The Hamas invaders of Israel on Shemini Atzeret had as their objective killing as many Israeli civilians as possible, kidnapping Israelis and taking them to Gaza and terrorizing the populace. They beat men, raped women and paraded the bodies of naked, dead Israelis through the streets of Gaza. These were war crimes committed by several thousand Hamas terrorists.
It is difficult to absorb the extent of the trauma flowing from these events. They remind me of the laments in the Biblical book of Eikha, Lamentations. Funerals for kids, husbands, wives, elders. Fears about those who have not yet been found. Agony about those who are being held hostage. The recognition that the conduct of Hamas and its soldiers is inexcusable. Anger, sorrow, confusion, outrage, blaming.
As I write this, it is four days since this horrible episode began, so where things will end up is unclear. Nonetheless, it is important to understand some of how we arrived at this juncture.
There were very few Israeli soldiers near Gaza when thousands of Hamas soldiers drove trucks and farm equipment through the border fence. There are several reasons for that:
- Expansion of settlements in the West Bank and settler violence there have destabilized the West Bank, and an army brigade that had been assigned to the South was transferred to the West Bank—the result of the messianist mentality in the current Israeli government that is committed to de facto annexation of the West Bank, seizing Palestinian lands and pushing Palestinians to abandon their homes.
- Key Israeli leaders shared the belief that Hamas was incapable of mounting such a sophisticated attack. This reflected ethnic triumphalism on their part, including the belief that Hamas could never keep such a plan secret. The Egyptian government warned Israel in advance that a major Hamas effort was imminent, but the Israeli political and military leadership did not take the warning seriously.
- The Israelis thought they could stabilize Gaza by providing sufficient economic stability. They did not face the degree to which Hamas leaders are ideologically motivated to the destruction of Israel. Nor did they understand that Hamas would proceed with a plan that would inevitably result in massive destruction in Gaza and the loss of thousands of innocent Palestinian lives.
The Israeli government led by Prime Minister Netanyahu did not face that its reckless and destructive behavior laid the groundwork for an attack. Because of its effort to overhaul the judiciary, it created the deepest divisions among Israelis in the State’s 75 years of existence, making Israel look highly vulnerable. This government’s policies have inflamed Palestinians, which fed the Hamas belief that if it started a war, other factions, including Hezbollah in Lebanon, would join in. Netanyahu’s efforts to undermine the Palestinian Authority created the possibility that Hamas could emerge as the undisputed leader of the Palestinians. And allowing Minister Ben Gvir to bring a delegation onto the Temple Mount Al Aksa Mosque was a completely unnecessary provocation. Ben Gvir is among the Jewish triumphalists who want to humiliate Palestinians and drive as many as possible out of the State of Israel.
The post-1967 strategy of successive governments of Israel has been to gradually expand Israeli West Bank settlements and restrain Palestinian nationalism while treating Palestinians as at best, second-class citizens. While that strategy worked on some level, sooner or later those treated as second-class will rise up against their oppressors. From that perspective, the action by Hamas is a warning that Israel must reject the triumphalists and messianists among them and find a way to ensure the dignity, freedom and economic stability of Palestinians. It is the only ethical thing to do, and it is the only thing that will ensure the safety of Israel and Israelis over the long term.
If, as some Israeli commentators have speculated, Israel fully invades Gaza and ends Hamas rule there, stabilization of Gaza will require sophisticated intervention along the lines of post-World War II Germany—work to establish an effective government bureaucracy and establish a stable, democratic government, development of infrastructure such as electrical and water systems, and investment in the creation of industry so that there is stable employment. That in turn will create the conditions needed for safely opening borders and harbors. The mistake of Ariel Sharon’s government, which withdrew from Gaza without creating any of the conditions needed for Gaza to flourish, must not be repeated.
Ordinary Israelis and Palestinians should never have to live through the death, destruction, humiliation and torture that have marked recent days. I pray for the safe release of hostages and a future based on a mutual commitment to justice, freedom and peace.