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Israel Wants to Slay the Monster Next Door, but With This Lethal Bombardment, It is Feeding It

When will it end? Some ask that question in despair, willing an end to the pictures of crushed buildings and destroyed lives, the succession of bleak images that come out of Gaza every day. Some ask the question to exert pressure, with the UN security council debating a call for a ceasefire today. Others wonder if the answer rests on Washington, detecting a new urgency in secretary of state Antony Blinken’s repeated call for Israel to close the “gap” between its declared intention to protect civilians and “the actual results that we’re seeing on the ground”.

Put the question to senior military figures, Israeli and American, as I’ve done this week, and you hear a variety of responses. Some predict an end to the current intensity of bombardment in days, others talk in weeks. But the more fruitful question might not be when, but why. Why is the fighting still going on, even now, more than two months after the 7 October massacre of 1,200 Israelis by Hamas? As those demanding an immediate ceasefire might put it, surely Israel has hit back hard enough now? Surely it has made its point?

In searching for an answer, a helpful place to start might be the area that is among the most painful. For many weeks, campaigners have urged the UN and others to pay attention to the now extensively documented evidence of sexual violence perpetrated by the men of Hamas on 7 October. The bodies of dead Israeli women and girls told a clear, consistent and harrowing story, now supplemented by testimony from those who lived through those events. I spoke with the director of the Association of Rape Crisis Centers in Israel who confirmed that the organisation has information that there are both witnesses to and survivors of sexual violence on 7 October. A police interview with a woman known as Witness S, who was at the Nova music festival where more than 300 were killed, includes details that are too appalling to be repeated here: suffice to say she describes a frenzy of sexual torture and mutilation that makes the soul sink.

This is one reason why Israel is still fighting Hamas, and why Hamas is still firing rockets at Tel Aviv, indeed a direct reason in one specific sense. Last week, a series of rolling truces came to an end. Both sides blame each other, but Israel insists that Hamas refused to go through with the promised release of 10 female Israeli hostages. Both the US and Israeli governments suspect that a factor in that refusal was Hamas’s fear that the women would testify to sexual abuse at the hands of their captors. “We know why they are not returning them, and they know that we know,” one Israeli official told the Ynet news website. The assumption is that Hamas fears losing face in the eyes of a section of Muslim and Arab opinion that, while ready to condone armed action against Israelis, would condemn sexual brutality.

That runs alongside the conviction within Israel that a series of moral red lines were crossed two months ago, and so the familiar pattern of previous, limited confrontations between Hamas and Israel could not apply this time. This feeling centres less on the numbers killed than on the manner of their killing: the sadism and the cruelty of it, the torture of children and elderly people, and the rape of women and young girls.

“There’s a monster that grew up on the other side of the fence,” Ilana Dayan, one of Israel’s best known TV journalists, told me this week. “It brutally invaded us, not only territorially: it violated us. It raped us, butchered us, slaughtered us, kidnapped us, kidnapped our kids, kidnapped our grandmothers, kidnapped our soul. And all of a sudden we realised this monster has to be dealt with.”

That goes a long way to explaining why a consensus exists from right to left in Israel behind the stated goal of this war, namely the defeat, if not dismantling, of Hamas as a fighting force capable of governing Gaza: Israelis need the monster next door to be slain. Short of a direct demand from Joe Biden to stop – and maybe not even then – they will not rest until they believe that goal has been achieved, no matter how loud the chorus of international condemnation.

The centrality of sexual violence in all this should not be underestimated. As one eminent Israeli historian put it to me in an email this week, “On 7 October Israel [itself] was raped and humiliated; the mass rape of women (and some men) was the apt microcosm. This is something simply not grasped outside Israel.” That sense of violation and humiliation has fed a rage felt especially, the historian wrote, in the top brass of the IDF and Israeli intelligence, those who ignored the warning signs and allowed 7 October to happen. Those commanders feel a need to compensate, even atone, for their failure. “I don’t think Netanyahu could stop the IDF, even if he wanted to.”

You don’t need to share any of these sentiments, or even sympathise with them – but you do need to understand them if you are to understand this war. Indeed, what Israelis perceive as the lack of understanding and empathy around the world has strengthened those very sentiments. That long silence of the UN and assorted NGOs in the face of hard evidence of sexual violence against Israeli women and girls has fuelled the belief that the key institutions of world opinion are hardly worth heeding, since they start from a position of hostility. That view draws the glum conclusion that, when it comes to protection, Jews can rely only on themselves, a position that hardens thanks to episodes such as the jaw-dropping response of the heads of three Ivy League universities when asked this week if their campuses would tolerate calls for genocide against Jews: “That’s a context-dependent decision” came the reply.

And yet it has to be possible to empathise with Israel’s desire, its need, to be rid of the Hamas monster next door – while still counselling that it is taking the wrong path in Gaza. My most arresting conversation this week was with a formerly high-ranking figure in the US military. He believes that Israel must think not only tactically – hitting the monster – but also strategically, tackling the conditions in which the monster has been bred. In his view, tackling the physical entity of Hamas matters, but so too does the larger “resistance narrative” of which Hamas, like Hezbollah, is a manifestation. To be truly safe, he says, Israel needs to defeat that narrative and the idea at its core: namely, that there can never be peace between Israel and the Palestinian people.

Dispelling that idea would require Israel to offer Palestinians hope: a political horizon that would include the possibility of eventual statehood and an end to occupation. And it would mean fighting a very different war, one that would signal to Palestinians that Israel’s fight is not with them as a people but with Hamas alone. No more 900kg (2000lb) bombs flattening whole neighbourhoods and blanket artillery fire, but rather small teams of infantry, moving quickly, street by street, even house to house – followed by support troops, a “humanitarian wave” bringing food, water and medicine, and turning the electricity back on. That approach might risk a greater number of Israeli casualties, but slowly, says the former commander, Israel would dispel the belief that it is an implacable enemy with whom Palestinians can never be reconciled – and such beliefs matter. “The most important terrain on the planet is the six inches between the ears,” he says.

It may be too late – and such an approach would certainly require new Israeli leadership – but this is a view that Israel needs to hear. It understands the pain, the violation, the country suffered on 7 October, it sympathises with its people, and yet it fears that Israel, by its actions, is not slaying the monster that terrorised it that day – it is feeding it.

Source: The Guardian