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What Is the Point of Israel's Operation in Gaza?
Whenever I criticize Israel’s actions in Gaza, someone invariably asks them what I think it should do instead. Just as invariably, I tell them that it should pursue a negotiated settlement of the conflict, which necessarily will require including Hamas in the negotiations because Fatah no longer has the legitimacy to speak for the Palestinians on its own. Of course, I’m not saying I know for sure that such a policy would be successful, but I also don’t think it’s obvious that it would fail and I don’t think any other policy is more likely to result in a lasting solution to the conflict. People think it’s crazy, on the grounds that Israel allegedly tried that before and made several generous offers that were systematically turned down for no good reason by the Palestinians, because they were never interested in peace. Now, I think that view bears little connection to the history of the conflict and that people only believe that because of nonstop propaganda on the topic, but that’s a long story that I plan to tell when I have more time and it doesn’t matter for the points I want to make in this post. Even if I’m wrong and a negotiated settlement could not possibly succeed, no matter how accommodating Israel were, this doesn’t tell us what are the goals of Israel’s actual policy or whether it has any chance of achieving them and is more likely to do so than the alternatives, which is what I’d like to discuss here. But I don’t want to evade the moral issue, so I will also discuss whether Israel’s policy is morally acceptable.
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Almost nobody ever asks what is the point of Israel’s operation in Gaza and, even when someone does, people’s answers are extremely vague. They usually reply something to the effect that Israel has to make sure that Hamas can never again do something like what it did on October 7 and that in order to do that it has to destroy Hamas once and for all in Gaza. I would like to make a few observations in response to this. First, this answer implicitly assumes that Israel can destroy Hamas once and for all, but I don’t think it can. What does it even mean for Israel to “destroy Hamas once and for all” in Gaza? Even assuming that Israel manages to kill every member of the organization before international pressure forces it to declare a ceasefire or at least reduce the intensity of its operations enough for Hamas to survive as an organized structure, which is hardly obvious, it’s not as if Israel could destroy the idea of violent resistance to the occupation and terrorism against civilians. To be clear, I have no doubt that it can significantly reduce terrorism by taking over Gaza and applying over there the kind of military control methods it has been using in the West Bank for decades, but that’s not the same thing as eradicating it or preventing Hamas from reconstituting some kind of underground organization.
Israel has been killing and oppressing Palestinians in various ways for decades, but this has never extinguished violent resistance in general and terrorism in particular, so I don’t think it’s reasonable to assume that reducing Gaza to rubble somehow will. Some people in Israel may think that it will at least buy them a few years of peace, and perhaps it will, but it won’t end terrorism and will be extremely costly. Israel has already killed 0.5% of Gaza’s population in just over a month, so I think it’s virtually certain it will kill at least 1% by the time it’s done and possibly a lot more. Depending on how long the operation lasts and how restrained Israel is, I wouldn’t be surprised if, by the time it’s over, as many as 50,000 people had been killed. After such a massacre, it’s unlikely that Fatah or any other Palestinian organization with some popular legitimacy will risk it by agreeing to administer Gaza on behalf of Israel, so unlike in the West Bank it will have to do most of it without any Palestinian support except for individual collaborators. Not only will this be costly economically, but it will also result in casualties, since again it’s unlikely that Israel will be able to completely eradicate terrorism in the long run. Moreover, it’s virtually certain that Israel’s operation in Gaza will increase the cost of the occupation in the West Bank, because Palestinians over there will naturally be outraged by the destruction and violence in Gaza and some of them will predictably try to stir up trouble. In the worst case scenario, which frankly strikes me as very plausible, Fatah may even be forced to resume armed resistance against Israel under pressure from public opinion.
Of course, this policy will not just be costly to Israel, most of the cost will be born by the Palestinians and this poses the question of whether it’s morally acceptable. On this point, there are several questions that everyone should be asking right now, but that almost nobody is. The North of Gaza is already largely destroyed and, at this rate, it will soon have been rendered completely uninhabitable. Where will the more than one million people who used to live there and have fled since Israel started its campaign go once the military operations are over? They will have no home to go back to and so far Israel has not said anything about how it plans to address that issue. But the problem is actually worse than that, because if Israel really plans to destroy Hamas once and for all in Gaza, it won’t stop at the northern part of the strip. Indeed, while I have no doubt that most of Hamas fighters are in the North, it’s obvious that many of them are in the South, either because they went there before the IDF cut the Strip in half or because they were already there in the first place. What does Israel plan to do to destroy them after it’s done in the North? Again, nobody is asking that question, but people really should because if what is happening in the North is eventually replicated in the South then nobody in Gaza will have to place to stay by the time it’s over. What is going to happen to the people who live there this winter if they don’t have a roof over their head? We’re talking about more than 2 million people, most of them children. Israel has a legal and moral responsibility to make sure they are provided with the basic necessities and so far it’s failing that responsibility miserably.
As I have already explained before, I doubt that Israeli officials have really thought things through before they launched that operation, but given the statements that several of them have made since October 7 I suspect that some will be tempted to deliberately create this situation to compel as many people as possible to leave the Strip. If that’s what they are thinking, I think they are delusional because no country will agree to welcome Palestinian refugees except in mostly symbolic numbers and the only result will be international outrage, but unless the West anticipates that situation and pressures Israel to prevent it people in Gaza may still face a humanitarian disaster soon. It’s possible that Israel won’t have to resort to the same heavy-handed tactics to get rid of Hamas in the South, because there will be less fighters over there than in the North, but this is hardly obvious and we can’t just assume that, especially if Israeli officials have ulterior motives and think they can force the population of Gaza to leave in large numbers by making the Strip uninhabitable. Even if Israel refrains from inflicting the same amount of destruction in the South than in the North, it’s very likely that more than half of the population will find themselves homeless by the time it’s over, with nowhere else to go. Not to mention the number of casualties that Israel’s intervention will cause, which as I noted above is already staggering and will get even worse.
That’s just the immediate cost for the Palestinians, but the cost for them in the long run will possibly be even worse. What the fact that Israel will have to take over the administration of Gaza means in practice is that Palestinians over there will be subjected to the same kind of military control that has been in place for decades in the West Bank, which for the Palestinians translates into routine violence, humiliation and harassment. It may not be as bad as in the West Bank because there won’t be settlers, at least assuming Israel doesn’t allow their return in Gaza, but it will still be very bad. I really don’t think people realize how bad the occupation in the West Bank is, because as long as there is no explosion of violence what happens over there goes largely unnoticed and when there is an explosion of violence the focus is on that rather than on what routinely happens the rest of the time, so the oppressive system under which the Palestinians live in the occupied territories is largely invisible to most people, but that doesn’t make it any less bad and it’s also bad if even more Palestinians end up living under such a system as a result of Israel’s invasion of Gaza. Moreover, it’s not just in Gaza that Palestinian living conditions will get worse, but also in the West Bank. Indeed, not only has settler violence — which was already on the rise before that — increased in the West Bank after October 7, but Israel has tightened the restrictions on Palestinians over there in response to it. If as seems likely Palestinian resistance to the occupation increases as a result of Israel’s operation in Gaza, it will have to do so even more because that will be the only way to maintain order, which means that quality of life will further deteriorate even for the Palestinians in the West Bank. Finally, if Fatah resumes armed opposition to Israel and what is left of Oslo collapses, this deterioration will not be temporary but permanent.
So Israel’s decision to invade Gaza in response to October 7 and obliterate most of it will not only be costly to Israel, it will also have massive human cost for the Palestinians, even though most of them had nothing to do with the attacks carried out by Hamas. This is true even if Israel’s intervention doesn’t result in a regional conflict, which is hardly obvious even if so far it has fortunately been avoided. And for what? As I explained above, when you ask people what is the point of Israel’s policy, they invariably reply that it’s necessary to ensure that Hamas can never do again what it did on October 7. However, people always simply assert this claim without ever trying to make the case for it, which is not surprising given that it’s obviously false. Does anybody seriously believe that, unless it obliterates Gaza, Israel has no way to prevent another October 7? This is so absurd that making such a claim should be immediately disqualifying. The fence around Gaza is only 65 kilometers long, this isn’t the Great Wall of China, so Israel could obviously prevent something like that from happening again by beefing up security around it. As everybody noted after October 7, those attacks should never have been possible in the first place and it’s clear that someone massively screwed up, so I don’t think that point should even be controversial. Of course, this would have a cost, but it sure as hell would be less costly than destroying Gaza and indefinitely occupying it. Thus, if Israel’s goal really were to prevent another October 7, there are far less costly things it could do.
The only reason why almost nobody makes this obviously correct point is that, as in the US after 9/11, people have become completely hysterical and constantly engage in rhetorical hyperbole, such as the claim that Hamas represents an existential threat for Israel, until it becomes real their mind. But it’s only real in their mind. Israel didn’t have to obliterate Gaza in response to October 7 and anyone who claims otherwise is either a fool or a liar. Besides increasing security at the border with Gaza, which is the obvious response and that Israel is going to do in any case, there are many other things short of destroying Gaza that Israel could have done, ranging from targeted assassinations to more limited military operations or negotiations to recover the hostages. But this doesn’t mean that it necessarily had to mount some kind of military response. Almost everyone takes for granted the idea that Israel had to respond militarily, so nobody even tries to make the case for that assumption, but it actually doesn’t make sense if such a response would leave Israel worse off (not to mention the Palestinians), which the invasion of Gaza almost certainly will. Israeli officials chose to respond in such a disproportionate way because, whether they realize it or not, they wanted payback. It’s also likely that, in keeping with Israel’s long-standing policy of aggressively maintaining deterrence by retaliating against any attack on itself with vastly disproportionate force, they thought it was necessary to send a message to their neighbors by making an example of Gaza. Such a policy is clearly in violation of international law and, for reasons I explained above, I don’t even think it’s good for Israel, but even if you disagree, you should at least admit that the underlying rationale is very different from the hysterical claims to the effect that Israel is currently engaged in a struggle for its existence that leaves it no choice but to reduce Gaza to rubble. Not only is this false, but it’s an insult to intelligence.
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