October 12, 2023

Q&A: USU Political Science Professor Discusses War in Israel, Gaza

Assistant Professor of Political Science Austin Knuppe
Assistant Professor of Political Science Austin Knuppe.

By Andrea DeHaan, CHaSS Communications Editor

In light of and out of respect for recent events, we spoke with Assistant Professor of Political Science Austin Knuppe about the war in Israel and Gaza to provide context and understanding to the university community.

Knuppe specializes in Middle East politics and is the author of several publications exploring how ordinary citizens survive conflict and political violence throughout the region. His research areas include the role of religion in international politics, and he serves on the board of USU’s Heravi Peace Institute.

Knuppe spoke to Andrea DeHaan, communications editor for the College of Humanities and Social Sciences on Oct. 10.

Q. How would you describe the historical context leading up to the current violence in Israel and Gaza?

A. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is less than 100 years old. It goes back to 1918; it goes back to the British mandate in Palestine after World War I. It doesn't go back to millennia-old religious fights between Christians, Jews, and Muslims. It's actually pretty contemporary.

There were a series of wars between Israel and its Arab neighbors that set the borders between what constitutes the state of Israel and the Palestinian territories, which are Gaza and the West Bank, the most important of which happened in June 1967. And so, when people talk about peace settlements and where you draw the lines in terms of borders and territory, they typically use June 1967 as the reference point.

It's a conflict over territory and water rights as much as it is about people's religious identities. Though religion is important — it matters for how people think about the world — it's not the primary determining factor.

The current crisis in Gaza is newer still. It goes back to the collapse of the Oslo peace process in the late 1990s. That process was a decade-long series of negotiations to try to establish a two-state solution where you have Israel and Palestine existing as sovereign states side by side. That process collapsed at the end of Bill Clinton's presidency with the failure of the Camp David Summit. Since that point, there has been, a one-state reality in Israel, which has blockaded the Gaza Strip, and its military occupies the West Bank. That’s been the status quo since 2000.

There are 2 million Gazans in a fairly small geographic space surrounded by fences on three borders and the Mediterranean Sea. It's akin to a giant, open-air prison. What we've seen since are about two decades of tit-for-tat attacks, where the government that controls Gaza is Hamas — a Palestinian resistance movement. It's both a political party and an armed wing. Hamas uses Gaza to launch rocket attacks with homemade, improvised explosives into Israel, and the Israelis respond in kind by using the Israeli Air Force to bomb the Gaza Strip. And that escalated last Saturday, Oct. 7.

Q. Why do you think the situation has escalated at this moment?

A. The way I'm processing these events is to think about it as a surprise attack, but it was also predictable in terms of the escalation dynamics over the last 18 months. The Palestinians have two different political factions that represent their interests in Gaza. It's Hamas and it’s the Palestinian Authority (PA) — the internationally recognized government that controls the West Bank. The latter is run by Mahmoud Abbas. He is the one who gives speeches to the United Nations but is ineffective and increasingly viewed as illegitimate. The PA hasn't had an election for new leadership in the last decade. PA leaders realize that if they were to have free and fair elections in the West Bank, they would risk losing those elections to Hamas. And so, you have this really heartbreaking status quo, where the Palestinian Authority is the one internationally recognized to represent the Palestinian people, but they lack legitimacy in the eyes of everyday Palestinians, while the Israeli government increasingly refuses to engage the PA.

You also have a violent faction running politics in Gaza. You have an ineffective Palestinian Authority in the West Bank, and in Israel, you have a parliamentary system made up of a coalition of parties that have to form the parliament known as the Knesset. Benjamin Netanyahu, a right-wing member of the Likud party that has been in charge since the last government collapsed, has a controversial reputation. This is his sixteenth year in power. He’s had to cut deals with political parties that include Jewish extremists, and he has members of his coalition in charge of national security and the West Bank administration who are on the record calling for the ethnic cleansing of Palestine.

Ultimately, you have political extremists in the Israeli government, in Gaza, and in the West Bank that make it terminal to have any resumption of talks about a two-state solution or a one-state solution in place. These extremist groups basically serve as political spoilers that make it increasingly difficult to end the current conflict.

Q. What are the key challenges to achieving a lasting resolution to the conflict, and are there any potential avenues for progress?

A. What makes the current conflict and civil wars like these intractable are the proxy dynamics. When you have a civil war that includes not only the Israeli military and Palestinian opposition fighters as well as surrounding states and foreign patrons that support those groups, it makes these wars more deadly and more protracted. Hamas is financially supported by Iran. They're supported by the Persian Gulf nation of Qatar and supported by the Turkish government. Hamas is a useful proxy for at least three other states in the region as well as Hezbollah to the north — a violent resistance organization in Lebanon founded at a similar point during the Lebanese Civil War. Hezbollah has been attacking Israel from the north, the southern Lebanon border. They're also supported by Iran.

The Israeli government is supported by the Europeans and the Americans, and the Palestinian resistance movement is supported by regional states, so any cessation of hostilities, let alone a political settlement, does not just involve Israel. It does not just involve Palestine. It involves Egypt and Jordan. It involves Lebanon. It involves the United States and Iran and probably the European Union.

And the unfortunate reality is that America is not an honest broker when it comes to negotiating peace between Israel and Palestine. Whether that's Donald Trump or Joe Biden, our response is to double down on support for the Israeli government and the Israeli military, which means we don't have much legitimacy in the eyes of Palestinians nor, certainly, in the eyes of many Israelis.

I don't think there are any states in the international system that are disinterested or neutral arbiters. But there are a number of different scenarios one could think about outside of the United States. It's interesting to note that the Russians have been fairly silent about the events of the weekend despite typical support owing to a large population of Jews from the Russian diaspora that relocated to Israel.

And you've seen interesting moves, at least in terms of regional politics, with China being increasingly involved in the Persian Gulf. The real wild card is what role Beijing will play in trying to negotiate a ceasefire or assert its political interests in the region. The fact that Americans were killed and taken hostage means that for us it's inherently an issue of U.S. foreign policy.

Q. What about the people directly caught up in the current escalation?

A. I’ve spent a long time thinking about how ordinary people survive tragic and violent situations. The book I recently completed is on how Iraqis survived the occupation of their communities by the Islamic State and the types of calculations people make about whether they stay in their homes, whether they flee, and where they resettle.

I think you're right to draw the locus of attention away from international politics to think about the lives of ordinary people. 900 Israelis have been killed; several thousand injured. There were more than 800 Palestinians killed over the weekend in air strikes on Gaza, and so it’s the lives of ordinary Israelis and Palestinians that are at stake.

After Netanyahu announced a declaration of war against Hamas, the Israeli government said that it was in the interest of Palestinians to leave Gaza. Gaza is under complete blockade, so I don't know how they expect Gazan civilians to flee. I think an issue of profound importance for the Israeli government as well as the Egyptians and relevant stakeholders, is to ensure the safe evacuation of women and children and other vulnerable populations. We've seen this in Russia and Ukraine, where there’s a creation of humanitarian corridors, where there is a brief cessation of hostilities so civilians can evacuate.

I highly doubt you'd be able to evacuate Gazans into Israel, but perhaps Egypt would open their border to the south to let in Palestinian civilians. But there are 2 million Gazans trapped under blockade, so I don't know how you would go about doing that. However, it is a rare point of policy agreement between the Israelis, Palestinians, and regional states to ensure the safe evacuation and protection of vulnerable populations.

Q. From an academic standpoint, what insights can be drawn from the Israel-Hamas conflict that may contribute to our understanding of conflict resolution and international relations?

A. The first is the attacks occurred in such a way that revealed a massive intelligence failure on the part of the Israeli government and also on the part of the Americans, the European Union, and others that have been tracking the situation, perhaps even adversaries like Iran. It reveals a massive intelligence failure and a limitation, namely, the combat effectiveness of ordinary Israeli soldiers. It also shows that we've underestimated the tactical ability of Hamas and their long-term political strategy.

I don't know of any expert who follows this rather closely and knows the ultimate political objectives of Hamas. We know that anti-Semitism is real and that there's a segment of the Hamas movement that wants to exterminate Jews. That's clear. That doesn't seem like a long-term viable strategy for the liberation of Palestinian territory or the creation of a Palestinian state. Nonetheless, we've drastically underestimated the ability of Hamas to launch very sophisticated attacks against the state of Israel.

These are deep, deep, deep identity issues. I told my students today there's no such thing as a neutral point of view when it comes to this. But just because it's subjective doesn't mean that every point of view is equally legitimate. It is evil, illegal, and ineffective for Hamas to murder Israeli civilians. At the same time, it is evil, illegal, and ineffective for the Israeli military to kill Palestinian civilians in the West Bank and Gaza. If you can hold both those truths in your mind at the same time, your grasp of the conflict is above public discourse.

Q. How can the USU community respond in the face of these events?

A. Regardless of our level of information about what's going on or our inherent interest in the conflict, I think we can come together and support our Aggie students, faculty, and staff who are Palestinians, Palestinian Americans, Israelis, and Israeli Americans. In our college, we have several students from the West Bank. We have an Arabic instructor who comes from Gaza, and she has extended family that's still there.

So, we have constituencies on our campus, our friends and neighbors, and classmates who are affected by this directly and also indirectly based on their nation of origin and their identities. We can support them in very visible ways. It may seem like a small, trite thing to say, but it's one way to care for those people in our own sphere of influence, as an Aggie family.

Other Resources

On Oct.10, USU students, faculty, and staff received an email listing “resources for those affected by unfolding violence in Israel and Gaza.” Knuppe is working to organize a space for dialogue and information about the Israel-Hamas conflict on Monday, Oct. 16 at noon in Old Main, room 340.

Lunch will be provided at the event, which is co-sponsored by political science, history, and the Middle East Studies minor. For more information, visit: https://www.usu.edu/calendar/?day=2023/10/16&id=84642


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