Israel is at war with Hamas: what happened and what will happen next?

Peter Malcontent on the war between Hamas and Israel

Oorlogsschade in Gaza en Israël / Foto links: Palestinian News & Information Agency (Wafa), via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 3.0) / Foto rechts: Bron: יואב קרן, via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 4.0)
War damage in Gaza and Israel. Left photo: Palestinian News & Information Agency (Wafa), via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 3.0) / Right photo: יואב קרן, via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 4.0)

On Saturday 7 October 2023, the Palestinian movement Hamas launched a large-scale and extremely violent attack on Israel. Israel responded fiercely with unrelenting bombardments and a destructive invasion, and Palestinians and Israelis in and around the Gaza Strip have not been safe anywhere ever since. Assistant Professor of History of International Relations Peter Malcontent is specialised in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Following the recent news from Israel and the Palestinian Territories, he was invited by various media organisations to give his interpretation of the situation. This is an overview of the latest developments in this decades-long conflict.

Attack by Hamas on Israel

Profile picture Dr Peter Malcontent
Dr. Peter Malcontent

Hamas is a Sunni-Islamic and Jihadi organisation which does not refrain from terrorism, Malcontent explains in EenVandaag (10 October 2023). “Nearly all international organisations and governments have them on their lists of terrorist organisations.” But Hamas is more than that, he emphasises. Besides a terrorist organisation, it is also a political party which participated in (democratic) Palestinian elections in 2006 and won. Besides this, Hamas also provides social services to its support base. The organisation can be in many ways compared to Hezbollah in Lebanon, although that organisation supports the Shia version of Islam.

From the Gaza Strip, Hamas launches a large-scale and bloody attack on Israel on Saturday 7 October 2023. Hamas fires thousands of rockets on Israeli cities and Hamas combatants, who broke through the border fence, murder approximately 1400 Israeli civilians and soldiers. Furthermore, they take over 200 people to Gaza as hostages. “Never before have Hamas combatants been on Israeli territory in such [massive] numbers,” Malcontent says in Trouw (7 October 2023).

Internal tensions in Israel

The timing is not random, Malcontent believes. “I think Hamas realised very well that Israel has been very busy with itself in the past period,” (Trouw, 7 October 2023). Since the installing of a new ultra-right government in December 2022, Israel has been plagued by big internal tensions. For instance, hundreds of thousands of Israelis have hit the streets every week in the past six months to protest the government of Prime Minister Benjamin ‘Bibi’ Netanyahu, who wants to restrict democracy with the implementation of new laws.

The government also supports Israeli settlers on the occupied West Bank. Because the violence between Palestinians and settlers there has increased strongly, the Israeli military – the Israeli Defence Forces (IDF) – had relocated troops near the border of Gaza to the West Bank. “Everyone looks at each other a lot, everyone discusses things with each other a lot, resulting in the operational side of the matter maybe not being fully organised. Hamas was able to use that to its advantage,” Malcontent says (Trouw, 7 October 2023).

Kaart van de Palestijnse gebieden naar de Osloakkoorden. Afbeelding: Wikey-nl, via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 3.0)
Map of the Palestinian Territories, as allocated after the Oslo Accords. Source: Wikey-nl, via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 3.0)

The hope of Hamas

The last open war between Israel and Palestinians took place in 2021. It lasted two weeks at the time and violence flared up a number of times after that. “The military superiority of Israel is a fact, of course,” Malcontent says in Trouw (7 October 2023). All Gaza wars since 2006 have ended in Israel’s advantage. “Hamas knows it will never be able to defeat Israel.”

But Hamas is not carrying out the new attacks in vain, Malcontent thinks. “It uses them to show that it still exists, that it is still powerful.” Besides this, he believes Hamas hopes to sabotage the ties between Israel and Saudi Arabia. Hamas supposedly wants to force the Arabic countries to keep supporting the Palestinians. Iran, which supports Hamas both militarily and financially, is not enthusiastic about better ties between Saudi Arabia and Israel either. Iran considers Israel its arch enemy and the Sunni Saudis as an important regional competitor.

Hamas would also allegedly hope for the spark of this war to make it to the West Bank and that it will cause a new Palestinian intifada (uprising) there. Furthermore, it is possible that Hamas is hoping for help from the Hezbollah movement in Lebanon, which is also supported by Iran and can mobilise tens of thousands of combatants to invade Israel from the north.

Israel is now facing a dilemma, Malcontent states in Met het Oog op Morgen (7 October 2023). A ground offensive is needed to take out Hamas; bombardments alone will not work. The government also needs something to satisfy the desire for justice and retaliation among its own population. But such a ground offensive can set the entire region on fire, including Israel. 

Hamas lanceert een reeks verrassingsaanvallen op Israël (7 oktober 2023). Foto: Marginataen, via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 4.0)
Hamas launches a terrorist surprise attack on Israel (7 October 2023). Photo by: Marginataen, via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 4.0)

Blockade of the Gaza Strip

On 9 October, news arrives that hundreds of dead bodies of murdered festival goers have been found on and around a festival field near the kibbutz Re’im and that Hamas is keeping over two hundred people hostage. Later that day, the Israeli government announces a blockade which fully shuts off the Gaza Strip from water, electricity, fuel and other goods. 24 hours later, the water tap is turned open again.

The blockade will especially harm innocent civilians of Gaza, Malcontent says in RTL Nieuws (9 October 2023). “Since 2007, there is a shortage of all kind of things in Gaza. That will only get worse now.”

Reaction in the Netherlands

Immediately after the invasion by Hamas on 7 October, outgoing Prime Minister Mark Rutte declares the Netherlands are firmly behind Israel and on 9 October, many government buildings raise the Israeli flag. Malcontent understands the gesture, but wonders on the NOS (9 October 2023), whether or not it would have been a more appropriate gesture to fly municipal flags at half-mast.

Overblijfselen van het politiebureau van Sderot, Israël (8 oktober 2023). Foto: יואב קרן, via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 4.0)
Ruins of the police station of Sderot, Israel (8 October 2023). Photo by: יואב קרן, via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 4.0)

Like in many other countries, the Netherlands are struggling with the war between Israel and Hamas. “First of all, this has to do with the long shadow of World War II,” Malcontent explains on EenVandaag (10 October 2023). But World War II has less of an influence on younger generations, he observes. They are more likely to form their opinions based on images shared on social media.

Besides this, Malcontent believes another factor is that Dutch society has changed. “There are many Dutch people with non-Dutch backgrounds, often with their roots in North Africa or the Middle East. Many of them look at Palestinians in a different way than, say, the average white Dutch person.” He points to a shared belief and a shared culture.

These Dutch people see a colonial conflict in the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians, Malcontent says, in which Israel is the coloniser and the Palestinians are the colonised. This especially refers to the West Bank, which is being partially occupied by Israel since 1967.

De Amerikaanse minister van Buitenlandse Zaken Anthony Blinken sprak de Palestijnse president Mahmoud Abbas in januari nog over de toenemende spanningen. Foto: U.S. Department of State, via Wikimedia Commons (CC0)
The American Secretary of State Anthony Blinken spoke with the Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas on the rising tensions as recently as January. Photo by: U.S. Department of State, via Wikimedia Commons (CC0)

Palestinian President Abbas

The war between Israel and Hamas puts the Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in a split, Malcontent tells on EenVandaag (12 October 2023). On the one hand, Abbas has to maintain enough support on the West Bank, where he is already not popular – the Israeli presence on the West Bank is big, the Palestinian Authority is corrupt and incompetent, and the promised Palestinian state still does not exist either. So he cannot simply condemn the violence committed by Hamas. But silence is not an option either, because he also has to stay on friendly terms with the international community.

Israel calls on Palestinians to leave

On 13 October, the Israeli government calls on the residents in the north of the Gaza Strip to leave for the south. This concerns approximately one million Palestinians. “This call seems quite decent,” Malcontent says on RTL Nieuws (13 October 2023), “but it’s very simple: the civilians in the Gaza Strip have nowhere to go. Israel knows that, too.”

Malcontent predicts immediate misery and horrors (Nieuwsblad, 13 October 2023). “There are insufficient houses and facilities. I think it is inevitable that they will still run into the Israeli military sooner or later.” By late October, the Israeli bombardments on Gaza have claimed almost eight thousand deadly victims.

Border crossing between Gaza and Egypt

The only road the Palestinians can take is the one to the Sinai Desert in Egypt, Malcontent says on VRT NWS (13 October 2023), and Israel is eager to send them there. Despite the Egyptian people fully supporting the Palestinians, Egypt does not wish to participate in such an exodus.

One of the things the country fears is the consequences of refugee camps with hundreds of thousands of Palestinians in the desert. “The Sinai Desert has been a safe haven for armed extremists for years,” Malcontent explains in Het Parool (16 October 2023). And the chance of Hamas combatants arriving alongside the Palestinian refugees is one hundred percent. This is a sensitive matter for President Abdul Fatah al-Sisi’s regime. “That is mostly because of the fact that Hamas came out of the Palestinian chapter of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, which is not tolerated by Cairo.”

The border crossing with Egypt in the south of Gaza near Rafah has since opened various times for humanitarian aid, although Israel allows this to pass only sporadically. Trucks with fuel, which is necessary to keep the generators of hospitals running, are still not allowed to cross the border. The border remains closed to people and nobody can enter Egypt from Gaza.

Palestijnen inspecteren de schade na een Israëlische luchtaanval op het El-Remal-gebied in Gaza-stad (9 oktober 2023). Foto: Palestinian News & Information Agency (Wafa), via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 3.0)
Palestinians inspect the damage after an Israeli aerial attack on the El-Remal area in Gaza City (9 October 2023). Photo by: Palestinian News & Information Agency (Wafa), via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 3.0)

The Nakba

The memory of the Nakba (‘catastrophe’) is another reason for Egypt to keep the border closed. The Israeli war of independence (1947-1948) saw 750,000 Palestinians fleeing to surrounding Arabic countries because of the violence of the war and sometimes being forced by Jewish Zionists. When the smoke of the war had cleared, Israel barred the refugees from returning.

The Nakba is burned into memory and Egypt does not want the involuntarily shared responsibility for a second Nakba in 2023. Malcontent thinks this is understandable. He wonders whether or not Israel will allow fled Palestinians to return this time around.

Call from Hamas: ‘Don’t leave’

At the same time as the call from Israel, Hamas calls on the people to not leave. “Hamas has everything to gain from the civilians staying there,” Malcontent explains in Nieuwsblad (13 October 2023). “The more civilians are walking around there during the ground offensive, the more difficult it becomes for the Israelis to single out the Hamas combatants.”

Malcontent already said on EenVandaag (11 October 2023) that it will probably become very difficult to differentiate Hamas combatants from civilians. “In such urban-guerilla warfare, which you will eventually get, the Israeli soldiers will have to figure out where [the Hamas combatants] are exactly and how to take them out.”

Especially for the Palestinian people, he expects a bloodbath (RTL Nieuws, 13 October 2023), not least because Hamas knowingly sets up rocket launchers next to schools, hospitals, and daycares.


The planned ground offensive has not started yet, but Malcontent believes the start is inevitable (RTL Nieuws, 17 October 2023). “Of course, they are busy negotiating, but that is to let the humanitarian aid through and to keep the war from expanding further across the rest of the Middle East, as that danger still exists.” Israel is also more likely to want to get as many hostages released as possible, Malcontent expects. The US and Europe stand to benefit from that too, as many hostages come from there.

Malcontent does not think it is still possible to solve the conflict diplomatically. “The Israeli government headed by Prime Minister Netanyahu and Minister of Defence Gallant has very explicitly stated: we will enter Gaza.” To them, defeating Hamas is the only end of the conflict and a ground offensive is inevitable to that.

American President Biden visits Israel

The American President Joe Biden visited Israel on Wednesday 18 October 2023. By doing so, he wanted to show again that the United States fully support Israel, Malcontent says on RTL Nieuws (17 October 2023). He also probably told Prime Minister Netanyahu to abide by the rules of international law.

The Americans do not want a big regional war that can set the entire Middle East ablaze, Malcontent thinks. In order to prevent that, there are already two American aircraft carriers near the coast. Biden does keep emphasising that Israel is justified to invade Gaza to take out Hamas as part of its right to self defence. But the American President warns that before there is a ground offensive, it has to be clear what will happen to Gaza after the destruction of Hamas.

President Joe Biden van de Verenigde Staten bezoekt Israëlische president Yitzhak Herzog (18 oktober 2023). Foto: Amos Ben Gershom/Government Press Office (CC BY-SA 3.0)
President Joe Biden of the United States visits the Israeli President Yitzhak Herzog (18 October 2023). Photo by: Amos Ben Gershom/Government Press Office (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Biden suggested earlier that the Palestinian Authority could take over governance in Gaza, but Malcontent has doubts whether or not President Abbas considers this a solution. “It would then look as if the Palestinian Authority has been put there by Israel after Hamas has been defeated.” That looks like working with the enemy, many Palestinians will think according to Malcontent.

Many Dutch people do not or not yet pick sides in Israeli-Palestinian conflict

A poll by research bureau Ipsos shows that a majority of the Dutch people do not pick sides in the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians, Nieuwsuur writes (18 October 2023). Unlike outgoing Prime Minister Mark Rutte, who said immediately after the attack by Hamas that the Netherlands support Israel, the Dutch population is more reserved.

The Dutch people who do pick sides have a clear preference for Israel. Over thirty percent think the Netherlands should support Israel, compared to eight percent who think the Netherlands should stand with the Palestinians. Malcontent is not amazed. “The numbers confirm a trend which can be observed since the late 1970s: the traditionally immense sympathy for Israel is declining, but that does not automatically result in more support for the Palestinian cause.”

He does comment that the “exceptionally low” support for the Palestinians is probably because of the timing of the poll, “a week after the horrors of Hamas.”

‘The war on information’

On Tuesday evening 17 October, a rocket caused much damage in the immediate vicinity of the al-Ahli hospital in Gaza City. According to Palestinian authorities in Gaza, hundreds of people died. Hamas accused Israel of a deliberate attack and many international media initially joined in on this.

Following an investigation by the independent journalist collective Bellingcat, it has since become clear that a defective rocket of Islamic Jihad was probably the culprit. Malcontent points this out on EenVandaag (18 October 2023). He emphasises that by that time, the question of guilt is already not relevant anymore: “The damage to Israel has already been done.” By quickly pointing the finger at Israel, Hamas succeeded in unleashing an unprecedented mass rage in the surrounding Arabic countries. Because of this, the governments of those countries can do little more than partially joining in, Malcontent says.

Solidariteitsprotesten in Berlijn (8 en 21 oktober). Foto links: Leonhard Lentz, via Wikimedia Commons (CC0) / Foto rechts: Montecruz Foto (CC BY-SA 3.0)
Solidarity protests in Berlin (8 and 21 October). Left photo: Leonhard Lentz, via Wikimedia Commons (CC0) / Right photo: Montecruz Foto (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Just like Hamas, Israel also tries to influence public opinion. For instance, Israel buys ad space on social media to show images of victims of the Hamas attack of 7 October. Israel also sees that, as more and more images of civilian victims in Gaza appear in the media, public opinion in the West, especially in Europe, slowly begins to turn.

In order to prevent this, the Israeli government organised a closed meeting for foreign journalists on 27 October, where it showed a film that showed uncensored horrific actions Hamas allegedly committed. Israel does this on the one hand to share its horror over the violence of Hamas with the rest of the world, Malcontent says on Nieuwsuur (23 October 2023), but also to use international media to win the hearts and minds of Western society. “They want the world to see how much suffering has been inflicted on them. By sharing explicit footage, they hope to win people to their side.”

Hostages of Hamas

The eighteen-year old Israeli Ofir Engel, one of the hostages of Hamas, quickly gets a Dutch passport. His grandfather is a Dutch Jew who emigrated to Israel after World War II. The application procedure had already started before he was taken hostage, but the Netherlands hope to put pressure on Hamas to release Engel with the fast-track naturalisation. How effective this will be is something Malcontent does not comment on (NOS, 20 October 2023). “Either way, these prisoners remain bargaining chips to Hamas.”

After intensive negotiations, some prisoners have since been released by Hamas. As a more or less neutral party, especially Qatar appears to have played an important role in this, Malcontent says. He, too, can only guess which motives Hamas had to let these hostages go. Hamas could possibly be trying to improve its image and postpone or prevent an Israeli ground offensive. Hamas knows how important the hostages’ release is to Israel and that it will do everything to get them back alive.

Malcontent thinks Hamas leaders will keep the hostages as close to them as possible during a ground offensive and use them as human shields. “Because as long as these prisoners are very close to the leaders of Hamas, it will be tricky for Israel to take that leadership out. Because you would then also risk harming these prisoners too.”

Bijeenkomst ter ondersteuning van Israël voor het Europees Parlement in Brussel in aanwezigheid van Roberta Metsola (Voorzitter van het Europees Parlement), Ursula von der Leyen (Voorzitter van de Europese Commissie), Charles Michel (Voorzitter van de Europese Raad) en leden van het Parlement (11 oktober 2023). Bron: European Parliament, via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY 2.0)
Meeting to support Israel for the European Parliament in Brussels, with Roberta Metsola, Ursula von der Leyen, Charles Michel, and Members of the Parliament, among other people (11 October 2023). Source: European Parliament, via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY 2

Stance of the EU

In a letter to Ursula von der Leyen, the President of the European Commission, hundreds of civil servants of the European Union write they are unsatisfied with the position the EU is taking in the war between Israel and Hamas. They compare the situation in Gaza to the war in Ukraine and scold the EU for having double standards. They believe the EU should more explicitly condemn Israel.

Malcontent thinks this is “comparing apples to oranges”, he says on the NOS, 22 October 2023. “You can clearly say about Ukraine: it was Russia that invaded, which is against all agreements. You have to condemn Russia for that. In Israel and Gaza, it is much more complex.”

Despite this, Malcontent does say the protesting civil servants have a point. For decades, the EU policy has been to facilitate the two-states solution and to enable a Palestinian state besides the Israeli state. For this purpose, the EU supports the Palestinian Authority on the West Bank with many financial resources and at the same time tries to keep Israel and the Palestinian Authority focused via diplomatic channels, Malcontent says. Balance is central to this and the EU dropped this immediately after the attacks by Hamas, he thinks.

Considering the violence with which Hamas invaded Israel on 7 October, Malcontent thought the European position was initially understandable. But as the subsequent Israeli bombardments claimed more and more victims, the European Commission kept standing with Israel without any commentary.

The position of the EU has since become more balanced again, Malcontent says, and it is being demanded that Israel abides by the regulations of international law. The EU also speaks out in favour of humanitarian corridors and ceasefires to provide access to help.

The European position did not make much of an impression on the Israeli side anyway, Malcontent observes; with its 27 member states, and 27 different flavours as a result, it is always quite vague. Both the Palestinian Authority and the Israeli government know the EU will never dare to impose economic sanctions against them to force them into new negotiations, Malcontent comments.

The text below was supplemented after 30 October 2023.

Why did the Netherlands not vote in the United Nations?

On 28 October 2023, the General Assembly of the United Nations voted on a humanitarian ceasefire in Gaza in an emergency meeting. 121 countries voted in favour of the resolution, 14 against, and 44 did not vote. One of the countries to abstain from voting was the Netherlands. According to Outgoing Prime Minister Mark Rutte, the resolution ignored Israel’s right to defend itself.

De uitslag van de stemming van de Algemene Vergadering van de Verenigde Naties op 28 oktober 2023. Bron: via Wikimedia Commons (publiek domein)
The result of the vote of the General Assembly of the United Nations on 28 October 2023. Source: via Wikimedia Commons (public domain)

“In the resolution, the involved parties, Hamas and Israel, are called upon to have an immediate ceasefire, so the humanitarian aid can pass,” Malcontent explains (Lang Verhaal Kort, 30 October 2023). But Israel does not have to abide by the resolution because, unlike resolutions of the Security Council, the resolutions of the General Assembly are not binding.

“What you can take from it is how the world thinks on a particular problem. You could see it as an international opinion poll.” He therefore expects Israel to ignore this and any future resolutions, as long as it does not see a decline in support from allies.

Difference between the state of Israel and Judaism

Prime Minister Netanyahu states that a ceasefire is equal to surrendering to Hamas, as he said after the UN meeting. Israel will therefore continue the air strikes and the ground operation, the latter of which has since started. On 30 October, the UN Security Council discussed the situation in Gaza, too, where by then 1.4 million people had been displaced and over eight thousand people have been murdered. The Israeli UN Ambassador Gilad Erdan put on a Star of David, as a “symbol of pride and encouragement to defend Israel”.

From an Israeli perspective, Malcontent understands where Erdan’s action is coming from (NOS Radio 1 Journaal, 31 October 2023). He points out that Israel and the Palestinians have already been in a state of war with each other since 1948. “Both sides have developed perspectives, which have become immovably embedded in identity thinking. And on the Israeli side, this is the perspective which starts with the Holocaust,” he explains. “From the perspective: we are here to survive and to be victorious. Exactly in memory of the Holocaust.”

But questions can be asked, Malcontent says. “As serious and terrible the attack by Hamas on 7 October has been, the existence of the state of Israel was not at stake.” He continues: “And I’m not the only one saying it, the Director of the Yad Vashem Museum in Jerusalem, specifically established in memory of the Holocaust, has already said practically the same thing.” More than that, he says, Israel is showing itself to be a strong country, which is well capable of defending itself.

Malcontent emphasises the importance of continuing to make a clear distinction between Judaism and the state of Israel, although many people have difficulty doing that. “There should be a situation in which it is okay to criticise the state of Israel, without saying anything bad about Judaism.” Israeli Ambassador Erdan erases that border by using the Star of David, he believes.

Text continues below the image.

De situatie op de Gazastrook op 1 november 2023. Bron: ecrusized/Miki1234568, via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 4.0)
The situation on the Gaza Strip on 1 November 2023. Source: ecrusized/Miki1234568, via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 4.0)

“Criticising the state of Israel is different from cultural or ethnic hatred of Jews, and essentially the same as criticising Belgium or Germany. The Israeli government encourages that incorrect thought, because a blurred line between criticism of Israel and anti-Semitism works in Israel’s favour; no-one would be allowed to admonish them,” he adds in an article on the slogan ‘from the river to the sea’ in Trouw (4 November 2023).

What is making closer ties between Israelis and Palestinians so difficult

Ties between Israelis and Palestinians seem more unlikely than ever. But how did that actually come about? On Khalid & Sophie (31 October 2023), Malcontent tells that, although this may be difficult to understand to ‘us as relative outsiders’, different interpretations of history exist on Israeli and Palestinian sides. Both sides have their own versions of historical events and these have become intertwined with their identities after all those decades of fighting, he explains.

A big part of the Jewish-Israeli population comes from Jewish families which survived the Holocaust. They still bear the scars of that genocide. To them, their families built the state of Israel from the ashes of the Holocaust, Malcontent explains. “Israel then spent 75 years in conflict. First with Arabic countries, the Palestinians, then the Arabic countries again…” According to him, this has resulted in the idea that, when push comes to shove, Israel stands alone. “‘We have always been the victims of history and the only way to get rid of that is to deal with our own matters ourselves,’” he outlines the Israeli perspective.

You see the same thing on the Palestinian side, Malcontent continues. The Palestinian story is connected to the war of independence of the state of Israel (1948-1949) and the Nakba, described above. “That’s their story and it has become intertwined with their identity after 75 years too.” Both interpretations are based on historical facts, which makes any ties even more difficult.

Solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict: the two-states solution or just one after all?

Internationally, a ‘two-states solution’ is seen as a possible way out of the war: the founding of two autonomous states, an Israeli state and a Palestinian state. This may seem a good solution, but it has quite some flaws and issues, Malcontent explains on (1 November 2023).

The Israeli settlements on the West Bank are one of the complicating factors according to Malcontent. He thinks one requirement for the two-states solution to succeed is that all Israeli settlers leave the Palestinian Territories. But they will not give up their homes without a fight. “The Israeli military would then have to fight Jews on the West Bank,” Malcontent expects and he points out that retrieving settlers from the much smaller Gaza in 2005 was already a complex matter.

Another issue is the representation of the Palestinians. Who may join the meeting to negotiate on the founding of an autonomous state on their behalf? Hamas would have to be disarmed and the Palestinian Authority is not well-trusted by the people because of accusations of corruption and the lack of elections, among other things.

Would the founding of one mutual state then be a more feasible option? No, Malcontent fears. In such a state, Palestinians would want the same rights as Jews and not become second-class citizens, like the Palestinian-Arabic people in Israel. The Israeli government would not be up for that, Malcontent thinks. “If you give all Palestinians the same rights of citizenship, nothing would be left of the entire Jewish nation state.”

Also read: What does Hamas want?

With the attacks Hamas has been carrying out on Israel since 7 October 2023, Hamas focuses the international attention on the Palestinian cause again, Islamologist Joas Wagemakers says on the NOS (5 November 2023). But what does the Palestinian cause look like these days? Does Hamas still want to end the state of Israel, as stated in their original charter, or has their end goal changed over the years?

What does Hamas want? (in Dutch)

Hospitals in North Gaza

“A place of death, destruction, and despair,” is how the World Health Organization (WHO) describes the situation in the al-Shifa Hospital in North Gaza. Under fire, the hospital has been without water and electricity for days, and the medical supplies are running out. The situations in other hospitals in the area are comparable, while the warring parties point to each other.

According to Israel, Hamas combatants are hiding in tunnels underneath the hospitals. “Every civilian death, every dead baby is a tragedy,” Prime Minister Netanyahu said, “but these are the full responsibility of Hamas, which places its military installations and command posts in hospitals.” But Israel has not yet shown any substantial evidence for this, Malcontent says on EenVandaag (13 November 2023).

“That evidence is still lacking after the Israeli capture of al-Shifa hospital”, Malcontent tells us (24 November 2023). Tunnels and a large basement complex have been found under the hospital, and according to the Israeli army, weapons have been found in several places as well, but the evidence remains debatable, he says. “It also remains unclear whether Hamas fighters were actually hiding in or under the hospital during the Israeli siege, as much as the presence of a command centre.”

Malcontent repeats what he said in EenVandaag (13 november 2023): “If you cannot prove it 100 per cent, a hospital or other humanitarian post cannot be targeted. International law of war is very clear about that.”

Israel and Hamas make a deal on a ceasefire and the release of hostages

In late November, a temporary ceasefire seems to be close. Israel and Hamas supposedly made a deal on a ceasefire of four days and the release of hostages, fifty Israeli women and children, and one-hundred and fifty Palestinian women, children, and eighteen-year olds. By releasing ten more hostages each day, the ceasefire can be extended to ten days. According to Malcontent (NOS, 22 November 2023) both sides can defend the deal well to their supporters.

“It’s not new for Israel to go far in order to get people back, but now there are multiple families of hostages to face. They have become a force in their own right, which the Israeli government can’t avoid. This is why Malcontent sees the message of the government shift from ‘taking down Hamas at any cost’ to wanting to retrieve hostages. International pressure is a contributing factor in this, he thinks (EenVandaag, 22 November 2023). “The story is becoming trickier and trickier if you see the footage from Gaza. You have to be able to explain it to your own society if you want to keep supporting Israel. This has resulted in the situation in which Israel got cornered.”

Malcontent points out Netanyahu has already said that this ceasefire does not mean the end of the war. “It’s difficult for him to say anything else, but now that there is a temporary break, the pressure on Israel will only increase.” On NOS (22 November 2023), he adds: “Time doesn’t benefit Israel, it benefits Hamas. Every day during the ceasefire, Israel will have to defend why it is necessary to fight again.”

On Wednesday 23 November 2023, Israel and Hamas indeed make a deal on a ceasefire and the release of hostages, with Qatar and the United States as mediators. Hamas itself does hope this is a definitive truce, Malcontent thinks. “Hamas knows it can never win the war against Israel,” he tells us (24 November 2023). “On top of that, they’ve achieved what they wanted: the Palestinian issue is back on the international agenda. Many Arabic countries also declared their support again, despite their ties with Israel, and Palestinian hostages will be released.”

Ceasefire of Israel and Hamas ends after seven days

After seven days, the ceasefire abruptly ends on 1 December 2023. An unexpected twist, Malcontent believes. On NOS Radio 1 Journaal (1 December 2023) he repeats Hamas has nothing to gain by restarting the war. And within Israel, the sentiment was that all hostages have to be released first before the battle could be continued. That has not happened yet.

Israel and Hamas blame each other for the failing of the negotiations. Malcontent believes it is tricky to estimate where it went wrong. Possibly an inability on the side of Hamas to ensure the release of more hostages, he suggests. In any case, something has changed on the Israeli government level, he adds that evening (EenVandaag, 1 December 2023). “This could be that the military has put its foot down harder and said: it’s better to keep fighting now.”

It is also possible that Israel gained renewed confidence because of the quotes by the American Secretary of State Blinken, Malcontent explains on the NOS Radio 1 Journaal (1 December 2023). Blinken repeated on the day before multiple times that Israel can continue to count on American support, as long as it better guarantees the safety of civilians.

Malcontent does not see any serious attempts for this yet. On EenVandaag (1 December 2023), he brings up an app in Arabic developed by the Israeli military, on which Palestinians in Gaza can see when their area could be under attack. “But that means Palestinians have to check their phones 24 hours per day, in an area with barely any electricity. And if they do flee, there’s still the question where they should go to.”

De situatie op de Gazastrook op 2 december 2023. Bron: ecrusized/Miki1234568, via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 4.0)
The situation on the Gaza Strip on 2 December 2023. Source: ecrusized/Miki1234568, via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 4.0)

What does the failing of the ceasefire mean for the outlook on the war?

In the meantime, Israel and Hamas are still negotiating. “We can’t see it, but negotiations on ceasefires are still taking place in the background,” he tells on NOS Radio 1 Journaal (1 December 2023). “But I think the best they can achieve are some brief truces, which may result in the release of hostages” (EenVandaag, 1 December 2023).

Once again, violence rages as relentlessly as it did before the ceasefire. Until 19 December 2023, there have been 19,667 deaths on the Palestinian side and 1139 on the Israeli side. Increasing violence by settlers and the Israeli army against Palestinian civilians in the West Bank has now led to 301 deaths. Also, more details are emerging. For instance, Israel published images of Israeli police and statements by Israeli aid workers about alleged sexual violence against and mutilation of Israeli women by Hamas on 7 and 8 October.

Malcontent no longer has much faith in a peace agreement in the near future. “Until recently, I did have some idea that we could come to a more long-term truce by means of brief agreements, but I honestly don’t believe in it that much anymore,” he says (EenVandaag, 1 December 2023). “It’s still quite clear Israel wants to destroy Hamas and wants to continue that, too.”

The international response: working towards ceasefire or not?

The United Nations is nevertheless trying to steer towards a ceasefire. To get Israel and Hamas to cooperate, Secretary-General António Guterres on 7 December invoked Article 99 of the UN Charter, a rare intervention by which he personally convened the Security Council. Guterres did so because, according to him, there is “a serious risk of collapse of the humanitarian system in Gaza”. Although the US vetoed a new call for a ceasefire, Malcontent does see it as a signal (NOS, 12 December 2023). “It increases the pressure, especially on the United States.” With citing the further eroding support, the US may in turn increase pressure on Israel, he thinks.

An Emergency Special Session of the UN General Assembly followed. Here, a large majority again adopted a ceasefire resolution, further increasing international pressure on the US and Israel, Malcontent believes. Not least because the countries in the resolution referred to resolution 377, the so-called Uniting for Peace resolution, created in 1950 to bypass a Soviet Union veto.

That resolution stated that when the Security Council “fails to exercise its primary responsibility for the maintenance of international peace and security”, the General Assembly can take over. However, General Assembly resolutions, unlike those of the Security Council, are advisory only and not binding. “If the new resolution can count on more support from EU countries, the US will be increasingly isolated,” Malcontent explains (NOS, 12 December 2023). “The Americans can cope with that, but it is not a pleasant prospect. Possibly President Biden will then try to increase pressure on Israel with the message that time is running out.”

The EU and key member states like France, Germany, and even loyal US ally the UK are increasingly speaking out in favour of a ceasefire. If the violence of war in Gaza is to end, the international community has to be more active, Malcontent said earlier on Spraakmakers (29 November 2023). Countries which signed various international treaties have responsibilities, which they are violating by their reluctant stance. One of the treaties he refers to is the Responsibility to Protect Doctrine, which calls on the international community to combat human rights violations when the responsible entity does not do so itself. “It was adopted by all member states of the United Nations and separately by the Security Council.”

The latest developments around Israel and Gaza

In late January 2024, we see three big developments prevail in Peter Malcontent’s media appearances of the past month. The question whether or not a regional war will break out, the issue of what to do after the war to prevent future escalation, and the genocide charge South Africa filed with the International Court of Justice (ICJ).

Het groene gebied in Jemen staat onder controle van de Houthi’s (10 september 2023). Bron: Ali Zifan/Borysk5, via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 4.0)
The green area in Yemen is under the control of Houthis (10 September 2023). Source: Ali Zifan/Borysk5, via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 4.0)

The tensions in the Middle East described earlier in this piece have continued to increase. Israel has assassinated multiple leaders of the Iran-backed Hezbollah movement in Lebanon and the Iranian Revolutionary Guard, Hezbollah fires rockets on Israel, and the relations between North Israel and South Lebanon are on edge anyway. Around the Red Sea, Houthi rebels from Yemen attack ships which are British, American or, they believe, affiliated with Israel. A military mission led by the United States and the United Kingdom has subsequently bombed positions held by the Houthis in Yemen multiple times.

However, Malcontent does not (yet) expect an outbreak of a regional war in the Middle. The United States, Iran, the Iran-backed Assad Regime in Syria, and the Iranian ally Hezbollah all have nothing to gain from such a war, he emphasises in RTL Nieuws (17 January 2024). At the same time, he is not completely carefree about it. “We also see that wherever there is a war, emotion plays an important role,” he says on Spraakmakers (12 January 2024). “Just one person has to do something weird and just like that, you could be caught up in a much bigger conflict.”

Internationally, countries continue to emphasise a ceasefire, but Malcontent does not think there will be an agreement in the short run (Nieuwsuur, 28 December 2023). He sees that after the latest break from fighting, a reasonable consensus has come about within the government: continue to fight. “In other words, to achieve the goal of destroying Hamas by any means necessary. Another issue on top of that is that within the Israeli government, at least from my perspective, you can see a certain hardening, a radicalisation.”

In the meantime, the United States keep insisting on coming up with an exit strategy. As far as the Americans are concerned, Israel should come up with ideas on how to end the war and shape the future as soon as possible. Malcontent explains that, if they delay doing so, there is a big chance nothing will change and that the Israelis and Palestinians will get bogged down in the same situation as we knew before 7 October 2023 (NOS Met het Oog op Morgen, 5 January 2024).

In order to keep having an influence, the Americans do continue to support Israel, Malcontent says. “To the United States, it’s very important that this conflict remains contained. This is because they fear that, if the conflict were to expand to something like a war between Israel and Hezbollah, the entire Middle East can catch fire,” he says on EenVandaag (7 January 2024). “That’s also the reason the Americans continue to publicly support Israel no matter what, even though they internally criticise Israel a lot. They know that, if their support for Israel were to cease, this would be an invitation to other parties in the Middle East to attack Israel writ large.”

However, the United States can also not be considered a mere good Samaritan either. And whether or not their involvement has any effect is something Malcontent also has difficulty commenting on (De Wereld Vandaag, 8 January 2024). For American Secretary of State Blinken’s fourth visit to Israel, Minister of Defence Yoav Gallant did seem to reach across the aisle by publicly stating that the war had entered a new phase. That seemed to indicate that Israel was willing to change how it wages the war.

Israëlisch Minister van Defensie Yoav Gallant. Bron: Avi Ohayon/Government Press Office of Israel, Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 3.0)
Israeli Minister of Defence Yoav Gallant. Source: Avi Ohayon/Government Press Office of Israel, Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 3.0)

At the same time, Israel indicated that following the dismantling of Hamas in the north, the focus will shift to the middle and the south. “That makes it necessary to question Gallant’s promises,” Malcontent says, also referring to Israel wanting to continue fighting. Earlier on RTL Nieuws (28 December 2023), he already said: “At the start of the war, Israel estimated the number of [Hamas] combatants to be 30,000. In that case, there would be around 22,000 left. How Israel wants to take them all out, I honestly don’t know. That remains the unreal part of this war: wanting to fully destroy Hamas, but how? This can’t last for months and result in another ten thousand civilian deaths.”

“You can ask yourself whether or not the United States exert enough pressure: they keep talking and don’t want to bring up limiting their military aid,” Malcontent tells us (26 January 2024). “By now, we have to conclude that less Israeli violence in Gaza is out of the question and that the situation in the south, especially in the city of Khan Younis, is becoming more and more pressing. It’s becoming more and more clear that diplomatic requests from America and Europe to spare Palestinian civilians have little effect.”

Israel shares new plans for after the war

There may not be an exit strategy yet, but a number of scenarios for the future of Gaza are already being passed around. In Het Parool (6 January 2024), Malcontent comments on four much-discussed plans. We already described two scenarios above: the one-state and the two-states solutions. Within the Israeli government, there are now two new plans which have been shared with the outside world.

The first was drafted by the Israeli ministers Itamar Ben-Gvir (National Security) and Bezalel Smotrich (Finance). Their plan for forced emigration of Palestinians and moving Israeli settlers into Gaza faced much international criticism. “A plan with no chance of success, just like the idea to relocate Palestinians to the [Egyptian] Sinai [desert],” Malcontent says. “Not a single Arabian government will cooperate with that, nobody wants to share responsibility for what happened in 1947-1948 when the Palestinians were driven off their land.”

Then there is the plan by Minister of Defence Gallant. “That plan is a bit more like what the European Union and the United States would like,” Malcontent says on Met het Oog op Morgen (5 January 2024). In the scenario Gallant describes, Palestinians receive the right to govern themselves in Gaza, although Israel retains the right to supervise militarily and to intervene when it deems this to be necessary.

De situatie op de Gazastrook op 28 januari 2024. Bron: ecrusized/Miki1234568, via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 4.0)
The situation on the Gaza Strip on 28 January 2024. Source: ecrusized/Miki1234568, via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 4.0)

“What is less clear, is which Palestinians would then be in control,” Malcontent continues. The Israeli minister has said he would first of all think along the lines of local administrators, Palestinians from Gaza itself who have nothing to do with Hamas, which rubs the Europeans and the Americans the wrong way. This is because the European Union and the United States would prefer the Palestinian Authority to control Gaza.

There is little attention to what the Palestinians themselves want and believe. “Decisions on what the Palestinians’ future will be are made above their heads,” Malcontent says. He does not expect the Palestinians would agree to this plan. “What Gallant proposes is a kind of very, very limited autonomy, which may be even less than in parts of the West Bank where the Palestinian Authority is in control and that’s actually unacceptable to the Palestinians.”

South Africa accuses Israel of genocide at the International Court of Justice

South Africa has started a case against Israel at the International Court of Justice. According to the country, Israel is carrying out acts of genocide against Palestinians and the war against Hamas has led to a fight against the entire Gazan population. We already described above how and why genocide is extremely difficult to prove, and Israel has already stated it will ignore any verdicts.

However, Malcontent still thinks the case will have an actual effect. “The fact that this procedure at the ICJ even exists, puts pressure on Israel,” he says on the German Tagesschau (11 January 2024). “There won’t be a UN army invading Gaza, but there will eventually be a limit that is reached with the allies.” (Brandpunt+, 11 January 2024.) To allies, it will be more tricky to ignore the verdict, because by doing so, countries would show they don’t take the International Court of Justice seriously.

Het Vredespaleis in Den Haag, de zetel van het Internationaal Gerechtshof. Bron: Lybil Ber, via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 4.0)
The Peace Palace in The Hague, the seat of the International Court of Justice. Source: Lybil Ber, via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 4.0)

On Bureau Buitenland (26 January 2024), Malcontent adds to this: “If important Western allies, who took a firm stance in favour of international law and the founding of these kinds of courts in the first place, are going to selectively support or reject rulings – like supporting those on Russia and Ukraine and maybe reject this one, as the American have actually already announced if the ruling turns out to be negative to Israel – you openly give Israel the space to say: ‘Why should we be bothered?’”

In an intermediate ruling on 26 January 2024, the International Court of Justice orders Israel to do everything in its power to prevent a genocide. “Israel doesn’t have to cease the military fight against Hamas, but does have to go easy on the people of Gaza and ensure more humanitarian aid becomes available,” Malcontent tells us (26 January 2024). “The court also calls on Hamas to immediately release all the hostages taken on 7 October.”

The court cannot yet rule on the question of whether or not a genocide is ongoing or has taken place in Gaza. It does believe South Africa has sufficiently supported why it believes Israel could be committing genocide, enabling it to take on the case, but that trial can still take years. Read more about the intermediate verdict by the International Court of Justice in this NOS report, in Dutch (26 January 2024).

Also read: Genocide expert Iva Vukušić on the genocide case against Israel

Iva Vukušić is an expert on issues including genocide and criminal accountability. In The Guardian (29 December 2023) and RTL Nieuws (26 January 2024) she commented on the case South Africa has filed against Israel at the International Court of Justice.

Genocide expert Iva Vukušić on the genocide case against Israel

In Spraakmakers (30 January 2024), Malcontent is asked whether he expects Israel to indeed disregard the ICJ verdict. He says that four days after the verdict, it’s too early to give a clear answer. “There are signs that the humanitarianism assistance may have improved somewhat, but where it comes to sparing civilians from violence, we haven’t actually seen much improvement yet,” he says. “The bombing of Khan Younis and all sorts of camps there, of the UNRWA and others, simply continues.”

Why does Israel want to attack the city of Rafah?

Israel announced that it will expand the offensive towards Rafah. This town lies against the Egyptian border and is currently the only place where people and goods can still enter and leave Gaza. It is also the place that houses an estimated one million Palestinians who have fled from other parts of Gaza.

According to Netanyahu, all 1.5 million residents of Rafah will be allowed to leave the city. Malcontent questions this. “Nobody knows what a possible evacuation should look like,” he says in Belgian newspaper De Tijd (12 February 2024). “Most people are malnourished and many are injured. They could possibly go to northern Gaza, but there is nothing there and fighting still takes place.” There are fears that Palestinians will try to flee across the border into Egypt or that Israel will force them across. “This is a red line for other Arab countries.” An ignition of a regional war is not inconceivable in such a case, Malcontent says.

Why Israel states it is preparing an attack on Rafah anyway has to do with the possible presence of Hamas fighters, Malcontent explains in EenVandaag (12 February 2024). “You can expect that there are still a lot of Hamas fighters there. In tunnels, especially over there near the border with Egypt – tunnels that possibly extend into Egypt.” On the Egyptian side of the border is the Sinai Desert, an inhospitable area where Egypt has been waging a battle against several armed jihadist groups hiding there for years.

Also read: Will Hamas meet Israel deadline over release of hostages?

Israel has given Hamas an ultimatum: all hostages must be released before the start of Ramadan, or Israel will invade the city of Rafah. Hamas is taking this proclamation seriously, Islamologist Joas Wagemakers expects. In Nieuws en Co (19 February 2024), he explains the split in which Hamas (and Israel) finds itself.

Will Hamas meet Israel deadline over release of hostages?

Allies’ criticism of Israel increases

Israel’s relations are becoming increasingly strained, Malcontent observes. Not only in the region, the peace treaty between Israel and Egypt squeaks and creaks, but in the span of a few days, support from allies has also changed.

To start close to home, on 19 March 2024 outgoing Prime Minister Rutte spoke out firmly towards Israel for his part. He called a possible Israeli ground offensive in the city of Rafah “a gamechanger and a humanitarian disaster”. A ground offensive in this city, where many residents live in tent camps and are facing severe shortages of food and medical care, is “a political moment that will have consequences.”

That Rutte used the word ‘gamechanger’, surprises Malcontent. “Maybe the Dutch position within the European Union is changing and the Netherlands is pulling a bit more towards the Belgians, the Spanish, and the Irish,” he tells NOS (20 March 2024). Within the EU, these countries are quite critical of Israel’s actions against the Palestinians. However, much impact on Israel will not be had by Rutte's statements, Malcontent believes.

A few days later, at a two-day summit on 21 and 22 March 2024, the 27 leaders of EU countries signed a declaration: Israel must abandon its planned invasion of Rafah, and Israel and Hamas must observe a ceasefire across Gaza. Malcontent is only not expecting concrete follow-up steps, he says in MAX Nieuwsweekend (23 March 2024). “Israel knows beforehand: the United States and the European Union won’t do anything anyway, because it always remains just words.”

Just a few days later, on 25 March 2024, the UN Security Council passed a resolution for a ceasefire in Gaza. After previous attempts, the council now succeeded because the United States abstained for the first time. However, Malcontent thinks that even this motion does not directly change the situation, he tells EenVandaag (26 March 2024). He repeats what he said on MAX Nieuwsweekend: “Netanyahu does not expect the Americans to stop military aid and as long as they don’t, it’s fine for him.”

This article was first published on Monday 30 October 2023. After that, it has been updated and expanded up to and including Monday 1 April 2024.