For two months now, war has raged in the Gaza Strip. Ever since the brutal terror attack on Israeli civilians on October 7th, the Israel Defense Forces have punished the small coastal enclave with an onslaught of aerial bombardment, displacement, and besieged resources. Although the devastation is undeniable, many observers have asked a thorny question – what could Israel be doing differently?
It’s a hard time to be a centrist. Bernie Sanders’ principled position to support Israel’s right to self-defense, but not its methods, runs the risk of alienating allies to both the right and the left alike. But these are important issues to raise – Israel clearly has a right to defend itself under international law. At the same time, its methods during the war have been at best negligent of civilian life, and at worst actively hostile to it.
Israeli officials have rightfully pointed out that Hamas uses its civilian population as human shields, and that urban warfare often entails high civilian casualties. Relative to population size, the death toll in Gaza appears to be rising slower than many of the worst examples of urban combat in the post-Cold War era. And, Israeli officials say, the only language terrorists understand is force. There is a widespread feeling among Israel’s security apparatus that they could make quick work of Hamas if only they wouldn’t be restrained by the Biden administration’s perpetual moral scruples.
The problem is that the heavy-handed playbook has never worked against insurgencies. You can bring an army to its knees with disproportionate power, but an organization embedded in the civilian population can always bounce back. During the Vietnam War, America’s excessive napalm campaign against North Vietnam failed to quell the Viet Cong forces. Nor did the United States succeed in wiping out the Taliban in Afghanistan.
Israel perhaps looks to the broadly successful campaign against ISIS in Syria, but these were largely wars fought by Muslim Arabs against Muslim Arabs. The populations affected by the war, then, had reason to believe the war was in good faith. Israel may also be looking at Russia’s brutal wars against terrorism in Chechnya, which did largely quell Chechen terror groups. But these wars exacted a price Israel will not be willing to pay – a price in Russian soldiers’ lives and global standing.
It is often said that the only way to fight an insurgency is to win hearts and minds. Yet it may appear impossible, from the outside, to win hearts and minds in a situation involving two ethnically divided populations. Nor is there any appetite in Israel for such alternative measures. Many Israelis feel that every overture to the Palestinians has exacerbated the Conflict, rather than helping it. The debate over whether or not Israeli or Palestinian leadership have ever made any serious offers to each other is complex and inconclusive; but each set of leaders largely believes that they have offered considerable concession and received nothing in return.
Whether for moral or practical reasons, Israel must reconsider this question. If nothing else, an insurgency must be met with carrots and sticks, not simply sticks. The civilian population must be given a logical reason to reject extremism beyond the fear of death. Hamas and their ilk recruit specifically from groups of people for whom life opportunities are limited, and it is rational to die as a martyr rather than to live in such conditions. The devastation in Gaza and the escalation in the West Bank alike give Palestinians little reason to accept Israel’s terms of surrender.
Perhaps, it may be argued, that if the price grows high enough, Palestinians will reconsider resistance; but to stoke feelings of desperation amongst a population writ large is only a boon to terrorism in the long run. If Israel truly believes that terrorism must be met with disproportionate, overwhelming force, then it must also provide some sign of goodwill to the population for the population to gravitate away from radicalism and towards negotiation. This is to say that Israel’s method of waging war is useless without simultaneously offering a roadmap for Palestinian sovereignty to moderate elements in Palestinian civil society.
Naturally, the extremists in the current Israeli government will never let such things happen; nor does the Israeli public have much appetite for overtures to Palestinian moderates, in part because of a feeling that there are no real moderates or partners for peace in positions of power. Nevertheless, the all-stick-no-carrot approach has failed for decades now. Without a gesture of goodwill, Israel will close off future avenues and commit to a long-term cycle of violence.