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Difficult Questions about the Hamas-Israeli War

This is a re-post from Brett Stephens at the The New York Times

Israeli soldiers in the Gaza Strip in February.Credit...Sergey Ponomarev for The New York Times
Israeli soldiers in the Gaza Strip in February.
Credit...Sergey Ponomarev for The New York Times

March 12, 2024

On Saturday, President Biden warned that Benjamin Netanyahu’s approach to the war in Gaza was “hurting Israel more than helping Israel.” The Israeli prime minister replied the next day that Biden was “wrong.” The rift between the two leaders means that Israel risks losing its most important pillar of military and diplomatic support.

I’ve argued that Israel has no choice but to destroy Hamas as an effective fighting force. Here I imagine a conversation with an intelligent critic of that view.

Thousands of Gazan civilians, many of them children, have now been killed, bombed in their homes or out of them. Now they face a humanitarian catastrophe in the form of medicine and food shortages, even starvation.

How can you possibly justify it?

Like all wars, this one is horrible and heartbreaking. But I blame Hamas, not Israel, for the devastation.

Look, Hamas is a terrorist group whose leaders should face justice for the massacres of Oct. 7. But it isn’t Hamas’s bombs, missiles or artillery that have leveled Gaza. It’s Israel’s.

Right. And Hamas, which started the war, could put a halt to that rain of fire tomorrow. It rejected a six-week cease-fire that would have paused the fighting and allowed much more aid in exchange for the release of roughly 40 of the remaining 100 Israeli hostages. It could stop the fighting for good by simply surrendering.

Hamas may not want to stop the fighting, but there’s little we can do about that. Israel can stop its assault and thus spare Palestinian lives. And because Biden has leverage on Israel, he should use it.

The best way to get Hamas to stop fighting is to beat it. If Israel were to end the war now, with several Hamas battalions intact, at least four things would happen.

First, it would be impossible to set up a political authority in Gaza that isn’t Hamas: If the Palestinian Authority or local Gazans tried to do so, they wouldn’t live for long. Second, Hamas would reconstitute its military force as Hezbollah did in Lebanon after the 2006 war with Israel — and Hamas has promised to repeat the attacks of Oct. 7 “a second, a third, a fourth” time. Third, the Israeli hostages would be stuck in their awful captivity indefinitely.

Fourth, there would never be a Palestinian state. No Israeli government is going to agree to a Palestinian state in the West Bank if it risks resembling Gaza.

All that is speculative. The reality is that children are hungry, the sick aren’t getting medicine, innocent Palestinians are being killed, now. It’s wrong to avert theoretical harms by causing actual ones.

It might be more speculative if this weren’t the fifth major war that Hamas has provoked since it seized power in Gaza in 2007. After each war, Hamas’s capabilities have grown stronger and its ambitions bolder. At some point this had to end; for Israelis, Oct. 7 was that point.

Maybe, but why can’t Israel be much more judicious in its use of force?

Do you have any specific suggestions for how Israel can defeat Hamas while being more sparing of civilians?

I’m not a military expert.

I’ve noticed that whenever Israel’s critics lecture the country on better calibrating its use of force, they don’t have any concrete suggestions. Are Israelis smart enough to fight better, but too stupid to appreciate the diplomatic consequences of not doing so?

Maybe they’re thirsty for vengeance.

The reality of urban warfare is that it’s exceptionally costly and difficult. The United States under Barack Obama and Donald Trump spent nine months helping Iraqi forces flatten the city of Mosul to defeat ISIS, with results that looked even worse than Gaza does today. I don’t remember calls for “Cease-Fire Now” then. Hamas has made it even more difficult for Israel because, instead of sheltering civilians in its immense network of tunnels, it shelters itself.

Even so, that doesn’t relieve Israel of the obligation to prevent a humanitarian catastrophe.

It’s not as if Israel is not lifting a finger. On Sunday alone, 225 truckloads of aid entered Gaza through Israel, according to the Israeli military. But you seem to think that the government of Israel’s primary responsibility is to the welfare of the people of Gaza. It isn’t. As with any government, its obligations are to its own people.

Israelis are mostly doing fine now. It’s Palestinians who are dying.

Israel has spent the last five months degrading Hamas’s military capabilities to the point that it seems to have run out of rockets to fire at Israel. And around 200,000 Israelis are living as refugeesinside their own country because its borders aren’t secure. No country can tolerate that. Israel didn’t come into existence to showcase the victimization of Jews. It came into existence to end their victimization.

Well, since you’re alluding to the Holocaust, it surely can’t be in Israel’s interests to be seen perpetrating a version of it in Gaza. Just look at the worldwide explosion of antisemitism since Oct. 7.

That analogy is false and offensive on many levels. Israel is fighting a war it didn’t seek, against an enemy sworn to its destruction and holding scores of its citizens hostage. If Israel had wanted to wipe out Gazans as Germans sought to wipe out Jews, it could have done so on the first day of the war. Israel is fighting a tough war against an evil enemy that puts its own civilians in harm’s way. Maybe there should be more public pressure on Hamas to surrender than on Israel to save Hamas from the consequences of its actions.

As for antisemitism, the war hasn’t generated a torrent of antisemitism so much as it has exposed it.

Probably a mix of the two. Still, you make the mistake of imagining that Hamas can be defeated. You can’t kill an idea, particularly by generating the terrible resentments that are surely brewing in Gaza and throughout the Arab world.

By that logic, the Allies should have spared Germany because National Socialism was also an idea. You may not be able to kill an idea but you can defang it, just as you can persuade future generations that some ideas have terrible consequences for those who espouse them.

So what do you suggest the Biden administration do?

Help Israel win the war decisively so that Israelis and Palestinians can someday win the peace.

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This is the most important video I've ever made.

It is the story of how my family, my wife and six children, sold our home and most of our possessions to settle the most strategic area at the edge of Jewish settlement in Judea.

What happens in Israel now will effect the future of Israel for generations to come... and we wanted to do our part.

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