Palestinians inspect wreckage in Gaza.

The heightened intensity of the Israeli bombing in Gaza may be the most convincing indication yet that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the Israeli command have a sense that time is running out and that worldwide public and private pressure will eventually render further efforts to militarily eliminate Hamas unsustainable.

So far, the Israeli determination to eradicate Hamas has ignored the fact that its target is hiding in one of the most densely populated urban regions in the world. Israel has not hesitated to rely heavily on 2,000 pound bombs that virtually liquify the ground when they explode, collapsing whole buildings and, the Israeli command hopes, a maze of tunnels dug deep underground.  

The bombs Israel is deploying effectively kill every living thing within a 350-yard radius. 

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The onslaught so far has resulted in killing around 5,000 Hamas fighters and a handful of commanders. It has also put about 150 remaining hostages at risk. For each Hamas fighter killed, the IDF (Israel Defense Forces) has been killing at least three civilians — mostly women and children, and wounding scores of others. 

Israel has prevented medical supplies, food, and water from entering the area and it has even targeted medical facilities, which in any case are no longer functional. The cost so far has been  an estimated 16,000 Palestinians killed and 60,000 wounded. In the process, most of Gaza, originally home to 2.4 million Palestinians, has been reduced to rubble. Once the fighting is over, it is hard to say at this point what Gazans will have to come back to. 

President Joseph Biden, while expressing sympathy for Israelis in the wake of Hamas’s bloody carnage on October 7, warned against retaliating in a blind rage.  Despite his warning, that is exactly what Netanyahu appears to have done.

There is a growing impression in the Arab world that Netanyahu’s real objective may be ethnic cleansing. By rendering Gaza unlivable, Netanyahu may be hoping to force its two million residents to become refugees in Egypt and other Arab countries. The concern is that if that were to happen, the whole region might be even further destabilized for generations to come.  

Most terrorism experts are convinced that no matter how much carnage is wreaked on Gaza, Israel cannot succeed in actually eliminating Hamas. The best it can hope for is to eliminate Hamas’s current infrastructure — namely its tunnels underlying Gaza — while the perpetrators of the October 7 attack on Israel quietly slip away. 

After the current destruction, Israel will likely be forced to continue policing Gaza for the foreseeable future. That will prove extremely expensive both in the loss of Israeli lives and in financial terms. Even if Netanyahu’s administration decides that it doesn’t care what the rest of the world thinks about the bloody onslaught he has unleashed, it is questionable how long the US can continue to support Israel if the violence is not curtailed soon.

President Joe Biden, while expressing sympathy for Israelis in the wake of Hamas’s bloody carnage on October 7, warned against retaliating in a blind rage. Despite his warning, that is exactly what Netanyahu appears to have done.

Already under attack domestically for his attempts, during a 10-month period, to undermine Israel’s Supreme Court, which many saw as a desperate attempt to escape prosecution on charges of corruption, Netanyahu clearly stands to gain personal advantage from continuing the war in Gaza. At the very least, it draws attention away from his personal legal problems and provides a pretext for his continuing to hold onto power for at least another month or so.  

From a policy perspective, however, Netanyahu’s approach recalls the brutal and largely unsuccessful anti-terrorism campaigns of the 1980s. By their very nature, terrorist groups tend to be small, secretive, and highly compartmentalized. Tracking them down usually involves going through hundreds of suspects in order to identify what may in the end turn out to be only a few dozen actual terrorists. 

In Egypt, during the 1980s, hundreds of suspects, who later proved to be innocent, were arrested and subjected to torture or other mistreatment in order to track down a few Muslim extremists. Instead of eliminating terrorism, the campaign turned into an extremely effective recruiting tool for future terrorists.

If injustice directed against an individual does not actually turn him into a terrorist, it is very likely to lead his family and friends to sympathize with the movement. 

The assassination of Egyptian President Anwar Sadat by an Egyptian army lieutenant, Khalid al-Islambouli, illustrates the point. According to French Arabist Gilles Kepel, Islambouli’s motivation in killing Sadat was not the concessions that Sadat had made to Israel, but the fact that Islambouli’s brother had been tortured by Egyptian secret police.

It is not hard to see what effect Israel’s current rampage of bombing and mayhem in Gaza — with little or no regard for the fact that most of the victims are women and children — will have on future generations. It is hard to imagine a more effective incubator for those who seek Israel’s eventual destruction. That, no doubt, was Hamas’s game plan all along. 

Hamas is not so much an Islamic organization as it is a spiritual descendent of the Qarmatian heresy. The Qarmatians, founded shortly after the birth of Islam, believed in total destruction of everything, including themselves, in order to purify the world so that it could start anew. 

They routinely kidnapped pilgrims on their way to Mecca and held them for ransom. At one point, they stole the Black Stone, an Islamic relic, from Mecca and held it for ransom. Like the nihilists who came much later, they believed that total violence and ultimate destruction were shortcuts to victory, and in the extremely short term, they were at least partly right. 

The real question is why Netanyahu and his right-wing coalition fell for Hamas’s obvious trap. 

Regardless of how many Hamas fighters the IDF manages to kill or capture, the Gaza campaign has already caused serious damage to Israel’s world standing, and it has incited antisemitic attacks against Jews everywhere in the world. The fact that the presidents of Harvard, MIT, and the University of Pennsylvania were called before a US congressional committee to explain antisemitism on their campuses is an indication of the degree of damage that the Gaza fracas has already triggered to the Jewish community living in the United States. Netahyahu’s intransigence has also helped fuel Republican criticisms of Biden’s foreign policy. 

Netanyahu, of course, may see Israeli violence as justifiable revenge for Hamas’s even less justifiable and more hideous behavior against equally innocent Israeli citizens. Those Israelis who approve of Netanyahu’s approach may also claim that Israel is being called to answer to a higher standard than much of the rest of the world.  

Vladimir Putin, for instance, has shown no hesitation at targeting innocent civilians with advanced missile attacks in Ukraine. China has tried to eliminate or enslave virtually the entire population of ethnic Turkic Uyghurs in its western Xinjiang Province. Portions of Europe have apparently decided to stand by and watch while refugees from its former colonies in Africa drown in the Mediterranean. Burma, now calling itself Myanmar, has tried to engage in its own ethnic cleansing of its Muslim Rohingya minority. Turkey has spent decades suppressing its Kurdish minority.  

And finally, the US ex-President Donald Trump and certain Republicans in Congress advocate mobilizing US armed forces against Mexican and Hispanic immigrants crossing our southern border.

Probably the closest analogy to Israel’s treatment of Palestinians today is the treatment Americans imposed on Native Americans during much of the 19th century. Numerous justifications are made in each of these cases, but what is really involved is a simple land grab, based on the principle that the only law, the only rule that really holds in human intercourse, is that “might makes right.” Of course, the corollary to that rule is that “he who lives by the sword dies by the sword”; in short, violence leads to more violence until death ends the game altogether.

The reason we demand more from Israel than we do from a Putin or a “wolf warrior” like China’s Xi Jinping is, first of all, that we think of Israel as a highly developed, advanced country at the forefront of what we consider to be civilization. We don’t expect Israelis to act like thugs. More than that, Israel’s rabbinical tradition aspires to higher moral standards. If Israel allows itself to descend into barbarism, part of our hard-won progress toward civilization has been lost. Not only that, but the parameters of what we consider to be civilized behavior may also be lost.

In the end, the conduct of the war also raises fundamental questions: What is the purpose of Israel, its reason for existence? What is a Jewish state, after all? Zionism might say that Israel is intended to be a place where Jews feel safe. 

But what is a Jew if not someone who believes in at least the basic values of the Torah, as interpreted by generations upon generations of Jewish sages? Does this tradition advocate exploding bombs that kill innocent women and children or the suppression and impoverishment of innocent people? It does not. 

Damage, Gaza, Strip

Residential buildings 150 meters from the Palestinian Tower, which were destroyed during the first week of intensive bombing by Israeli aircraft. Photo credit: Al Araby / Wikimedia (CC BY-SA 3.0 DEED)

The very existence of Israel presents a conundrum. It offers shelter to anyone who is Jewish, but to what extent does it really believe in the values that define one as being Jewish? Israelis are not the first people to face this conundrum. For centuries Christians tortured one another, burned each other at the stake, and in general wreaked mayhem on each others’ societies all over minor differences of interpretation of Biblical texts, which in any case were written nearly a century or so after the presumed facts and in most cases questionably translated. 

The clearest expression of this phenomenon may have come from Ayatollah Khomeini after the revolution in Iran. “If I must choose between Islamic law and Islamic rule,” Khomeini said, “I will choose Islamic rule.” 

In other words, Khomeini was prepared to sacrifice the teachings of the Quran in order to hold on to political power. In fact, Khomeini’s radical approach demonstrated the dangers that are inherent in failing to distinguish between politics and religion. Religion by its nature demands to be absolute and consequently rejects compromise. Politics is mostly about compromise. In trying to create a theocratic state, the Iranians were forced to water down religion and to promote mediocre clerics to positions of political power, which ended in making a hash out of Islamic law.

In a similar fashion, Netanyahu has cast aside fundamental values of Jewish society in a desperate attempt to hold on to political power. In Iran, Khomeini fostered four decades of repression, murder, corruption, and economic impoverishment that continues today. In Netanyahu’s case, what is essentially an unethical effort to turn the theft of other people’s land into a de facto reality could lead to the eventual destruction of Israel as a viable country or at least a credible presence on the world stage. And that is if his policies do not end up starting a world war. 

Regardless of what Netanyahu hopes to gain from all this, his policies have already put the United States into a diplomatically precarious position with respect to the rest of the world. When the UN Security Council called for a cease-fire in Gaza, the US was the only country to oppose the resolution and found itself forced to use its veto, thus isolating itself from virtually everyone else on the world stage.

It would help immeasurably if Netanyahu would stop the provocative spread of Israeli settlements in the occupied territories and curtail the settlers’ attacks against ordinary Palestinians in the West Bank.

In Israel itself, polls now show that around 80 percent of the population disapproves of Netanyahu. Just about everyone wants him to stop the bombardment and invasion of Gaza, yet he can’t. 

In a sense, Netanyahu is riding the proverbial tiger. If he gets off, he will be devoured by the forces he has unleashed. His mentality convinces him that violence has to be met with violence, force with even greater force. He is a prisoner of his own inability to understand the dynamics of the situation.

The only sane way out of this deadly trap is to abandon the notion of revenge while strengthening Israel’s defenses against future Hamas attacks. 

It would help immeasurably if Netanyahu would stop the provocative spread of Israeli settlements into the occupied territories and curtail the settlers’ attacks against ordinary Palestinians in the West Bank. 

Netanyahu may be disastrously wrong about Gaza, but he has proved to be a clever strategist at self-survival, and he may at some point realize that it would be best if he quietly stepped down. Once he does, it may become possible for Israel to begin working with Palestinians toward a compromise solution that is preferable to the current situation in which each side tries to diminish and destroy the other.  

Forgoing violence when unspeakable atrocities have been inflicted on oneself or those who are near and dear may feel counterintuitive, but it remains the only approach that is likely to work.

Foreign correspondent and author William Dowell is Global Insights Magazine’s America’s editor based in Philadelphia. He is also a contributing editor to Who,What,Why. Tom’s Paine is his regular column. He has also worked for ABC News and other news organizations, including TIME Magazine in Hong Kong, Cairo, and Paris. He has reported from five continents–most notably the War in Vietnam, The Revolution in Iran, the Civil War in Beirut, Operation Desert Storm, and Afghanistan. He also taught a seminar on the Literature of Journalism at New York University.

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