With the grim threshold of 100 days of war between Israel and Hamas having been crossed in January, the difference in the reactions between Israeli and Palestinian communities has been striking.

Israelis have focused on how many days have passed since the worst attack on Jews since the Holocaust. Palestinians and their supporters, on the other hand, have seen those 100 days as representing over three months of unfathomable daily destruction of life and property.

On the Israeli side, around 1,200 people were killed on October 7, with another 253 taken hostage and about 126,000 still internally displaced. (Of all the hostages, 134 are believed to remain in Gaza; how many of them are still alive is an open question.) On the Palestinian side, the current count is over 30,000 dead; observers surmise that this figure includes, shockingly, 12,500 children and teens. On top of this, 45 percent of homes in Gaza have been destroyed, and nearly 2 million Gazans (out of a population of 2.3 million) have been displaced.

This stark divide is evident even in how one understands the war itself. Israel and its supporters see it as a war against Hamas. Palestinians and their supporters see it as a war being waged on the Palestinian people. As such, Palestine solidarity activists have taken comfort in South Africa having charged Israel at the International Court of Justice with the crime of genocide, while Israel supporters are shocked by the use of the term that they associate most of all with the Nazi Holocaust.

“Are you actually saying South Africa’s charge is legit?” one Facebook friend, an Israel supporter, asked me in response to a January 11 post in which I’d suggested that Israel might see a losing ICJ verdict as “proof” it must continue to go it alone. By this, I meant that Israel’s siege mentality might make it hard for its political leaders to give up excessive force in the pursuit of Hamas. “I’ve listened to their entire oral argument,” I replied, referring to South Africa’s claim that, based on the scale of the humanitarian crisis in Gaza, Israel’s military campaign has gone beyond Hamas. “They make a reasonable case,” I wrote. The toughest burden in any charge of genocide, however, is to demonstrate intent. No matter how extensive the killing, there needs to be evidence that the governing body possessed the intention of bringing about the destruction, in whole or in part, of the target group.

“I have not listened to any of it and won’t,” my friend wrote.

While the official determination of whether or not Israel’s actions in Gaza constitute genocide will take years, on January 26, the ICJ provided a provisional ruling. Israel, the ruling states, must take all measures to prevent genocide. In a bit of Alice-in-Wonderland logic, the New York Times article reporting on the ruling began, “Officials in Israel on Friday denounced the International Court of Justice’s order seeking to prevent genocidal acts in its military campaign against Hamas in Gaza . . . ” In this topsy-turvy world, even telling Israel not to commit genocide is now seen by some Israeli leaders as inflammatory.

The scale of destruction is not enough on its own to determine genocide. For that, the courts will analyze the body of evidence brought by South Africa to point to Israeli leaders’ genocidal intent. But the cutting off of food, water, fuel, and medicine to Gaza by Israel, as well as the demolition of Palestinian structures by the Israel Defense Forces, according to recent reports, in order to establish a wider permanent buffer zone on the Gaza side of the fortified fence, are war crimes. Of course, Hamas’s actions of October 7 and its continued rocket barrage are also war crimes, but not being party to the Genocide Convention, since only states can be, Hamas is not under the court’s jurisdiction.

What’s more, according to many international legal scholars, a state cannot wage a war of self-defence against the residents or even the rulers of a territory it occupies. Despite Israel having withdrawn its ground troops and settlers from the Gaza Strip in 2005, most international legal interpretations view Gaza as still being occupied. This is because Israel controls the airspace, sea access, population registry, electricity grid, and, along with Egypt, the ground crossings. Since 2007, following Hamas’s victory in the 2006 Palestinian elections which led to its takeover of Gaza, Israel, declaring the Hamas-run Gaza Strip a “hostile entity,” has maintained a blockade around the Strip. Despite Hamas being the de facto ruling entity of Gaza, Gaza is not an independent state with sovereign borders.

But international law goes only so far in determining morality, and the truth is that, for many Israelis, the Jewish state faces a conundrum: do nothing and the hostages languish while Hamas learns that it can continue to attack Israelis with impunity; strike hard and many Palestinian civilians perish, along with Israel’s international reputation. It’s a dilemma that I feel deeply: less about reputation—as I don’t feel responsible for propping up any state’s international standing—than about how to provide safety and security and justice and peace to everyone who lives without them.

There are no perfect options here. But there are better and worse ones. It’s hard not to interpret Israel’s course of action since October 7, when it began its aerial bombardment of Gaza, and since October 27, when it began its ground offensive, as being motivated as much by revenge as by a desire to defend against Hamas rocket attacks and to re-establish its deterrent posture. (On this, it’s worth recalling that once force is used, deterrence has failed; deterrence, at its root, is about signalling the threat of force in order to dissuade one’s opponent from attacking in the first place.)

I have a good friend in Israel named Ofer. He grew up on one of the kibbutzim near Gaza. His parents, whom I’ve been close to since they took me in when I was a university exchange student, still live in the area, on another kibbutz, this one less than one and a half kilometres from Gaza. They narrowly escaped being taken hostage on October 7. They were holed up in the secure room that doubles as a guest bedroom, a room I’ve slept in when they hosted me. I called Ofer the other night, just as he was returning from a protest by hostage families outside Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s house in Caesarea. Those with loved ones still held in captivity by Hamas live in a kind of limbo, unsure of the fate of those who were abducted. Families don’t even have the privilege—if there even is such a thing under such grisly circumstances—of grieving their deaths. One of the hostages, Tal Shoham, is a close friend of Ofer’s from high school.

Ofer, thirty-eight and living in Holon, believes that what is motivating Netanyahu is not the return of the hostages but rather the prime minister’s own political survival. Ofer is calling for a deal that would see all Palestinian prisoners swapped for all the Israeli hostages.

“What about a ceasefire?” I asked him.

“I don’t know what the right thing to do is,” he said, before adding, “Would you want to live next to people who did this to your family?” He tells me he remains haunted by images described to him by other friends who faced Hamas’s brutality directly on other kibbutzim in the area on October 7.

But neither is it reasonable to think that Israel can “destroy Hamas,” as Israel’s war cabinet has pledged, through this kind of intense bombardment. Israel has managed to kill some Hamas leaders, and up to 9,000—according to Israel’s count—Hamas fighters. Some of the massive tunnel network Hamas has built has been destroyed, but much remains. And even if Israel does manage to cripple Hamas’s capabilities, to think that Gaza’s population will be deradicalized after suffering attacks and displacement of this magnitude beggars the imagination. Hamas is as much an idea as a specific group.

Fine, some might say. If Hamas is an idea, and that idea has taken hold among Palestinians even more strongly since October 7, then Israel truly has no partner for peace, as Israeli officials have long claimed. Since October 7, Palestinian support for Hamas has risen markedly, with 57 percent of Gazans and 82 percent of West Bank Palestinians believing that the Hamas attack was a correct action; only 10 percent of Palestinians believe that Hamas committed war crimes.

But ideas can and do change according to material circumstances. As long as Palestinians have lived under the boot of Israel—whether within the blockaded Gaza Strip or the West Bank, through which settler-only roads snake and military checkpoints constrain the freedom of movement of Palestinians—as long as Palestinian youth are abducted and detained by Israeli soldiers and languish in Israeli prisons with no fair trial available to them, hateful ideas will have greater purchase among a population that has tried many things, some violent and some not.

Any casual glance at the news since October 7 has yielded images of Gazans walking in groups, carrying their remaining worldly possessions. To Palestinians and their supporters, those images, along with the actual experience, call to mind the Nakba. Meaning “catastrophe” in Arabic, the Nakba refers to the events leading up to, and during, the Arab-Israeli war of 1948, when Israel fought the surrounding Arab states for its independence, and 750,000 Palestinians were driven out of their cities, towns, and villages by pre-state Israeli militias or else fled out of fear. These refugees, many of whom, along with their descendants, are today’s residents of Gaza, were never allowed back by the nascent state of Israel. Instead, Israel expropriated their homes and property.

“I will never forget what happened here,” said my Arabic teacher in Gaza, a woman named Sara, who is nearly nine months pregnant without any medical care in sight, in a WhatsApp voice message she sent me on a day she was able to find electricity. “I am sure that it is worse than 1948.”

But Israel’s supporters don’t share these associations. Those who claim to care about Palestinian lives probably think of Israel’s attempts to get Gaza civilians out of harm’s way while the Israeli military targets Hamas fighters and infrastructure. Part of Israel’s strategy—whether driven by actual humanitarian impulses or merely for international reputation purposes—is to drop leaflets and send other messages encouraging Gaza residents to move from one area to another within the Strip so that Israel can, according to their stated war aims, root out Hamas. Tragically and maddeningly, Israel has even bombed areas to which the military had told Palestinians to move. (In turn, all this suggests to many that not only is Israel indifferent to Palestinian lives but the state is actively seeking their destruction.)

Neither, I suspect, do most Palestinians—many now living in areas so crowded amidst a frightening shortage of food, water, fuel, and medicine that conditions are rife for death and disease—have the time to think about Israeli Jews’ intergenerational trauma triggered by Hamas’s horrific October 7 massacre. After decades of dealing with their own neglect and oppression, Palestinians might not have much room left to empathize with the Jewish psyche.

The differences are profound. With neither side’s collective memories being easily accessible to the other, the polarization deepens.

The crimes of Hamas represent the opposite of everything I believe to be good, just, right, and ethical. But so does Israel’s permanent hold on the Palestinian territories, consigning Palestinians to a daily life of humiliation, and worse, at the hands of Israeli security forces. Plus, power matters. In the Israel–Palestine context, it is Israel that holds the lion’s share of military might, to the tune of $3.3 billion (US) in American aid annually, most of which is earmarked for US military purchases.

So what to do? Israel must cease its bombardment while demanding that Hamas return the hostages, perhaps in the context of a prisoner swap. It needs to lean on Qatar and Egypt to continue the kinds of negotiations that successfully led to a six-day pause in fighting and the release of over 100 hostages in exchange for 240 Palestinian prisoners in late November. While Israel supporters claim that the hostages are innocent whereas the Palestinian prisoners are convicted criminals, it is crucial to recall that many of those detainees are being held without trial, in a type of purgatory known as “administrative detention.” And those who have been convicted have been convicted in a military court where due process is absent. (There are no civil courts available to West Bank Palestinians who have been captured by Israel.) The Israeli military, after all, is not an institution that represents Palestinians from the occupied territories, who are, by definition, not Israeli citizens.

As for Israeli security, the government can, has, and will continue to re-secure the physical boundary that separates its southern communities from Gaza. It can, and will, learn from its massive intelligence failure and not make the same mistake of ignoring data brought to it by Israeli soldiers who were tasked with observing the goings-on in Gaza; weeks before the attack, they had observed Hamas operatives training for the very massacre that would be carried out on the fateful morning of October 7. (That it was junior surveillance officers—women at that—who supplied the crucial information suggests a rot within the security establishment that goes further than any anti-Palestinian sentiment.) And then it needs to consider what kind of short-, medium-, and longer-term arrangements are more likely to lead to the extended safety and dignity that everyone deserves.

Ceasefire has become a controversial word, between those who cling to it as the only hope of stopping the carnage in Gaza and those who feel it will leave Israelis vulnerable to further Hamas attacks. But a ceasefire is the best way to secure Israeli and Palestinian lives in the short and medium term. In some ways, it’s a leap of faith. Of course, I don’t want my loved ones to be in danger. But responding with war crimes—beginning with mass starvation tactics and ending with 2,000-pound bombs—is the wrong way to achieve safety. Even defensive wars must be fought according to the laws of war. And war crimes beget radicalization, both among the target population and among those enacting these ferocious moves.

In the longer term, Israelis and Palestinians will need to seriously reconsider the kinds of arrangements that have seemed to have provided security. They will need to realize that a temporary state of “quiet”—the term Israeli security discourse latched on to when Israel first built the West Bank security barrier—is a fiction. Without a negotiated peace, there will be no long-term safety. And peace without justice is no peace at all.

Owing to the continued expansion of the West Bank settlements, many feel that the conventional two-state solution is “dead.” This may be true, though it has never been seriously tested. A one-state solution is another option, though support for that is low on both sides. That scenario would see a single entity where everyone between the river and the sea would become citizens of a newly imagined state.

A third option I’ve come to favour is known as a confederal approach. Embodied in a movement like A Land for All: Two States, One Homeland, run jointly by Israelis and Palestinians, this idea would be similar to a conventional two-state solution but with an important difference: there would be freedom of movement and residency; citizenship and residency would therefore be decoupled. (Disclosure: I am on the steering committee of the North American support branch of A Land for All.) This proposal would entail a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza, alongside the existing state of Israel. But West Bank settlers could remain where they are if they wish, becoming residents of the state of Palestine while still voting in national Israeli elections; Palestinian refugees could return to their towns and cities as residents of Israel while becoming citizens of Palestine. The Palestinian citizens of Israel would not lose their existing Israeli citizenship. Jerusalem could represent two shared capitals, with Palestinians and Jews being permitted to live wherever they wish across that holy and contested city.

It’s an approach that would provide for the cultural, political, and security needs of all, with fewer of the trade-offs inherent in either the one-state solution (where Israel would cease to be a Jewish state) or the conventional two-state solution (where Palestinian refugees would have to give up their right of return, and where Israeli settlers in the West Bank would need to be evacuated).

For too long, Israelis have become accustomed to “managing,” rather than seeking to solve, the conflict. Already a people dogged by the trauma of antisemitism, Israelis have hesitated to take steps that might place their security at risk. October 7 showed, however, that the status quo simply could not hold. But in the minds of Israelis and their supporters, the reaction of large swaths of the world to the heinous attack of October 7 has served to reinforce the troubling message that Israel is the Jew among nations. Before Israeli blood was dry, Palestine solidarity activists in North America were praising the Hamas massacre as “resistance.”

A post is circulating on X (formerly Twitter), in English, penned by someone who describes himself as a “proud Jewish Israeli”:

· Being Israeli, he writes, is feeling like the whole world wants you dead because of some terrorists’ propaganda.
· Being Israeli is to get raped by terrorists and then to see people laughing about it or denying it.
· Being Israeli is to open X and see a video of innocent Israelis tied up dead in Hamas captivity and then a second later to see a march for a ceasefire.
· Being Israeli is to tell people that a terrorist shot your baby and hear “But what about the Palestinians?”

The sense of isolation is understandable. But the lesson he draws—that to care about Palestinians is necessarily to be callous about Israeli lives—is a principle I reject. The call for compassion for all people caught in a vortex of pain, fear, and trauma should not be seen as reactionary.

While territory is indeed a fixed commodity, other things that make life worth living—things like compassion, generosity, freedom, and dignity—should have no boundaries. To live according to any other logic is to consign Israelis and Palestinians to generations more of suffering and hopelessness.

Mira Sucharov
Mira Sucharov is a professor of political science at Carleton University and a former member of The Walrus’s educational review committee.