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Israel’s Choices — Not Hamas — Are an Existential Threat to the Jewish State

The true threat to Israel’s survival hides not in the shadows, but in the mirror

A Palestinian girl, photographed in Khan Younis, in the southern Gaza Strip, on October 22, 2023. She lost 13 family members who fled Gaza City to seek safety in the south. Their shelter was hit by an Israeli strike.,Mohammed Salem / Reuters

The war between Israel and Hamas has now been raging for more than two months. But from its bloody onset, which began with Hamas’ horrific slaughter of 1,200 people and kidnapping of more than 200 civilians on Oct. 7, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has consistently rejected calls for a cease-fire, declaring that crushing Hamas was “an existential test for Israel.” 

But the notion that Hamas poses an existential threat to Israel is untenable. The Qassam Brigades, Hamas’ armed wing, has perhaps 40,000 fighters and a relatively primitive military arsenal. Israel, by contrast, has 169,500 active-duty personnel and 465,000 reservists, with technologically advanced weaponry including an estimated 90 nuclear warheads. What made Oct. 7 so deadly was the element of surprise, not superior military capabilities.

Retribution was swift. The Palestinian death toll is nearing 20,000, according to the Hamas-run health ministry in Gaza, well over 10 times the number of Israelis killed since Oct. 7. The United Nations estimates that about 70% of the Gazans killed were women and children. The numbers fit a longstanding pattern: Between 2008 and 2023, there were 6,407 Palestinian and 308 Israeli fatalities across the conflict, a ratio of more than 20:1. In the 2014 Gaza war, the ratio was nearly 32:1.

While the ratios themselves do not inherently violate international law, global protests against Israel’s war have escalated alongside the death toll in Gaza. Even President Joe Biden, one of the staunchest supporters of Israel, has expressed concern about Israel’s seemingly “indiscriminate bombing.”

The true threat to Israel’s survival hides not in the shadows, but in the mirror. Against the backdrop of its violent occupation of the West Bank and obstruction of Palestinian statehood, Israel’s apparent disregard for Palestinian lives in the current Gaza campaign risks not only global condemnation, but the fate of South Africa during apartheid: economic, political and cultural isolation — and, ultimately, collapse.

A decade of increasing isolation

In 2014, Richard Falk, formerly a U.N. special rapporteur on human rights in the Palestinian territories, declared that Israel, “increasingly in the position that apartheid South Africa found itself in during the late 1980s,” is “not only a rogue state, it is quickly becoming a pariah state.”

Worries about delegitimization have penetrated Israel itself. In 2016, the head of its strategic affairs ministry warned lawmakers of its international perception as a “pariah state.” These fears were reinforced by a pair of detailed reports by Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, in 2021 and 2022, that accused Israel of apartheid. Amnesty’s said that Israel’s “oppression and domination over Palestinians” had led to segregation “conducted in a systematic and highly institutionalized manner.”

Within a week of Hamas’ murderous Oct. 7 terror attacks, Israel dropped 6,000 bombs on Gaza, which is roughly the size of Philadelphia, and announced that “Gaza will be under complete siege,” cut off from food, water, electricity and fuel.

By way of justification, Israel’s Defense Minister Yoav Gallant stated that Israel is “fighting human animals” and “acting accordingly.” Other Israeli officials have similarly dehumanized Palestinians as “bloodthirsty animals” and “inhuman animals,” with Netanyahu calling the current war a “battle of civilization against barbarians.”

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Meanwhile, Israeli President Isaac Herzog made the outrageous claim that “the entire nation” of Gaza was “responsible for the Oct. 7 attacks.”

The international community is not convinced. In the face of this heated rhetoric, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Volker Turk rebuked Israel, reminding it that total siege was a form of collective punishment banned under international law.

The widespread use of “dumb bombs” — unguided munitions that cannot distinguish between valid military targets and civilians — has exacerbated the situation. Responding to the growing anger, both at home and abroad, at what is perceived as Israel’s excessive retaliation, the Biden administration has pressed for more precise targeting and a more surgical approach to the battle with Hamas.

Israeli security depends on Palestinian statehood

Born in the shadow of the Holocaust, Israel enjoyed broad international sympathy for decades. But goodwill began to erode in the late 1970s, when the rise of Israel’s right-wing Likud Party catalyzed an explosion of Israeli settlements in the West Bank.

Decades of violent conflict repeatedly thwarted efforts to establish a two-state solution, and the now-56-year Israeli occupation of the West Bank continues despite mounting international censure: In a poll of 22 countries, Israel was the fourth-most-disliked nation, behind only North Korea, Iran, and Pakistan. Meanwhile, a recent study found that six of seven Western European countries (Britain, Denmark, France, Italy, Spain and Sweden) are more sympathetic to Palestinians than Israelis, with only Germany slightly more sympathetic to Israel.

 Of particular concern for Israel is the accelerating erosion of support in the United States, its paramount ally. In 2000, just 11% of Americans expressed more sympathy for Palestinians than Israelis, rising modestly to 15% by 2016. But by February 2023 — eight months before the current Israel-Hamas war — that figure had more than doubled, with 31% of Americans reporting more sympathy for the Palestinians. And in March, Gallup reported that Democrats, historically stalwart supporters of Israel, were for the first time more sympathetic toward Palestinians than Israelis, 49% to 38%.

Support for Israel has plunged further during this war, especially sharply among young Americans: A New York Times/Siena poll published Tuesday showed 46% of voters ages 18 to 29 had more sympathy for the Palestinians than Israel; a staggering 74% said they believe Israel is intentionally killing civilians in Gaza; and 55% opposed further aid to the Jewish state.

Especially worrisome for Israel is the division among American Jews: one study found that 58% of respondents supported restricting U.S. military aid to Israel to prevent the expansion of settlements in the occupied West Bank. This same survey had 31% of American Jews saying that Israel “was committing genocide” and roughly a quarter agreeing that “Israel is an apartheid state.” 

The intensifying condemnation that has affected even Jewish Americans should give the Jewish state pause. Instead, Israel’s understandable grief at Hamas’ brutal attack has fueled blind rage, driving it further down the path toward international isolation. Yet for many Israeli Jews, a total siege depriving Palestinians in Gaza of food, water and medicine is not enough.

Even before the Oct. 7 attack, a study by the Pew Research Center reported that 48% of Israeli Jews favored expelling Arab citizens from Israel. Now, amidst the carnage in Gaza, an Israeli ministry has proposed in a concept paper the formal transfer of Palestinians in Gaza to Egypt’s Sinai. This would be a clear-cut case of internationally proscribed “ethnic cleansing” — a policy long favored by far-right Zionists, including Bezalel Smotrich, Israel’s minister of finance.

Yet Israel need not continue down this path. In the aftermath of the deadliest assault on the Jewish people since the Holocaust, Israel must make a fateful choice. It can continue to violently impose its will on the Palestinians in an illusory quest for security — or it can finally recognize that its own peace and security is bound up with the creation of an independent Palestinian state and acknowledge, in word and in deed, that Palestinian lives are as precious as Israeli lives.

Jerome Karabel is an emeritus professor of sociology at the University of California, Berkeley, and the author of the 2006 book The Chosen: The Hidden History of Admission and Exclusion at Harvard, Yale, and Princeton. He has previously written for The New York Times, The New York Review of Books, The Washington Post, The Nation, Le Monde Diplomatique and other publications.