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In Its War Against Hamas, Israel Faces a Tragic Choice Between Two Different Routes to Disaster

And on the eighth day, the war began anew. After a week of joy and relief for those Israeli families reunited with loved ones held hostage by Hamas, and of respite from Israeli bombardment for the people of Gaza, seven days of rolling ceasefires came to an end this morning. No more hugs, no more quiet. Instead, the war between Israel and Hamas is back on, presenting once more what moral philosophers refer to as a “tragic choice” – a dilemma where there are no good options, only two different routes to disaster. In fighting Hamas, Israel faces just such a predicament – and yet there are too many, among both those who defend Israel and those who denounce it, who refuse to see that.

Start with those who believe that the massacre by Hamas of more than 1,200 Israelis on 7 October gives Israel the moral licence to respond however it sees fit, subject to almost no limitations. In this view, the horror of the October attacks, the sadism and cruelty of the killing, torture and rape, crossed every moral red line and so Israel can do whatever it takes to defeat those to blame. Not as revenge, but as prevention – to ensure that Hamas cannot make good on its vow to stage another 7 October, and another and another, until Israel is eradicated.

This view can bridle at any attempt at restraint. It resents US secretary of state Antony Blinken for insisting on Thursday that, before Israel takes the war to southern Gaza, it must have a “clear plan in place that puts a premium on protecting civilians”. It argues that responsibility for a death toll estimated to be in excess of 15,000 – in less than two months – rests squarely with a Hamas enemy that deliberately embeds itself in population centres, including in schools and hospitals.

But even on its own logic, that position can quickly run into moral quicksand. Even if you believe that almost any death toll in Gaza would be a morally acceptable price to pay for the absolute defeat of Hamas, you would struggle to defend the current Israeli strategy – because few believe it will, in fact, result in the absolute defeat of Hamas.

In Israel last week, I spoke with a senior figure on the country’s right who privately confessed his fear that Israel’s offensive had barely degraded Hamas as a fighting force. He estimated that Israel had killed perhaps 5,000 Hamas men (whose deaths, incidentally, should be counted in that 15,000 figure, too often misunderstood to refer solely to civilians). That would leave a Hamas military wing still numbering between 20,000 and 35,000. In his view, the survival of even a fraction of that number, along with a few leaders, could be cast by Hamas as a symbolic victory. Yet, if the past seven weeks are any guide, how many more Gazan deaths would it take even to reach that point?

The problem goes deeper. If the only way to defeat Hamas is to bomb civilian areas – because that’s where Hamas operates – then this could be one of those goals that slips further out of reach the more you pursue it. Because loss of civilian life serves as a recruiting sergeant for Hamas, sowing hatred in the hearts of the bereaved. I know the pain a single bomb can inflict; how its impact is felt down the generations. I know it because it is the story of my own family. Some survivors remain admirably free of the urge for revenge – but not all.

In this way, morality and efficacy are linked. If Israel’s chosen course of action cannot achieve its stated goal, then it becomes much harder to justify both the action itself and its human cost. It is one option in a tragic choice.

But if there are defenders of Israel who look away from the consequences of the current war, then there are opponents who, in their condemnation of Israel’s response, deny even the existence of a Hamas threat – preferring to engage in myriad forms of denial.

It might be the long denunciation of Israel’s conduct in Gaza issued on Thursday by Olivia Colman and other artists that did not so much as mention Hamas or 7 October. It might be the failure for many weeks of assorted agencies, groups who advocate for women and supposed progressives to speak of the sexual violence that occurred that day – preferring, in some especially unforgivable cases, to wave away the evidence and question whether such crimes happened at all.

It could be the urge to conclude from a few moments of video footage that Hamas treated its Israeli hostages benignly – just because some of those released did not refuse a parting handshake or high-five from their captors – trumpeting those images as proof that Hamas is not so bad after all. Such a response fails to remember that most of those released captives have friends or family left behind, that of course they did nothing that risked angering those who held, and still hold, so many lives in their hands.

And it fails to reckon with the testimony that has emerged from some of those released – of the four-year-old girl who was given only a fifth of one piece of pita bread each day and was denied a shower or bath for seven weeks, or of the 12-year-old boy kept locked in a room alone, regularly forced to watch video footage of the 7 October massacre.

It ignores the view of expert analysts such as Michael Milshtein, who has immersed himself in Hamas’s writings and social media postings, and who told me that the organisation has raised a new generation of recruits, born this century, who “do not consider Jews or Israelis really as human beings,” but instead see them, “even babies and women, as kind of demonic creatures”.

It ignores too how hard it is to take on an enemy driven by a very specific form of religious zeal, which regards civilian deaths on its own side as a benefit. Witness the 2003 episode, recently recalled, when Israel had in its sights a house containing eight top Hamas commanders. Israel targeted the house, but at the last moment swapped a one-ton bomb for one with a quarter of the payload, to spare civilians. All eight men got away, including some who remain Hamas military leaders even now. One of the Israeli decision makers on that day later said they had faced a “tragic dilemma”.

The laziest form of politics is practised by those who pretend complex problems are easy or can be solved cost-free. There is, in fact, a terrible price to pay as long as Israel keeps fighting in Gaza, in the form of the deaths of thousands of innocents. And there is a terrible price to pay if Israel stops fighting in Gaza, leaving intact a murderous, eliminationist threat. Neither option is bearable. It is a tragic choice. We cannot do much for the two peoples trapped by that choice, but we can at least admit that we see it.

Source: The Guardian