By Paul Scham
It seems like – and is – a different world now since our last IH issue, back in early September of this year. The events of Oct. 7 – and their aftermath – have upended Israel and the thinking and feelings of those of us who care about Israel and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Obviously, it is infinitely more intense in Israel itself. As Ha’aretz correspondent Amir Tibon put it on a podcast, “every day is October 7.” You can listen to the interview free on the Tel Aviv Review podcast, Dec. 11 edition.
Amir was formerly Ha’aretz’s D.C. correspondent from 2017 to 2020, where I got to know him. His politics seemed like mine; supportive of Israel as a nation with staunch opposition to the Netanyahu government and its policies.
You may have heard Amir’s personal story of Oct. 7, as it’s been all over the news. He and his family, who live on Kibbutz Nahal Oz, 1 km. from Gaza, spent most of the day hiding in a shelter while Hamas massacred 14 of their neighbors and took more as hostages. Luckily, he was able to call his father (his father is a major-general, retired), who sped down from Tel Aviv, collected a few soldiers on the way, and rescued Amir and his family. There are innumerable similar stories of Israeli civil society rising to the occasion while the government faltered.
Amir seems totally supportive of the Israeli military’s offense in Gaza (though absolutely opposed to and bitterly critical of the current government), and I wince at his words. I cannot criticize a man who went through that and who – together with the large majority of Israelis (including many Palestinian Israelis, according to polls) – demands that Hamas be destroyed, so it can never threaten Israel again. He genuinely regrets the 15,000+ killed in Gaza so far, the vast majority civilians: men women, and children. However for him, the horror of Oct. 7 and the widespread and gruesome massacre that Hamas perpetrated appear to take precedence over humanitarian feelings, “proportionality,” and even the growing fury in the Arab world, and elsewhere, which he, as Ha’aretz’s current diplomatic correspondent, must be acutely aware of. In this, he is typical of most Israelis as far as I can see, even many of those on the (denuded but still definitely existing) Israeli Left.
I sympathize and try to empathize with Amir and the majority of Israelis who support the war, but I cannot agree with their take on it as it’s currently (Dec. 14) being conducted. At the same time, I and Partners for Progressive Israel, as well as our fellow members of the Progressive Israel Network, are not signing on to the numerous statements calling for a cease-fire. Partners rejects the prevailing orthodoxy that claims we cannot both support Israel and be outraged (not just sad) at the number of Palestinian casualties and the level of daily destruction in Gaza. We maintain our position as supporters of Israel, but are also convinced that the declared Israeli goal of destroying Hamas is unattainable, while the damage being done to Israel’s stature in the Arab world, until recently high and rising, is now low and in free fall. A recent and credible poll by the internationally respected pollster Khalil Shikaki reports that 44% of Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza now support Hamas, up from 14% in the West Bank before the war and 38% in Gaza. Thus, the only way Israel could “destroy” Hamas is by destroying almost half of the Palestinian population. In my view, the security implications of this hatred, which may endure for a generation, are more dangerous for Israel than what remains of Hamas’s military capabilities.
We need President Biden to succeed very soon in his attempt to broker, or quietly but forcefully demand, a halt to the fighting, whether it is called a cease-fire or a humanitarian pause, perhaps even by the time you are reading this. That pause must also free the 100+ remaining hostages – and, tragically, to demand an accounting of all those who Hamas contends have died since they were captured.
I fully realize that I am not on the ground in Gaza and cannot assess either the extent that Hamas retains its military capabilities, nor how Israel assesses the risk and extent of civilian casualties it inflicts, though a recent article in 972 e-magazine seems both believable and horrific. Even though I follow the war closely, I am of course not privy to the most important day-to-do happenings on the ground. Nevertheless, it seems beyond serious contention that the toll on the civilian population is unconscionably high.
There is another reason I am critical of the military campaign, and I hope it will be clear that I am not in the slightest attempting to justify or remove the opprobrium that rightly falls on Hamas, or “blaming the victim.” This point can be summed up as “When you live next to a tiger, don’t be surprised if it attacks.” Hamas is armed, dangerous, and ideologically committed to Israel’s destruction. I write as someone who believes that ideology is not destiny, and who thought, during the previous decade, that Israel might have come to some sort of larger peace deal with Hamas. But not now.
As long as Hamas retains the conviction in any form that Israel should be replaced by an Islamic Palestine, even if there is some sort of agreement between it and Israel, it is both Israel’s right and its responsibility to not just deter, but to actively prevent, foil, and engage with any possible attack, no matter how unlikely it seems. And as long as Palestinians are bottled up in Gaza or in all important respects ruled by Israel in the West Bank, the tiger will feel itself fully empowered to attack. We and, more importantly, the tens of thousands of Israelis living near Gaza, as well as the Israeli Bedouin in the area, had thought this was completely understood before Oct. 7. We were wrong.
The slaughter of October 7 should not have succeeded. The intelligence and operational “lapses” that allowed it to succeed have been recognized by all senior Israeli security officials, who are expected to resign their posts at the war’s conclusion. The only notable leader who has not “accepted responsibility” is Bibi Netanyahu himself, who bears the most culpability. But that is for another time. Meanwhile, while Hamas is rightfully blamed for the attack and its gruesome brutality, Israelis must be absolutely certain that the IDF – and future Israeli governments – will not make this mistake again. The Gaza border will likely become the most heavily guarded border in the world, perhaps second only to the one between North and South Korea. Whatever the tiger says is not really relevant to the need to take full precautions against it.
Why don’t we join in the demand for “ceasefire now”? Part of the answer is that we value our solidarity with the Israeli left. We accept that Israel is doing what must be done – and that to impose a cease fire is to spit in its face. We are not willing to countenance that at this time.
A phrase from the Talmud, which I’ve quoted before, comes back to me: “Do not appease your friend at the time of his anger, and do not comfort him while his dead still lie before him.” Pirkei Avot (Wisdom of the Fathers) 4:18. Israel’s dead still (metaphorically and some in reality) lie unburied. I urge Israel to accept a ceasefire for reasons both political and moral, but I am not willing to join in the public demand for one, as it is a word that has now become toxic, synonymous with tying Israel’s hands in response to the horror of October 7. We are on the record as calling for an additional and urgent pause in the fighting so humanitarian aid can reach civilians, as it did in the first pause a few weeks ago.
It is not a matter of joining one side or another in the ceasefire debate taking courage; no one in this country is called on for courage in this war. However, we do need to break the false dichotomy that says that one side is always right and the other always wrong, that one side is the eternal victim while the other is the eternal oppressor. Believing that absolutely leads to the righteous extremism that we have too much of today on all sides.
Paul Scham is president of Partners for Progressive Israel and a Professor of Israel Studies at the University of Maryland, where he teaches courses this semester on the history of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and on the Israeli Right.