Like many Americans, since last Saturday I’ve been watching events in Israel with sorrow and horror. I woke up at 5 am for some reason, picked up my phone, and saw image after image that turned my stomach. Terrorism, and the targeting of civilians, especially children, cannot be justified. Civilized people across the world were horrified by it.
As a foreign policy analyst, I expected a host of U.S. policy issues would pile up and require comment, but to my surprise, there haven’t been a ton of them. Biden sent a carrier strike group to the eastern Med, volunteered to rearm Israel, and supported Israel’s right to defend itself.
Biden’s speech distinguished between the Hamas terrorists and “democracies like Israel and the United States.” He argued that “terrorists purposefully target civilians, kill them. We uphold the laws of war. It matters. There’s a difference.”
The opening phase of Israel’s campaign in Gaza has been unprecedented in scale. In the first six days, Israel dropped 6,000 bombs. By way of comparison, the counter‐ISIS campaign, which took place across all of Iraq and Syria, dropped between 2–5,000 bombs per month.
Brig. Gen. Dan Goldfuss sensibly argued that the goal of the campaign is to “change the reality within Gaza to prevent such a thing from happening again.” IDF spokesman Daniel Hagari echoed this: “to eliminate top Hamas officials, this is a top priority.”
Israel has every right to defend itself and, speaking for myself here, it has every right to be in a frothing rage, too. If it can kill or capture the perpetrators, deter future ones, and/or destroy Hamas military assets, those are righteous and just goals.
Speaking again for myself, when I’m in the throes of a frothing rage, I sometimes don’t think clearly, much less strategically. So I share many of the concerns Nahal Toosi raises in this article. Toosi spoke to a number of Israeli analysts and officials, all of whom seemed to be either coming from or headed to funerals, or both, and found them understandably rent by grief and grasping for a strategy: “The problem, from what I could gather in conversations with Israeli and U.S. officials and analysts, is that no one seems to know exactly how to end this particular evil without unleashing more of it.” She mentions the lessons of the Global War on Terror and admits:
It is tough to raise such lessons with Israelis now given their heartbreak. But early decisions are what could have the most long‐term impact. This is not just a moral argument about avoiding killing innocents. It’s a practical one about how to win a war. (emphasis mine)
This seems like an essential point. All civilized people have concerns about the innocent people in Gaza, who are suffering as a result of the war Hamas started, just as they should for the innocent men, women, and children in Israel who were butchered by Hamas terrorists. (We can exempt from the category “civilized people” the contemptible groups who have proudly paraded their bigotry in the intervening week.) But even if one didn’t give a whit about people in Gaza: do we have a clear picture of how Israel’s incipient campaign ties in to its objective of making another 10/7 much less likely?
Lawrence Freedman raises similarly stark questions in his long read in the FT this weekend.
For our part, we Americans weren’t in an advice‐taking mood after our 9/11. We made a host of decisions, many of them bad, and the consequences are still with us. But if Israel makes any bad decisions, it will live next door to them. We Americans had the luxury of just throwing our hands up and coming back to North America.
So I hope, for Israel’s sake but also for the sake of innocent civilians in Gaza—and, as an American, for the prevention of escalation in the region that would risk U.S. involvement—that Israel makes better decisions than we Americans did in our rage after 9/11.