Join our email list

The Cost of Fighting, the Cost of Not Fighting

Given their indifference to civilian casualties, Hamas' conduct is not irrational - merely vile. God help us if we can`t persuade them that it is irrational.
Professor Alexander Yakobson is a Research Fellow of the Kogod Research Center at the Shalom Hartman Institute and Associate Professor of Ancient History at the Hebrew University and a scholar of democracy, popular politics, public opinion and elections in the ancient world. Prof. Yakobson holds a Master’s Degree and a Doctorate in ancient history from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and previously taught at the University of Haifa. In 1999, he published Elections and Electioneering

“Here’s my question for people who support Israel’s bombing campaign,” Peter Beinart said on his Facebook page on July 14. “Let’s agree that Israel has the right of self-defense. Let’s agree that Hamas bears a lot of blame for this war, and for the deaths of Palestinian civilians that result from it. But let’s also agree that no matter how hard Israel tries to be precise, its missiles have killed a lot of innocent human beings. To justify that, you must believe Israel is going to gain something important from this war. What do you think that is? Given that this war will almost certainly leave Hamas in power in Gaza, and that Hamas will almost certainly rebuild the weapons infrastructure Israel is now destroying, and use it against Israel again (absent some dramatic political change), what is Israel accomplishing that’s worth the death of even one Gazan child?”

Such questions ought to be answered seriously. But those who pose them should, on their part, be willing to grapple seriously with the obvious mirror question: What do you think would be the cost of not taking strong military action against Hamas, under present circumstances? What would be gained by that, and what would be lost? A decision not to fight those who are determined to fight Israel is as much a political decision as a decision to fight; both should be examined critically.

What will happen if Israel adopts the logic implied in Beinart’s criticism of the present operation – which, surely, applies to any military operation of this kind, and not only to the present one, which Netanyahu obviously tried hard to avoid? What will happen if Hamas gets the message that Israel has accepted that it does not have a military option (beyond a token response that gives the other side no real reason to stop) in the face of rocket fire? Surely, more and more rocket fire, until life becomes impossible in this country. What exactly is to stop Hamas before this point is reached?

In a difficult situation like the one we are facing, it is never enough to point to the heavy costs of a certain course of action in order to prove that it is wrong, without asking what the cost of not taking this course of action would be. Similarly, the Israeli Right likes to point to the costs and dangers of partitioning the land between the Jordan and the Mediterranean. These are indeed considerable, and need to be acknowledged by supporters of the two-state solution – even though we know well that the ideological Right has other reasons that have nothing to do with Israel’s security. Moreover, the cost of partition will become much graver – perhaps really unbearable – if it turns out that Israel is powerless to defend itself when attacked from areas it has evacuated, which is why defending the country against Hamas in Gaza, as well as Hezbollah in Lebanon, means also defending the chance that it will ever – even if not presently – be possible to get rid of the occupation in the West Bank.

But the problem with the right-wing objection to partition is that the Right does not consider the costs and dangers of non-partition. The moral cost of perpetuating the occupation will be assessed by differently by different people, depending on their worldview and on the weight they attach to other considerations. But no right-wing Israeli, or supporter of Israel, can afford to ignore the argument that while partition is indeed dangerous, non-partition is, in the long run, fatal, because if there are not two states in this land, sooner or later there will be one state here, and this state will not be Israel. They cannot afford to ignore it – but ignore it they do, regularly. By the same token, the cost of fighting Hamas – obviously high and tragic – should be measured against the cost of failing to fight it.

But what about the proviso, ‘’absent some dramatic political change”? Doesn’t it point to a way for Israel to escape the cruel dilemmas of warfare? Indeed, there are very serious doubts as regards Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s readiness to pay the territorial price of a two-state solution to which he is officially committed. Similarly, there are serious doubts regarding Abu Mazen’s willingness to give up the demand for a right of return to Israel, which amounts to a negation of the two-state solution officially adopted by the PLO. In fact, both sides’ official positions are presently making a two-state solution impossible; the question is whether there is a chance that they will change them in the future. Even absent the final deal, there are good grounds for criticizing Netanyahu government’s policies, above all as regards the settlements. But Hamas is a different story altogether.

Hamas is not interested in peace with Israel on any terms whatsoever. Nor is it interested in ruling a peaceful and prosperous Gaza strip enjoying a quasi-permanent truce with Israel. Beyond keeping its hold on Gaza, what it wants is to preserve and foster its standing as the standard-bearer of armed resistance. This is what they believe in, this is what they build their prestige on; moreover, this is what is demanded of them by Iran.

What serves them best are periodic outbreaks of heavy fighting, with intensive war preparations and a ‘’drizzle’’ of Kassam rockets on Sderot and other southern Israeli towns in between. In each round of fighting, Hamas assumes that its rule in Gaza is in no real danger, because Israel obviously doesn’t want to reoccupy it, and it relies on Israel’s political, legal, and moral constraints to limit the gravity of damage that can be inflicted on it. Assuming all that, and given their utter indifference to Palestinian civilian casualties, Hamas’ conduct is not irrational – merely vile. God help us if we can’t persuade them that it is irrational after all – the way that their colleagues from Hezbollah were persuaded as a result of the Second Lebanon War of 2006, and have remained so persuaded until now.

Originally published in the Jerusalem Post

You care about Israel, peoplehood, and vibrant, ethical Jewish communities. We do too.

Join our email list for more Hartman ideas

Add a comment
Join our email list


The End of Policy Substance in Israel Politics