I’d like to propose that Israel’s current bombing campaign in Gaza be known henceforth as The Stupid War.
Note that I didn’t say The Immoral War. With Hamas and smaller jihadi groups hurling rockets at Israeli cities from the Gaza Strip, Israel is clearly justified in responding. (No nation in the world would accept such a bombardment without striking back.) And though the lopsided body count—over 150 Palestinian dead compared with zero Israeli casualties—is striking, it’s not Israel’s fault that its Iron Dome defensive shield has been so effective at protecting Israeli citizens from the more than 800 missiles that have been launched at the country in the past two weeks. If militants in Gaza had better weaponry or Israel was less adept at protecting itself, many would be dead on the Israeli side.
So yes, Israel is morally justified in defending itself against incoming missiles. But that tells us nothing at all about whether the war is wise. And it most certainly is not.
To grasp the war’s utter foolishness, you need to go back to the June 12 kidnapping and murder of three Israeli youths in the occupied West Bank. The government of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu knew almost immediately that the teenagers were dead and that the leadership of Hamas likely had nothing to do with it. Yet Netanyahu decided to engage in a breathtaking act of demagoguery. For over two weeks, the public was told that the government believed the boys were alive, and that Hamas was behind the kidnapping. Both statements were blatant lies.
But they were useful lies, since they gave Netanyahu public support for a strong military response, which he used as a pretext for sending the Israel Defense Forces to dismantle Hamas’ West Bank operations. The result was, according to journalist J.J. Goldberg, “a massive, 18-day search-and-rescue operation” in which troops entered “thousands of homes, arresting and interrogating hundreds of individuals” throughout the West Bank.
But that wasn’t good enough for the Israeli public, which with each passing day demanded an ever-harsher response to the kidnapping. Having spent more than two weeks whipping up grief and outrage throughout the country, Netanyahu began to lose control of the situation, with far-right members of his own government insisting that the IDF reoccupy Gaza and destroy Hamas. On June 29, the prime minister attempted to placate these calls for vengeance with limited airstrikes against a rocket squad in Gaza. That bombing killed a Hamas operative. The first Hamas rockets were fired at Israel the next day.
It was the first rocket barrage launched by Hamas since 2012. And all the rocket attacks that have followed in the intervening two weeks—weeks during which Netanyahu’s lies were revealed and a young Palestinian was burned alive by three Israeli teenagers in a revenge attack—need to be viewed in the context of this sordid backstory.
The Israeli-Palestinian conflict has become a true tragedy. I mean “tragedy” in the precise sense: a morally wrenching situation for everyone involved from which there appears to be no exit.
Israel—surrounded by hostile powers, still reeling from the collapse of peace negotiations at Taba in early 2001 and the terror of the Second Intifada (2000–05), still stunned by the rapid ascension of Hamas following unilateral withdrawal from Gaza in 2005—understandably fears for its security and worries that a full withdrawal from the West Bank would engender a Palestinian state that actively seeks to destroy Israel.
Palestine—victim of an injustice stretching back 66 years, disenfranchised and wallowing in poverty, subject to enormous inconveniences and mundane humiliations of decades-long military occupation—understandably falls victim to despair, and is prone to embrace political radicalism, including terrorism, in a desperate attempt to better its sorry, seemingly interminable situation.
That would be bad enough. But it is the catastrophic errors of judgment on both sides that have made the circumstances truly tragic.
Israel’s settlement policy in the West Bank is an unequivocal outrage. The building of Israeli apartments and residential neighborhoods, along with supporting infrastructure (roads, electricity, plumbing), deep within occupied territory, is simply not the behavior of a nation that intends to withdraw from that territory. It is the behavior of a nation that intends to hold onto the West Bank for good, relegating the region’s Palestinians to permanent noncitizen status, subjected to a future of political powerlessness and degradation as they watch their would-be homeland carved up into a Swiss cheese of military checkpoints and walled-off Israeli enclaves from which they are permanently excluded.
Meanwhile, the Palestinian choice for political radicalism, including support for Hamas, only confirms the worst fear of Israelis, which is that the Palestinians will only be satisfied with the defeat and destruction of the Jewish state. That empowers the maximalists on the Israeli side, who believe Israel should never give up the West Bank or permit the creation of a Palestinian state.
That is the tragedy—and the powder keg.
It was onto this powder keg that Netanyahu tossed a lit match back in mid-June. Instead of responding like a statesman to the kidnapping and murder of the three Israeli teenagers, by announcing the facts of the case right away and seeking to dissipate the predictable rage, he went out of his way to encourage it, hoping he could marshal it for political purposes.
He was wrong. And that appalling error of judgment is what has brought us The Stupid War, which will accomplish absolutely nothing beyond creating yet more suffering, mostly on the Palestinian side. What can Israel possibly hope to gain from its ferocious bombing campaign? It certainly doesn’t seem to be stopping the volley of Hamas rocket attacks into Israel. Does Netanyahu expect Palestinians to be cowed into submission? You can’t send an effective realpolitik threat when your opponent considers the status quo worse than any bombing campaign Israel dares engage in.
And what if Israel went further and all but leveled the Gaza Strip and killed thousands of Palestinians? They might be cowed into submission then, but at the cost of inspiring worldwide condemnation the likes of which Israel has never seen. Even Netanyahu surely knows better than to turn Israel into one of the world’s foremost pariah states in this way.
So what can Israel possibly hope to achieve?
Maybe a brief suspension of Hamas rocket attacks. Maybe. But soon enough, the region will find itself in a new, even more volatile status quo, weighed down even more heavily by anger and injustice, grievance and fear. Israel’s airstrikes can lead nowhere but to more provocation, more retaliation, and more tragedy for all sides.
And that’s why this war is so stupid.
Indeed, if the Swedish Academy gave a Nobel Prize for political idiocy, Benjamin Netanyahu’s performance over the past month would make him a shoo-in.
Damon Linker is a senior correspondent at TheWeek.com. He is also a consulting editor at the University of Pennsylvania Press, a contributing editor at The New Republic, and the author of The Theocons and The Religious Test.
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