Israel’s response to Hamas: when does enough become too much? by Marjorie Arons Barron

The entry below is being cross posted from Marjorie Arons-Barron’s own blog.

The October 7th Hamas terrorist attack on Israel was barbaric, gut-wrenching and a blatant violation of international law. For many, especially those whose extended families have been caught up in the terror, the attack was also deeply personal. At least 1200 Israelis were killed, many of them raped and dismembered. The much-vaunted Israeli intelligence apparatus was caught flat-footed. Nearly five months out, Hamas is still holding some 130 hostages, alive and dead. Initially, nations around the world defended Israel, recognizing the right and responsibility of any sovereign nation to defend itself against attack.

Right-wing Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu immediately pledged to retaliate with florid rhetoric about wiping out Hamas and rescuing the hostages. The two goals had emotional appeal but before long they became contradictory. Left unsaid were the precise means to achieve either of these goals and how to deal with the day after fighting stops.

Hamas has been lobbing missiles from Gaza at Israel for years and has committed itself to obliterate the 75-year-old nation. A central part of its asymmetric strategy has been to embed its military resources among civilians – mostly innocent Palestinians – cynically desiring visibly painful casualties caused by Israel’s forceful response to ignite public opinion in its behalf. For months, Hamas’ hiding behind and under hospitals and schools (also against international law) has complicated Israel’s response. As of last week, 243 Israeli soldiers have died in the ground invasion. The Hamas-run Gaza Health ministry, which doesn’t distinguish between Hamas fighters and innocent civilians, announced that 30,000 have perished in the war. Meanwhile, in the West Bank, sporadic killings of Israelis by Hamas sympathizers and of Palestinians by right-wing Israelis continue.

Hamas pledges it will repeat the brutality of October 7th again and again until Israel is no more. But, though Israeli can decimate Hamas leadership, its goal of totally eliminating Hamas is a fantasy. Hamas is a multi-faceted movement, and, given the intensity of the Israeli response, the hatred of Israel (and Jews) has spread beyond the localized conflict. In that sense, Hamas has already won.

We are haunted by the scenes of the rubble to which Gaza has been reduced. We have nightmares about the thousands of innocent women and children killed in the process. Not just from the bombings, but now from famine and disease. Who can forget last week’s image of hundreds of starving Gazans thronging a truck bringing humanitarian relief, and hundreds wounded and dying from the ensuing stampede and IDF bullets?

Hamas is Palestinian, but not all Palestinians are Hamas. Palestinians have a right to live in peace, dignity and self-determination. Their leaders have repeatedly betrayed them. They are disillusioned by the Palestinian Authority’s corrupt and inept management of the West Bank. This contributed to their electing Hamas to govern them in Gaza, some voting under duress. Increasingly they blame the United States for what they view as its unqualified support of Israel. The image of Joe Biden’s physical embrace of Bibi Netanyahu last October was – and remains – stomach-churning.

One can care deeply about Israel and still be highly critical of its government and policies. The Netanyahu government with its unhinged messianic zealots inspires loathing.

The United States, the world’s leading democratic nation, and Israel, the only democratic state in the Middle East, have always had a special bond. But Israel’s backsliding on democratic norms has frayed that bond. Now Netanyahu, with his disproportionate response, has created a massive humanitarian disaster. From the beginning, President Biden and his foreign policy advisors tried to pressure Netanyahu into a more targeted response. To no avail. They urged against a massive ground operation. Netanyahu turned a deaf ear. U.S. military, having learned harsh lessons about urban warfare in Fallujah, warned against going into Gaza City. Israel went anyway. The United States repeatedly asked for a post-war plan from Netanyahu. All they got was vague language with the promise of indefinite occupation of Gaza. The United States has insisted that Israel use American-provided weaponry within the norms of international law. We don’t seem to have enforced that. (The U.S. has recently imposed some sanctions against a handful of violent Israeli settlers in the West Bank, but that seems a limp gesture.)

For decades, United States policy has been to support an eventual two-state solution. Netanyahu and his hardliners have rejected it out of hand. At this point, he seems intent on extending the war to protect his presidency and keep him out of jail for corruption. A side benefit for him could be driving a wedge between the American people and Biden, thus helping former President Trump, Netanyahu’s malleable authoritarian buddy.

Where do we go from here? What will happen when Ramadan comes? Will there be a hostage exchange and a ceasefire? Will radical members of the Israeli cabinet exacerbate matters by preventing Muslims from worshiping at the Al Aqsa mosque? To what extent will Iran rein in its proxies in the region, or will more of Hezbollah’s missiles rain down on Israel from the north, while Israeli soldiers target deeper into Lebanon? Will British and American responses to Houthis’ attacks draw Iran more directly into the conflict? To what extent will the distraction of the Middle East further embolden Russia’s stepped-up attacks in Ukraine?

Whatever the fallout, it is clear that Netanyahu’s unconstrained mission of revenge has become counter-productive, undercutting recent softening of tensions with surrounding Arab states and undermining U.S. standing in the world of nations. There’s a lesson in the more than 100,000 voters who voted “uncommitted” in the Michigan Democratic primary largely to protest Biden’s handling of the Gazan-Israeli war. Foreign policy isn’t usually determinative in American elections. But, it has affected his coalition, especially turning off important Black, Hispanic and young voters critical to his 2020 victory. And, if those people fail to show up to vote for Biden in November in the battleground states, it could determine the outcome of the 2024 election.

The Biden administration has a highly qualified foreign policy team, and Biden should listen to them. It’s hard not to think that the world itself is at a tipping point.

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