Israel’s dilemma

Three weeks have quickly passed since commandos of the Palestinian extremist group Hamas raided Israel’s border communities and launched what amounts to a coordinated killing rampage. Most of the 1,400 victims were innocent civilians—children, women, and the elderly. They also included young people who had just attended a nearby music festival.

As the bonnet-hooded militants headed back to their underground tunnels in Gaza, they took with them more than 200 hostages, most of them also civilians. It took several hours before Israel’s vaunted defense forces could reach the multiple sites of this horrific carnage and rescue those who had survived it. Global condemnation was swift. Political analysts struggled to comprehend the objectives and motives behind it even at the risk of appearing to rationalize what appears as a senseless and unprovoked display of violence.

In hindsight, Hamas’ Oct. 7 attack no longer seems pointless. It has exposed the vulnerability of Israel’s defenses. It has provoked the Israeli military to launch retaliatory airstrikes and artillery bombardment against Gaza that have killed more than 7,000 of its Palestinian population, at least 40 percent of whom are children. The scale of the Israeli response and its brutal sacrifice of civilian lives, even at this point, has been such that public opinion all over the world is dramatically shifting in favor of the Palestinian people.In the meantime, the long-anticipated ground assault into Gaza for the purpose of destroying Hamas and its military infrastructure remains on hold. As there seems to be no way of achieving this without killing more civilians, Israel is under pressure to exercise restraint lest it be accused of punishing an entire people for the deeds committed by a few. By the same token, the Israeli government is being pressed, not least by the United Nations, to end its blockade of Gaza and to allow fuel and humanitarian aid to reach its more than two million residents.

Even as Israel seethes in righteous anger over its inability to fully carry out what it regards as a just and necessary act of retaliation because of global objections, Hamas has gained some approval for its recent release of four hostages, including two Israeli American citizens. The Hamas move, facilitated by the government of Qatar, refocuses attention on the need to prioritize the safety of the hostages and secure their eventual release. This portends a period of protracted negotiation, which could further delay the planned assault on Gaza. Hamas clearly anticipated that the hostages they took would form a vital part of their negotiation for a ceasefire. But it is doubtful if the Israel Defense Forces would relent in their determination to destroy all of Hamas, even if that would mean sacrificing the hostages. Since Oct. 7, they have not allowed a day to pass without hitting parts of Gaza that they suspect to be lairs of Hamas.

The need to listen to pleas for a ceasefire might be felt more by the Israeli political leadership. It is they who are expected to be sensitive to global public opinion. As the world sees daily images of the mangled bodies of children being pulled out of the rubble of buildings hit by Israeli bombardment, anti-Israel sentiments have flared up—awakening a dormant anti-Semitism not just in the Middle East but in major European capitals. As expected, the most vehement reactions to Israel’s counterattack have come from the Arab world itself. The people of the region are standing up to their governments and challenging their leaders for signing agreements with Israel that effectively sideline the Palestinian cause.

It would be naïve to think that Hamas did not anticipate this. They have long known that other more pressing global issues have pushed the Palestinian issue to the margins and that the world hardly remembers or cares how they have been dispossessed of their lands or how they live today. Their problem has always been that compared to the Israeli image of a disciplined, progressive, and technologically superior people, the Palestinians have tended to be seen as a nation of losers led by incompetent, corrupt, and self-serving leaders.

Hamas’ first goal was clearly to redeem Palestinian dignity in the eyes of the world, and, in the process, to rekindle the Arab community’s passion for the Palestinian cause. A corollary objective, it now appears, is to regain the world’s sympathy for their struggle, which is only possible if Israel begins to be seen not as a heroic nation fighting for its right to exist, but as an oppressive and arrogant power that is determined to annihilate its Palestinian neighbors.

As I see it, Israel has been so blinded by rage after being caught flat-footed by the Hamas attack that it cannot see any good reason for a ceasefire. Oct. 7 happened because, as the great Israeli soldier-politician Moshe Dayan once put it, they had felt so secure that they “did not see those waiting in ambush … awaiting the day when serenity will dull our path.” In this frame of mind, Israel can hardly be expected to “heed the ambassadors of malevolent hypocrisy who call upon us to lay down our arms.”

Alas, this is probably where Hamas expects Israel to be.