When I called an Israeli defense analyst this week to talk about the terror visited on her country, I wanted to jump quickly to my questions: How long will Israel’s fight against Hamas last? What will victory ultimately look like? And what happens when the immediate clashes end?
But she had something to share first.
“I just came home from a funeral,” she said, her voice breaking. “It was awful. There aren’t enough slots to hold all the funerals. They’re running out of flowers. There are so many bodies. It’s insane, just insane.”
Israelis say this is their 9/11 — worse even, given the proportion of people killed in a country of 10 million. The retaliation against the Hamas militant group, I’m told, must be so severe that it will deter future violence against Israelis. The language Israelis are using is cataclysmic.
“They’ve butchered babies, slaughtered entire families and raped women,” an Israeli official told me via text. “This is evil, and evil will be eliminated, no matter what it takes.”
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.
A Dangerous Parallel
I’ve covered wars, genocides and suicide attacks in a career heavily shaped by the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks. Such man-made disasters often have a predictable arc.
First, there’s common shock and anguish, followed by a unity of purpose among the aggrieved. Over time, that cohesion fades as the response gets messy, economic costs rise and the civilian body count goes up. A later phase, such as occupation, brings more challenges.
In the gut-wrenching days that followed the 9/11 attacks, moral certainty was combined with a strange fog. Americans of all backgrounds rallied behind former President George W. Bush, who assured us we would win the new war on terror. The Onion, meanwhile, published a story headlined: “U.S. vows to defeat whoever it is we’re at war with.”
In fairness, we did define targets. It was Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaeda. Then it was the Taliban who had sheltered him in Afghanistan. Then Saddam Hussein’s regime in Iraq. Washington soon found itself policing entire countries. U.S. failures, especially killing civilians, further radicalized populations, fueling the rise of vicious terrorist groups like ISIS, who unfairly cited Islam as a rationale.
The problem with America’s early response, a Pakistani writer once told me, is that the U.S. didn’t take enough time to grieve before it took action. If it had, it might have moved with more humility and more caution, and it probably would have had more success.
Instead, the U.S. lacked patience and a long-term strategy. Leaders often driven by politics kept changing everything from the end goal to the troop numbers. As more people died with no end to the fighting, more Americans wanted out.
More than two decades after 9/11, al-Qaeda lives on in various deadly forms. The Taliban are back in charge in Afghanistan. ISIS lost its main territory after a yearslong, multinational military campaign, but the movement still exists.
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.
Israel’s Vague Game Plan
While launching airstrikes, Israel has been prepping a potential ground invasion of the Gaza Strip, the impoverished territory under Hamas’ control. Gaza is roughly 140 square miles and home to 2.2 million people, the vast majority of them civilians. Some have American citizenship.
The militant group is believed to have roughly 30,000 fighters, but many of its leaders live in exile. The militants in Gaza often position themselves and their arsenals in civilian areas. Israel faces intense urban warfare if it wants to seize control of the area.
Israelis are clear that they will not repeat what they’ve done in the past: Stage operations, often through airstrikes, that hurt but didn’t end Hamas.
“We cannot do another round that they’ll be weakened and then get stronger,” the Israeli official said.
But neither Israelis nor U.S. officials appear sure how to define deleting Hamas. Is it killing or capturing its leaders? Going after all of its fighters? Destroying its entire arsenal? All of the above? (There also are other militant groups in Gaza.)
Given Israel’s failure to foresee this latest attack, it’s possible it doesn’t fully understand the enemy.
The overall death toll so far is in the thousands and no one knows how long Israel’s active battle with Hamas will last. The most concrete prediction I could get from a U.S. or Israeli official was three to six months, but it was just a guess.
U.S. Principal Deputy National Security Adviser Jon Finer has said that “this is an operation that is likely to unfold over weeks, if not longer.” Some aides to President Joe Biden tell me that the level of Israeli public outrage could mean sustained support for an unusually long campaign.
Biden says he’s urged Israel to respect the “rules of war,” while Secretary of State Antony Blinken went slightly further on Thursday, urging Israel to “take every possible precaution to avoid harming civilians.” Other U.S. officials wouldn’t detail private talks with Israelis, but one senior administration official told me they have urged Israeli leaders to keep the “moral high ground.”
That’s not enough, especially given the death tolls Israel already has inflicted on Gaza since the Hamas attacks began over the weekend, said Yousef Munayyer, a specialist in Israeli-Palestinian issues. He noted that prominent Israelis have been shockingly blunt about the likelihood that many Palestinian civilians will die.
“All the conditions are there for mass atrocities that we have not seen before in Gaza,” Munayyer said. “The rate of killing now is just crazy.”
A Different Type of Enemy
Israeli and American officials and analysts point out that there are some significant differences between their new fight against Hamas and the 9/11 attack on the United States.
For one thing, Hamas is right next door. After the brutality of its latest attack, Israelis cannot ignore it or treat it gently.
“The Israelis and Palestinians are living cheek by jowl,” said Michael Singh, a former Bush administration official who dealt with the Middle East. “That necessarily means it’s quite different, because it’s not halfway around the world.”
Hamas also has taken numerous Israelis and others hostage. Their lives could be in danger from Israeli bombardment, not to mention if the militants start executing them. The fact that Israel has taken its time to formally launch a ground invasion suggests that there are measures being taken to secure hostages and that some strategizing is happening.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has compared Hamas’ recent atrocities to those of ISIS, whose crimes were exceptionally revolting.
But if Israel’s military campaign vanquishes Hamas, it will then face the challenge of managing an impoverished territory where resentment against Israelis runs high.
Handing control of Gaza to the Palestinian Authority appears unlikely anytime soon, given that body’s many weaknesses and its struggles to govern in the West Bank.
And if images of dead Palestinians increasingly dominate the public conversation the way images of Israelis brutalized by Hamas do now, there’s a risk that more Palestinians and others sympathetic to anti-Israel thinking will radicalize.
Many wouldn’t have to travel far.
Wider Conflict, Deeper Divides
The fighting risks sparking a larger conflict.
Will Hezbollah, the Lebanon-based militant group, stage its own attacks on Israel? Will Iran, a major Hamas backer, wade in to the fight more directly? Will disaffected young Muslims use the moment to stage their own version of jihad in the Middle East or beyond?
Even if Hamas were to disappear from Earth today, Israel would still have to grapple with the dilemma it has faced for its entire modern existence, one that animates many militants who fight it: What about the Palestinians and their aspirations?
Many Israelis also are livid at their government and security establishment for failing to protect them — an immediate fury not present in the early days in the United States after 9/11.
“Everyone is so angry,” the Israeli defense analyst said. “There’s so many petitions going that [Netanyahu] has to go home, that [military leaders] have to go home.”
The fury risks deepening Israeli political divides, which were already exacerbated prior to the Hamas attacks over Netanyahu’s efforts to overhaul the country’s judiciary. For now, Netanyahu and opposition rival Benny Gantz have joined in an emergency government, but it could prove fragile.
U.S. political polarization, meanwhile, is far greater than in 2001, and it’s affecting what was once solid bipartisan backing for Israel.
Already, some Democrats and others on the left are raising concerns about Palestinian civilians and the possibility that Israel’s siege of Gaza could lead to war crimes. Accounts of Palestinian children dying are flooding social media. Republicans have wasted no time in blaming Biden for what Hamas did to Israel.
At their core, the Israelis who must deal directly with the challenges ahead understand it won’t be easy. But their emotions are overpowering, and waiting to act can feel like its own type of moral failure.
“It’s a battle of barbaric savage terrorists vs. the civilized world,” the Israeli official told me. Every Israeli knows someone killed or otherwise affected, he said.
As for him? “I’m crying all the time.”