Why Israel’s anti-Hamas strategy is failing
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“If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him drink.” This Bible verse has been known to give rise to two misconceptions.
The first is that it’s a distinctively Christian verse—that it reflects the kind and loving God of the New Testament, not the sterner God of the “Old Testament,” as Christians call the Hebrew Bible. It’s true that this is a New Testament verse, found in Paul’s letter to the Romans—but Paul was quoting, word for word, from the Old Testament, the book of Proverbs.
The second misconception is that this verse is a simple assertion of moral truth—that it’s just saying that every human deserves compassion. Actually the verse is more pragmatic than that. It goes on to say that, by giving your enemy food and drink, “you will heap burning coals on his head.”
The exact meaning of that last passage is debated: Is the idea that your enemies will suffer, or be thwarted, or maybe that their malice will dissipate, perhaps even dissolving into remorse? (Some scholars think “burning coals” refers to an ancient Egyptian contrition ritual.) In any event, the general drift is clear: Sometimes you can best serve your interests by resisting the impulses that enemies naturally arouse.
When, two weeks ago, Israel announced a policy of denying food, water, and electricity to Gazans while subjecting Gaza to massive bombing, some people criticized the move on moral grounds. It isn’t right, they said, to punish Gazans for atrocities against Israelis that the vast majority of Gazans had nothing to do with. I agree. But those kinds of arguments get limited traction in nations that have just suffered mass atrocities, as Israel has. So I’d use a different argument in trying to convince Israel to curtail the bombing and call off a ground invasion that is sure to kill lots more innocent people. Namely: Israel’s policy of massive retaliation doesn’t serve Israel’s interests.
Before I elaborate, take a look at this graph:
It reflects two facts: (1) In every big outburst of conflict between Israel and Palestinians since Hamas began governing Gaza, Israel has pursued massive retaliation, killing at least ten Palestinians for every Israeli killed; (2) the supposed goal of massive retaliation—to reduce the chances of future conflict by “establishing deterrence”—hasn’t been realized. In the decade before this year, the death ratio was 19-to-1: 3,996 Palestinians vs. 209 Israelis. Yet this month Hamas launched a massive attack, no doubt aware that even more massive retaliation would follow.
Why hasn’t deterrence worked? At least two reasons:
1) The people at the very top of the Hamas hierarchy—the people who decide whether to launch attacks—needn’t worry much about being killed in air strikes, or maybe even in a ground invasion. The political leader of Hamas isn’t in Gaza, and the military leader may not be either; he hasn’t been seen in public for years.
2) The Palestinians who do get killed via air strikes or ground invasion immediately become recruiting posters for new Hamas militants. The average family in Gaza has four children, which means that the average dead Gazan leaves behind several siblings and lots of cousins and maybe some offspring. Not all of these relatives will thirst for retribution, but many will, and some will be willing to risk their lives to exact it.
Reportedly, some 1,500 of the Hamas militants who attacked Israel on October 7 were killed. Many of them no doubt knew that death was a likely outcome. But few things are more conducive to this kind of risk taking than a desire to avenge the death of kin or comrades.
This isn’t a defense of those militants; killing innocent civilians should always be condemned, especially when it’s done so wantonly. But the fact remains that an indifference to, even a delight in, the suffering of innocent civilians is fairly common in people whose kin or friends died in a previous round of killing. Or maybe a better way to put it is that these people no longer see the innocent civilians as innocent civilians; they blame the entire enemy tribe for killing done by some in the tribe.
Some Israelis are demonstrating this human tendency now. They are unbothered by the knowledge that Israeli bombs are falling on Palestinian civilians. They attribute responsibility for the atrocities they endured to Gazan Palestinians broadly; they blur the line between the guilty and the innocent.
Israel’s leaders seem to understand that massive retaliation hasn’t worked. This time, they say, they’re going to go beyond establishing deterrence and “eliminate” Hamas. Cooler heads have raised good questions: Can you really eliminate Hamas? And, if you do, who will govern Gaza? And how do you know it won’t wind up being somebody as bad as Hamas or worse?
A question not being asked enough is: Don’t you realize that as the fighting goes on, and the death toll among both Palestinian militants and Palestinian civilians rises, you’re creating the next generation of militants? So that if Hamas does survive, it will have no recruiting problems, and if Hamas doesn’t survive, whatever replaces it may indeed be as bad or worse?
The book of Proverbs is considered part of the “wisdom literature,” and that verse about overriding our natural impulses toward enemies is an example of wisdom. But wisdom is hard to muster when you’ve just been viciously attacked, as Israel has. That’s why, at times like this, it’s the job of friends to counsel wisdom. President Biden did a little of that this week, reminding Israelis that, though rage is a natural reaction to October 7, being “consumed” by rage can be counterproductive. He even gave America’s overreaction to 9/11 as an example.
But a sermonette isn’t enough. If Biden feels as warmly toward Israel as he claims, he’ll use America’s considerable leverage to try to bring the bombing to a halt and forestall a ground invasion. He’ll lobby privately and, if that fails, he’ll go public.
In the years ahead, the leaders of Gaza will need one critical resource if they are to again attack Israel with such devastating effect: enough hatred of Israelis among Palestinians to fuel the recruitment of lots of terrorists. If Israel can transcend its retributive impulses, and thus limit the amount of hatred those leaders can tap into, that will be a way of, as the Hebrew Bible puts it, heaping burning coals on their head.
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