I’m not a pundit, of course, so take this as the reaction of a biologist who reads the news and a Leftist who doesn’t hate Israel:
As the days pass—and as I predicted—the world’s sympathy for Israel and its residents butchered by Hamas is morphing into sympathy for the Palestinians. And indeed, Palestinian civilians deserve sympathy for being the victims of Hamas as well. But as most people agreed—and many still do—after the attack Israel had little choice but to uproot Hamas once and for all.
The question I’m asking is this “How are they supposed to do it?” Now I don’t have the intelligence that Israel has, but that country had several choices about how to respond. None of them will be met by the world’s approbation. And that is my dilemma and Israel’s. Here are those options:
- Do nothing (“business as usual”). This is a non-starter as it would simply hearten Hamas and Hezbollah to mount even greater attacks, seeing that Israel will not respond any more than it usually does (reprisal bombing and attempts to kill or capture terrorists in the West Bank). The terrorism and low-level fighting would continue indefinitely. This is not a solution to anything and will not even ameliorate terrorism much less uproot Hamas.
- Tender a peace offer immediately. That is, immediately start negotiations for a two-state solution, mandating a cease-fire during these negotiations. This is a ludicrous solution because the Palestinians, who have rejected five peace offers since the 1930—some of which would be acceptable to centrists on both sides—do not want a two-state solution of any kind, including one with a continuous West Bank. They want Israel eliminated. (Even non-Hamas Palestinians favor the erasure of Israel.) Now Israelis are starting to realize that a two-state solution isn’t feasible, either. Those who think that terrorism can be eliminated by any two-state solution that leaves a Palestinian country abutting an Israeli one iare fooling themselves. Terrorism will continue so long as Israel is a state. Most Palestinians and even more Gazans (and many on the Western Left) simply think that Israel should be erased, either via military action or forming a single state that includes Jews and the millions of Palestinians who claim the “right of return”. The latter solution will, by flooding the state with Muslims who hate and want to kill Jews, is simply another method of eliminating Jews.
- Increase the bombing of military targets. This has been Israel’s go-to solution, but it comes with the death of civilians as a byproduct, particularly because Hamas uses its citizens as human shields and isn’t really concerned whether they die. (In fact, though this is unpleasant to contemplate, Hamas wants Gazans to die because they get more aid and sympathy from the world.) This solution is also unlikely to get rid of Hamas because they are hiding, presumably with the hostages—if the hostages aren’t dead yet.
- Put a siege on Gaza. This has happened, and I don’t favor it for three reasons. First, it inflicts suffering on innocent Palestinians. Second, I don’t think it will work. Israel’s object is not to kill Gazans through starvation, but to weaken them so much that they’ll get rid of Hamas. But I doubt this will work given the ability of Palestine to smuggle goods into their country through tunnels from Egypt. The shortage of power could be remedied if Hamas’s corrupt millionaire and billionaire leaders would ante up some of their ill-gotten loot to pay for medical goods and fuel, but fuel would be hard to get in under any circumstances. Further, it’s crazy to think that millionaires like Ismail Haniyeh (the political head of Hamas), or even Mahmoud Abbas, would give up their personal wealth to help Gaza. Third, a siege is the tactic least likely to gain sympathy or support for Israel. Thus I support organizations who try to relieve the suffering of Palestinians caused by the siege by contributing food, water, and medicine. (Good news: I just heard that Israel has restored water to Gaza.)
- Mount a ground war. This is the solution I favor (though without the accompanying siege), and it appears to be Israel’s main strategy. A ground war should be conducted with the aim of extirpating Hamas, not killing civilians, and Israel is indeed taking its usual precautions to avoid, as far as possible, civilian deaths. (If you think that the Palestinian militants try to avoid killing civilians you are ignorant: they aim to kill Israeli civilians. They would give Israel no exit corridor.) Israel has opened an exit route to southern Gaza and are negotiating with Egypt to open its borders to refugees. Sadly, those borders are apparently still closed, as Egypt demands the entry of humanitarian aid into Gaza to open the single exit, and there is squabbling about how to inspect aid trucks for weapons—a reasonable consideration given Hamas’s past behavior. If Egypt won’t open its borders without reasonable precautions to prevent the incursion of weapons, that fault falls upon Egypt. The Gazan-Egyptian border needs to be open as an exit route, but of course Egypt doesn’t want to be flooded with refugees, either, particularly because some of them will be Hamas terrorists and Egypt has no way of telling who is who. Finally, remember that a ground war will result in the deaths of many Israeli soldiers, so it’s not a “cost free” way of eliminating Hams.
Now none of the feasible solutions (3-5) are going to be applauded by the world (though some would be approved by countries like the U.S.), and for one reason: they all lead to the deaths of Palestinian civilians. If you count out a siege, which I don’t favor, we’re left with options 3 and 5, both of which are being implemented. Both of those will result in the deaths of non-terrorist civilians because it’s simply not feasible to extirpate Hamas without killing civilians as an unintended byproduct. Remember: Hamas is using civilians as human shields. We all know (though few admit) that Israel takes more care than any combatant country in the world to NOT kill civilians. But it’s impossible, if your goal is to get rid of Hamas, to accomplish that without the death of civilians.
Despite that, those deaths are enough to make people tell Israel to hold off and revert to strategy #1: do nothing. This is what Nicholas Kristof said in his NYT column yesterday:
“If you fire missiles at densely populated areas, you will kill children, and that is what the Israeli military has been doing,” Sari Bashi of Human Rights Watch told me. War crimes shouldn’t be avenged by more war crimes.
Many Israelis aren’t in the mood to hear this. They have suffered a shattering blow, among the worst massacres of Jews since the Holocaust. The refrain from Israel is an anguished: But what do you expect us to do?
Fair enough. Everyone expects Israel to hit back. The practical question is how far to go: In the bluntest terms, for Israel, how many dead Gazan children are too many?
As Kristof goes on to say, that is an “impossible question”. Is there a threshold for the number of civilians killed (not just children), above which people will tell Israel to get out of Gaza and stop trying to eliminate Hamas? Is the number of bodies the important factor in the calculus of what to do? (Sam Harris says “no”; see also this response from Douglas Murray, who mistakenly sees “proportionality” as a uniquely British consideration). What about the hostages, which are taken by Hamas but not by Israel?
The best Israel can do is to take great precautions to avoid harming civilians, but remember that Hamas wants its own civilians killed to gain the world’s sympathy. That means that using them as human shields will inevitably increase the death toll of civilians, causing the world to come down even harder on Israel. As Bret Stephens wrote in his NYT column today, “Hamas bears the blame for every death in this war,“:
As I write, Israeli forces appear to be on the cusp of launching their ground assault into Gaza. With that invasion, the balance of global sympathy, along with the weight of diplomatic pressure, will undoubtedly turn against Israel. That has always been part of Hamas’s strategy: Like the boy who murders his parents and then, through his lawyers, pleads for the court’s mercy because he’s an orphan.
Hamas wants the benefits of being a perpetrator and the sympathy of being a victim at the same time. Whether it gets away with it will depend, in part, on the international community — which, in this case, includes you, the reader.
We ought to be able to get this right. The central cause of Gaza’s misery is Hamas. It alone bears the blame for the suffering it has inflicted on Israel and knowingly invited against Palestinians. The best way to end the misery is to remove the cause, not stay the hand of the remover.
(Stephens, by the way, doesn’t favor a siege, either.)
Israel will not survive unless it can defend itself. Yet when it tries, it gets harshly criticized. NONE of the strategies listed above—except perhaps the risible idea of a cease fire and two-state negotiation—will avoid criticism of Israel, mainly because many, at least on the Left, despise Israel: not just the government, but the country’s mere existence. I have reluctantly concluded that those who criticize Israel for any method it uses to defend itself, no matter what that method may be, share the Palestinian view that Israel needs to be erased. These people give lip service to the view that Hamas needs to be erased, but they’re lying about the object.