Rage is not a strategy.
Israel has a right — and indeed a responsibility — to protect its people, recover its hostages and seek justice in the wake of the heinous attack by Hamas on Oct. 7. Overwhelming grief and blind fury are understandable reactions. Yet the desire for “mighty vengeance,” as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel put it, is no substitute for sound strategic thinking.
I fear that Israeli officials — in their attempt to assuage a furious public — are making a terrible mistake at this critical moment for their people, their Arab neighbors, their American allies and the world.
Ground troops have been readying an invasion that aims to, in the words of Defense Minister Yoav Gallant, wipe Hamas “off the face of the Earth.” But there hasn’t been enough public communication in Israel about what that means. Does Israel aim to simply destroy Hamas gunmen and munitions stockpiles? It wants to topple Hamas’s leadership, but if that succeeds, who will rule Gaza in its place? Will Israel reoccupy Gaza and if so, for how long? What will be done to give Palestinians hope for a future in which they can finally live with dignity and freedom so that they don’t keep Hamas’s ideology of resistance alive?
“I don’t know how this war will end, but I do know that by the time it’s over, Hamas will have lost not only their capability but their will to carry out such evil acts against us again,” Itay Milner, spokesman for the Israeli consulate in New York, told me. He noted that the 2006 response to a hostage-taking by Hezbollah in Lebanon — which destroyed an entire section of Beirut — “was so significant that it made them seriously regret ever underestimating our power and resolve.”
That military operation against Hezbollah was seen as a success — so punishing that it bought 17 years of relative quiet. But it also nurtured resentments that could help turn an invasion of Gaza into a wider regional war. This past March, Hassan Nasrallah, Hezbollah’s leader, told a group of Iran-backed militia members to get ready for a war with Israel that would begin a new era and include a ground invasion, according to a report by The Times. Over the weekend, Iran’s foreign minister, Hossein Amir Abdollahian, warned that attacks on Gazan civilians would trigger a reaction from Hezbollah, which has the military capability to cause a “huge earthquake” in Israel.
Hamas appears to want to lure Israelis into Gaza and has been preparing for this battle for years.
“This looks to me like a group that has come to believe its own narrative that Israel is a paper tiger and that it can defeat them militarily,” said Thanassis Cambanis, the director of the Century Foundation’s international research and policy center, who studies Islamist groups.
Israel’s military is not a paper tiger; it is one of the most technologically sophisticated militaries in the world. But it seems to be repeating the same mistakes the United States made after Sept. 11. Acting out of grief, rage and no small amount of hubris, America waged two costly wars, with deadly consequences for Iraqi and Afghan civilians and poor outcomes for ourselves in the end. Those wars empowered one enemy, Iran, and created a new one, ISIS. And after maintaining an over-20-year insurgency in Afghanistan, the Taliban is back in power, proving that “dismantling” a terrorist organization is easier said than done. American overreach squandered the good will we’d gotten in the wake of the attack.
By cutting off power, food and other essential goods to more than two million people in Gaza — until Hamas releases the hostages that are being held, Israel’s energy minister, Israel Katz, said — Israel is opening itself up to charges of collective punishment, which is illegal under international law. Nearly half of Gazans are under the age of 18. Why should they pay the price for Hamas’s attacks?
Over the summer, thousands of Palestinians staged protest marches in Gaza against Hamas’s rule. Hamas security beat them with batons. “They don’t even pretend to care about us,” one demonstrator told al-Monitor, an online news site. Now those same protesters are losing their homes, and possibly their lives, to Israeli bombs. Without power, many Gazans will lose the ability to pump water from wells or treat the wounded in hospitals. They are already losing contact with the outside world as their cellphones die. So they won’t be able to receive the evacuation warnings that Israel sends.
Israeli officials tell me that Israel won’t let civilians in Gaza starve to death, and there are reports that Israel has agreed to turn water back on in southern Gaza, although, as of Tuesday morning, Gaza’s interior ministry said that hasn’t happened. President Biden, who is expected to arrive in Israel on Wednesday, is said to be pushing for an agreement to get in humanitarian aid through Egypt. Supplies have been cut off not as an ultimatum to Hamas to release the hostages, Mr. Milner told me, but “to weaken the ability of Hamas to fight, since they use humanitarian aid for military purposes.” But some Israeli politicians have left the clear impression that the siege will continue until the hostages are released.
“I strongly oppose the opening of the blockade and the introduction of goods into Gaza on humanitarian grounds,” Mr. Katz, Israel’s energy minister, said Monday on X, formerly Twitter. “Our commitment is to the families of the murdered and the kidnapped hostages — not to the Hamas murderers and those who aided them.”
An Israeli member of the country’s parliament, Ariel Kallner of the Likud party, went further, calling for a “Nakba in Gaza,” a reference to the word “catastrophe” that Arabs use to describe the expulsion of hundreds of thousands of Arabs in 1948 from what is now Israel at the country’s founding.
A final thought: If Hamas is ISIS, as Israeli officials now say, it’s reasonable to ask why so many civilians have been left in their care for so long.
Israeli troops withdrew from Gaza in 2005 but didn’t try to turn that opportunity into peace. Israel didn’t strike a deal with the Palestinian Authority, which has renounced terrorism, to run the territory. Israeli soldiers just left. Dov Weisglass, a senior aide to Ariel Sharon, then the Israeli prime minister, famously boasted at the time that it was part of a plan to put peace talks into the deep freeze until “the Palestinians turned into Finns” — shorthand for people who won’t shoot rockets at Israel. If the plan was to keep peace talks on ice indefinitely, it worked. Palestinian factions fought each other in Gaza. Hamas won parliamentary elections in 2006 and violently expelled its main rival, Fatah, in 2007.
Ever since, Gaza and the West Bank have been too divided to push for the deferred dream of statehood. But the Palestinians of Gaza, the West Bank and East Jerusalem are still waiting — and they aren’t turning into Finns.
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