Remember Entebbe? Look it up. It was the site of a 1976 Israeli operation to rescue 248 hostages from an Air France flight captured by Palestinian terrorists and given sanctuary by Ugandan dictator Idi Amin. The non-Israelis were quickly released, except for the Air France crew. The roughly100 hostages who were Israelis were hidden in the Entebbe airport. Negotiations were going nowhere. Armed with excellent intelligence, Israeli assault commandos (led by Bibi Netanyahu’s brother Yonatan) carried out a stealth operation to rescue the hostages. The rescue became part of Israeli legend, a success story one might long for today.
Circumstances now, however, are dramatically different – both in what happened and what’s likely to play out. This is no Entebbe. This time, there was a massive failure of Israeli intelligence, as well as American intelligence, which apparently believed Israeli intelligence would pick up their slack. So, on October 7, the barbarous Hamas terrorists launched a surprise attack against peaceful Israelis living in small communities in southern Israel, committing atrocities against Jews not seen since the Holocaust and taking back to Gaza more than 240 mostly civilian hostages, from toddlers to the elderly.
Benjamin Netanyahu, still prime minister thanks only to his extremely radical right-wing coalition, is not a hero like his brother Yoni, the sole Israeli to be killed in the Entebbe rescue. Bibi’s corruption and reckless authoritarianism predated the attack. He has refused to acknowledge his role in contributing to the current crisis, and he has been unwilling to fire members of his far-right cabinet whose incendiary remarks make a volatile situation worse. He did manage to suspend “until further notice” Heritage Minister (whatever that is) Amichai Eliyahu (Otzma Yehudit party), who said on Sunday that dropping a nuclear bomb on the Gaza Strip is an option. He’s not the only once-political pariah now elevated to cabinet status.
There are major concerns that Netanyahu’s government has no thoughtful endgame either for ending the war or building what should come afterward. Benjamin Netanyahu is morally, emotionally and politically unfit to lead Israel. At the same time, Hamas remains an implacable foe to Israeli and Gaza’s Palestinian citizens. Financed, trained and armed by regional destabilizer Iran, with whom they share the goal of eliminating Israel altogether, Hamas is eager to open multiple fronts in its jihad and would likely use any ceasefire now to regroup and rearm. As a member of Hamas’s political bureau told Lebanese television, “October 7 is just the first time, and there will be a second, a third, a fourth. Will we have to pay a price? Yes, and we are ready to pay it. We are called a nation of martyrs, and we are proud to sacrifice martyrs.” This seems strong evidence that a meaningful ceasefire cannot be achieved until the threat of additional murderous attacks is removed.
International law recognizes the right of a sovereign nation to defend itself, and Israel has an obligation to do so, but there are serious questions about the extent to which civilian deaths of Gazan Palestinians (who must be distinguished from Hamas) go beyond inevitable “collateral damage” even when following international laws of war.
Just how many civilian deaths are acceptable as collateral damage under international laws of war?
A lot of verbiage has been dedicated to this, as in the ban against “Intentionally launching an attack in the knowledge that such attack will cause incidental loss of life or injury to civilians or damage to civilian objects … which would be clearly excessive in relation to the concrete and direct overall military advantage anticipated.” Or, as in the Hague protocols, “in the immediate neighbourhood of the operations of land forces, the bombardment of cities, towns, villages, dwellings or buildings is legitimate provided that there exists a reasonable presumption that the military concentration is sufficiently important to justify such bombardment, having regard to the danger thus caused to the civilian population.” Words like “excessive,” “reasonable” or “proportionate” under the circumstances can all be subjective calls. There aren’t clear metrics here, and, in this era of instant and graphic communications, it’s often the pictures (verified? uncontextualized? or outright fake?) that shape world opinion, along with inadvertent or intentional misinformation on social media, especially TikTok.
Knowing this, Hamas’ underlying strategy has been to embed its militants among civilians and hide weaponry and military headquarters in (and under) schools, hospitals and other seemingly civilian sites. This violates the fundamental obligation of combatants under international humanitarian law to distinguish themselves from the civilian population. Wantonly and deliberately jeopardizing civilians by using them as human shields is a war crime. Critics of Israel conveniently overlook this.
Hamas has been effective at manipulating media messages for anti-Israel propaganda purposes. It has been launching missiles across the Israel border for years and pledged in its founding charter to continue killing Israelis until the tiny nation is driven into the sea. Israel has no choice but to try to eliminate Hamas military leadership and neutralize its power. Would that it were as easy as Entebbe, or a made-for-TV movie.
Far better minds that mine are straining to say how to neutralize the Hamas threat without escalating to a retaliatory level that violates humanitarian norms and laws of international war and turns this into a regional conflagration. I think so far President Biden and Secretary of State Antony Blinken have been doing a pretty good job of walking that fine line.
I wish there were an analogous Entebbe-like strategy to rescue the hostages, neutralize the terrorists’ military leadership and commit to a peaceful international solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Sadly, that’s not the real world. As longtime State Department negotiator on Arab-Israeli affairs Aaron David Miller says, “I fear that it will get worse before it gets much worse.”