The most consequential decision Israel will face in the coming days is how hard to continue hitting Gaza. Should it undertake a monthslong ground invasion? Continue with large-scale aerial bombardment? Allow fuel into Gaza to keep hospitals running?
Over the last week that I’ve spent reporting in Israel and the West Bank, I’ve tried to listen and learn. So let me share why I believe we’ll some day look back at this moment and see a profound moral and policy failure.
But let me start with someone smart who has a different take.
Ehud Barak, the former Israeli general, defense minister and prime minister, knows more about the military challenges of taking on Gaza than almost anybody. In 2009 he oversaw a major ground offensive against Hamas. I dropped by his home in Tel Aviv, and we sat in his office, surrounded by his collection of framed cartoons mocking him — he has a thick skin — as he argued in favor of a ground invasion as the only way to crush Hamas.
“There is no way but to send many tens of thousands of boots on the ground,” he said, but he acknowledged that this will be a prolonged and bloody task. He estimated that there is a 50 percent chance that it will lead to a war with Hezbollah in the north, plus some risk of attacks from militias on the Syrian side of the Golan Heights and of serious unrest on the West Bank.
Barak also warned that after a number of months when Israel might be ready to withdraw from Gaza, it could have trouble handing the territory over to someone else. But it’s conceivable, he said, that Israel could find a multilateral Arab force to take over Gaza and that this force could eventually transfer control of the territory to the Palestinian Authority. On balance, he thinks that it is possible for Israel to destroy most of Hamas’s capabilities, establish a no-go zone along the border and extricate itself.
For my part, I’m skeptical that either the invasion or the handover would go well, partly because I’ve observed so many military operations that started optimistically and ended as bloody quagmires. But Barak also made another important point: Israel will now finally end Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s policy of bolstering Hamas.
What? Israel supported Hamas?
Yes, under Netanyahu, Israel approved the transfer of over $1 billion to Gaza from Qatar — intended to cover expenses such as salaries and energy costs — but some funds reached Hamas’ military wing, Ha’aretz reported. (Qatar has denied that the money was misused.) Netanyahu’s aim, according to Barak and others, was to buttress Hamas so as to weaken the rival Palestinian Authority and undermine any possibility of a two-state solution. “Those who want to thwart the possibility of a Palestinian state should support the strengthening of Hamas and the transfer of money to Hamas,” Netanyahu reportedly said in 2019.
That monetary lifeline to Hamas will now surely be cut, and that may hurt the organization as much as any number of bombs.
Israel has the right to defend itself and strike military targets in Gaza, and there should be strong international pressure on Hamas to release its hostages. My reporting in Gaza over the years convinces me that Gazans themselves would be much better off if Hamas could be removed: Some American liberals don’t appreciate how repressive, misogynistic, homophobic and economically incompetent Hamas is in Gaza, to say nothing of its long history of terror attacks on Israel. All this explains why many Gazans are fed up with Hamas.
“Hamas spends money building tunnels, not investing in people,” a Gaza woman told me. She was stuck in Jerusalem, where her young son was receiving cancer treatment at a Palestinian hospital.
The despair in Gaza, she said, is such that for years some young men have simply dreamed of becoming “martyrs” and winning honor by killing Israelis.
“In Gaza, there is no hope,” she said. “There is no life, there is nothing we have from living in Gaza. The only thing people can do is become a martyr.”
The woman, whom I’m not identifying for fear of retaliation by Hamas, says that she is against the killing of civilians on either side, and that now she weeps each day as she follows the bombing of Gaza and wonders if her husband and other children there will survive. Her son with cancer was sitting a few feet away, watching videos on his mom’s phone, and I looked over to see what he was watching.
It was TikToks of his neighborhood being bombed.
He was glued to the screen as videos showed areas the size of multiple football fields near his home turned into rubble; satellite imagery shows other large areas pulverized as well. No one knows how many people are caught in the wreckage, but some Gazans told me they had heard cries from inside collapsed buildings. They lack proper equipment to rescue people, so eventually, the cries stop, and a stench rises.
Despite her own opposition to Hamas, the woman said that anger at the Israeli attacks will probably boost support for Hamas in the territory.
One well-educated young woman inside Gaza, Amal, told me over WhatsApp that the victims she knew of were mostly civilians, and she sounded full of despair.
“Constant bombardment has me feeling as if I am not human anymore, as if our souls mean nothing at all,” she told me. “We are being massacred.”
A 16-year-old girl in Gaza offered this message, conveyed through Save the Children: “It’s like we are overpaying the price for a sin we didn’t commit. We were always with peace and will always be.”
As Israel stands poised to escalate the war, there are two arguments to think through. The first is pragmatic: Can a siege and large-scale ground invasion succeed in erasing Hamas?
I’m skeptical, and when I hear backers of an invasion speak of removing Hamas I have the same sinking feeling as when I heard hawks in 2002 and 2003 cheerily promising to liberate Iraq. Just because it would be good to eliminate a brutal regime doesn’t mean it is readily achievable; the Taliban can confirm that.
The answers to the question of who will take over a battered Gaza after months of warfare also seem too iffy to me. It won’t be Egypt, said the former Egyptian foreign minister Nabil Fahmy.
“I can’t imagine any international force being ready to take on what’s left there,” Fahmy told me. He thinks an Israeli invasion is unlikely to destroy Hamas and is more likely to inflame radicalism in Gaza, and he warns that President Biden has damaged American standing in the region because of his perceived indifference to Palestinian lives.
The second prism through which to consider the Gaza war is a moral one, for we have values as well as interests. Decades from now when we look back at this moment, I suspect it’s the moral failures that we may most regret — the inability of some on the left (and many in the Arab world) to condemn the barbaric Oct. 7 attacks on Israelis, and the acceptance by so many Americans and Israelis that countless children and civilians must pay with their lives in what Netanyahu described as Israel’s “mighty vengeance.”
When Israeli Jews were asked in a poll whether the suffering of Palestinian civilians should be taken into account in planning the war on Gaza, 83 percent said “not at all” or “not so much.” I can’t help feeling that while we say that all lives have equal value, President Biden has likewise greatly prioritized Israeli children over Gazan children.
I give Biden great credit for promptly moving two aircraft carrier groups to the region, to help deter Hezbollah or others from joining the war. The White House was right to condemn the “grotesque” and “antisemitic” messages on some college campuses. And Biden’s compassion for victims of the Hamas attacks was so heartfelt that he built up political capital in Israel — but so far he hasn’t leveraged it to get significant aid into Gaza.
The United Nations Secretary General, António Guterres, has condemned what he called “clear violations of international humanitarian law that we are witnessing in Gaza.” The Biden administration, which in the context of Ukraine constantly speaks of international law, vetoed a Security Council resolution calling for humanitarian pauses to deliver aid.
Every account I’ve heard from Gaza this past week, including directly from people there who despise Hamas, suggests that the civilian toll there has been horrendous. One gauge is that at least 53 United Nations staff members have been killed so far, including teachers, an engineer, a psychologist and a gynecologist. More than 20 journalists have been killed, too, and an Al Jazeera correspondent lost his wife, son, daughter and grandson to an airstrike.
And now the suffering in Gaza is set to get much worse.
That’s partly because hospitals are running out of diesel fuel, and Israel is not allowing fuel into the territory. I understand the reason: Hamas could use diesel fuel for its attacks on Israelis, and an Israeli military spokesman also told me that United Nations alarmists may be exaggerating the shortage. Yet if hospitals lack fuel and cannot operate generators, babies in incubators may die along with people needing dialysis or surgeries. Some 50,000 pregnant women in Gaza would face greater risks if hospitals can’t take them.
“We are on the brink of collapse,” Philippe Lazzarini, who runs the United Nations agency for Palestinian refugees, the largest aid agency in Gaza, told me.
Dr. Hussam Abu Safiya, lead physician in Gaza for the aid group MedGlobal, put it this way, “When the fuel runs out tomorrow, this hospital will rapidly become a mass grave.”
Because of the siege, Gaza is also running out of insulin and anesthetic, according to Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, director general of the World Health Organization.
Fadi Abu Shammalah, who works in Gaza with a civil society organization called Just Vision, visited the United States this year at the invitation of the State Department, presumably because he was seen as a potential bridge across cultures. “I love you,” he told me over the phone, speaking of Americans. “You are so kind to me.”
I thanked him but noted that we were also providing some of the bombs being dropped near him. He said he doubted that the Americans he so admired understood how the war was actually playing out against civilians.
“Is it a war against Hamas, really?” he asked. “Or it’s against my kids?” He said that as bombs dropped, he tried to calm his terrified children by saying that if they could hear the explosions, they were safe; it’s the bombs you never hear that kill you. That backfired; when there was silence, the children feared they were about to be obliterated.
“One of the reasons the Oct. 7 attacks were so horrible was because adult men slaughtered children,” said Sari Bashi of Human Rights Watch. “But adult men are slaughtering children every day in Gaza by dropping bombs on their homes.”
Israel faces an agonizing challenge: A neighboring territory is ruled by well-armed terrorists who have committed unimaginable atrocities, aim to commit more and now shelter in tunnels beneath a population of more than two million people. It’s a nightmare. But the sober question must be: What policies will reduce the risk, not inflame it, while honoring the intrinsic value of Palestinian life as well as Israeli life?
People will answer that question in different ways, and I don’t claim to have all the answers. But I think some day we will look back in horror at both the Hamas butchery in Israel and at the worsening tableau of suffering in Gaza in which we are complicit.
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