Middle East experts Ghaith al-Omari and David Makovsky spoke to students about conflict between Israel and Hamas during a Tuesday evening talk with University of Wisconsin-Madison students at the UW Hillel Foundation.
Makovsky and al-Omari, both of pro-Israel think tank Washington Institute for Near East Policy, are seasoned experts in their field. Makovsky worked in the Office of the U.S. Secretary of State as a senior advisor to the Special Envoy for Israeli-Palestinian Negotiations, and al-Omari served as an advisor to the Palestinian negotiating team during the 2000 Camp David summit.
Here are five takeaways from the talk:
This round of fighting is more severe than previous escalations
Makovsky said this round of fighting, where the goal is to “topple” Hamas, is fundamentally different from operations over the past 13 years where Israel’s aim was “to restore deterrence” with the group.
The "catastrophic massacre” of women, children and elderly people led people to forget about deterrence, Makovsky said.
“People said, ‘No, no, no, forget all about this deterrence… this is ISIS on my back doorstep,’” he added.
Hamas took more than 200 hostages, a situation that puts the IDF in uncharted waters and creates “incredible dilemmas,” Makovsky said.
The Israeli government on Monday showed more than 40 minutes of raw footage of Hamas’ Oct. 7 attack for 200 members of the foreign press in an effort to shed light on the group’s actions, according to ABC News.
One journalist, Jotam Confino, described watching the beheading of a man with a shovel and a photo of “a dead baby and child burned beyond recognition.”
“If I was an undergraduate at the University of Wisconsin, watching this, I'd say I'm walking through history,” Makovsky said. “We felt we've seen it all possible. We never saw this. We didn't see the amount of barbarism.”
Israel’s strategy must minimize civilian casualties
Israel's retaliatory strike inflicted a severe toll on Gaza. The attacks left the territory’s residents deprived of essential resources including food, water, electricity and medical supplies prior to allowing a small aid convoy to pass through, which aid administrators said is drastically below the amount needed.
The United Nations reported 1 million Palestinians were forced to leave their homes within one week after Israel issued evacuation orders, actions the U.N. deemed a breach of international humanitarian law.
More than 4,300 Palestinians and 1,400 Israelis have been killed since Oct. 7, according to the Hamas-run Gaza Health Ministry and Israeli officials.
Makovsky said Israel’s response will need to “thread a needle” between going after Hamas officials and avoiding killing innocent civilians in densely populated urban settings. Toppling the group will require going after its arms cache and its leadership, he added.
Part of the struggle is previous evidence that Hamas has positioned tunnels and control infrastructure in close distance to schools, mosques and homes. The use of human shields is considered a war crime, but experts say human shields are still protected under humanitarian law.
“As much as Hamas is responsible for this and much as I also believe that Hamas gains and wants to see Palestinian civilians killed in Gaza,” al-Omari said, “I still believe that this does not absolve Israel from respecting the laws of war.”
Palestinians don’t agree on how to shape the future
There have been two narratives shaping the future of Palestine since the Oslo Accords, al-Omari said.
“One is a secular vision that believes in a two-state solution via negotiations and diplomacy, and one that talks about eliminating Israel using terror to create a theocracy,” al-Omari said.
In 2005, Israel disengaged from the Gaza Strip, evicting more than 9,000 Israeli citizens from 25 settlements and transferring governance to the Palestinian Authority.
Hamas won the 2006 parliamentary election and took control of Gaza in 2007 following a series of bloody wars between Fatah and Hamas.. There hasn’t been an election in Gaza since.
It was during this transition of power, al-Omari said, that these narratives became territorial differences as well as ideological ones.
“What I saw happen on Oct. 7, in part, can be understood in this eternal war within Palestine, of who defines what Palestine is and who defines how it relates to Israel and to the Jewish people,” al-Omari said.
The media is shaping public perception of the conflict
Al-Omari and Makovsky advised to be careful of the spread of fake news and emotional distress coming from 24/7 scrolling online. They recommended following credible news sources, such as the Times of Israel and Al Arabiya, and cautioned against consuming media from one source. Makovsky said he might have six screens on at once, and al-Omari said he frequently views five different Israeli and Arab news outlets.
People posting inflammatory videos are looking to sow division, they said.
“They want to ruin your day by saying something so outrageous, and I just think life is too short for that,” Makovsky said. “I'm worried that if the war itself comes on the ground, it will be matched by an information war.”
Students on campus should give each other the benefit of the doubt
One of al-Omari’s “most gratifying experiences” as a negotiator was learning views of people on the other side and finding validity in their perspective.
“Much of the fight between Palestinians and Israelis — and actually Arabs and Israelis, in many ways —- was not only about the fighting itself but about this war of narratives. In some ways, we convinced ourselves that everything that Israelis do, they do out of bad faith, so why bother even going deep into it?” al-Omari said.
Makovsky and al-Omari urged for conversations with nuance.
“This lack of willingness to give the other side the benefit of the doubt is in itself one of the problems that we face, in even how we discuss this conflict, whether on campus, in here or between the two nations,” al-Omari said.
Rachel Hale is a senior staff writer who covers state politics and campus events. Before getting involved with The Daily Cardinal, she was a culture editor at Moda Magazine. Follow her on Twitter at @rachelleighhale.