Many have compared Hamas’ violent attack on innocent Israeli civilians on October 7, 2023 with “9/11“, Al Qaeda’s attack on the US in 2001, one of the most successful terrorist actions of all time as it led to massive overreaction by the US, with devastating consequences in my view of great harm to the real interests of America. It is sad to observe that Israel, with its current government led by Benjamin Netanyahu, is likely to fall into the same trap of overreaction to Hamas’ terrorism, with possible devastating consequences for Israel.
Israeli reaction to the cruel murder of more than 1,300 Israeli lives and more than 200 hostages taken on October 7 has been shock, anguish and fear for this, the worse loss of Israeli lives in a single day since the Holocaust.
The entire country along with its government had been lulled into thinking that Hamas was focused on governing Gaza and unlikely to launch a major terrorist attack. Netanyahu had succeeded in getting Israelis, and much of the rest of the world, to consider that the Palestinian issue was no longer relevant. Through successive increasingly right-wing governments, he has had a policy of strengthening Hamas while weakening the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank, to show the world that Israel had no real possibility to negotiate with the Palestinians: the Palestinian Authority was too weak and corrupt and Hamas was a terrorist organization. In the absence of any reasonable Palestinian counterpart, Netanyahu pursued his goal of increasing Israeli settlements in the West Bank and normalizing relations with Arab countries, ignoring the Palestinians while their fury grew quietly in the streets and tunnels of Gaza. Hamas murderous explosions in Israeli kibbutzim on October 7 have blown to smithereens Netanyahu’s logic, and his strategy. And yet he remains Prime Minister of Israel, the country is led by the person perhaps singly most responsible for strategic choices that led to the terrible events they suffered.
Israel has to react, if it were to leave such a terrorist act unpunished, it would be sending an unacceptable message that terrorism against Israel is permissible. Netanyahu has announced Israel’s intention to “destroy Hamas”, he has called up 360,000 reservists, nearly 4% of the country’s population, announced the preparation of a massive ground attack against Hamas in Gaza and launched a devastating bombing campaign against Hamas targets in Gaza, with large numbers of civilians killed or injured.
President Biden, in his brief trip to wartime Israel last week, showed compassion for Israeli suffering and unequivocally confirmed America’s solid support and backing of its ally, but he also gently warned Israel not to “be consumed” by rage, reminding Netanyahu how the US in 2001 “made mistakes”, overreacting to the collective trauma caused by Al Qaeda’s surprise attacks. Press reports indicate that Biden has continued quietly to urge Netanyahu to postpone or avoid launching a large ground attack, and Biden has done everything he can to get humanitarian aid delivered to Gaza.
If Netanyahu is either unable or unwilling to follow the cautionary advice of Biden, he will have fallen into the Hamas trap. Already by blockading Gaza and depriving its entire population of food, water and medicine, by severely limiting humanitarian aid, by launching massive bombing and rocket attacks, Israel’s war against Hamas runs the risk of turning much of the world against Israel.
If Israel launches the announced ground attack, the war will continue for months, with the world seeing every day the devastation and suffering caused by the Israeli Defense Force. This may bring Hezbollah, other Iranian proxies and even Iran directly into conflict with Israel. I would guess that Iran will avoid entering into open conflict with Israel, but it is certain there will be more violence against Israel, and against Palestinians, and it will be difficult for Arab countries to remain quiet in the face of likely popular uprisings sympathetic with Palestinians. Even though it may be against the interests of Arab countries, the process of normalization between Israel and the Arab world may well be reversed.
Also, even if the IDF succeeds at enormous cost in neutralizing Hamas’ military capability, Israel will not eliminate Hamas. Already, the popularity of Hamas has risen dramatically, throughout the Arab world. Who will govern Gaza after Israel has wrought havoc against Hamas? Although it is too early to bring the subject to the forefront, the only long-term solution for the Palestinian problem, and the healthy survival of Israel, is an independent Palestinian state living next to Israel.
There is much talk that the US has become weaker, yet it is interesting to note that only the US can play an important mediating role in the Middle East. China and Russia may well end up being winners in the evolving conflict, but as of today, neither of them is directly even present. It is only with active US involvement that an eventual narrow path to peace in the Middle East might be found.