Palestinians at the Center: Three Takeaways from Gaza and Israel

Written by
Omar Elhaj
Oct. 13, 2023

The only way toward collective liberation for both Palestinians and Israelis is decolonization and ensuring equal rights to land, freedoms, and justice.


by Omar Elhaj, MPA '24 for Annotations Blog 

Around 6:30 a.m. on Saturday, October 7, Hamas and other Palestinian fighters began firing thousands of rockets into Israeli territory. Shortly after, fighters broke through the Gaza-Israel border to start an unprecedented offensive attack on nearby villages. For many of those fighters, it was the first time they had left the two-mile wide strip of land that borders the Mediterranean Sea because Israel has enforced an air, land, and sea blockade against Gaza’s 2.3 million residents for 16 years. By early Saturday morning, Hamas had taken control of many Israeli military posts and towns near Gaza, and several days later, the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) had not fully regained control of those locations. 


Palestinian members of the Ezz Al-Din Al Qassam Brigades, the military wing of Hamas burn military armored vehicle belonging to Israeli forces near Gaza Strip, 10/07/2023. Photo by STR APAImages 

As of October 12, according to an Al-Jazeera tracker, the attacks by Hamas have tragically killed 1,300 Israelis and injured 3,200 more. Since initiating a relentless bombing campaign in Gaza, the Israeli military has killed 1,438 Palestinians and injured over 6,800. These numbers will surely grow as violence and conflict continues. Israel's 5,000 bombs have displaced over 180,000 Gazans, while Hamas has taken 64 captives, including Israeli military personnel, as hostages in Gaza. On Saturday, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called on the residents of Gaza to "get out,” even though civilians had nowhere to turn. Two days later, Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant ordered a "complete siege" on Gaza, promising to cut electricity and block the entry of food and fuel into the area. The siege orders were followed by reports of a potential ground invasion into Gaza, as IDF tanks amassed in southern Israel - a situation that is too painful to look away from.

There is no question that this week's events have been devastating for both Israelis and Palestinians. But as much as this is a war in the Holy Land, it is also a war of rhetoric. As a Palestinian and Palestinian human rights researcher, I feel the need to share much-needed context as we process what is happening. With false state claims of beheaded babies, extensive misinformation spreading online, and toxic discourse that has disregarded humanity, there is a need for a human-centered, human rights-based conversation. Any commentary necessitates discussing the history and suffering of Palestinians in the Occupied Palestinian Territories and worldwide. I offer three key takeaways.

First, this uptick in violence is a symptom of a more significant problem. As sad as the events are, they should not come as a surprise. The situation in the Occupied Palestinian Territories has been simmering for quite some time, with this being the fourth iteration of major violence in Gaza since the Israeli occupation of the Gaza Strip in 2006. Unfortunately, this violence is not supposed to be sensational. The world has woken up because Israelis are dying. 

According to OCHA, between 2008 and this most recent conflict, 6,407 Palestinians have died, and 152,560 have been injured due to Israeli aggression in both Gaza and the West Bank. During that same time period, the Israeli tally was 308 dead and 6,307 injured. The Israeli Occupation Forces have participated in raids, murders, kidnappings, and bombings against the Palestinians for decades. Israeli settlements and settler violence are increasing in the West Bank, which will lead to its probable annexation by Israel. The One-State Reality has destroyed the possibility of a Two-State Solution. Gazans live in an open-air prison, a system they've lived under for the better part of two decades while deprived of their fundamental needs. The Palestinians have nowhere to go. 

These attacks have not happened in a vacuum— so ask yourself the following questions. Why now? Why is President Biden speaking about this week? And why is he saying the U.S. stands with Israel and not with innocent Palestinians? Why are we limiting the scope of our thoughts and prayers? Why have university presidents, such as Princeton's Chris Eisgruber, failed to point out Israel's bombing campaign on Gaza civilians in their statements this week? Why is the German government considering depriving Palestinians of necessary aid without questioning Israel's indiscriminate bombings on Gaza? Remember that indiscriminate bombing is a war crime, and the Israeli government regularly engages in it. How is it that the world is just reacting to events of the past week when much worse has been happening since 1948? The answer is that Israelis were on the defensive for once. But never mind that Palestinians have been on defense for 75 years. 

Israel is a settler-colonial state that has continuously committed crimes against humanity– specifically the crimes of persecution and apartheid. Israel effectively governs the Occupied Palestinian Territories by dominating Palestinians and subjecting them to a different civil and legal system. That is the definition of apartheid. As a signatory of the Geneva Conventions and other international treaties, Israel is bound by international law to respect human rights during times of peace and conflict. And, unlike Hamas, Israel is an internationally-recognized country with a legitimately elected representative government. Its standard for respecting the law should be higher.

Palestinians gather around the rubble of a building destroyed in Israeli strikes, in the southern Gaza Strip

Palestinians gather around the rubble of a building destroyed in Israeli strikes, in the southern Gaza Strip, Oct. 9, 2023. Ibraheem Abu Mustafa/Reuters

Much of the commentary so far has pointed out that the inhumane Israeli reaction to Gaza can be attributed to the extreme far-right government of Benjamin Netanyahu. This is misinformed and a classic red herring. In reality, a center-left government in Israel would likely have acted the exact same way. Why? Because Israel has been engaging in the systemic deprivation of Palestinian human rights since its inception, and we cannot discuss these latest attacks without providing essential context about the occupation and violence against Palestinians. 

My second point is that Palestinians do not owe anyone a denouncement of Hamas' attacks on Israel. There are two reasons for this. First, Hamas is not the representative of the Palestinian people as much as Israel may try to conflate the two. Hamas ruthlessly governs the Gaza Strip without having held elections in 16 years. To put that in perspective, Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping, two world leaders who certainly do not have democratic legitimacy, have ruled their countries for less time. Hamas was elected in a referendum against the failure of the Oslo Accords. But again, Israel is also to blame. The government was set up to fail after a brutal Israeli blockade of the Gaza Strip, which traps all Gazans and has plundered its economy. 

More importantly, asking Palestinians to denounce Hamas presupposes that Palestinians are all violent. The question inextricably links any act of resistance by the Palestinians to terrorism and violence. This conflation works kindly for Israel because Israel treats every Palestinian as a terrorist in hopes of justifying mass slaughter. It is the only way it can justify indiscriminate campaigns of violence, such as using white phosphorus on a densely populated area. If every Palestinian is a terrorist, then every Palestinian is a target. As a result, the international community gives Israel the green light to do what it wants. Foreign powers, like the United States, reinforce their support for war crimes by saying it will "make sure Israel has what it needs to defend itself," regardless of the impact on Palestinians. When U.S. and E.U. officials argue that Israel is in the right for defending itself, they are only helping Israel justify its ethnic cleansing campaign. Is blocking Gaza from all electricity and food self-defense? Soon, hospitals will no longer be able to treat the injured, and people will begin to starve. Isn't this manufactured humanitarian crisis just as evil as the attacks by Hamas? The Israeli government has premised its response on dehumanization and mass murder. But many only care whether Palestinians stand against Hamas.

Hamas' attacks are indeed disgusting. Killing hundreds of civilians and capturing innocent people is not justified and is just as much a violation of human rights as Israel’s missile strikes and planned siege. Not only is it indiscriminate and against international law, but it is also unproductive. The Palestinian movement will not be better off because of Hamas’ unproductive attacks and violence against civilians. This was a response by Hamas, not by Palestine. As such, we should understand the perspective of Palestinians without linking them to Hamas.

This brings me to my final and most crucial point. There is no effective solution to this chapter (or any chapter of the conflict) without centering Palestinians. The harsh reality is that the Israeli occupation of Palestinians hurts both Israelis and Palestinians. The difference is that Palestinians do not have bunkers to run to, passports to leave, or a social safety net to rely on when Israel bombs their homes. Israelis do. The violence of the past week is a direct product of Israel's actions and government. 

Unlike what many may think, the solution does not lie in ethical relativism– claiming that either side has the moral high ground. That's because there is no moral victor here. Francesca Albanese, the U.N. Special Rapporteur on the Occupied Palestinian Territories, noted that it is both "possible and necessary" to stand with both Palestinian and Israeli victims of violence. Our focus should always be the preservation of human rights. 

Albanese continues, "Human rights organizations have said all along that [Israel] continuing to oppress a population with total impunity would lead to a catastrophe." In reality, The Catastrophe (in Arabic, The Nakba) started 75 years ago, when Palestinians were forced from their homes with the establishment of the state of Israel. And it hasn't stopped since. This weekend's attacks are the product of a system of violence that has been allowed for too long. The only way toward collective liberation for both Palestinians and Israelis is decolonization and ensuring equal rights to land, freedoms, and justice. That can only happen when Israel plays by the rules. 

In a statement on Sunday, Palestinian-American Congresswoman Rashida Tlaib described the path forward. She argued that a just future "must include lifting the blockade, ending the occupation, and dismantling the apartheid system that creates the suffocating, dehumanizing conditions that can lead to resistance. The failure to recognize the violent reality of living under siege, occupation, and apartheid makes no one safer."

Omar Elhaj, Managing Editor of JPIA
Meet the Author: Omar Elhaj 

Omar Elhaj is an MPA ‘24 at Princeton’s School of Public and International Affairs, where he also serves as the managing editor for the Journal. His experiences and identity have informed a passion for human rights and ethno-religious conflict prevention. This past summer, he interned at a Palestinian human rights organization, where he researched Israeli settlement finance. He is interested in intersections between mass atrocity, human rights protection, and authoritarianism.