On the morning of Oct. 7, a Hamas fighter named Mahmoud phoned his family in Gaza. They sounded surprised, as if they had been awakened by the call. But Mahmoud was well into his work day.
“Hi Dad,” he says at the start of the conversation, which was posted to YouTube by the Israel Defence Forces. “I’m talking to you from a Jewish woman’s phone! I killed her and I killed her husband! I killed 10 with my own hands!” He’s shouting and speaking quickly.
Then his brother comes on the call. “Mahmoud,” he asks, “where are you?”
“I am in Mefalsim,” comes the reply. He says that his brother, whom he calls Alaa, should open WhatsApp to see the images. He also says that he’s about to do a livestream.
“Where are you, in Zikim?” asks a puzzled Alaa, naming an Israeli town near Gaza.
“I am in Mefalsim,” comes the reply.
The call, which the IDF alleges was recovered from a deceased Israeli woman’s phone, is a record of mass murder. It is also a geography lesson.
It used to be said that Europe, the source of two world wars and too many smaller conflicts, had too much history crammed into too little geography. The maxim applies, and then some, to Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
History is not the only reason the conflict has proved so intractable. But nothing, including the speed with which fighters such as Mahmoud swept into Israel on Oct. 7, can be understood without an appreciation of the smallness of the geography.
The Gaza Strip covers just 365 square kilometres. That’s one-15th the size of Prince Edward Island. It’s barely half the size of the City of Toronto.
The state of Israel is so tiny that if you dropped it into Lake Winnipeg, Canada’s sixth-largest lake, it would disappear.
The Israeli town of Mefalsim is a mere 600 metres from the Gaza-Israel border. That’s less than the length of the main concourse inside the West Edmonton Mall.
From Tel Aviv’s Mediterranean beaches to the border with the West Bank is less than the length of Toronto’s Bloor Street subway line. And from there to the Jordan River, the border with Jordan, is the distance from one end to the other of the Island of Montreal.
The only possible way to bring peace to such a small geography – or rather the only one not involving ethnic cleansing – is a two-state solution. It’s what’s been on the table for a century. It’s what the United Nations voted for in 1947. It’s what the moribund peace process aimed at. It’s what Israel and the Palestinian Authority agreed to begin implementing in the 1993 Oslo Accords. It’s what they failed to agree on at Camp David Summit in 2000.
And in the past two decades, to say nothing of the past two weeks, more history has happened. Too much. As a result, attitudes have hardened on both sides. And in a vicious circle, the more hard-liners undermine the two-state solution, the more power they gain, and the more trust evaporates.
Hamas, which became Gaza’s de facto government not long after Israel ended its occupation in 2005, believes in the violent imposition of the one-state solution. It wants Israel to disappear. Many Canadian protesters support that position. When they chant, “from the river to the sea, Palestine will be free,” they’re calling for genocide.
But Israel has contributed to the Palestinian sense of hopelessness, particularly by allowing the building of Jewish settlements in the West Bank – territory that is not part of Israel. That has accelerated under Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and his government has even given signs that the long-term goal may involve incorporating the West Bank into Israel. That’s also a one-state solution.
Peaceful resolution appears farther away than ever. Yasser Arafat’s Palestine Liberation Organization, for all its failings, was a secular, nationalist movement. Negotiation was at least possible. Hamas is a millenarian, theocratic movement. So is Hezbollah.
More than 40 years ago, Israel returned the Sinai – a territory nearly three times the size of Israel – to Egypt, in exchange for peace. But after Israel withdrew from Lebanon in 2000, it got nothing from Hezbollah, which remains committed to Israel’s destruction.
It’s clear what Israel and the Palestinians must negotiate. What’s unclear is who could do it, or how, or whether extremists would let them.
So they beat on, boats against the current, borne ceaselessly into a future that may be a worse version of the past.