GW Experts Discuss the Israeli-Hamas Conflict

In two Elliott School events, speakers provide historical context, examine policy implications, and share their predictions for the future.

October 31, 2023

Attiya Ahmad, associate professor of anthropology and director of the Institute for Middle East Studies at GW

Attiya Ahmad, associate professor of anthropology and director of the Institute for Middle East Studies at GW.

The George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs hosted events within days where experts discussed the devastating events in Gaza and Israel in recent weeks, putting together two panels of scholars, foreign policy experts, and practitioners who added historical context, analysis of present events and speculation on what the future holds as the conflict continues.

The first event was held on Oct. 16 and hosted by the Institute for Middle East Studies. A panel of experts in Israeli-Palestinian relations shared their thoughts and stories of family and friends directly impacted by the conflict that, according to the Associated Press, had left over 1,400 Israelis and 8,000 Palestinians dead.

The second event, on Oct. 23, featured Elliott School faculty and alumni who discussed the regional policy implications of the conflict, and what lies ahead from a policy and practitioner perspective.

“I think we are all painfully aware that the terrorist attacks in Israel carried out by Hamas have plunged the region into renewed crisis,” said Elliott School Dean Alyssa Ayres. “We are committed as a scholarly community to facilitating many opportunities for promoting civil and open discourse, especially on difficult, timely and critically important issues.”

Stories and fears about the war

Attiya Ahmad, associate professor of anthropology and director of the Institute for Middle East Studies at GW, introduced the first event’s panel, seven experts from GW, other universities and think tanks. Ahmad said the event was designed to promote informed, civil and substantive discussion.

 “What is occurring in Israel and Gaza is horrific,” she said. “There is a lot of pain, suffering, anger. There is also a lot of polemics, propaganda and misinformation. The purpose of this gathering is to provide us with context and insight.”

Shay Hazkani, an associate professor of history and Jewish studies at the University of Maryland, said while he was in his office earlier that day, he was looking at a photo of his family taken last year in Jerusalem.

“The teenage cousin of the amazing photographer who took that picture of our family was taken hostage by Hamas during the brutal massacre at the music festival,” Hazkani said. “And I looked at my desk to see a copy of my book, realizing that the niece of the editor and her husband were also captured by Hamas militants.

Since the panel discussion, it was reported that the body of the photographer’s cousin was found in Gaza. 

“Unfortunately, we don't really have the luxury to sort of dwell on our own sorrow or shock,” Hazkani said. 

Hazkani voiced his fears that the Israeli attacks in retaliation to the atrocities committed by Hamas will result in mass civilian casualties and displacement. 

Yousef Munayyer, the head of the Palestine-Israel Program and senior fellow at the Arab Center in Washington, D.C., said he shares similar fears about a rising death toll as the conflict continues. 

“Today, we have seen the number of Palestinian children who've been killed as a result of Israeli bombardment top a thousand,” Munayyer said. 

He said the military goals described by some Israeli officials are troubling as they have expressed plans to make Gaza unlivable. 

Hazkani and Munayyer said they fear a second nakba, a reference to the permanent, mass displacement of Palestinians in 1948. Hazkani said if Palestinians are dehumanized, then the pervasive thinking among military personnel will be that the rules of war, designed to protect people, do not apply to Palestinians.

“That kind of thinking should frighten us,” Hazkani said.

Ilana Feldman, a GW professor of anthropology, history and international affairs, gave a brief timeline of what led to the creation of the Gaza Strip, saying it is vital to have a sense of the historical dynamics in which current events are unfolding. 

Before the 1948 war that led to the establishment of Israel, she noted, the Gaza Strip did not exist as a separate entity, but, rather, was part of Palestine.  Following the war, hundreds of thousands of Palestinian refugees came to the territory that became the Gaza Strip.

In 1967, Israel occupied Gaza along with the West Bank. Feldman said the economic policy of occupation in its first decades was partial integration, meaning the incorporation of Palestinian labor into Israeli labor markets but not the development of Palestinian areas.

Feldman said there was Palestinian resistance to the occupation from the outset. The first intifada, a Palestinian uprising against Israeli occupation, began in Gaza in 1987. During that time, Israel began replacing Palestinian workers with foreign laborers and restricting the movement of Palestinians in Gaza.

Laila El-Haddad, a Palestinian journalist and award-winning author, described what it was like to live in present-day Gaza and explained why it is often referred to as the “world’s largest open-air prison. 

“It is the most controlled and surveilled place on earth. It is very difficult to convey in real terms what that means,” El-Haddad said. “It literally means everything; every aspect of your life is controlled by Israel without exaggeration. And as evidence, of course, are the directives to collectively punish the entire population by depriving them of food, fuel, water and electricity.” 

Arie Dubnov, the Max Ticktin Chair of Israel Studies and an associate professor of history at GW, pointed to the growing death toll, demonizations on both sides and Israelis loss of any sense of security.

“As we speak now, 1,400 Israelis are dead, and sadly we're still counting. There are 8,000 Palestinians dead, and sadly, we're still counting,” Dubnov said. “Everything is very raw. Everyone's nerves are exposed. We are at the boiling point of what was, to begin with, a very polarized discussion in which everyone is expected to choose sides, see the world in black and white colors and discredit and demonize the rival party.”

Dubnov said Israelis were shocked by the brutality of the attacks and the army’s poor performance and slow response to it. Israel is only about the size of New Jersey, but military personnel took hours to respond to distressed citizens, Dubnov said. 

Israelis living near the border with the Gaza Strip were told there was an impenetrable area separating Israel from the Gaza Strip. The Israeli public was told that expensive mechanisms like an underground wall to prevent tunnel diggers, the Iron Dome, secretive monitoring, surveillance technology, drones and human intelligence would prevent an attack of this magnitude.

“And these beliefs collapsed within minutes,” Dubnov said.

The fact the attack met a deeply fractured and divided Israeli society is also an important fact. “It took place after 40 weeks of massive demonstrations and political and social turmoil over the divisive plans of Mr. Netanyahu's ultra-right government to curb the judiciary and undermine the little that was left of the country's liberal democracy,” Dubnov argued. After the Hamas attacks, thousands of ordinary citizens in Israel banded together, using social media like WhatsApp to coordinate their efforts to assist the wounded and the families of the murdered.

“So what we see here is an Israeli civil society trying to keep some sort of a sense of agency at a time when Israelis are grappling with a total breakdown of trust in their state and their military apparatus,” Dubnov said.

Sina Azodi, B.A. '10, M.A. '13, a professorial lecturer in international affairs at GW, spoke about how neighboring countries like Iran have reacted to the conflict. Azodi said Iran's mission to the United Nations issued a statement expressing solidarity with Palestinians, but it also denied any involvement in the Hamas attacks.

“I don't believe that Iran is seeking war with Israel or the United States,” Azodi said. “Israeli media have reported that Iran, through its mission to the United Nations, has sent a message to the Israelis, stressing that it does not want a confrontation with Israel. But it will have to intervene if Israel continues its operations in Gaza.”

Michael Barnett, University Professor of International Affairs and Political Science at GW, spoke about what the future may hold as the crisis continues. A problem is that he said it is difficult to anticipate what will follow, especially since there isn’t yet a uniform stance among Israeli leaders in terms of their objectives in Gaza.

A panel of experts in Israeli-Palestinian relations shared their thoughts and stories of family and friends directly impacted by the conflict.
A panel of experts in Israeli-Palestinian relations shared their thoughts and stories of family and friends directly impacted by the conflict.

Policy Implications of the Crisis in the Middle East Panel

On the Oct. 23 panel, Elliott School Dean Ayres moderated the discussion, asking the first question of Amb. Gina Abercrombie-Winstanley, B.A. ’80, the newly appointed president of the Middle East Policy Council, following an illustrious career in the U.S. Foreign Service with a focus on the Middle East. 

Ayres asked Abercrombie-Winstanley to provide the U.S. government perspective on the crisis, implications for foreign policy, and insights behind President Joe Biden’s recent visit to Israel.

“Everyone will recall that when the state of Israel was declared, the U.S. government in the form of President Truman, recognized it 11 minutes after it was announced. So that is a firm indicator of our strong support for the nation of Israel from the very beginning,” Abercrombie-Winstanley said.

She said the United States and Israel have long had a close and tight relationship built on several issues that the two nations share, including religious background and strong personal ties.

“All that feeds into the very strong support in the face of this heinous attack from Hamas, that has come almost universally from the United States, from all areas, whether political, press, think tanks, American citizens. It's very strong that way,” Abercrombie-Winstanley said.

She said the United States perspective is that it is imperative that Israel can protect its citizens but as it works to eradicate Hamas, there is a responsibility to adhere to international humanitarian law.

“The United States has been supportive of Israel and at the same time trying to hold it to the standards that they say they want to adhere to and making sure that while we protect them, that they also stand up for humanitarian law,” Abercrombie-Winstanley said. “In this case, it is civilians, whether it’s hostages or those who are trapped by Hamas or those who are in danger.”

Gordon Gray, former ambassador to Tunisia, among numerous State Department assignments during his decorated Foreign Service career, and now serving as the GW Kuwait Professor of Gulf and Arabian Peninsula Affairs, agreed with Abercrombie-Winstanley that the United States is continuing to show support for Israel in line with the two nations' long-standing friendship.

Gray said he believes during his visit to Israel, Biden shared advice with Israeli officials to consider the long-term ramifications of its response in Gaza. Gray said the long-term objectives of U.S. diplomacy will be to address what reconstruction in Gaza is going to look like, and find a permanent solution to the Israel-Palestine conflict.

“The question is whether this crisis will lead to an opportunity for diplomacy to succeed,” Gray said.

Josh Rogin, B.A. '01, a columnist covering foreign policy and national security for The Washington Post, said the Biden administration seemed caught off guard not only by the Hamas attack on Oct. 7 but also that the tension between Hamas and Israel was to the point of spilling over to crisis.

Rogin quoted Jake Sullivan, the United States national security adviser who, about a week before the attack, said the Middle East region is quieter today than it has been in two decades.

Rogin said some players within the Biden administration believed by delegating diplomatic and security responsibilities to regional actors including Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, there would be stability in the region. He said the Biden administration is having to evolve quickly to change its strategy on how to handle the conflict in the region.

Rogin said it is important to note all of this happening in a complex and evolving geopolitical landscape not only in the Middle East but beyond, involving other countries like Russia.

“The one goal of Moscow leading up to the last couple of weeks had been to distract the United States from the war in Ukraine and, in fact, to convince enough Americans to abandon U.S. aid to Ukraine,” Rogin said. “I’m not saying that the Russians caused the crisis. I'm saying that they're taking advantage as much as they can to advance their own interests.”

Ned Lazarus, associate professor of international affairs and Israel Institute teaching fellow at GW, following years as a peace builder leading Seeds of Peace’s Middle East work, said the time for peacebuilders will not be in the immediate future. For Israel, Lazarus said, the immediate concern for Israeli civil society in the aftermath of the horrific attacks will be to campaign for the return of hostages and support the thousands of people whose communities have been attacked and have been driven out of their homes. He said there will also be a strong push by Israeli citizens for the current leadership to resign and make way for new political leaders. 

“At that point, there may become an opening to talk about longer-term peace,” Lazarus said. 

He said among the Palestinians, the immediate concern, of course, are the 2 million civilians trapped in Gaza between Hamas and the escalating Israeli military offensive. 

Historically, Lazarus said, whenever attempts have been made to strive for peace between Israel and Palestine, Hamas and other extremist actors have disrupted the process through violent actions. 

Lazarus noted that the thousands of lives lost in the Yom Kippur War of 1973 led gradually to a strategic shift by Egypt and Israel toward historic negotiations. Lazarus said the horrific impacts of the Hamas assault and the Israeli counter-offensive may inspire renewed efforts at conflict resolution over the long term. 

He said what is certain is there will be a change within the Israeli government due to the anger citizens feel at the current leadership. 

“If you look at opinion polls that are taken in Israel right now, the current government will not be in power as soon as there is an opportunity for the citizens to justly take them to task for the greatest failure in the history of the country,” Lazarus said.