After the brutal Hamas attack on October 7, Israel unified as a nation, even though for months it had been divided between defending either democracy or the sitting government. The divided body politic came together to defend itself and to rescue the hostages that Hamas had kidnapped and taken into Gaza. And Jews around the world united in support of Israel and those entirely justifiable ends.
The goals Israel declared for the war seemed clear — to destroy the military and administrative capabilities of Hamas in Gaza, bring the hostages home, and ensure that this kind of vicious attack could never happen again. What wasn’t so clear was exactly how to attain those goals. The Israeli army is not constructed to combat a significant guerrilla force in a dense urban setting, one of the most difficult types of combat scenarios. Success often can depend on the support of local allies — that is entirely unavailable to Israelis fighting in Gaza.
Hamas, on the other hand, was prepared. It fully expected and planned for the Israeli response to their invasion. It had spent years and millions of dollars to build an infrastructure of interconnecting tunnels and bunkers. It amassed weapons and munitions and stored water, food, medicine, and fuel to guarantee its ability to continue fighting. And it protected those hideaways, warehouses, and command centers by building them under schools, hospitals, and apartment complexes.
Hamas itself insured that fighting in Gaza would make civilian casualties unavoidable, knowing that those casualties would wound Israel’s public standing and world support.
The war’s terrible toll on Gazan noncombatants, the lack of sufficient food, clean water, medicines, and care facilities, and the absence of housing for a vast proportion of Gaza residents has presented ethical, political, and practical challenges in the campaign’s continuing operation.
That the IDF’s efforts to limit civilian casualties have not succeeded in protecting Israel’s international standing is due in no small part to Israeli government ministers and senior members of its governing coalition actually embracing the suffering of Gaza’s civilian population as a war aim.
To what end?
Deputy Knesset Speaker Nissim Vanturi of Likud declared that Israel had to “no less than burn Gaza.” Likud Member of Knesset Moshe Saada pronounced, “It is clear that all Gazans need to be destroyed.” As the Israeli army distributed warnings to encourage residents to leave Gaza City, the main population center in the in the northern half of the Strip, Minister for Agriculture and Rural Development Avi Dichter celebrated, saying, “We are now rolling out Nakba 2023.” Likud MK Gotliv called for the army “to flatten Gaza…otherwise we will have done nothing.” MK Amit Halevi posted on Facebook: “Dear Secretary of State Antony Blinken, we don’t have to choose between defending Israel and aiding Palestinian civilians… Because now in Gaza there are only two types of Palestinians: Palestinians who support and are graduates of Hamas’s Nazi education and Palestinians who serve as human shields for them. We can and must bomb both.”
No doubt these horrific statements reflect the public’s immediate anger at the depravity of the Hamas assault, but it is also a pandering to that anger by politicians as they try to ride that angry wave as a way of restoring the governing coalition to public favor after its disastrous security and policy failures. But Israel’s security forces should not be used as a weapon of blind vengeance. Of them, it should not be said, klei hamas mecheiroteihem (Breishit 49:5 — “instruments of violence their kinship”), the words Jacob used to describe his sons Shimon and Levi.
More recently, the suffering of Gazan noncombatants has been declared as the means for another Israeli government policy aim. Finance Minister Smotrich has called for the expulsion of Palestinians not just from the West Bank but from Gaza as well. Recently, he declared, “We will not allow a situation in which two million people live there. If there are 100,000 or 200,000 Arabs living in Gaza, the situation will be completely different.” The calls were supported and echoed by National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir. In response, U.S. State Department spokesman Mathew Miller labeled them “inflammatory and irresponsible.”
Such comments by representatives of the government coalition’s hard-right zealot parties are not surprising, given their explicitly expressed program of Palestinian marginalization and displacement. But now the prime minister and his cabinet are pursuing those actions through diplomatic initiatives. Intelligence Minister Gila Gamliel called for “voluntary” emigration and the creation of unbearable conditions in Gaza to encourage it. A 10-page document outlined a plan for Gaza’s population to be evacuated to tent cities in Sinai; they would not be permitted to return to Gaza. Prime Minister Netanyahu has responded with efforts to obtain Egyptian support for plans to take in Gazan refugees. Those initiatives were firmly rebuffed. While Egypt is happy for Israel to suppress Hamas, an extremist offshoot of the Egyptian Moslem Brotherhood loathed by the current Egyptian administration, Egypt has no interest in once again taking responsibility for expelled Palestinian refugees. Netanyahu’s administration now is seeking a destination in sub-Saharan Africa for “voluntary” Gazan deportees — but for now, there seem to be no takers.
In the context of such declarations and efforts, it becomes harder to recognize the massive destruction of civilian infrastructure and non-combatant casualties as the unfortunate consequence of urban warfare. Rather it can be seen, and increasingly it is seen internationally, as a key ingredient to implement an indefensible political agenda that is undercutting international support for Israel and its legitimate right to self-defense.
In an attempt to bolster Israel’s public image, in a recent Wall Street Journal interview Prime Minister Netanyahu said there are three goals that will define success of this war: the destruction of Hamas, the demilitarization of Gaza, and the deradicalization of the Palestinian population. Here again, there seems to be a serious disconnect between means and ends. In which universe will the destruction of a great part of Gazan housing and social infrastructure, the starvation of its residents, and mounting civilian deaths lead to the deradicalization of the Palestinian population?
The fate of the hostages Hamas kidnapped who remain in captivity has been lost in the fog of war. A total of 113 hostages are still believed to be alive in Gaza, according to the French Press Service. Palestinian militants also are holding the bodies of eight hostages who died in Gaza and 11 others who died in the October 7 attacks and whose bodies were brought to Gaza. These hostages had not been exchanged for Palestinian prisoners during an earlier temporary ceasefire. Hamas had been angling to exchange the kidnaped victims it holds for a much larger and dangerous group of prisoners in Israeli prisons. Israel was unwilling to agree to that swap. The policy of the Israeli government and the Israel Defense Forces has been that military pressure will free the captives. But rescuing hostages from diverse places of captivity under combat conditions is a very difficult task. To date, the army has failed to create effective protocols and tactics to achieve success. This recently was highlighted in the tragic shooting by the IDF of three escaped hostages, waving improvised white flags, trying to reach Israeli-controlled territory in Gaza.
As the war enters its fourth month, the strains associated with it are showing. Israelis wake up every morning to the radio report of the latest IDF deaths in Gaza, sometimes with additional deaths from Hezbollah in the north. Neither the Israeli army nor the Israeli economy have been constructed to conduct a war over such an extended period. Speaking just in economic terms, wars are very expensive, not only in their direct costs but also because of the loss of output and commerce caused by calling hundreds of thousands to reserve duty. Businesses are closed. Many may never reopen.
While happily there has been a very modest return of reservists to their families, the remaining security situation requires that large forces remain stationed not only in Gaza and along the southern border but also in Israel’s north, to defend against the far more formidable military power of Hezbollah in Lebanon.
The breakdown of food, water, health, and shelter systems in Gaza has raised tremendous international pressures to curtail fighting. Yet the Israeli government says that it plans to continue the war for a much longer time to remove Hamas. To date, heavy casualties have been inflicted on Hamas, and part of its underground infrastructure has been cleared, but Hamas has not been destroyed. The way forward to achieve that goal is not clear, in part because the eradication of Hamas not only entails a removal of its armed forces, it requires a transformation of people’s minds. That will require political processes that the army cannot advance and can very likely impede.
What then is to be done?
Israel has agreed to two separate temporary ceasefires. Hamas has refused. Both plans called for the release of some hostages, a temporary pause in the fighting, and the release of many Palestinian prisoners. Hamas refused because it wants a complete and permanent halt to the fighting as a precondition to hostage negotiations. The government of Israel has refused to promise to halt the fighting completely. It claims it hasn’t reached its final goals.
But more fighting risks ever greater civilian deaths and military casualties as the IDF moves to much denser concentrations of immiserated populations that have fled fighting in other parts of Gaza.
The challenges in reaching desired ends by targeted and effective military means seem to be growing ever greater, while the costs and risks of extended war continue to mount. That is why it might be time to take a different course.
By a large margin, the United Nations General Assembly passed a resolution calling for an immediate ceasefire, the unconditional return of hostages, access to humanitarian aid, and the protection of Israeli and Palestinian populations in accordance with international law.
Perhaps now it could it be in Israel’s interest to say that it is ready to commit to a ceasefire of indefinite length, provided Hamas and its allies in Gaza do so as well, and release the hostages they hold unconditionally.
This would alter the direction of international pressures and leverage them to achieve an important war aim: the unconditional return of Israeli captives. It is clear that now there is no viable alternative, certainly not a military one, to successfully achieve that goal.
While such a ceasefire would leave Hamas with a significant portion of its fighting capacities intact, it no longer would have control of much of Gaza. A ceasefire, moreover, could be the foundation for the mobilization of forces that can’t be engaged without it. The great majority of Sunni Arab states are interested in removing Hamas, which is an Iranian proxy. If war is the extension of politics by other means, perhaps politics can be used to achieve war aims through the engagement of an alliance of convenience with forces that have an alignment of security interests with Israel. The U.S. has long been working towards a general anti-Iran security arrangement of this type. There is little if any doubt that the timing of the Hamas invasion of Israel was inspired by the looming success of a Saudi Arabian agreement with Israel. The current war makes such an alliance inconceivable. End the war, and the agreement can be put back on the table. Cooperation with Sunni states will be essential to promote rebuilding and stability in Gaza and to bring normalization with the rest of the countries in Israel’s neighborhood closer.
Defense Minister Yoav Gallant is proposing a postwar situation in which Israel maintains security control while others rebuild Gaza; it is largely an attempt to replicate conditions of the West Bank occupation while leaving others to foot the extraordinary reconstruction costs.
Such a proposal is unlikely to advance. Serious diplomatic efforts to implement a cooperative approach to security responsibilities with Arab states that are interested in weakening Iran and removing Hamas while at the same time promoting stability might more readily be organized and might, in fact, be more effective in achieving the minimization of Hamas, the relief of the desperate humanitarian crisis in Gaza, the promotion and emergence of a benign Gazan self-administration, and the advancement of a general condition of nonviolence.
That kind of condition will be vital to defuse the simmering conflict on Israel’s northern border and permit the demobilization of reservists and a resolution of Israel’s own internal refugee problems, involving many scores of thousands of displaced Israelis.
With reason, Israelis have seen an unconditional ceasefire as a barrier to reaching important and justifiable goals. After three months of war, it is time to rethink what means will be most effective to achieve those goals. Conditions have changed, the military has obtained achievements but is confronted with limitations, a humanitarian crisis of great international concern is looming, and neither time nor resources for further fighting are unlimited. Connected with a conditional ceasefire, the right engagement of diplomacy in support of broadly accepted aims may be the more effective method for Israel to reach the desired end.
Dr. Mark Gold of Teaneck holds a Ph.D. in economics from NYU. He is on the executive board of Partners for Progressive Israel, a member organization of the American Zionist Movement and an affiliate of the World Union of Meretz.
Hiam Simon of Englewood is the past chief operating officer of Ameinu, the leading progressive Zionist membership organization in the United States. He lived in Israel for many years, where he was the dean of students at what is now the Alexander Muss High School, and he served in the IDF as a noncommissioned officer in the artillery.