DR. ABU BAKARR BAH, FOR GULAN: The wide lesson is that new wars and terrorism warfare are almost unwinnable
Dr. Abu Bakarr Bah is Presidential Research Professor of Sociology and department chair at Northern Illinois University. He is the founding director of the Institute for Research and Policy Integration in Africa (IRPIA) and faculty associate at the Center for Nonprofit and NGO Studies. Professor Bah is also founding Editor-in-Chief of African Conflict and Peacebuilding Review and African Editor of Critical Sociology. He was Senior Fellow at the Canadian Centre for the Responsibility to Protect and a Visiting Distinguished Faculty (at large) at Riara University (Kenya). Bah is a globally renowned scholar of international security and peace and conflict issues and a frequent guest on international media. In an interview he answered our questions as the following:-
Gulan: How do you characterize the current war in Gaza in terms of causes and consequences?
Dr. Abu Bakarr Bah: The consequences of the Gaza war between Israel and Hamas, and the conflict between Israel and Palestine more broadly, are very evident as they are ongoing. As for the causes, there is always historical murkiness. But the short answer is that the conflict has been producing humanitarian tragedies and injustices that fuel further violence and war. So, it is in the interest of the people of Israel and Palestine to stop fighting and reach a peace agreement that they can faithfully implement.
Back to the consequences of this war – they are tragic. We see severe destructions and dire human sufferings everywhere in Gaza. This is shameful for the world to witness and see it continue, especially for the world superpowers that support justice in one place while supporting injustice in another place. In Israel, the war breeds more fear in people. It is not a nice way to live as people are stressed and uncertain about the next day. In a way, there is deep insecurity in a place that seems to be secure. The point here is not to compare the levels of suffering in Israel and Palestine resulting from a war that is asymmetrical. Rather, the point is about the futility of war, the superficiality of security, and the shared humanity in all human sufferings.
As for the cause of the war, I think it is best described as a legacy of modern colonialism. Without unearthing the entire biblical history, we know that Palestinians were the inhabitants of the area before Jewish people were resettled there after the Holocaust in Europe. Since then, it has been a struggle for land under the permissions of colonial and neocolonial powers—within the region and from far. Indeed, land has been something that people claim ownership over, but land must be shared. The land is fixed, but people come and go – no one will carry the land with them. So, any ownership of land is historically temporary! To put it bluntly, the war between Israel and Hamas is an integral part of the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians over control of the land that we now know as Israel and Palestine. This conflict has inflicted injustices and aggressions upon ordinary people who just want to live, often manipulated through extremist ideologies of belonging. To echo Paulo Freire, the conflict fits into a broader historical pattern of the “once oppressed becoming an oppressor”—a problem we have repeatedly seen in all parts of the world, especially under conditions of (neo)colonialism.
Gulan: Thus far, the confrontation in Gaza, which was sparked by Hamas's strike on October 7, has not resulted in the worst-case scenario of a larger Middle East conflict including Iran and the United States. However, given the events of the last several days, do you believe that this risk is increasing?
Dr. Abu Bakarr Bah: Well, we do not want to reach the worse-case scenario. We have enough destruction and suffering. Yet, we cannot stop imagining something even worse, which is real. However, a war between United States and Iran in the Middle East will not be conventional, as we already saw in Iraq. In some ways, we are having increased hybrid wars in the Middle East. In terms of a wider war in the Middle East, as long as the land conflict between Israel and Palestine is not resolved, that possibility must be considered as real. So, the fact that it has not happened is a good thing. However, the wiser approach is to resolve conflict between Israel and Palestine so that we do not get to a wider war. Countries are more willing to engage in direct war as they increase their military capabilities. We know that Iran’s capabilities are growing significantly. As we move into a more multipolar world, it is possible that other actors may find the Israel/Palestine area as a place to exert strength. In short, as long the land issue is not resolved the risk of a wider war in the Middle East will not diminish. We have to see the possibilities of such a war as dynamic as opposed to static.
Gulan: The Red Sea is the focal point of the threat, as Iranian-backed Houthi rebels headquartered in Yemen have been assaulting freighters that may or may not have ties to Israel, how do you interpret this development?
Dr. Abu Bakarr Bah: The activities of the Houthis in the Red Sea fit into the asymmetrical warfare between Western powers and regional state actors and violent non-state actors. It is unfortunate that terrorism warfare has become part of the repertoire of war and geopolitics. From an asymmetrical warfare angle, we can see how the Red Sea becomes a growing target – disrupting trade is an act of war under the modalities of what has been referred to as new wars. We see that wars are waged not only by states, but also by their proxies—such as the Houthis in Yemen. Unfortunately, the use of proxies and proxy wars is common in the region. The wide lesson is that new wars and terrorism warfare are almost unwinnable. As such, the basic questions that we should be asking is how to build not only a rules-based international order, but a just and fair rules-based international order. This requires principled leadership and avoiding double standards in the way major powers deal with issues of injustice and international law. The more the application of international norms and laws becomes unjust, the more likely for new wars and terrorism warfare to increase. Yemen exemplifies a lot of the problems that favors new wars and terrorism warfare. In Yemen, we see social injustice, meddling by external powers, and geopolitical interests that do not support principled application of international norms and rules. All of these make Yemen a fertile place for proxy wars and terrorism warfare.
Gulan: While support for Mr. Netanyahu has dramatically declined, Israeli public opinion continues to firmly support the operation aimed at eliminating Hamas, despite widespread demands for a ceasefire and global concern about the dead toll and damage in Gaza, do you believe that this means that the war is bound to continue and escalate?
Dr. Abu Bakarr Bah: Well, the conflict between Israel and Palestine has become an existential issue for both sides. In that sense, honest domestic views do not translate into honest positions on the war between Israel and Palestine. This is true for both the way Israelis support Benjamin Netanyahu against Palestinians even when his policies are morally wrong and potentially add to the long-term insecurity of Israel. It is also true for the ways Palestinians support Hamas even when their form of warfare is wrong and adds to the sufferings of the Palestinians. This is actually a very bad reality because the intensity of the animosity between the groups makes it difficult for too many people to stand by what is right and oppose what is wrong. Wars tend to end when there is an outright defeat, or a moral majority emerges and stands for what is right. Currently, neither of this is happening. An asymmetric warfare over land that has become terrorism warfare is unwinnable. Similarly, the majority in both Israel and Palestine is not able to see how they can peacefully live together in a shared state that is based on social justice nor can they agree on the parameters of two viable states that would live side-by-side in peace. This seems to be a pessimistic conclusion, but this reality should also be an opportunity for the major powers to see the futility the violent conflict between Israel and Palestine and for a moral majority to emerge and do what is right by sharing the land fairly.
Gulan: In a previous interview with our Magazine, you pointed out that the geopolitics is a crucial component as Middle Eastern crises are too closely linked to Western interests and geopolitics, how this component factor in the development of Gaza war?
Dr. Abu Bakarr Bah:The Gaza war and the whole conflict between Israel and Palestine is somehow beyond geopolitics. It has not become a geopolitical issue as we see in other cases, such as Ukraine and Taiwan. Geopolitics typically happens in cases where different powers (of more or less equal strength) compete to exert influence and impose their interest in a particular place. In the case of the conflict between Israel and Palestine, we do not have this setting. Clearly, the United States is a very strong and reliable supporter of Israel. There is no equivalent power that supports Palestine. In fact, West European powers generally support Israel. Other major powers such as Russia and China have mostly decided to stay out of the conflict. Palestinian support generally comes from regional powers and non-state actors. Geopolitics in the conflict between Israel and Palestine is effectively limited to diplomacy and moral outrage, which is routinely ignored by the belligerents. In a very strange way, the conflict has become a mute issue in the geopolitics of major global powers. Looking ahead, it is possible that the conflict between Israel and Palestine can become a geopolitical issue as we move into a more multipolar world order; and the regional powers become militarily stronger. Arguably, now is a better time for United States to settle the conflict.
Gulan: In your opinion what would be the implication of this war on the issue of normalization of ties between Israel and several Arab countries? Do you also think that this restoration of ties will last?
Dr. Abu Bakarr Bah: I think there are two levels to it – the level of the ordinary people and citizenry and the level of the states. This round of violent conflict between Israel and Palestinian has been far more destructive than previous rounds of violence. There is a real moral outrage about the level of destruction in Gaza. I think this outrage will stay with a lot of the citizens of Arab countries, which will make normalizing relations between Israel and Arab countries more difficult. At the level of the states, I think the governments of Arab countries are likely to see this round of violence as part of the war repertoire of Israel and Hamas. In that sense, I do not see a huge change in the way Arab countries deals with Israel – besides the normalization is slow and limited. This disconnect between the people and the leaders of the state is not good as it can easily favor violent non-state actors in the region.