By Andrew Thomas

Hamas’ attack on the 50th anniversary of the Yom Kippur War was the deadliest single day in Israeli history. Showers of rockets, kidnappings and indiscriminate killings have led to a death toll already over 1,200 Israelis, leading many to describe the event as “Israel’s 9/11”.

Israel has wasted no time in its response – declaring “war” and heavily bombarding Gaza. More than 1,000 Gazans have been killed, with the death toll certain to rise. Israel’s defence minister has ordered a “complete siege” of the territory, cutting off food, fuel and electricity.

The horror of the last few days (and the horror still to come) reminds us of the importance of understanding legitimacy in this context.

Legitimacy is an essential part of comprehending the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and its intractable nature – in particular, the legitimacy of statehood, violence, political speech and governing authority.

While legitimacy is often subjective, having it is what makes political action successful. If others perceive you as powerful, you are powerful. If others perceive you as moral, you are moral.

There are many ways political movements and leaders can obtain, lose or keep their legitimacy, but it depends very much on the political entity in question as to how they claim and use it.

For example, since 1948, Israel has derived much of its legitimacy from its status as a sovereign state. As a state, it has a recognised right to protect its borders, hold legitimate elections, make its own laws and use force to defend itself.

The Palestinians, on the other hand, have no such authority or rights. They have spent the bulk of their political history trying to achieve self-determination.

In principle, the vast majority of the international community supports the self-determination of the Palestinian people, but in practice has done little to uphold it.

Without self-determination, Palestinians derive their political legitimacy from their struggle against the Israeli occupation in both the West Bank and Gaza.

Hamas’ legitimacy within Gaza is complicated. The strip has been under a heavy blockade for over 15 years. Unemployment is at 45 per cent, and 60 per cent of Gazans require humanitarian assistance. Some of this is provided by the United Nations, but much comes from Hamas.

Hamas also argues that violence against Israel is the only form of resistance at its disposal because the blockade and Israel’s opposition to other political movements have reduced options for peaceful resistance. In the absence of a recognised security force, Hamas does command some real political legitimacy inside Gaza.

Hamas has long had little political legitimacy outside Gaza, however. The group has not held elections in 17 years and has been labelled a terrorist organisation by the US, Australia, the European Union and others. Hamas’ military wing, Al-Qassam Brigades, has routinely targeted civilian populations in Israel, while also putting Palestinian civilians in harm’s way by encouraging the use of human shields.

Even the Palestinian National Authority, the governing body in the West Bank, does not recognise the political legitimacy of Hamas.

Last weekend’s attacks will now have a catastrophic effect on the perceived legitimacy of the Palestinian self-determination movement as a whole.

It will be near impossible for powerful allies of Israel to put meaningful pressure on the government to address the very real political concerns of Gazans in the long term. The success of Palestinian self-determination hinges on international support and Hamas’ actions have set the movement back decades.

Israel has its own serious questions of legitimacy – some of which are decades old, some that have arisen from the weekend’s attack.

Yes, Israel enjoys the external legitimacy of statehood and governing authority, and it has never lost the right to defend itself.

But its decades of occupation and settlement in the Palestinian territories have brought into question its moral authority. If Israel claims to be a liberal democracy and respect international law, how can the government legitimise its policies towards the West Bank and Gaza?

Over the years, this question has faded into the background as the Oslo Accords

have fallen apart and several Arab states have normalised relations with Israel. This new era of external legitimacy has effectively led Israel to abandon negotiations with the Palestinians, accelerate settlements in the West Bank and tighten its blockade of Gaza.

But the Hamas attacks show how complacent the Israeli government has become about its own political and moral legitimacy. In neglecting its obligation to find a equitable solution to the conflict, the government has put both Israeli and Palestinian lives in danger. Kicking the can down the road is no longer an option and will only lead to more lives lost.

Now Israel needs to make a choice. Will it recognise that withholding political legitimacy from Palestinians does not keep its people safe? Or will it squander its own legitimacy by destroying Gaza?

Undoubtedly, the government will consolidate its moral legitimacy in the short term as the massacre of Israeli civilians reverberates around the world. But in the long term, this is not a foregone conclusion. Unfortunately, the most nationalist government in Israel’s history is unlikely to exercise restraint in its response.

Israel has squandered its political legitimacy through conflict before. The indiscriminate attacks on Lebanon in Operation Litani and Operation Peace for Gallileewhich resulted in the siege of Beirut in 1982 brought significant condemnation from normally staunch allies, including the United States.

More importantly, the destruction of Gaza is not a solution to this conflict and only puts the lives of civilians – both Israeli and Palestinian – at risk. The closest this conflict has ever gotten to peace was when the Palestine Liberation Organisation was given political legitimacy through the Oslo Accords.

Hamas’s acts of terror cannot and should not be legitimised, but the broader call for Palestinian self-determination is something Israel must now meaningfully acknowledge. Its own legitimacy as a democratic, cosmopolitan and secure society is at stake.

Andrew Thomas is a lecturer in Middle East Studies at Deakin University