Endgame for Gaza
The consequences of the current Israeli war aim are bad for Israel and bad for the United States; Biden’s failure to articulate an alternative will prove deadly.
Israel began its military operation with the idea that it could force most of Gaza’s 2.3 million people into the Egyptian Sinai, but the horrified objections of the Egyptian government, ultimately joined by the United States, have nixed that plan for now. To prevent that encroachment on Egypt’s territory, the Egyptian prime minister said, “We are prepared to sacrifice millions of lives.”
Israel almost certainly requires a war of many months if it persists with its war aim of “destroying Hamas.” After Israel completes the conquest of Gaza’s northern half, it must then subdue the south. It has already rendered uninhabitable most of northern Gaza; southern Gaza is rapidly approaching that state.
Will Hamas surrender? Unlikely. Its leadership has had the choice of how many fighters to expose in northern Gaza, and almost certainly its main reserves now reside in the south. We have every reason for thinking that those forces would prefer death to surrender, even if their own population is sacrificed in the process.
Describing the standoff over Germany in the aftermath of World War I, English historian A.J.P. Taylor remarked that “the Allies, or some of them, threatened to choke Germany to death; the Germans threatened to die.” This summarizes the present situation.
Meanwhile, Israel has been systematically cutting off all the elements requisite to life—water, food, fuel and medicine—for Gaza’s mothers, fathers, and children. In the worst sanitary conditions on the planet, rampant infectious disease must follow. The amounts of humanitarian aid actually getting through the sole checkpoint in Rafah are miniscule in comparison with need. Even with a humanitarian pause for the exchange of hostages, they are likely to remain so.
There is a brutal math at work here. The media is focused on the toll thus far; no one dares speculate about the future toll.
This grim result follows from five elements of the present situation that are now congealing: an Israeli determination to destroy Hamas; the brutal siege that Israel has imposed; the embedded nature of Hamas in Gaza; the refusal of Hamas to surrender; and Egypt’s threat of war if the Israelis try to push the Gazans out. Time may invalidate one or more of these assumptions, but they seem set in concrete today. The Gazans are trapped; a vast desolation is impending.
Israel suffered a grievous loss on October 7, but the radical disproportion between the offense and the penalty, sure to grow, is wrong in itself; it guarantees that Israel and America will lose badly in the court of world public opinion. Western diplomats attest frequently to that reality behind the scenes.
The cynic will ask, “Who cares?” The world gets over its catastrophes and gets on with the business of life. In reply, one must acknowledge that the world was also horrified over what the Israelis did in Lebanon in 1982 and 2006 and in Gaza in 2008–09 and 2014. Later, the world adjusted to the new reality. Israel’s wars in Lebanon and Gaza did not tame its enemies and were abject failures in this sense, but neither did they impose many costs from other states.
Because the Gaza operation is orders of magnitude larger in probable death and destruction, it is likely to prove different this time. The 1982 Lebanon War killed up to 20,000 people, 43 percent of them civilian. Israeli’s 2008–09 and 2014 attacks in Gaza caused less than three thousand deaths apiece. Israel has support in Washington, London, Berlin, and New Delhi, but virtually nowhere else. Its relations with Turkey, Egypt, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia are now badly compromised and will only get worse as the death toll mounts. The same goes for just about every other nation outside the West, and for growing popular majorities within it.
Osama bin Laden got the idea for the September 11, 2001, attacks after witnessing Israeli’s savage siege and bombardment of Beirut in summer 1982. What future evil will lurk in the hearts of those who witness present injuries?
The consequences ensuing from the current Israeli war aim are bad for Israel and bad for the United States. One nation’s vengeance against another people on so large a scale cannot bring security. It just elicits the desire for reprisal in the persecuted and moral injury in the persecutors. It’s both a crime and an error.
The Israelis say they had no alternative to making their war aim the destruction of Hamas, but they did. Hamas made its breakthrough because its forces crossed a lightly defended frontier. Three Israeli battalions had been transferred to the West Bank, leaving Israel’s southern defenses compromised.
Yet rather than focusing on the threats posed by bulldozers, paragliders, and the hubris of its security establishment, the Israeli government turned to eliminating Hamas once and for all. It cannot accept conditional security, but instead demands the impossible dream of absolute security. Extinguishing Hamas entails methods that guarantee an inextinguishable hatred in whatever remains of the Palestinian population and in those who take to heart its cause.
The Biden administration’s present outlook may be charitably described as dazed and confused. It is deeply afraid of a showdown with Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, but also appalled by Israel’s intent to impose wildly disproportionate punishments. The president himself has always been a 100 percent backer of Israel, and he remains so. Much of his staff and his political party, however, are sickened by the humanitarian catastrophe that is unfolding.
The administration’s main approach has been to command impossibilities: destroy Hamas, but do so within the laws of war. Before, said Biden in San Francisco on November 15, the Israelis were bombing indiscriminately; now everything is very humane. Anyone paying attention knows this is absurd.
The administration has also taken the ongoing advice of New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman and paired its support for the war with the promise of a two-state solution. The destruction of Hamas, says Secretary of State Antony Blinken, must be followed by Israeli acceptance of an independent Palestinian state.
So, too, there is to be “no forcible displacement of Palestinians from Gaza—not now, not after the war. No use of Gaza as a platform for terrorism or other violent attacks. No reoccupation of Gaza after the conflict ends. No attempt to blockade or besiege Gaza. No reduction in the territory of Gaza.”
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Given U.S. powerlessness toward Israel in the current war, no one can take America’s postwar vision seriously. Evidently, Netanyahu does not. As per usual, the concessions the U.S. expects from Israel are to occur in the future, not in the present. At this stage of the crisis, attention to a two-state solution, however meritorious in principle, is a gigantic diversion from the main task: getting to a permanent ceasefire and limiting the scale of the impending catastrophe.
According to press reports on November 9, the Biden administration has set a limited time for Israel to complete its operation, but it is plain that Israel cannot “destroy Hamas” by the end of the month. This is not yet a U.S. ultimatum. Will it become one as the clock runs out?
Biden is loath to have a knock-down drag-out with Netanyahu, and he would be embarrassed to give up the war aim that he himself endorsed. Yet the failure to confront Israeli aims, as Eisenhower and Reagan once did, means tagging along as the Israelis wreak havoc and gravely wound the legitimacy of American power in the world.