Hamas’s massive surprise attack by land, sea and air has been likened to Israel’s “Pearl Harbor” moment. How could this have happened, anguished Israelis are asking, given the country’s outstanding military strength?
The evident failures of military preparedness and intelligence are stunning. But there’s another, overlooked, failure that runs deeper — the failure to acknowledge Hamas’s actual nature and goals, and to act accordingly.
By its own statement, Hamas exists to end Israel’s existence. The Islamic totalitarian group rose to prominence and gained a loyal following precisely because of its uncompromising, brutal dedication to wiping Israel off the map. No “peace process” is possible with such an enemy — only a decisive victory that eliminates Hamas.
Many have denounced Israel for its heavy-handed military responses to past Hamas attacks. But in fact Israel’s responses, reinforced by U.S. and international pressure, were insufficiently assertive.
Israel failed to heed a crucial lesson of history, which I discuss in What Justice Demands: America and the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict. The lesson is that wars end when one side is deterred, permanently, from taking up arms; when it is rendered non-threatening; when its morale is shattered.
What does that look like? It’s the day when followers of the Palestinian cause give up on their desire to liquidate Israel, when they put down their knives and suicide belts and rocket launchers, when they accommodate themselves to Israel’s continued existence. That means not simply destroying Hamas’s rocket launchers, not simply capturing or killing its top leadership, not simply uprooting its militant infrastructure, while leaving a remnant to nurse the hope of winning the next round. It means a profound mind-shift. It means forcing the enemy to give up on its militant goals.
Despite being militarily superior, however, Israel chose not to defeat Hamas, but only to degrade its capabilities. Repeatedly. The October 7 war is in part a result of this tragic pattern.
When Hamas seized control of the Gaza strip in 2005–06, it was well-positioned to pursue its jihad against Israel. Hamas trained fighters, many of them teens, and amassed weapons. Using tunnels to bypass Israeli border controls on the passage of goods in and out of Gaza, they smuggled in weapons and rockets. Adopting a well-practiced technique, pioneered by the so-called moderate Palestinian factions years before, the Islamists concealed their arsenal in densely populated neighborhoods, particularly inside mosques and schools. What began as sporadic rocket attacks from Gaza climaxed into a full-scale war. From 2007 to 2008, more than 5,700 rockets had been fired at Israeli neighborhoods and towns.
To quell such attacks, Israel deployed air and ground forces in Operation Cast Lead, or what became known as the Gaza War of 2008–09. Israel’s retaliation sought to “mow the grass,” weakening the Islamists militarily, not uprooting them.
By 2012, the Islamists rearmed and renewed their attacks, triggering another, briefer war. Israel again chose not to defeat them.
Then in 2014, amid continuing rocket and mortar attacks, Israel retaliated with air strikes and ground forces. During that 50-day war, Hamas and its allies fired more than 4,500 rockets and mortars — many of them longer-range missiles, putting most of the country within range.
They had built a network of tunnels designed for smuggling weapons in — and for launching armed raids on Israeli neighborhoods. The aim of Israel’s Operation Protective Edge was to halt the rockets, impair the Islamists’ military infrastructure (launching sites, munitions factories, arms warehouses), and destroy the tunnel network. That’s it.
In 2021, when Islamists fired rockets into Israel, what was the response? Another round of diminishing Hamas’s capabilities, leaving it and other Islamists to rebuild their arsenal.
Witness the unprecedented attack launched on October 7.
And all the while, Israel continued to provide electricity and water to the Hamas-controlled Gaza strip. It also occasionally relaxed the so-called blockade around that enclave, designed to prevent the Islamists from acquiring cash and weapons to fight on. Talk about empowering your own destroyers.
Why hasn’t Israel used its superior military power to defeat Hamas? A major factor is that Israel’s leaders themselves lack the moral confidence to act resolutely to protect the individual rights of their citizens. Evidence of this can be seen in Israel’s continual bowing to pressure from Washington and the UN to “de-escalate” and to show “restraint.” This is rooted in the moral idea that one must turn the other cheek, that it’s wrong to pursue one’s self-interest, that a powerful, wealthy victim must appease a less-powerful, have-not aggressor.
Hamas’s savagery has ignited worldwide outrage, at least for the moment, and perhaps this time, the war will unfold differently. Israelis are resolved to fight back.'Israeli leaders need the independent, self-confident recognition that it is morally right to seek the defeat of Hamas, regardless of the foreseeable criticism and calls for “restraint.”' Click To Tweet
Ending the pre–October 7 pattern requires a rethinking of the moral assumptions that have prevented Israel from fully defending the lives and freedom of its population. What Israeli leaders need now is the independent, self-confident recognition that it is morally right to seek the defeat of Hamas, regardless of the foreseeable criticism and calls for “restraint.”
In its retaliation, Israel should seek nothing less than victory over its enemy.
A version of this article was originally published on October 15, 2023 in the Orange County Register and other Southern California Newsgroup papers.