‘Geopolitical warming’: tragedy, responsibility and Israeli-Palestinian conflict


Recent events in Israel and Gaza have shocked the world. No reasonable, moral person can feel anything but outrage and disgust. To Jews, here is another ‘massacre of the innocents’; to Palestinians of every kind, another reason to hate and hope against hope to flee Gaza or build a new homeland. To many outsiders, here are dynamics that defy reason; to people of faith, grounds to cry to the Almighty for peace and more peacemakers, for justice and a swift, wise, end to the current violence. At such times, the pen can appear a very poor answer to the sword, and the sword the only weapon to wield. Oh, that this were not the case. But, alas, here is another instance of the current geopolitical counterpart to global warming.

(Jerusalem Post, Reuters, Amir Cohen)

The world will never know how many gallons of blood have been spilled in the so-called ‘Holy Land’. Ancient tribal feuds, dynastic conflict, invading forces, crusading zealots and, more recently, two World Wars and the protracted conflict between Jews and Palestinians, have turned the already burnished soil a deeper shade of red. The blood that flowed from the ca.1400 Israelis (including the ca.150-200 taken hostage, some now presumed dead) slaughtered on 7 October by invading Hamas militants at the music festival in Re’im and in the other Kibutzes of Be-eri and Sufa near the border with Gaza, and that has subsequently flowed from the ca.3300 Palestinians obliterated to-date by Israeli bombardment of their homes in Gaza City and its environs, adds proportionately little to the quantities already shed in the region. Yes, it may leave a deep stain now, and awaken a new sense of revulsion, but the dust of forgetfulness, pain of new tragedies, and fickle media coverage, will soon bleach the pooled blood marks that a stray bullet or deliberate thrust have left on Israel and Gaza in the last few days. A history-defining moment, as some suggest? Maybe. A reason to challenge responsible governments to answer the call to act as mediators? Yes. A time to sit up and take note of the shifting tectonic plates in the Middle East? Certainly. To all those who have suffered the loss of loved ones, young and old, and to all those workers for peace in the region whose labours lie in shreds at their feet, our deepest, heartfelt sympathies.


So, where do we go from here? – and note the ‘we’; for, like every seemingly intractable issue in contemporary geopolitics, instant information does not allow many, if any, to claim not to know. The aftershock of catastrophes are now known and felt globally. The plight of the poor and oppressed, the innocent infant and battle- and conscience-hardened terrorist, afforded air time, if not understanding. We are now there in terrified homes in Israel and in bombed hospitals in Gaza. We are there in the wailing of sirens and grief. We are also there, in spirit at least, when peacemaking envoys from Qatar and the US seek to reduce tension and open lines for communication and convoys for aid. In our modern, globalised, IT world we are now more than bystanders to conflict, we are embroiled observers, informed commentators, and, when our information is partial or deficient, collateral damage. Why the latter? Because, not only is our world scarred, but our understanding is distorted. Honest admission of the ‘we’ in world affairs alters perspective, challenges values, increases suffering, and adds weight to the responsibility laid on perpetrators of violence, military personnel, world leaders, media executives, government officials, and willing makers of peace.

(Buildings and Cities)

So, again, where do we go from here? From saying, ‘It is their problem’, to accepting, ‘It is also our problem’. Agreed, we may not have pulled the trigger or launched the missile, but we are all equally responsible for the world we inhabit. We are equally guilty of turning a blind eye to what doesn’t interest us, or concern us, or, more tragically, affect us. We are all, always, in danger of presuming we understand situations and decisions better than experts, more than participants, and, if people of faith, all-too-often more than the Almighty himself!

(José Ignacio Pompé, Unsplash)

Come back to my theme of ‘geopolitical warming’, as an equally disturbing counterpart to the widely acknowledged phenomenon of ‘global warming’. For millennia, shifts in the sun’s activity and terrestrial events (i.e., volcanos) have impacted the earth’s temperature and weather patterns. 200 years of industrial development and the uncontrolled (or unadmitted) burning of fossil fuels (like coal, oil and gas) have created new types and levels of pollution (particularly CO2 emissions[1]) that have trapped the sun’s heat and thereby increased global temperatures.[2] In March 2023, the UN’s Africa Borderlands Centre warned of the irreversible impact on more than 40m people in the Horn of Africa of changing rainfall patterns caused by climate change.[3] In this instance, the report argues, innovative groundwater investigation by radar and satellite technology can help to identify reliable water sources for livestock, farming and domestic use. But water and food insecurity remain a reality for a majority in the region, as does tribal conflict and Islamist militancy. This one example encapsulates a global reality: dire warnings, glimpses of hope, difficult choices. The complex realities of ‘geopolitical warming’ are no less encouraging, and, as we have glimpsed, are all too often interrelated with the world’s, widely acknowledged, ecological crisis.

(The New European)

If, as the old saying goes, ‘One swallow doesn’t make a summer’, one area of conflict – such as the protracted violence between Israel and their Palestinian neighbours – doesn’t make a(nother) World War. Neither does it reduce the impression that long-established patterns of more-or-less peaceful, often fruitful, coexistence in the world are changing and a drought of good will is setting in. The indices of this changing geopolitical climate are as notable, and noteworthy, as rising sea levels and a melting Polar ice-cap. This new reality needs far wider recognition – and I am by nature an optimist!

(Annie Spratt, Unsplash)

Introducing its timeline of war from 1900 to the present, the British Imperial War Museum states:

Conflict took place in every year of the 20th Century; the world was free from the violence caused by war for only very short periods of time. It has been estimated that 187 million people died as a result of war from 1900 to the present. The actual number is likely far higher.[4]

If we focus the lens a little more, we find that between the end of World War II in 1945 and 2017[5] there were, according the Polynational War Memorial (PWM), 116 wars of various kinds, severities and lengths. Some are well-known, such as the Korean War (1949-53), the Vietnam War (1965-75), the Six Day and Yom Kippur Wars (1967, 1973), the Nigerian Civil War (1967-70), ‘The Troubles’ in Northern Ireland (1971-98), the Falklands War (1982), the Gulf War (1991), Iraq War (2003), and the war in Afghanistan (2001-17). Others are less well-known and were short-lived, such as the Telangana Rebellion and Indo-Hyderabad War (1947-8), the Yemeni Imamate War (1948), the third Sino-Tibetan War (1950), the Kenyan Mau-Mau Rebellion (1954-6), the first Rwanda Civil War (1963-4), and Civil War in Côte d’Ivoire (2002-4). A majority, though, were prolonged, bloody, and all too often briefly noted, little understood, and only partially reported to the outside world. Among such, PWM lists the Malayan Civil War (1948-57), the Algerian War of Independence (1955-62), the first Kurdish-Iraqi War (1961-70), the Laos Civil War (1959-73), the Angolan War of Independence (1961-75), the Sri Lankan Government vs JVP (1971-1990) and Tamil Militants (1984-2009), the Iran-Iraq War (1980-8), the Lebanese Civil War (1975-90), the Burmese Government vs  Communist insurgents (1948-94) and Cambodian Government vs the Khmer Rouge (1979-98), the Civil War in Burundi (1991-2007), the Chad Civil War (1966-2010), the Ugandan Civil War (1980-2017), the Kivu conflict (2004-17), the Yemeni (2009-17), Syrian and Libyan Civil Wars (2011-17) and war in Eastern Ukraine (2014-17), some of which go on. Such troubled waters of national and international conflict since 1945.


Seen in this light, the conflict between Israel and Palestine since 1949 is far from unique. In fact, since 2017 the evidence for rumbling tension, border disputes, tribal violence, terrorist attacks, and all-out war, has increased significantly. Border clashes between China and India, Pakistan and Afghanistan, India and Pakistan (over Kashmir), and between Armenia and Azerbaijan (over Nagorno-Karabakh), have intensified. When added to Qatif conflict in Saudi Arabia and the rise of ISIS and ISIL, the Anglophone conflict in Cameroon and insurgency in Cabo Delgado, the Catatumbo campaign in Colombia, the Civil War in Ethiopia and Tigray, rebellion in Western Togoland, herder-farmer conflict and insurgency in SE Nigeria, conflict between Kyrgystan and Tajikistan, the on-going civil and ethnic violence in Myanmar (esp. from February 2022), the al-Shabaab invasion of Ethiopia, Afghan-Iranian clashes, the Las Anod conflict in Somaliland, the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the Wagner Group rebellion, the very recent Azerbaijani offensive in Nagorno-Karabakh, and now Hamas’ brutal incursion in Israel, and the threat of the conflict spreading to Lebanon and the Arab world, we might, I believe, justly speak of ‘geopolitical warming’. Not just troubled waters, but bubbling conflict, if not boiling seas.

(Wikimedia Commons)

The evidence of ‘geopolitical warming’ is, I suggest, compelling. But where is the personal, communal, and international concern to match local ‘green’ initiatives, to parallel the energy around COP 26 and 27, or to set agreed limits to diplomatic greenhouse gas emissions? If the present crisis in the Holy Land is our problem, then so too is every other expression of war in our world. Just as you don’t have to be a vegan to express concern for the planet, you don’t have to be a pacifist to advocate peace. The irresponsibility demonstrated by some in relation to climate change is, I fear, far more evident among those who turn a blind eye to escalating conflict in our world, or only pay attention when it can win votes or calm their conscience. And then there are those in government circles and military establishments, corporations and security services, churches, mosques and synagogues, who shamelessly – albeit at times very privately – advocate war as a ‘just cause’, a business opportunity, a diplomatic ‘hit’, or a divine calling. They are as much the fuel that warms the waters of contemporary conflict as those of us who do not act to pour cold water on heated tempers and fantastical schemes.

In the face of open, active warfare, the pen has little power; although, perhaps, like a leaflet dropped from the sky it can embolden resistance or encourage a direction. But what message should such a leaflet carry at the present time? Let me propose four bullet-point headlines.

(Brentford Chamber of Commerce)

i. This could be YOU. When my wife and I lived in Cambridge in the 1990s, I was contacted one day by a well-dressed Yugoslavian woman, who had lived an elegant, professional life in Sarajevo, until the infamously brutal ethnic conflict (1990/1-2001) raped, slaughtered, and pillaged her beautiful land. The woman and her teenage son had fled the conflict to France and then the UK. She had lost everything. Her comfortable middle class life turned, seemingly irreversibly, upside down. The emotional, relational, cultural, and financial pressures on her were immense. As I have heard many hosts to Ukrainian families say in the last eighteen months, ‘It is because they are like us, I feel their pain and plight so intensely.’ That was certainly true of my conversations with the delightful, but deeply disturbed, refugee from Sarajevo. Perhaps the greatest reality that ‘geopolitical warming’ (like ‘global warming’) confronts us all with is that this could be me or you, caught by a random act of violence, like those two Swedish bystanders shot this week in Brussels, or those 38 British tourists gunned down by Islamic State militants on the beach at Port El Kantaoui, near Sousse, Tunisia, on 26 June 2015, three months after another 22 passersby were killed in a similar attack at the Bardo Museum in Tunis. If climate change affects us all, so too does the rising tide of geopolitical violence. Burying our heads in the sand is as useless as a sandbag against a nuclear bomb. There are few safe places left to hide, too few grounds to deny the problem. 

An image from the siege of Sarajevo (5 April 1992 to 29 February 1996 (Lt. Stacey Wyzkowski, Wikipedia)

ii. This is no ‘phoney war’. My beloved father was a young RAF doctor at the end of World War II. The impact of his experiences lasted a life time. It instilled in him a hatred for violence and aversion to war films that glamorised what he knew to be ghastly realities, burned faces, dismembered bodies, broken minds. The unthinking and irresponsible glamorising, and commercialising, of conflict in films, cartoons, docu-dramas, and computer games, deserves to be more tightly regulated, if not flatly condemned. The five Rambo films and their like may have been box office hits in the West, but what cruel havoc and barbarity they have caused in Africa and beyond, stirring young and old to seek status and fulfilment through violence. Cool heads need to consider the evidence of copy-cat brutality as carefully as climate scientists do changing patterns of rainfall and desertification. Yes, it may require adjustment of policy and behaviour at the highest level, so be it, if the threat is as great as global warming. But it is not only the impressionable or desperate who succomb to destructive influence. Governments and their aids are also susceptible to the acid rain of public opinion, militarism, and seeking the competitive edge. But my second point is a rather different one. Simply put, ‘geopolitical warming’ isn’t a ‘phoney war’. What we are seeing today isn’t empty sabre-rattling or military masquerading, or, indeed, another expression of that misreporting and misrepresenting of the famous ‘Phoney War’ (3 September 1939 to 10 May 1940) in Europe. Denial may seek to depress data and optimism reconfigure it, but most senior military and security figures around the world, wherever they live and whomever they serve, study from their bunkers a global tinder-box surrounded by matches and missiles galore. To some, ‘geopolitical warming’ is rich in possibilities, to others, thank God, a ‘real and present danger’.

(Imperial War Museum, IWM O 344)

iii. Help isn’t coming. Like their counterparts in so many conflicts around the world since the end of World War II, embattled Palestinians may legitimately wonder today, ‘Is help on its way?’ Too often, it seems, gestures of support have been as insubstantial as the aid received. With the UN and its agencies and leaders increasingly discounted as effective respondents to need on the ground, the sense of isolation and vulnerability among victims of every kind increases. If this isn’t the case, what counter-evidence is there that help really is on its way? Yes, in relation to the present conflict between Israel and Palestine, it is estimated Israel has over the years received $260bn in military and economic aid from the US,[6] while both Russian President Putin (b. 1952; PM. 1999-2000, 2008-12; Pres. 2012-present) and Chinese President Xi Jinping (b. 1953; Pres. 2012-present) have refused to join the US, EU and UK in condeming the ruling Hamas in Gaza as a terrorist organization. And, for its part, Hamas has received, according to counterterrorist expert Matthew Levitt, in addition to charitable gifts, more than $300m from business taxes and concerned Arab nations, such as Iran and Qatar .[7] But, to many on the ground on both sides, US endorsement of Israel is increasingly pressured by politically alert Human Rights groups, while financial and humanitarian support for people in Gaza is no protection against the rockets that rain down on them.

Yitzhak Rabin, Bill Clinton and Yasser Arafat at the White House in 1993 (Vince Musi, The White House, Wikipedia)

The short-lived nature of both the Oslo peace agreement that US President Bill Clinton (b. 1946; Pres. 1993-2001) brokered in 1993 between Israeli Prime Minister Itzak Rabin (1922-1995; PM 1974-7, 1992-5) and the iconic Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat (1929-2004),[8] and President Donald Trump’s (b. 1946; Pres. 2017-21) December 2020 peace plan[9] that Israeli President Benyamin Netanyahu (b. 1949; PM. 1996-9, 2009-21; 2022-present) dubbed ‘the deal of the century’, but Palestinians rejected outright, is a stark reminder that political pens are no more reliable than any other in a time of war, economic crisis, or run-up to an election. Evidence suggests much-lauded support to other groups and causes around the world has been, and is, similarly unreliable. Victims and protagonists cannot, and should not, believe all they are promised. Real politik more reliably says, ‘Help isn’t coming.’ This does not mean good causes are necessarily lost. It does mean campaigners must question, ‘Yes, we can!’ and more realistically ask, ‘Can we really win?’, or as a Facebook poster asked, ‘Are you really winning?’ If not, then ‘What is the least worst option?’ Geopolitical temperatures might, I would argue, be significantly reduced if a will to survive were more firmly wedded to a will for peace – perhaps, even, given the state of the world, at almost any price. In the crisis of contemporary ‘geopolitical warming’, conflict is for many, very tragically, the preferred – or, alas, necessary – first option. For that state of affairs, we are all responsible.

Hillbrow and the Hillbrow Tower in Johannesburg (NJR ZA, Wikipedia)

iv. Build for the future. It may seem incongruous to shift from the realism that says, ‘Help isn’t coming’ to the idealism that urges, ‘Build for the future.’ I think not; in fact, quite the reverse. For the realism that asks for a realistic assessment of present conditions, also demands that future possibilities be imagined. This is the essence of re-imagining any complex situation; indeed, it would be as unkind not to do the creative work of dreaming dreams and hard work of proposing practical alternatives as it would be to deny the hellish reality some inhabit. But encouragment to ‘Build for the future’ is also a shared duty, like fighting climate change. If we are to become effective campaigners to reduce ‘geopolitical warming’, we will need to be active thought leaders and collaborative change-agents. Peacemaking isn’t just a matter of ending violence – vital though this is: it is also a long-term act of social rehabilitation and new war against the conditionalities that currently grip our dangerously over-heating world. At such a time as this, ‘Blessed’, indeed, ‘are the peacemakers.’

Professor Christopher Hancock – Director

[1] It is estimated CO2 emissions are 50% higher than in 1750 and exceed anything experienced in the previous 800,000 years. 

[2] For a useful overview, see https://www.un.org/en/climatechange/science/mythbusters?gclid=CjwKCAjwvrOpBhBdEiwAR58-3KhKkHiUV-x893YDeztAPy-EuByey0NgiPQigzNY5CcxemCYmPotfxoCTcYQAvD_BwE; accessed 18 October 2023.

[3] Cf. https://www.undp.org/africa/africa-borderlands-centre/blog/can-groundwater-act-catalyst-sustainable-development-africas-borderlands?gclid=CjwKCAjwvrOpBhBdEiwAR58-3GiMjqO4-pS1koywMuIanzSOywF-RXDLBXKkqZboSfp8Boz-SwcdGxoCbMAQAvD_BwE; accessed 18 October 2023.

[4] Cf. https://www.iwm.org.uk/history/timeline-of-20th-and-21st-century-wars#:~:text=It%20has%20been%20estimated%20that,from%201900%20to%20the%20present; accessed 18 October 2023.

[5] NB. Some of the conflicts listed in this paragraph have continued after 2017.

[6] Cf. https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/newsbeat-44124396; accessed 18 October 2023.

[7] Cf. for more detail and US assessment: https://www.cnbctv18.com/world/explained-hamas-funding-how-gaza-based-palestinian-terror-group-pays-for-operations-weapons-against-israel-18064991.htm; accessed 18 October 2023.

[8] Yasser Arafat (or, more accurately, Mohammed Abdel Rahman Abdel Raouf Arafat al-Qudwa al-Husseini) was a founding member and leader of the Fatah party (1959-2004), Chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO; 1969-2004) and President of the newly formed Palestinian National Authority (PNA; 1994-2004).

[9] Officially known as ‘Peace to Prosperity: A Vision to Improve the Lives of the Palestinian and Israeli People’.