that represented the Labor Zionism. The Labor Party was formed in 1968 to succeed Mapai. It remained the ruling party under the dominant party system until 1977 when the Likud Party's Menachem Begin came to power.

Revisionist Zionism, on the other hand, had been a sidestream faction which maintained a strong influence. It arose in the mid-1920s under the leadership of (Vladimir) Ze'ev Jabotinsky and emphasized establishing a Jewish state on both sides of the Jordan River and rejected territorial compromise. The revisionists considered the conflict between Arabs and Jews as inevitable in the lead-up to their goal and thought it necessary to take steps to separate them physically.2 Their line of thought that approved of the construction of the "Iron Wall" to protect Jewish lands led eventually to the construction of the Separation Wall by the Likud government.3

With the rise of the Nazi regime in 1930s Germany, the number of German Jews who consisted of middle-class citizens immigrating to cities in Mandatory Palestine increased. While the Socialist Zionist leaders aimed at state-building by expanding collective farms like kibbutzim, many of the Jewish city-dwellers supported the Revisionist Zionism. Thus, the foundation was shaped for a competition for legitimacy between Socialist and Revisionist Zionism or between the Labor Party and the Likud Party under a two-party system, which lasted into the 1990s.4

(2) The Religious Zionism: From the Sidestream to the Mainstream

After the turn of the 2000s, various parties of Religious Zionism emerged and gradually increased their power. These Religious Zionism parties have much to do with the growing political tension that constituted the background of the recent Israel-Hamas clashes in Gaza.

Religious Zionism dates back to the British Mandate period. Abraham Yitzhak Kook, the first Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi5 of British Mandatory Palestine, linked the messianic idea with the settlement of Eretz Israel and preached that the immigration of Jews to Palestine was a necessary condition for the advent of the Messiah.6 In other words, he created an opportunity for settlement activities to be justified in light of the Judaic doctrine and to connect with Israeli nationalism. The overwhelming victory of the Israeli army in the 1967 War, in which it occupied the Gaza Strip, the West Bank, and other areas, was viewed as a God-willed victory. The political movement "Gush Emunim"7 emerged, and Religious Zionists expanded settlements ahead of the Israeli government's approval.

From these movements, several political parties were born in the 2000s. They were religious parties but different in their claims from the preceding ultra-Orthodox Jewish groups, such as Shas and the United Torah Judaism parties. In December 2022, the 37th Israeli Cabinet came into being. Netanyahu was reinstated as prime minister; the religious right-wing parties—the Jewish Power Party and the Religious Zionist Party—became the ruling parties. The leaders of the respective parties, Itamar Ben-Gvir and Bezalel Smotrich, joined the Netanyahu cabinet. These parties spoke of their hatred of the Palestinians and aimed to control all the lands, including the West Bank.

To summarize the above mentioned political transition since the founding of the Israeli state, the axis of Israeli politics has shifted from socialism to revisionism and then to the inclusion of religious Zionism. In this process, Zionism, an ideology of state-building, was gradually transformed from a strategy into a premise widely accepted among the people. Nowadays, Israelis who question and criticize the premise are subjected to severe condemnation and social pressure and it became hard to find their place in Israel.8

2. Impact of the Israel-Hamas Clashes in Gaza

(1) "10/7" as a Boiling Point under the Israeli Occupation

In addition to the political transformation within Israel, the background that led to the Israel-Hamas clashes in Gaza was Israel's prolonged occupation of Palestine. Many Palestinians deprived of their land and homes after the founding of Israel in 1948 became refugees and were dispersed to the neighboring countries. In the Gaza Strip, 75% of the residents are refugees registered with UNRWA (The United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees in the Near East); they are obliged to lead a more impoverished life than those supported likewise by UNRWA in other places. This is because the Gaza Strip has been under a blockade by Israel for a long time after the Islamist party Hamas won a majority in the 2006 Palestinian Legislative Council elections, forming a Gaza-based government.

In the Gaza Strip, strict restrictions imposed by Israel limited the number and specified categories of people and goods allowed in and out through controlled crossings. Palestinians have been deprived of their chances to engage in economic activities by the blockade; the unemployment rate has remained as high as around 50%. With an unforeseeable future, an increasing number of young people are attempting to commit suicide or take risks of illegal departure from Palestine. Presumably, Palestinians who joined the armed forces to participate in the attacks in and after "10/7" entertained a similar deep sense of despair and anger. As if speaking for such anger, a written order carried by the fighters killed in the attack on Kibbutz Be'eri read, "Kill as many people and take as many hostages as possible."9

Basem Naim, a Hamas official, disclosed in an interview with the Washington Post that the recent incidents in the West Bank and Jerusalem had fueled rage of Palestinians, suggesting that they led to "10/7." According to Naim, although Hamas anticipated a large-scale retaliation from Israel, they decided to attack because they believed "We have no options."10 The recent incidents mentioned by Naim are supposed to include a series of provocative acts of violence from the Israeli side that occurred in early 2023 under the Netanyahu administration―National Security Minister Ben-Gvir's visits to the Temple Mount (January 3 and May 21); the clashes at the Haram al-Sharif during Ramadan (April 4 to April 6);11 Jewish settlers' raid on the Palestinian village of Huwwara (February 26), and the Israeli military's onslaught into, among others, the Jenin refugee camp in the northern West Bank (June). Being geographically separated with Israeli territory in-between, daily movement between the Gaza Strip and the West Bank is impossible for their inhabitants. Nonetheless, Palestinians in both areas considered Israel's violation of the Muslim holy sites in Jerusalem and violent acts by the Israeli occupying forces and Jewish settlers as threats to their common rights.

In the process of restoring their damage resulting from the fighting in 2021, Gaza-based Palestinian militants engaged in joint drills in preparation for another military operation. In 2022, they conducted drill for raids on a mock-up Israeli military base built only 2.6 kilometers from the Eretz checkpoint. A month before "10/7," they drilled for raids on a building to take hostages and penetrate the barriers separating Israel and the Gaza Strip. Some footage of the drills appeared on Hamas's Telegram channel three days after "10.7." The BBC verified that ten organizations, including Hamas, participated in these military drills.12

As Palestinians' opposition and frustration to Israel's prolonged occupation grew, Gaza militants were carrying on steady preparations for the resumption of fighting. Given the above, "10/7" may be considered as a planned military action with meticulous preparations―with Palestinians' resentment as background, which reached a boiling point due to provocations by Israeli religious Zionists and other rightists.

(2) "10/7" as a Possible Political Turning Point

Will the "10/7" incident constitute a turning point that will significantly change the situation surrounding Israel and Palestine? Before beginning the discussion, what we can confirm as a premise is the fact that the surprise attack by Hamas and other militant groups has largely overturned the status quo between Israel and the Gaza Strip. Israel's security control system, considered flawless in carrying on the physical blockade of the Gaza Strip and in suppressing Palestinian resistance, exposed its drawbacks, compelling the Israeli government to review its national security. Since the "mowing the grass" strategy through border control and periodic attacks, chiefly by air strikes, has turned out to be insufficient, Israel will have to adopt more exhaustive measures.

Among specific measures are the creation of a buffer zone between Israel and the Gaza Strip and the stationing of Israeli troops there for a fixed period. Religious Zionists have come up with an even more radical proposal to once again build Jewish settlements across the Gaza Strip, from where Jewish settlers withdrew in 2005. Activists belonging to 11 grassroots organizations, including the Samaria Regional Council, are campaigning to amend the law providing for the Israeli withdrawal from the Gaza Strip. They believe that a return of Jewish settlers to the Gaza Strip would constitute a deterrent and improve the security situation in southern Israel.13 At present, only a small segment of public opinion favors their views. However, the inclusion in the ruling parties of the Religious Zionist Party that speaks for Jewish settlers may let those voices gain unexpected momentum.

Meanwhile, several changes have already happened in the domestic politics of Israel. Most notable is a freeze on the government's judicial overhaul efforts. Before "10/7," Israeli public opinion had focused exclusively on the domestic political issues. The judicial overhaul proposal put forward by the Netanyahu administration in 2023 was an attempt to review the authority of courts, which had played some balancing role amid Israeli politics inclining to the right. The proposal was deemed to be a threat to the independence of the three powers that form the foundation of democracy; nationwide protests continued for 39 weeks from the beginning of 2023. However, these protests came to a halt in the wake of "10/7," which killed more than 1,200 people, the worst single-day war casualties in Israeli history. The protest movement participants "shifted from protest mode to help mode," thereby supporting the victims of the Hamas lead attacks. Providing emergency aid to evacuees and locating and identifying victims and hostages held captive in Gaza are the same as the protest movements as far as doing "anything our government fails to," said protest leader Ami Dror.14

Similarly, Netanyahu's alleged corruption trial was adjourned for two months following the Israel-Hamas clashes in Gaza. The adjournment was due to the declaration of a state of emergency following "10/7," aimed to avoid confusion over the prime minister, who should lead the country in exceptional circumstances. With the prospect that fighting will be protracted while the fear of further large-scale damage on Israel has decreased, Justice Minister Yaris Levin lifted the state of emergency, and the Netanyahu trial resumed on December 4.15 Even if Netanyahu is not convicted in the trial, he will remain in a difficult situation. His leadership is severely questioned because he failed to prevent "10/7" which resulted in an unprecedented death toll; in Israel, the security of the people is the overriding priority.

Hostage family members have been holding protest rallies since "10/7" around the prime minister's residence, the Defense Ministry headquarters, and Israeli military bases. On February 20, when Finance Minister Smotrich stated that bringing hostages home is "not the most important thing," insisting that the annihilation of Hamas should be prioritized, the hostage families, who had been holding a vigil outside the Ministry of Defense building in Tel Aviv, reacted furiously and staged a protest by occupying one of the main roads.16 As indicated by the case, the hostage crisis is a sensitive issue in Israel. Former Defense Minister Benny Gantz, war cabinet minister, reacted to Smotrich's statement, saying on SNS that "The return of the hostages is … our moral imperative as a country and as a people." Gantz continues to receive higher approval ratings than Netanyahu in the post-October-7 polls. It is undeniable that if criticism against the government by hostage families helped Gantz on the way to becoming an alternate leader, it can be a potential leading to political change in Israel.

3. Which Way the Political Axis Will Tilt

The fighting in Gaza that began in last October has been protracted, and as of this writing, mid-March 2024, its end is not yet in sight. Various discussions are underway regarding the political consequences of the current Israeli-Palestinian conflict among the parties concerned, including the United States and other mediating countries. Yet, the outlook is not clear. The United States, a special ally of Israel, repeated in the statements by President Biden that the parties concerned should seek long-term stability through a two-state solution, but Israel overtly rejects this proposal.

In these circumstances, one of the crucial elements that will determine the future direction of the ongoing conflict is ultimately the political situation in Israel. The political axis, which has vacillated since the founding of the Israeli state, is now tilting largely to the right. How will things change following "10/7" and subsequent developments? Two scenarios are conceivable. The first is that Israel will maintain absolute right-wing dominance and will, under the current cabinet, continue to occupy and control Palestine with military force. Palestine, in this context, includes not only the Gaza Strip which is currently in the midst of war, but also the West Bank. Israel has trouble with armed groups such as the "Lion's Den" that have emerged in the West Bank over the past several years. Therefore, it may be their interest to incorporate security control, including the suppression of those groups, into its security system. Indeed, in the first official postwar plan for the Gaza Strip released on February 23, Prime Minister Netanyahu proposed that Israel should maintain security control over all land west of Jordan.17

The second scenario is that Israeli politics oscillate to the center prompted by criticism of Netanyahu. For several years now, Israel has repeated elections with, as background, deep-seated opposition to Netanyahu's alleged corruption and his heavy-handed way of doing politics. The previous Naftali Bennett administration, which came to power as an anti-Netanyahu coalition, ended up being short-lived. However, if the Netanyahu administration admits responsibility for its failure to address "10/7" while a powerful centrist coalition appears, some political shift may occur in Israeli politics. If a centrist administration is born in Israel, more conciliatory negotiations between a centrist Israeli government and a Palestinian government may be possible. Too much hope cannot be placed on such a possibility, but it could lead to a breakthrough in the impasse.

The future of the Israeli-Palestinian relationship and postwar governance in the Gaza Strip will depend on which way Israel's political axis tilts. The fate of the fighting is unpredictable, but Israel's internal politics is considered a key to the current war's long-term prospects.

(Professor, Keio University)

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