Killing terrorists too often breeds more terrorism. This is an inescapable lesson of both America’s decades-long “war on terror” and Israel’s ceaseless struggle against Hamas, Hezbollah, and other violent insurgencies.
As the son of a Jewish refugee from Nazi Germany, I was appalled by the Hamas terrorist attacks and kidnapping of hostages on October 7th, and I understand Israelis’ visceral fear for their lives and their national survival. I also believe that it is profoundly wrong, and strategically disastrous, for Israel to bomb civilians and restrict access to food, water, fuel, electricity, and medical care for a captive population of more than 2 million people.
When Hamas unleashed its horrific atrocities in southern Israel, it was following two classic strategies from the terrorist playbook: provocation and polarization. Its leaders likely knew that Hamas was not strong enough to destroy Israel, but were banking that Israel would destroy itself if it could be provoked into such an indiscriminate and disproportionate response that it would make itself a pariah state and ultimately tear itself apart from within.
To thwart Hamas’s strategy, Israel must demonstrate its own commitment to the protection of civilians. An immediate ceasefire in Gaza and the acceleration of humanitarian assistance is essential to avert the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians from starvation and disease. Israeli political leaders must also signal their openness to negotiating an eventual political settlement that recognizes Palestinians’ rights to dignity and self-determination. The U.S. government and its international partners must do everything in their power to support these objectives.
The scope of the suffering inflicted by Israel’s offensive in Gaza — including the deaths of more than 28,000 Palestinians and the displacement of more than 80 percent of the Strip’s population — strains the imagination. An equivalent mortality rate in the United States, whose population of 336 million is 150 times as large as Gaza’s, would translate to about 4.2 million deaths in four months. At least a quarter of Gaza’s population is experiencing “catastrophic conditions” of acute malnutrition and starvation risk; many are afflicted by thirst and epidemic disease, and the Wall Street Journal reported in December that “nearly 70% of Gaza’s 439,000 homes and about half of its buildings have been damaged or destroyed.
As Audrey Kurth Cronin warns in her classic study How Terrorism Ends, the use of overwhelming force to “obliterate groups using terror tactics…may be a pyrrhic victory,” because “in our age of globalized communications, no amount of force can kill an infectious inspiration.” The key predictive factor for whether repression is likely to succeed or backfire, Cronin finds, “is the degree to which the state and its actions are considered to be legitimate” (pp. 141, 143).
The Battle for Global Legitimacy
Hamas and other Palestinian terrorist organizations have always played the long game. In the words of a former Hamas political head who was assassinated by Israel in 2004, this struggle was destined to succeed “not in my lifetime” and “maybe not in my children’s lifetime,” but in “my children’s children’s lifetime.” They hope to prevail not by superior force of arms but by winning the battle for global legitimacy — and by demoralizing, dividing, and isolating their opponents as a means of driving Israel to ultimate defeat.
Hamas leaders clearly recognized that the Israeli government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was prone to rash actions and to both hubris and intense insecurity. Netanyahu has thrown in his lot with an extreme right-wing coalition that rejects all Palestinian demands for political rights. Until October 7th, he and his colleagues appeared to think that Israel had literally walled itself off from Palestinian suffering and grievances by building the West Bank barrier and the “Iron Wall” around Gaza, and deploying the Iron Dome missile defense system to protect against attacks from the sky. Thus, they saw no need to address Palestinian demands for dignity and self-determination. Instead, they pursued a divide-and-conquer strategy by providing Hamas with tacit support in Gaza in order to undermine the legitimacy and stature of the Palestinian Authority as a negotiating counterpart.
Of course, for Netanyahu, as for Israelis and Jews around the world, the shadow of annihilation is never far from view. Much of Jewish ritual and culture centers on memories of collective suffering: the Egyptian captivity of the Israelites as recounted in the Book of Exodus; the Babylonian captivity of the 6th century BCE; the destruction of the Second Temple by the Romans in 70 CE and the ensuing ejection of the Jewish people from the Holy Land; recurrent waves of oppression, expulsion, and pogroms against Jews in the diaspora from the medieval era through the 20th century; and — most searing of all — the deaths of 6 million European Jews in the Holocaust. The promise of a homeland where Jews can be safe to thrive requires the existence of Israel. Conversely, if Israel is no longer a safe place for Jews to live, a critical part of its raison d’être as a nation is destroyed.
On October 7th, Hamas shattered the promise of safety for Israel and the Jewish people. It is this promise that the Netanyahu government is desperately seeking to restore through its punitive attacks on Gaza.
But fear and desperation are poor strategic advisors — and, in waging its war on Gaza, the Netanyahu government has exceeded Hamas leaders’ wildest dreams for a disproportionate and morally repugnant Israeli response. Immediately after the Hamas terrorist attacks, Israel banned travel out of Gaza and cut virtually all deliveries of food, water, electricity, fuel, and medical supplies to the Strip’s population of 2.2 million people, even as it initiated a massive campaign of bomb, missile, and artillery attacks against targets it claimed were associated with Hamas, but that were often also occupied by civilians.
Mixed Israeli Messaging
Although the Israeli government denies intentionally making civilians in Gaza the object of its military operations, its messaging on this point is mixed. Addressing the population of Gaza in Arabic on Oct. 10, Major General Ghassan Alian, who heads the Israeli Army’s Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories office, said, “Human animals must be treated as such. There will be no electricity and no water. There will only be destruction. You wanted hell, you will get hell.” He was echoing comments on Oct. 9 by Minister of Defense Yoav Gallant that he had “ordered a complete siege on the Gaza Strip. There will be no electricity, no food, no fuel, everything is closed,” and that, “We are fighting human animals and we are acting accordingly.” Law Professor Tom Dannenbaum commented on these pages that “the starvation siege as articulated in Minister Gallant’s statement is a war crime” and “could qualify as the crime against humanity of inhumane acts, given its scale and systematicity.”
And then, on Oct. 28, Netanyahu warned, “You must remember what Amalek did to you” — an allusion to a Biblical passage referring to a nomadic tribe that had attacked the Israelites during their flight from Egypt, in which the prophet Samuel calls on Saul to “smite Amalek, and utterly destroy all that they have, and spare them not; but slay both man and woman, infant and suckling.”
In December, Netanyahu’s two senior far-right coalition partners called for the “voluntary emigration” of Gaza’s Palestinians to the Democratic Republic of Congo and other countries — a plan for which Netanyahu subsequently expressed support. In the words of Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich, Gaza could not be allowed to remain a “hothouse of 2 million people who want to destroy the State of Israel.”
Whether or not Israel’s policies meet the legal standard of collective punishment — or “ethnic cleansing,” as the liberal Israeli newspaper Haaretz has alleged — may ultimately be of secondary importance. The more salient fact is that the policies being implemented by the current Israeli government, and the rhetoric of Netanyahu and his colleagues, deny the right of Palestinians to live in peace and safety on their land. Netanyahu’s use of the place names “Judea and Samaria” to describe the lands otherwise known as the “Occupied Territories of the West Bank” is a telltale marker in this regard. This language harkens back to the original Likud party platform of 1977, which proclaimed that “Judea and Samaria will not be handed to any foreign administration; between the Sea and the Jordan there will only be Israeli sovereignty.” This radical stance undermines Israel’s international legitimacy and condemns it to never-ending conflict.
Impact on International Support
Israel’s disproportionate response to the Hamas attacks already has alienated many of Israel’s international backers and exacerbated political instability throughout the Middle East and around the globe. It has set back Israel’s progress toward normalizing relations with Saudi Arabia and other Arab states and infuriated key regional leaders such as Jordan’s King Abdullah, who wrote in a November op-ed in the Washington Post, “An Israeli leadership that is unwilling to take the path of peace on the basis of the two-state solution will not be able to provide its people the security they need.”
Support for Israel among young people in the United States and other countries has plunged. According to a national survey of American voters 18-34 years old released on Nov. 16, 52 percent said they sympathized more with the Palestinians (up from 26 percent in October), while 29 percent were more inclined to support the Israelis (down from 41 percent the previous month). Similarly, an Arab Barometer survey in Tunisia — considered a bellwether for the Arab world — found that “every country in the survey with positive or warming relations with Israel saw its favorability ratings decline among Tunisians” during the weeks after October 7th, while support for “Iran and violent resistance” dramatically increased.
The U.S. government confronts difficult dilemmas in calibrating its Middle East policies. In seeking the best path forward, U.S. leaders must begin by recognizing that Israel’s stated war aim to “wipe [Hamas] off the face of the Earth” cannot be achieved short of depopulating Gaza entirely — and probably not even then. Israel should seek not to destroy Hamas but to weaken and marginalize it, which will require Israeli leaders to offer a more appealing political alternative to the Palestinian people — perhaps an impossibility in the immediate future, but a critically important long-term goal.
It is clear the current U.S. and Israeli administrations have no shared vision for regional peace. To be more precise, the Netanyahu government has no vision for peace with the Palestinians — only for escalating measures of surveillance and control. Netanyahu rejects President Joe Biden’s calls for a two-state solution, asserting: “The difference between Hamas and the [Palestinian Authority] is only that Hamas wants to destroy us here and now and the PA wants to do it in stages.” Biden’s “bear hug” strategy of holding Netanyahu close, so as to exert constructive influence behind the scenes, is manifestly not working. Nor has Biden succeeded by belatedly publicly scolding the Israeli prime minister.
Biden must defend human rights and international law through deeds, not just words. Failing to take robust action to uphold these principles in Gaza will have global reverberations, undermining democracy and the rule of law in countries around the world — perhaps including the United States. Ever since Israel’s founding in 1948, the United States has been its most stalwart friend and supporter. Enabling Israel’s leaders to sleepwalk into catastrophe is no act of friendship.
In all this suffering, there are perhaps two faint signs of hope. First, the events of October 7th and their aftermath have starkly revealed Hamas’s cynicism and flagrant disregard for the wellbeing of the Palestinian people. Although Palestinian support for Hamas rose after the start of the Israeli counteroffensive, the catastrophic consequences of the October 7th attacks are likely to exacerbate longstanding popular disillusionment with Hamas in Gaza. By building tunnels under hospitals and mosques, launching missiles from residential areas, hiding militants and weapons caches in refugee camps, and so forth, Hamas leaders rely on the collective West to abide by international law where they feel no obligation to do so. They may even intentionally seek to provoke carnage against Palestinian civilians to turn world opinion against Israel. Hamas leaders are less devoted to martyring themselves than to martyring the innocent and defenseless.
Second, Israelis have been forced to recognize that Palestinian grievances cannot be walled out. Netanyahu’s vision for a proud and prosperous Israel dominating a Palestinian populace who live in squalor and fear is an unsustainable delusion. What remains true today is what has always been true: there can be no dignity and safety for Israel without dignity and safety for the Palestinian people.