How best to restore Israel’s security and save innocent lives?
I’ve been reluctant to write in depth about the October 7 massacre and the war in Gaza and Israel for three reasons. First, I’ve been wrestling day and night with 101 moral and political dimensions of this conflict. Clarity has been hard to come by. Second, everyone I know is invested with deep emotions, and many are taking clear sides. No matter what I write, someone I care about will take offense. Finally, both Israel and Hamas have made their courses of action clear. Neither is asking me, or the U.S. President, for suggestions. Speaking up has seemed to carry more risk than gain.
Then I realized that my predicament isn’t unique. Many of us are wrestling with the same questions. We were horrified by the barbaric slaughters of October 7 and see Israel’s right and duty to defend itself. Yet we wonder: is Israel’s current approach the best way to defend itself? Setting aside the moral dimensions and focusing solely on Israel’s own self-interest, is relentless bombing and a full ground offensive and siege followed by an occupation actually going to save Israeli lives and prevent future October 7s?
Or might there be a better way?
Where I Stand
My social media feeds are split into two camps. One camp “stands with Israel.” The other demands “ceasefire now” and perhaps even claims that “Biden’s lost my vote.” People I respect fall into both camps. Fellow American Jews fall into both camps. If forced at gunpoint to pick a side, I’d stand with Israel, but this slogan does not fully captures my thinking. Indeed, neither strikes me as an adequate response to a complex and wrenching situation.
My current stance is both nuanced and heartfelt. I want my friends in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem and their children to feel safe again — to be safe again. A repeat of October 7 cannot and must not happen again. I want innocent Palestinians — meaning a vast majority of them— to not only survive this conflict but have a better shot at a decent life. Life conditions in Gaza and the West Bank must improve. And I want my sons to be able to wear their Jewish camp Ti-shirts in public without getting dirty looks because of actions Israel has taken or is believed to have taken.
How do we get there? I don’t know, but a good place to start is thinking things through with more clarity and humility.
Here is my best current thinking and the assumptions upon which it rests. I’m open to evidence that my assumptions are incorrect and/or suggestions for improving my reasoning.
Israel’s best approach to defending itself from Hamas and other sworn enemies is also one that Israel’s reasonable (non-dogmatic, non-hateful) critics might support: neither the full-scale bombing, full ground invasion, and siege that Israel is now undertaking, nor a ceasefire.
There is another option. Many, in fact.
What will protect my Israeli friends from harm and preserve innocent Palestinian lives is instead a strong counterterrorism approach involving special forces operations and targeted assassinations of Hamas leaders — coupled with (a) new political leadership in Israel to replace the corrupt and incompetent Netanyahu government and (b) a long-term effort to promote moderate Palestinian leadership and improve Palestinian life conditions.
If Israel had competent leaders that took the time to think things through and acted strategically rather than reactively, this is likely the direction in which they would be leading a shocked and traumatized people. This is the leadership that the Israeli people deserve. Maybe one day they will demand and get it. In the meantime, as with any moral stand, the absence of support for it is no reason to forgo taking it.
Why I Take This Stand
1. Israel’s has a right and duty to defend itself from future Hamas atrocities, but its current approach to doing so is (a) costing too many innocent Palestinian lives, (b) unlikely to “destroy Hamas” due to the treacherous nature of urban warfare, especially given the vast underground tunnel network and the “four-plane conflict environment” (threats can come from sky, buildings, street, and below-ground), not to mention the fact that Hamas’s senior leaders aren’t even in Gaza, (c) likely to create a horrendous quagmire, including an occupation that over time will strengthen Hamas and other radical Muslim extremists, (d) turning big parts of the world against Israel (beyond its permanent haters), and (e) bringing out virulent antisemitism that is affecting my Jewish community and others around the world.
2. A unilateral ceasefire sounds like an act of peace, but it’s actually the first step to the next war. There was a ceasefire on October 6! Apart from being logistically difficult given the (a) dispersed authority within Hamas and between it and Palestine Islamid Jihad and (b) the lack of reliable means for verifying these untrusworthy groups’ compliance with agreements, a unilateral ceasefire simply gives Hamas time to strengthen itself and prepare for its next massacre. Why does this matter? Because Hamas is a death cult whose charter calls for the destruction of Israel. It follows no principles other than murder. (Are you aware Hamas has fired thousands of missiles into Israel the past month? One two weekends ago landed in the neighborhood of my younger son’s soccer buddy. I know this because it delayed their Zoom call that day.) If you are calling for a unilateral ceasefire, I am going to trust that your intentions are noble. Let’s just think this through a bit. What you are calling for, I think, is an end to the massive bombings and full ground invasion and siege that are costing innocent Palestinian lives. You are not saying (a) Israel has no right or duty to fight Hamas if it takes care to limit civilian deaths or (b) Hamas should be able to re-arm itself to commit more October 7 slaughters. You’re not against ANY Israeli act of self-defense, just THIS form of self-defense…right?
3. Still want a ceasefire? Here are reasonable conditions. Hamas won’t agree to these, but I imagine Israel would if trusted Hamas would fulfill their half of the bargain:
- Hamas release all kidnapped hostages
- Hamas hand over perpetrators of the October 7 massacre
- Hamas make a full surrender and disarmament
- Israel halt all bombing
- Israel end the siege
- Israel end its ground invasion
4. A strong counterterrorism strategy involving special forces troops and targeted assassinations, as outlined in this important piece by Zack Beauchamp, will massively reduce the loss of both IDF and innocent Palestinian lives while allowing Israel to severely limit Hamas’s killing capacities. As importantly, unlike a full ground invasion, full siege and occupation, it is less likely to mobilize thousands of new Palestinians to join the Hamas cause. Granted, a counterterrorism strategy won’t “completely destroy Hamas” and has its own major drawbacks and risks. However, the same could be said of Israel’s current approach given the urban terrain and Hamas’ use of human shields and underground tunnels. Israel has no good options, only awful ones. A counterterrorism approach appears more likely to protect Israel against future attacks, meet Israel’s moral obligations, and protect innocent lives.
5. Much of Israel is opposed to anything short of a full-scale ground war because they’ve “ been down this road before.” What this refers to is the repeated cycle of Hamas provocations followed by Israeli bombings and then ceasefires. This cycle coupled with Netanyahu’s devil’s bargain with Hamas — propping it up to avoid Palestinian unity and therefore a two-state solution — seemed to be working. And then came October 7. As a result, nearly all Israelis, from hardline ethno-nationalists to left-wing peaceniks, are done with Hamas, done with the partial retaliations and half-measures. The country’s very reason for being, in this mindset, demands a more forceful response. In the words of the late Zeev Sternhell, Israelis “will not die like hunted animals but like human beings.” So the only option, Israelis feel, is to “completely destroy Hamas.” Nothing else will suffice. I get it. I get the devastation. I get the resolute commitment. And, if I were living in Israel, this might well be my position. October 7 demonstrated that Israel’s approach to date is intolerable. However, from where I sit, there is an error in this thinking. Israel is choosing to end what feels intolerable without considering the consequences of the path it is choosing. Sadly, intolerable isn’t an end point. It exists on a continuum. There is a better way.
If you think that either (a) Israel has a right to do anything it can to protect itself or (b) Israel is committing genocide, please take those arguments elsewhere. I have been engaging privately with people holding those opinions. I don’t have much energy to engage further on them, certainly not here on this public page.
As for the occupation of the West Bank — the inhumanity, the disaster of the Israeli settlement policy, the horrible settler violence, and the likely terror that will be unleashed if Israel pulls out — or ideas for designing a better future over the long run, these are all important topics for another day.