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No Endgame in Gaza

After weeks of bombardment and thousands of deaths, what are Netanyahu’s political and ethical limits?

Rescue teams searching for survivors after an Israeli attack, al-Maghazi, Gaza, November 5, 2023,Mohammed Zaanoun/Middle East Images/AFP/Getty Images

If war is supposed to be the continuation of politics by other means, Israel’s assault on Gaza seems to be the continuation by other means of the absence of politics. It does not seem that Israel understands what its endgame is. Without a clear sense of an ending, there can be no answer to the most crucial moral and strategic question: When is enough enough? Even in the crudely mathematical logic of vengeance, the blood price for Hamas’s appalling atrocities of October 7 has long since been paid. The body count—if that is to be the measure of retribution—has mounted far beyond the level required for an equality of suffering. Yet it appears to have no visible ceiling. What factor must Jewish deaths be multiplied by? When, as W.B. Yeats asked in a different conflict, may it suffice?

“Enough” is the word that Yitzhak Rabin, then Israel’s prime minister, stressed in his remarkable speech of September 1993 at the signing of the Oslo Accords:

We who have fought against you, the Palestinians, we say to you today in a loud and a clear voice: Enough of blood and tears. Enough…. We are today giving peace a chance and saying to you and saying again to you: Enough. 

Enough is a both a political goal and an ethical limit. Without the first, it is hard to set the second. To know how far you can go, you have to know where you want to get to. Benjamin Netanyahu’s government seems to know neither.

There has been much fine reporting on the dreadful intelligence failures that allowed the massacres of October 7 to happen. But they in turn arise from something much deeper: a cognitive failure. There has been a literal false sense of security. Rabin, in his Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech in 1994, spelled out in the clearest terms the impossibility of security without peace: “There is only one radical means of sanctifying human lives. Not armored plating, or tanks, or planes, or concrete fortifications. The one radical solution is peace.”

Peacemaking is a political process. Wars may shape the circumstances in which it is done, but they do not make it happen. Rabin, one of Israel’s most accomplished warriors, understood that truth. With his assassination and Netanyahu’s rise, it was deliberately unlearned. Politics—the negotiation of a just settlement with the Palestinians—was abandoned and replaced by the illusion that security could indeed be created and maintained by planes, tanks, fortifications, and surveillance technology. That illusion has died a terrible death, but it retains a zombie existence. It persists because the first condition of a return to politics would be the admission that Netanyahu’s whole approach has been a disaster, not just for the Palestinians, but for Israel.

Israel has already tried two radically different strategies in Gaza. The first was a familiar military and political orthodoxy: conquest and colonization. Gaza, having belonged to the Ottoman empire and then to the British mandate in Palestine, was governed by Egypt after 1948, though neither its traditional residents nor the large refugee population were granted Egyptian citizenship. After its capture by Israel in 1956, Gaza was quickly returned to Egyptian control, but following its reconquest in the Six-Day War of 1967, the territory was ruled by an Israeli military governor for almost forty years. (Civil control of Gaza City was transferred to the Palestinian Authority in 1994.) In the late 1970s the right-wing government of Menachem Begin imagined that this rule could be made permanent and stable if enough Jews were settled in the territory. Eventually, 8,500 Jewish people did settle in Gaza—a number large enough to create a sense of existential threat for Palestinians but too small to be able to control the strip. Israel needed three thousand soldiers to protect these 8,500 Jews. In the second intifada it lost 230 of those soldiers.

Ariel Sharon’s decision in 2005 to end the military occupation and forcibly withdraw the settlements was not a wild caprice. It was a recognition of reality: the post-1967 attempt at colonization could not be sustained. By occupying Gaza, Israel had gained nothing and lost soldiers, money, and international goodwill. It’s worth recalling that Netanyahu supported the withdrawal for sound policy reasons before he opposed it for cynical political ones.

It was not for nothing that in 2014, when Hamas was firing rockets into Israel, Netanyahu did not support demands from his own foreign minister Avigdor Liberman for a military reconquest and reoccupation of Gaza. Netanyahu, when running for election, had made aggressive noises about Hamas, claiming in 2008 that “we will finish the job. We will topple the terror regime of Hamas.” But this was utterly deceitful. Netanyahu never wanted to topple the Hamas regime. He wanted to retain the threat that he might do it as a rhetorical trope, a furious sound that signified nothing. It is this empty vessel that Netanyahu is now seeking to fill with meaning and purpose—and with blood.

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For Israel’s real alternative to military occupation and colonization was Hamas itself. The religious fundamentalists—committed to extreme antisemitism and the extinction of Israel—could be used to undermine the Palestine Liberation Organization and, after 2005, to keep the Palestinian movement divided between Gaza and the West Bank. The strangeness of this approach lay not only in the illusion that a jihadist movement could ever be, in practical effect, an ally of Israel, but in the weird form of war it created. Since Hamas would continue to attack Israel, Israel would continue to retaliate. The retaliatory attacks would be bloody and often horrific in their toll of civilian casualties. But they would be calibrated so as to ensure that Hamas stayed in power in Gaza.  

A review of Israel’s Gaza wars between 2009 and 2014, commissioned by the US military from the RAND Corporation and published in 2017, points out that this was warfare specifically designed not to defeat the enemy:

Israel never strived for a decisive victory in Gaza. While it could militarily defeat Hamas, Israel could not overthrow Hamas without risking the possibility that a more radical organization would govern Gaza. Nor did Israel want to be responsible for governing Gaza in a postconflict power vacuum.  

Implicit in this policy of repeatedly attacking a regime with overwhelming firepower while not wanting victory over it was the impossibility of an endgame. There would be no peace but also no decisive war. Even if thousands of Palestinians and hundreds of Israelis died in these intermittent eruptions of extreme violence, their purpose was to maintain this brutality at what RAND calls a “manageable” level.

The idea of controlled carnage ended in the unrestrained slaughter of October 7. Netanyahu was forced to abandon overnight the scheme that had been the touchstone of his whole approach to the Palestinian question: keeping Hamas strong enough to deny authority to the Palestinian Authority, but weak enough to pose no more than a sporadic and limited threat to Israeli citizens.

The failure of Israel’s Plan A, military occupation, was acknowledged with its unilateral withdrawal from Gaza in 2005. The even more catastrophic collapse of Plan B has been conceded, as it had to be, after Hamas’s attacks destroyed the illusion of literal and political containment. But the only response of which Netanyahu seems capable is a completely incoherent mix of Plan A and Plan B. There will be, for an unknown period, a military occupation. According to Netanyahu, Israel “will for an indefinite period…have the overall security responsibility” for the territory. But Israel will accept no liability for the welfare of those who live there. Israel will control Gaza but not govern it. This is not a plan. It is a fusion of two failures.

Military occupation did not work when Gaza had a smaller Palestinian population, when its cities were not reduced to wreckage, and when there was one fewer generation raised on hopelessness and hatred. No one really seems to think it can work now. Likewise, the belief that Gaza could be controlled from the outside by an Israeli government that had no accountability to its people, and that could insulate itself from the consequent suffering, has proved to be a calamity. The notion that the broken shards of these two collapsed strategies can be glued together to create what Israel’s defense minister, Yoav Gallant, calls “a new security regime” has no credibility.

Bombs and tanks do not answer questions. Who is to govern Gaza if not Hamas or Israel itself? Does Israel really think that, without the creation of a Palestinian state, somebody else—either an international consortium or a Palestinian puppet regime—will sail into a blood-soaked hellscape of rubble and dust, inhabited by traumatized survivors, and take responsibility for rebuilding, policing, and governing it? How is Israel going to make the kind of peace with its immediate neighbors without which the security of its citizens cannot be rebuilt?

While these political questions go unanswered, so do the moral ones. How many deaths are too many? How are obligations to international law and common decency going to be fulfilled in dense streets crowded with children, women, the elderly, and the sick? What is the “self” in Israel’s “self-defense”? Does it see its true image in this bloodletting? Can it imagine a life beyond revenge?

This article was originally published online October 31, 2023 in slightly modified form. —The Editors

Fintan O’Toole is the Advising Editor at The New York Review, a columnist for The Irish Times, and the Leonard L. Milberg Professor of Irish Letters at Princeton. His most recent book, We Don’t Know Ourselves: A Personal History of Modern Ireland, was published in the US last year. (December 2023)

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