June 4, 2021 — New York
This piece originally appeared in The Times of Israel.
Nicholas Kristof, the well-known New York Times columnist, wrote a piece this week entitled “Were My Criticisms of Israel Fair?” As he put it, he experienced “pushback from readers” who questioned his earlier thoughts on “the recent Gaza war.” This column was a response to those readers.
I have considerable respect for Kristof, although I don’t always agree with his views on Israel. In this case, I thought his argument fell short in several important ways.
Addressing the question of how Israel should deal with Hamas, Kristof cites three responses to terrorism: by India against Pakistani groups, by Spain against ETA (Basque separatists), and by Britain against the Irish Republican Army (IRA), suggesting that each of these three countries evinced more “restraint and wisdom” than Israel.
What’s wrong with this argument?
First, Kristof suggests that Israel’s policy lacks “restraint and wisdom.” To the contrary, it’s quite clear that in this latest round of Hamas-triggered violence, Israel indeed acted with considerable restraint and wisdom, even as the challenges were compounded by Hamas’ cynical use of human shields. Israel used surgical airstrikes, not ground forces. Its weapons were extraordinarily precise. It went to great lengths to warn civilians in advance to vacate locations compromised by Hamas operatives. And it even aborted certain missions because the targeting of Hamas terrorists could not justify possible loss of innocent lives. It’s also noteworthy that Israel’s last operation in 2014 lasted 51 days, compared to 11 days this time around. Despite all these efforts, tragically, as in every war, innocent lives were lost.
Second, let’s be clear: the goals of Pakistani, Basque, and IRA terror groups were not the annihilation of India, Spain, and the United Kingdom, respectively. Instead, while they certainly engaged in terror, these groups had more specific aims of keeping India on edge and the Kashmir issue in the public eye, securing independence for Basques, and ousting the British from Northern Ireland.
Hamas does not fit into any of these categories. Nor does its principal patron, Iran. It’s astonishing that the point has to be made again and again, as if the Hamas Charter is being held in a secret vault with limited access. So, if some opt to believe that Hamas will one day reinvent itself as a mainstream, moderate organization seeking coexistence with Israel, they are deluding themselves. Doing so would undermine Hamas’ raison d’être, which is the end of Israel and its replacement by an Islamist caliphate.
Third, Kristof unfortunately introduces a symmetrical equation when he says “extremists on each side empower those on the other.”
Sorry, but there is no symmetry. While there are some extremist voices in Israel, they are in the distinct minority, whereas extremists in Gaza run the country, have violently removed any political alternative, openly live by the sword, devote precious resources to Israel’s destruction rather than Gaza’s construction, and educate children to celebrate death rather than affirm life.
To return to the central question asked by Kristof’s readers, “So what would you have Israel do?” In my judgement, Israel has limited—and imperfect—options.
It could seek to reoccupy Gaza, which might put a halt to the rocket attacks, the terror tunnels, and the importation of weapons and materiel, but would put Israel in an impossible and unsustainable position, both morally and politically.
Or, Israel could try and “turn the other cheek,” relying solely on the Iron Dome system to stop as many as 90% of the incoming rockets, while, for the sake of public opinion abroad, allowing the remaining rockets to cause death and mayhem.
Or, Israel can simply wait for the day when Gazans realize that Hamas has led them to a dead end and seek new leadership prepared to coexist with Israel. It’s a heartwarming hope, but hope isn’t a policy, all the more so in the rough-and-tumble Middle East, where weakness, naiveté, and fuzzy headedness are not guarantors of longevity.
What option remains?
Israel’s attempt to establish a policy of deterrence, which is precisely the policy Israel has been pursuing since its withdrawal from the coastal strip in 2005. That withdrawal is given relatively short shrift by Kristof, as he suggests Israel remains the de facto “occupying power.”
No, not so simple. Israel sought a negotiating partner for its withdrawal, but there was none on the other side. And yes, Israel withdrew every last soldier and settler from Gaza, with the hope that a peaceful, stable regime would take root. Alas, it didn’t.
In the real world, Israel has no choice but to do its best to ensure that more weapons and dual-use equipment don’t make it into Gaza, requiring nonstop monitoring and surveillance. And yet, often forgotten, Gaza has two borders, not one, something else Kristof doesn’t mention. That second frontier is with Egypt, which, strikingly, has similar security concerns to Israel about Hamas-ruled Gaza. Why is there never any mention of that second border?
One day, if Israel ever equaled the size of India, then maybe it would view terrorism as little more than a mosquito bite. Until then, however, the simple reality is that Hamas has territorial aspirations on the whole of Israel, while, conversely, Israel has no territorial aspirations on Gaza. That’s the fundamental difference between the two sides. Israel simply wants to be left alone. Hamas refuses to abide by Israel’s wishes. Therein lies the heart of the problem.
David Harris is the CEO of the American Jewish Committee (AJC).