Commentary on Political Economy

Friday 27 October 2023


Israel must dis­cern between Hamas and the people of Gaza

The long-term object­ive remains a Palestinian state will­ing to live in regional peace

To my Israeli friends: I won’t pre­sume to say I under­stand all you are going through, although I have lived in your coun­try, fol­low your press and exper­i­enced the ter­ror­ist attacks of Septem­ber 11 2001 here in Amer­ica. What motiv­ates this let­ter is my com­mit­ment to Israel and to the US-Israeli rela­tion­ship. From this comes my hope that the people and gov­ern­ment of Israel will think through how best to respond to the hor­rific attacks of Octo­ber 7, choose wisely and act respons­ibly. A great deal counts on it.

I under­stand why Israel is determ­ined to hit Hamas hard. It is just and neces­sary. The fore­most oblig­a­tion of any gov­ern­ment is to defend its cit­izens against those who would do them harm. Israel has to re-estab­lish deterrence by mak­ing evid­ent that the costs of such attacks far out­weigh any bene­fits. Finally, it is essen­tial to rein­force the norm that ter­ror­ism can­not stand.

Attack­ing Hamas would meet the cri­teria set forth by the scholar Mai­monides close to a mil­len­nium ago for what he termed an oblig­a­tory war, one under­taken “to deliver Israel from the enemy attack­ing”. But national secur­ity must be about policy as well as prin­ciple. So, yes, attack­ing Hamas is an oblig­a­tion, but pre­cisely how it is attacked, how the war is fought, involves choice.

Influ­en­cing this choice is the mat­ter of goals. It is fre­quently argued that Israel should seek to elim­in­ate Hamas. It is easy to see why. But it is likely to prove impossible. Hamas is as much an ideo­logy and a net­work as an organ­isa­tion. Attack­ing it with a large force on the ground would gen­er­ate sig­ni­fic­ant civil­ian cas­u­al­ties, ulti­mately lead to new recruits and allow Hamas to scape­goat Israel for its own short­com­ings. Israel would suf­fer more cas­u­al­ties and more sol­diers would be cap­tured. A pro­longed ground effort would make it impossible to move ahead with nor­m­al­isa­tion with Saudi Ara­bia and the Islamic world. It could lead to a wider, even cost­lier war, poten­tially pit­ting Israel against Hizbol­lah or even Iran.

Sup­port for such an oper­a­tion would fade not just around the world but also in Israel, as demo­cra­cies tend to grow weary of armed inter­ven­tions that prove expens­ive and show few signs of suc­ceed­ing. Even if the oper­a­tion were to suc­ceed, even if Hamas were to be des­troyed, miss­ing is any altern­at­ive author­ity pre­pared to assume the bur­dens of gov­ern­ment. A policy goal must be achiev­able as well as desir­able. Rid­ding Gaza of Hamas, however much sought, is unlikely to prove doable.

The good news is that even if des­troy­ing Hamas is not pos­sible, it is not essen­tial. To sug­gest that Hamas poses an exist­en­tial threat to Israel is over­blown. So, too, is the claim that if Hamas sur­vives, Israel will never again be secure.

What led to Octo­ber 7 had more to do with fail­ures of Israeli intel­li­gence and defences than it did with Hamas. These fail­ures can and should be learned from and rec­ti­fied. Hamas will not change its ways, but what can and must change is Israel’s abil­ity to cur­tail the abil­ity of Hamas to inflict mean­ing­ful harm.

Israel has always lived along­side external threats. It has found a way to thrive non­ethe­less. Hamas is not a prob­lem to be solved, but a situ­ation to be man­aged. Build­ing a much more cap­able defence, main­tain­ing a higher state of mil­it­ary read­i­ness, mak­ing Gaza a higher pri­or­ity for intel­li­gence, ques­tion­ing any and all assump­tions: there is no reason that what took place on Octo­ber 7 need ever hap­pen again.

What would be both desir­able and achiev­able is to degrade Hamas, to kill a good many of its lead­ers and fight­ers. In so doing, it is essen­tial that at every step Israel should dis­tin­guish between Hamas and Gaza, between the ter­ror­ist group and the people who live there. Any­thing else will add to pres­sures for a cease­fire and for­feit sym­pathy that will be needed long after this crisis is over.

Such con­sid­er­a­tions argue for air attacks on Hamas with pre­ci­sion weapons and tar­geted ground raids. Human­it­arian aid should be allowed to flow into Gaza. Far bet­ter that Israel be able to declare suc­cess and fin­ish what it set out to do than be forced to accept a cease­fire owing to inter­na­tional pres­sure.

At some point, an addi­tional con­ver­sa­tion will be required — about how to resolve the Palestinian issue in a man­ner that enables Israel to forever be a secure, pros­per­ous, Jew­ish and demo­cratic state. I can appre­ci­ate this is not a con­ver­sa­tion for today. The wounds are too fresh. Not to men­tion that there is no accept­able Palestinian part­ner with whom to reach an accom­mod­a­tion. Hamas is forever ruled out, given its sav­agery and its charter reject­ing the Jew­ish state. The Palestinian Author­ity, for its part, con­tin­ues to dis­ap­point.

Even­tu­ally, though, the crisis will fade. Israel will need to take steps to facil­it­ate the emer­gence of a Palestinian part­ner will­ing to eschew viol­ence and to live side by side with it. Not just Palestini­ans but Israelis would bene­fit from a Palestinian state. It is the only way Israel can remain Jew­ish and demo­cratic, as open-ended occu­pa­tion is incon­sist­ent with Israeli demo­cracy, while grant­ing full rights to Palestini­ans would end Israel’s Jew­ish char­ac­ter.

Again, such a con­ver­sa­tion is best saved for another day. What can­not be put off is what to do now. Yes, it is neces­sary to act against Hamas, but how Israel acts is a mat­ter of choice. May it choose wisely.

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