In 1864, as General William Tecumseh Sherman laid siege to the Confederate city of Atlanta, he penned a letter to the residents of the city that he would soon burn to the ground. “You cannot qualify war in harsher terms than I will,” he wrote. “War is cruelty, and you cannot refine it.”
Those words ring particularly true today as?Israeli troops push into Gaza City, preparing to assault the labyrinth?of underground tunnels protecting Hamas fighters. In the month since Oct. 7, Israel has dropped thousands of bombs on the Gaza Strip and, by some estimates, damaged as much as?half the housing?in the enclave. Hundreds of thousands of people have been forced to flee their homes. Of greater and more tragic significance are the thousands of innocent Palestinian lives lost.
This calamity, of course, is not happening in a vacuum. It is a direct response to the savage and sadistic murder of roughly 1,200 people by Hamas militants in the worst pogrom against the Jewish people since the Holocaust. If ever a nation had a legitimate argument for self-defense, it would be the Israeli government after what happened on Oct. 7.
Yet, the calls from pro-Palestinian activists, human rights groups, and a growing number of politicians demanding a cease-fire in Gaza are deafening. While these calls might be well-intentioned, they are deeply misguided.
After Oct. 7, Israel cannot accept a Hamas government on its border that is capable of such barbarism. No country would. War, for all its abject cruelty, is tragically the only response to an atrocity on the scale of Oct. 7 and to an enemy so intent on committing such barbarism. Even the cruelest of conflicts sometimes are necessary.
But Hamas’ weakening or even demise has the potential to create the opportunity for a resolution to the Israel-Palestine conflict. Pressuring Israel to lower its guns against Hamas is the wrong strategy.
Instead, pressure would be more effective if focused on issues where Israel has no good legal or moral defense —?for example, its appalling and tacit support for Israeli settlers uprooting Palestinian villages in the West Bank,?and its reluctance to move forward on serious negotiations over a two-state solution and Palestinian self-determination.
Before Oct. 7, Israel had some justification for the latter stance (there is no justification for Israel’s settlement policy). Hamas’ presence made peace impossible, and the moribund Palestinian Authority, which administers approximately 40 % of the West Bank, hardly seemed like a partner for peace.
But if Israel’s offensive in Gaza is successful, there will be no more excuses. Progress on a peaceful resolution to the Arab-Israeli conflict?would become a more than reasonable demand. But accusing a country that just lost approximately 1,200 of its citizens of genocide or ethnic cleansing — and demanding they cease efforts to punish those responsible — will only push Israelis into a protective shell now and make them more likely to reject necessary sacrifices in the future.
While there may be a diversity of views in Israel when it comes to the settlements and even peace with the Palestinians, there is broad consensus on the imperative of eliminating the threat that Hamas represents.
Indeed, as Hamas leaders have made clear, they have no intention of stopping in their efforts to kill Israelis. Their goal has never been peaceful reconciliation between Israelis and Palestinians. Rather, it’s an Islamist, Palestinian state, free of Jews. Calls for a cease-fire, no matter how well-intentioned, are a lifeline for Hamas.
It should go without saying that Israel must do everything it can to minimize the deaths of innocent Palestinians — and abide by international law. But doing that was always going to be a challenge against an enemy that is so shockingly unconcerned about the suffering of its own people. In the run-up to Oct. 7, Hamas made no effort to ensure civilians would be protected from the inevitable Israeli military response. Food and fuel were stockpiled for Hamas militants (who continue to use the latter to fire rockets into Israel). A maze of underground tunnels protects the group’s fighters, but not civilians. According to videos released by the Israel Defense Forces, military equipment, including the rocket launchers that are still firing missiles into Israel a month after Oct. 7, has been found stationed in schools, residential neighborhoods and other civilian locales. Indeed, from all appearances, Hamas is not only indifferent to Palestinian deaths, it welcome them as a political cudgel against Israel.
Such nihilism is not surprising to those familiar with Hamas’ history. In October 1994, on the eve of the signing of the Israel-Jordan peace treaty, the terrorist group blew up a commuter bus on Dizengoff Street in Tel Aviv (the equivalent of New York’s Fifth Avenue), killing 20 people. A Hamas terror campaign in 1996 killed and wounded hundreds of Israelis, diminished the pro-peace Prime Minister Shimon Peres, and boosted Benjamin Netanyahu’s bid to replace him. That electoral outcome, perhaps more than any other event in the last 30 years, fatally undermined the chances for peace between Israelis and Palestinians.
But it’s worth remembering the words of Peres in 1994 after the Dizengoff Street bombing. Hamas wants Israelis to “lose our heads and stop the peace process,” Peres, then foreign minister, said. “As immersed as we are in our grief, that is how much we should be determined to continue the peace process.”
Peres’ sentiment was correct nearly 30 years ago, and it’s correct now. Since its inception, Hamas has devoted its energy to stopping the peace process (they’ve long received support for that goal from right-wing extremists in Israel). Anyone who believes fervently in Palestinian statehood should welcome Hamas’ demise. Its weakening could lay the groundwork for resolving the conflict.
The Palestinian Authority (PA), which controls around 40 % of the West Bank, recognizes Israel’s right to exist and supports a two-state solution, would be strengthened — and not because of anything it’s done, but merely because its rejectionist foe will be on its heels.
And if Netanyahu is finally jettisoned from power (and a majority of Israelis would like to see that happen), it could create a political opening in Israel. That would especially be true if his replacement is not implacably opposed to a Palestinian state — and is focused on cooperating with the PA, not demonizing them, as Netanyahu has for decades.
Before Oct. 7, Israelis largely believed that the status quo of Israeli occupation in the West Bank and a cease-fire with Hamas was sustainable. Hopefully after Oct. 7, they will?realize that was fiction.? There is historical precedent for such a shift in attitudes. After the disastrous Yom Kippur War in 1973, when Egypt and Syria attacked Israel in a move that was as surprising and unexpected as Oct. 7, support for peace deals with Israel’s neighbors grew. This helped lead to the Camp David Accords and a peace agreement with Egypt.
According to Dahlia Scheindlin, an Israeli public opinion expert, while much of the recent polling data on support for a two-state solution is bleak, there are a few green shoots. She cites post-Oct. 7 polling by Hebrew University’s aChord Center that shows an increase in Israelis who believe a center-left government would “do better on security for Israel.” Two-thirds of those polled also agreed that democracy (which has been under attack by Netanyahu and his far-right cronies) “strengthens the country against terror organizations.” As Scheindlin notes, “sooner or later [Israelis] will have to internalize that democracy is not compatible with ongoing occupation and conflict.”
The U.S. has a crucial role to play here. Considering how respected President Joe Biden is in Israel right now, he’s precisely the leader who can reassure Israelis that there are sacrifices are worth making for peace. But those sacrifices won’t happen if Hamas remains in power and the situation in Gaza remains unresolved. If Israel is successful in its military offensive, though, there is no good argument for refusing to negotiate in good faith with the Palestinians.?This is where an international pressure campaign on Israel to resolve the conflict could be effective — and frankly, it makes more sense than attacking Israel in the one place where it’s on solid legal and moral ground: wiping out Hamas.
To be clear, the road to peace remains long and difficult. Can the Palestinian Authority step up to the plate and take over, for example, the administration of Gaza? Can they actually make concessions? Will Palestinians trust them? Will settler violence continue to undermine chances for peace? And is there an Israeli leader who can convince Israelis that an uncertain peace is better than maintaining the status quo?
If history is any guide, there’s not much reason for optimism. But ultimately, Oct. 7 has shown that there can be no peace for Israel as long as Palestinians live without freedom or hope. And in the 30 years since the historic Oslo Accords, the extremists on both sides have made peace impossible. With Hamas out of the way, perhaps opportunity awaits.