Gaza War Blues
By Paul Scham
Many of us thought long and hard in 2023 about our relationship to Israel. During the first 9 months of the year – through Oct. 6 of course – I was proud to identify with the hundreds of thousands demonstrating against Bibi’s judicial overhaul (aka judicial coup). In the weeks after the grisly massacre, weaponized sexual violence, and hostage-abduction, I was confused and perplexed about what appropriate response Israel should make, gratified by the solidarity of so many countries with Israel, and, as someone who has studied Hamas, mystified by what Hamas had hoped to accomplish by the atrocities against civilians so barbarously paraded on the terrorists’ videos. Then, after weeks of bombing and with the ground assault underway, I realized, with mixed sadness and anger that the aim of “dismantling” Hamas, announced by Bibi in the hours after the attack, truly meant an all-out attack with unprecedentedly little concern for the lives of Gazan civilians.
Now, after almost 3 months of relentless attacks on Gaza there are over 21,000 Gazan casualties, both civilians and Hamas fighters, at least 2/3 of whom are women and children, according to figures accepted by both the State Department and the Red Cross, and 90% of the population is facing starvation, according to the NY Times. Perhaps most disheartening of all for me, after more than three decades in the American Jewish and Israeli peace movements, I find that many (perhaps most, but by no means all) of my friends and colleagues on the Israeli “Zionist left” still support the assault, believing Hamas both can and must be destroyed, which ideas are, I’m absolutely convinced, respectively impossible and incomprehensible.
Hamas cannot be overcome, let alone “destroyed,” unless there is a visible and credible political horizon for Palestinians to work towards. Without that horizon, no matter how many Palestinians Israel kills, there will always be more recruits if Hamas is the only organization visibly advancing Palestinian rights. And if not Hamas itself, then another, likely more radical force will emerge, if there is no two-state political solution that both Israel and the Palestinians will honor.
There can be little doubt at this point that Israel has dived headfirst into a trap that Hamas either deliberately or accidentally contrived. Hamas could have only dreamt of doing as much damage as Israel has done to itself by its ill-thought out continuation of a campaign that was begun in fury and continued without recognizable aim/ Israel has now dangerously damaged its standing in much of the world and may end up as a pariah, has spent billions of dollars, suffered hundreds of casualties in addition to those lost on Oct. 7 – and for what? Hamas’s power and recklessness are indeed serious dangers that Israel must deal with, but “destroying Hamas” is not an end that can be realized. There can be little doubt that whenever and however this war finally ends, that both Hamas and Israel will inevitably claim victory.
Even if Hamas means every word in its blatantly antisemitic charter of 1988, it doesn’t threaten Israel’s existence as a state. And it shouldn’t have been able to do more than a fraction of the harm it did on Oct. 6, were it not for politically-motivated mistakes its political and military leaders made in the years and weeks leading up to Oct. 7; mistakes that no one can imagine Israel repeating, whatever temporary or permanent arrangements emerge from this war. Israel indeed faces potential existential dangers but Hamas was not and is not one of them. As has widely been perceived, for Israelis it is still Oct. 7 and traumatized people do not make good decisions.
What should be done? If Qatar is able to arrange a cessation of hostilities in place, with release of all surviving hostages in exchange for some agreed-upon number of Palestinian prisoners, Israel should take it. Supervision of the ceasefire can be by whatever reputable force will take it on.
Some object that means Hamas will retain control over Gaza. In fact, it wouldn’t. The IDF controls the surface; Hamas (and the remaining hostages) are packed into the remaining tunnels. True, a ceasefire will likely give Hamas some chance to resupply, despite IDF inspection of all supplies. However, its fighters will be prevented by the IDF from large-scale contact with the Gaza population, so its ability to continue to control Gaza will be minimal. Of course, as noted above, a ceasefire must be the prelude to a political process; an extended Israeli occupation would only start the whole disastrous cycle over again.
Perhaps the most important reason for a quick ceasefire, next in importance to ending the carnage and freeing the hostages, is for Israel to replace its current disastrous government with one that represents the Israeli people as it is today. Polls now indicate – consistently since the war began – that the current coalition would fall from 64 seats to about 45 and the current opposition bloc (which formed the 2021-22 “government of change”) would have about 71 (the remaining 4 would go to the predominantly Arab Hadash-Ta’al bloc). It should be noted that these polling results have remained remarkably stable since the week after Oct. 7. The largest party by far would be National Unity, headed by Benny Gantz, with 38 seats. In a hypothetical preference matchup between Gantz and Netanyahu, Gantz is ahead 52-31.
In other words, Israel is being led by a government which has lost the confidence of its people, one which would undoubtedly be retired in new elections. However, elections will only be held when the shooting stops. It is probable that most or all of the heads of the security services, who have all “accepted responsibility” for the Oct. 7 security debacle, would also resign. Thus, with the exception of two members of the War Cabinet (Gantz and Gadi Eizenkot, both former IDF Chiefs of Staff), both the government and the war are being run by people who will almost certainly lose their positions and likely their reputations as well, soon after the war ends, and thus, consciously or not, have a strong incentive to keep the war going. Bibi himself has been accused by multiple Israeli journalists and others of spending more effort trying to shore up his political position than on planning the war. Any political future he may conceivably have is predicated on being able to lay claim to the destruction of Hamas, as illusory as that might be.
We American Jews have a huge stake in this war, both as Americans and as Jews. The vast majority of us perceive Israel as an integral part of our Judaism. According to a November 2023 poll, “82% of Jewish voters feel emotional attachment to Israel”. The same poll showed “68% supporting the United States’ calls for a humanitarian pause to enable safe delivery of food, medicine, and water to Gaza.”
Those of us who support Israel and recognize that its current course is disastrous should be expressing their views to our elected representatives, as well as to our friends and relatives in Israel, as difficult as those conversations will be. Until now the media portrayal of American Jews has been of a large majority supportive of the so-called “mainstream” Jewish community organizations like AIPAC, and a vocal minority supporting avowedly anti-Zionist groups like Jewish Voice for Peace and IfNotNow. That has never been the reality but it is now past time for those of us who support Israel but recognize this war is a disaster to be speaking out in every way we can.
“For Jerusalem’s sake I will not be silent” (Isaiah 62:1)
Paul Scham is president of Partners for Progressive Israel and a Professor of Israel Studies at the University of Maryland.