Saying Hamas must pay a “very heavy price” for belligerence, Israeli bombs destroyed a 13-story apartment building in Gaza that had a Hamas presence. And saying Israel “ignited fire” and is “responsible for the consequences,” Hamas launched more rockets at Israel.
We’re now seeing the worst fighting in seven years between Israelis and Palestinians, and again a basic pattern asserts itself: When missiles are flying, hard-liners on each side are ascendant. Civilians die, but extremists on one side empower those on the other.
The late Eyad el-Sarraj, a prominent psychiatrist in Gaza, described this dynamic when I visited him during a past cycle of violence: “Extremists need each other, support each other.” He lamented that Israel’s siege of Gaza had turned Palestinian fanatics into popular heroes.
The recent fighting was prompted in part by Israel’s latest land grab in East Jerusalem, part of a pattern of unequal treatment of Palestinians. Two prominent human rights organizations this year issued reports likening Israel’s treatment of Palestinians to apartheid. One group, B’Tselem, described a “regime of Jewish supremacy” and concluded, “This is apartheid.” Human Rights Watch published a 224-page report declaring that Israeli conduct in some areas amounts to “crimes against humanity of apartheid and persecution.”
Personally, I’m wary of the term apartheid because there are significant differences from ancien régime South Africa. But putting aside nomenclature, there is no doubt that the ongoing Israeli misrule of Palestinians is both unjust and creates a tinderbox.
It’s also true that Hamas not only attacks Israeli civilians but also oppresses its own people. But as American taxpayers, we don’t have much influence over Hamas, while we do have influence over Israel and we provide several billion dollars a year in military assistance to a rich country and thus subsidize bombings of Palestinians.
Is that really a better use of our taxes than, say, paying for COVID-19 vaccinations abroad or national pre-K at home? Shouldn’t our vast sums of aid to Israel be conditioned on reducing conflict rather than aggravating it, on building conditions for peace rather than creating obstacles to it?
The obvious way out of the Middle East morass is a two-state solution, but that is becoming difficult to cling to even as a dream. A recent survey showed that Israeli Jews and Palestinians actually agree on something: Only 13%, with little variation among groups, think Israel wants a two-state solution.
Hard-liners in Israel sometimes accuse Americans of being naive about what works in a tough neighborhood. But those hard-liners have repeatedly showed their own naiveté in pursuing policies that backfired. Consider that it was Israel itself that helped nurture Hamas back in the late 1980s and the 1990s. Israel was then concerned with Yasser Arafat’s Fatah movement, so it cracked down on Fatah and allowed Hamas to rise as a counterforce.
Since then the Middle East has been caught in a “Boomerang Syndrome,” in which extremists on each side mount violent assaults, which ultimately lead to attacks against their own side as well. Hamas’ past shelling undermined political moderates in Israel. And Israel’s siege of Gaza destroyed a Palestinian business community that could have been a moderate counterweight to Hamas, while land grabs in the West Bank and East Jerusalem made the Palestinian leadership seem irrelevant.
It’s true that force sometimes works. In my conversations in Gaza over the years, I’ve found that many Palestinians have complicated views. Some resent Hamas as oppressive and incompetent, and many dislike missile launches at Israel because they know they will face retaliation. Then again, they have endured economic distress, fear and funerals because of Israel, so some acknowledge a bitter satisfaction to seeing missile launches and anticipating that Israeli mothers will grieve as they do.
Israel’s future security depends in part on goodwill in America and on some modus vivendi with Palestinians, yet Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has frittered both away. History suggests that Israel cannot consistently deter nonstate terrorists, but it can very effectively deter nation-states — so it should welcome a Palestinian state. Yet as extremism on each side foments extremism on the other, that possibility fades.
The Biden administration has been timid and restrained, slowing the U.N. Security Council’s engagement on the issue, and it has yet to name an ambassador to Israel. But the stakes are too high for evasions, and President Joe Biden should stand with others on the Security Council to demand a cease-fire before this escalates further.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken helpfully said “it’s vital now to de-escalate.” The administration should also express strong concern about the planned evictions of Palestinians that provoked the crisis. Dithering and vacillation help no one.
A basic truth of the Middle East is that anyone who predicts with any confidence what’s going to happen is too dogmatic to be worth listening to. But for now it appears that the winners in the current fighting are Netanyahu, who may be able to use the upheaval to get another chance to continue as prime minister, and Hamas, which is showing itself relevant in a way that the Palestinian Authority is not.
Meanwhile, millions of Palestinians and Israelis lose, and the Boomerang Syndrome spirals on.