When Should the Israel-Hamas War Stop?

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From TPM Reader ES

I had a hard time articulating this for myself — but now it’s clearer: the political and strategic confusion for everyone stems from the fact that what Hamas did to Israelis is not “resistance” but something else. It’s not even so-called asymmetric warfare or terror bombings. It’s not something that past resistance or anticolonial or liberation movements used to do. It’s something completely outside of it. In fact it’s more the kind of atrocities that victorious States or armies perpetrate.

The problem is that there’s no good, conventional or appropriate response to what they did, short of total eradication (of Hamas, not the Palestinians or course). And eradication by means of conventional warfare will inevitably cause astronomical civilian deaths. The civilians are hostages of Hamas, just like the Israeli hostages and the Israeli government. In fact, even foreign powers, the US included, are also hostages of Hamas. And Israel will bear the blame and universal opprobrium for whatever it does, because nobody is really equipped to fully grasp what Hamas did.

Even Palestinian militants are not equipped and hang on to their usual rhetoric. Even though this was something else. It wasn’t an act of legitimate resistance. I do understand why this is impossible for people to admit or even process. 

I published this email because ES has been grappling with how to make sense of what Hamas did, much as I have. No doubt many of you have as well. I don’t mean ‘making sense’ of it in some moral or existential sense. I mean understanding what kind of action it was, what kind of response it requires or justifies. The best analog to me are death squads which we’ve known in various parts of the world. What makes it hard to place, as ES notes, is that the death squads are usually mobilized by the stronger power: Central American dictatorships, Einsatzgruppen in German-occupied Poland. Many states have used atrocities as a tool to make civilian populations flee. But that is usually part and parcel of being the stronger power. Here everything we know about the Hamas operation was that it was intended to kill as many civilians as possible and to have those deaths be as brutal and publicly visible as possible. That made some sort of overwhelming retaliation inevitable. It’s like a puzzle, the pieces of which don’t fit together into any picture we are familiar with.

In the frantic public debate about this war there are two broad responses one hears.

One has it that it must end now or at least there should be an immediate ceasefire not only because thousands have already died but because the number of Palestinian civilian deaths now substantially outnumbers the number of Israel civilians killed in the original attacks. So whatever retaliation or response is justified, it’s gone on more than long enough.

Another says that this isn’t the proper metric. Israel’s war goal is to dismantle Hamas’s de facto military and probably also to topple its de facto government in Gaza. Those are very legitimate war aims given what Hamas did. Lots of civilian casualties are almost inevitable fighting a force that locates all its armaments and fighters, by design, in heavily populated civilian areas.

There were lots of analogies to 9/11 in the days after the Hamas massacres. But this analogy never captured the real context. Hamas isn’t some clandestine extremist group hiding out on another continent. It’s a de facto state on Israel’s border. No government that had any military ability to stop it would tolerate the existence of that kind of government on its border after an event like this. The secret of most terrorist organizations is that they aren’t tightly associated with a state. Hamas is a state. Right there on Israel’s border.

Is there a way to resolve this situation without thousands more dying? What would a legitimate basis for a ceasefire be? The only one that would really make sense from the perspective of Israel’s war aims would be to turn over the leadership of Hamas’s military wing and all the participants in the massacres to face prosecution in Israel. That would address Israel’s war aims and remove the justification for the ongoing warfare. Obviously there’s no universe in which that’s going to happen.

I should add that no military victory for Israel in any of these dimensions will solve anything in the medium or long term without moving quickly afterwards toward the kind of global political settlement that has been on the back burner, at best, for going on 20 years. Saying ‘well there shouldn’t be an occupation’, while 100% true, isn’t an answer to the current situation, much as some pretend it is. Hamas won’t and can’t be part of any settlement. (More extreme voices on campuses and some of the sectarian left say that the massacres are unfortunate but justified since Israel is a settler-colonial state that should not exist in the first place.) Indeed, to a great degree it was Hamas that sabotaged the original ‘peace process’ of the mid-90s when both sides were mainly trying to work toward a global settlement to the conflict and the creation of two states.

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