When will the war in Gaza end?
The war between Israel and Hamas is the longest since the 1948 war of independence. More Jews died on October 7 than in any massacre since the Holocaust – about 1200. About 130 hostages are still held by Hamas. An estimated 25,000 Palestinians have died so far in Gaza, with many more missing and injured. Half of Gaza’s buildings have been destroyed.
Israel’s stocks of good will are running out fast. No matter how lurid the Israelis paint the atrocities of October 7, marches against Israel continue in cities around the world. Even the United States, Israel’s most powerful, consistent, and generous backer, is becoming impatient.
Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, says that the war will continue “until the end, until total victory”. It’s not clear what that means. Even the Jerusalem Post expressed its exasperation about the murkiness of Netanyahu’s goals in an editorial marking the 100th day of the war:
Netanyahu must decide what his agenda is. What is the endgame for this brutal war? Is it a one-state solution? A two-state solution? Is Israel’s agenda that the countries in the region absorb millions of Palestinian refugees? …
Citizens are increasingly demanding clarity on the government’s endgame. Is the aim to completely dismantle Hamas, leading to a prolonged military occupation, or is there a diplomatic solution on the horizon that might bring lasting peace? These questions are not just rhetorical but crucial for shaping the region’s future.
Can Israel’s brutal policy of accepting massive collateral damage be defended? Yes, but it’s a very qualified Yes. It’s not a blank cheque and it’s not unconditional.
The first defence might seem absurdly naïve, but some people find it persuasive. Despite the casualties, Israel’s intentions are good. It is fighting to protect the West.
One of America’s living treasures, the medical ethicist Leon Kass, recently gave an eloquent speech to the Jewish Leadership Conference in New York. For all of its faults, he argued, Israel is “an island of cultural and moral sanity in a world gone mad”. The West is repudiating its heritage, while in Israel God finds a nation devoted to him. “The woke world sleeps. But at the tip of the spear, it is left to little Israel to make the first stand against radical evil and the new axis of nations dedicated to the demise of the West. With resolve, courage, and dedication, but, alas, with much more sacrifice, Israel will show the way.”
This is touching, but wrong-headed. Even good people can commit horrendous crimes.
The second defence is deterrence. October 7 was meant to undermine Israel’s self-confidence and sense of security. It was intentionally barbaric. It was meant to terrify Israelis. If Netanyahu had not struck back with overwhelming ferocity, voters would have lost confidence in the government. Equally important, all of the militant groups surrounding Israel, especially Hamas, would have regarded Israel as weak and launched their own attacks. So far, this appears to be working. But deterrence can only prevent war; it cannot create peace.
The third defence is that Israel’s savage retaliation is, historically, the normal response to such provocation. In 1938, long before the creation of the Israeli state, and before World War II, George Orwell wrote about the Spanish Civil War:
“You cannot be objective about an aerial torpedo. And the horror we feel of these things has led to this conclusion: if someone drops a bomb on your mother, go and drop two bombs on his mother. The only apparent alternatives are to smash dwelling houses to powder, blow out human entrails and burn holes in children with lumps of thermite, or to be enslaved by people who are more ready to do these things than you are yourself; as yet no one has suggested a practicable way out.” *
Orwell was a socialist and a humane man. Yet he was arguing that if the choice is between savagery and subjugation, savagery trumps civility. In 2024, this sounds barbaric. And it is. But that’s the way Americans treated Afghanistan and Iraq after 9/11; the way Russians treated Chechnya. To say nothing of the Assyrians or the Romans. Israel is just playing follow the leader.
What makes this policy sound anachronistic is the First World veneer over the Start-up Nation. But beneath is an existential fear of the tough neighbourhood. Although its critics accuse the Israelis of committing genocide in Gaza, the Israelis have a well-founded fear of becoming victims of genocide themselves. Israel’s banner-waving critics seem totally ignorant of this.
It was the Kishenev pogrom in 1903 which kickstarted the Zionist movement which led to the establishment of a sanctuary state for Jews. Then there was the Holocaust in which six million Jews were murdered, making the Zionist movement all the more urgent.
The “tough neighbourhood” argument ought to convince anyone that Israel’s fears are completely realistic. Just in the last hundred years or so, there have been many massacres. As New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman has remarked: “the Middle East is a Hobbesian jungle. It is not Scandinavia.”
- The Armenian genocide in 1915 and 1916 in which perhaps a million Armenians perished.
- The Assyrian genocide in Turkey and northern Iraq during World War I in which 300,000 Christians perished.
- The Greek genocide from 1913 to 1923 in which the Turks pushed the Greeks of Asia Minor literally into the sea. Somewhere between 300,000 and 900,000 died.
- The Kurdish genocide carried out by Saddam Hussein in 1988. Somewhere between 50,000 and 100,000 died.
- The Yazidi genocide by ISIS in 2014 in which some 5000 men died and thousands of women were sold into sexual slavery.
These events have been loosely labelled “genocide”. They do not include the civil wars, massacres, deportations, and terrorism which have characterised the Middle East for decades. After ISIS, there can be no doubt whatsoever what fate would await the citizens of a defeated Israel.
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Some of Israel’s critics will respond that Israel has no right to exist because it displaced Palestinians to clear the land for its own state. But at this point, four generations after the foundation of the state of Israel, there is little point in disputing Israel’s right to exist. It exists. It has existed for 75 years. There is nowhere else for its seven million Jews to go. “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free (of Jews)” are code words calling for another Holocaust.
But Israel’s fear doesn’t excuse Netanyahu’s mad policy of bombing Gaza until Hamas is eliminated. For 15 years Netanyahu and his generals misread Hamas. How can their “plan” to defeat Hamas be sound? I use the word “mad” advisedly. Bombing is out of touch with reality. It is counter-productive. It cannot protect Israel.
Netanyahu’s job is not just to keep Israel safe in 2024, but to keep Israel safe for generations to come. Israel’s independence is illusory. It depends upon the good will of Western Europe and the United States. Without their financial and political support, Israel will eventually be unable to defend itself. And that good will is dribbling away with every day of the invasion.
At the moment Hamas and Hezbollah are supplied by a pariah state, Iran. But what happens if a more powerful player enters the game on the side of Israel’s Muslim foes– say, India, China or Russia? A weakened and isolationist America may not have an appetite for an expensive and dangerous proxy war to protect the Jewish state. Besides, technology is advancing rapidly. In a few years’ time, Islamist militias might be able to carpet-bomb Israel with powerful drones and missiles. It won’t be difficult; Israel is a very small country.
Making friends with the neighbours
In a dangerous neighbourhood, the only possible long-term strategy is making friends with the neighbours. It can be done. Anwar Sadat addressed the Knesset. Jordan’s King Hussein and Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak attended Yitzak Rabin’s funeral. It’s not impossible, but a future of wary friendship and economic cooperation is further away with every day that bombs rain down over Gaza. It is in Israel’s own interest to come to terms with Palestinians, to have a two-state solution.
Israel’s defence establishment is stuck in George Orwell’s world of overwhelming retaliation. In a world when self-sufficient superpowers could ignore their smaller neighbours, this worked. But in an interconnected, interdependent, multipolar world, it makes no sense at all. Besides, wars of the 20th century from Ireland to Vietnam to South Africa should have taught Netanyahu that asymmetric warfare is just as powerful as full-scale confrontation. The fleas can eat the dog. Of all countries Israel should know this. It was terrorism by ragtag Jewish militias that caused Britain, an erstwhile superpower, to scuttle out of Palestine, bringing the British Mandate to an abrupt end in 1948.
The state of Israel is not a sacred destiny; it is a political experiment. If I had to choose which side to support, it would have to be Israel. Not because it has more right to occupy its slice of Palestine than the Palestinians, but because it possesses the cultural resources to solve the puzzle of fitting two cultures and two religions into one land. Its neighbours don’t. Israel is democratic, self-critical, pragmatic, and flexible. It has functioning institutions and an educated, creative workforce. Up to a certain point, it is inclusive and respects human rights and the rule of law.
But the experiment can fail. Netanyahu is leading his nation into an inflexible, authoritarian, and ideological-driven future. The years ahead look dark indeed.
This, remember, is the second experiment. The first, the Kingdom of Jerusalem, lasted 192 years. Crusaders invaded Palestine in 1099 and took Jerusalem. Bit by bit, Muslim armies whittled the Christian lands away until 1291 when Acre, its last outpost, was overwhelmed with great slaughter.
* The collected essays, journalism and letters of George Orwell, volume 1. A book review from Time and Tide, 5 February 1938.
Michael Cook is editor of Mercator
Image credit: Voice of America, Wikimedia Commons
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