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Israel’s response to Oct. 7 plays straight into Hamas’ hands

Israel’s response to Oct. 7 plays straight into Hamas’ hands
Jess Frampton

It has now been over a month since the outbreak of war between Israel and Hamas on Oct. 7, when Hamas terrorists infiltrated southern Israel from Gaza and brutally murdered or kidnapped over 1,400 men, women, and children. And frankly, the war is not going all that well for Israel, which is finding itself increasingly – and dangerously – isolated.

Israel certainly had the right to defend itself after such a horrific attack against its civilians. However, I believe Israel’s leaders made a strategic mistake in how they chose to respond. The all-out assault on Gaza surely felt like the right response – maybe even the only response – in the heat of the moment, but it has predictably led to mounting international criticism against the Jewish state and played into Hamas' hands. This was not inevitable.

What else, you might ask, could Israel have done?

In the immediate aftermath of the terrorist attacks, Israel had a golden opportunity to build a broad multilateral coalition to combat Hamas, much as the United States built a "coalition of the willing" after 9/11 to go into Afghanistan and eradicate al-Qaida. By leveraging the enormous outpouring of international sympathy it had in the wake of the Oct. 7 assault, Israel could have convinced key allies and partners to join forces in an anti-Hamas alliance. The goodwill was there: The US instantly deployed troops and advisers to the region. French President Emmanuel Macron signaled France’s willingness to combat Hamas alongside Israel. Other European nations like the United Kingdom and Germany likely would have followed suit. Even Arab and Gulf states like Egypt and Saudi Arabia, which loathe Hamas and its Iranian backers, could have been brought into the fold.

But instead of capitalizing on its unprecedently strong geopolitical position, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his war cabinet opted to go it alone. Israel swiftly launched massive bombing campaigns across Gaza, targeting Hamas militants and military infrastructure but also killing thousands of innocent Palestinians (many of whom were used by Hamas as human shields) and decimating civilian infrastructure (some of which was used by Hamas to store weapons, hide militants, and launch rockets). This airborne destruction was followed up with a full-scale ground invasion.

Now, over a month later and with the Palestinian death toll exceeding 10,000, any international sympathy Israel initially gained has all but dissipated and is being replaced by backlash. The Gulf states held three summits over the weekend to discuss solutions to the Gaza crisis, without inviting Israel or explicitly condemning Hamas. As the humanitarian crisis has grown more dire, even normally sympathetic nations have begun speaking out against Israeli excesses. France is calling for a cease-fire. The US, Israel’s strongest ally, is privately threatening to limit military aid if the offensive does not wind down soon, even as publicly it continues to stand very strongly with Israel. And members of the Israeli Cabinet believe that the diplomatic pressure is only going to intensify over the next few weeks as the ground offensive grinds on and the civilian death toll mounts.

Wouldn’t acting with a multilateral coalition have constrained Israel’s response? Wouldn’t it have taken longer to get started, show progress, and achieve its objectives? Wouldn’t it have meant forgoing a ground war in favor of more targeted strikes? Probably so, on all counts. But that all would have been in Israel’s best interest.

The fact is that Israel does not and did not face an existential threat from Hamas – or, for that matter, from anybody in the region. Israel possesses nuclear weapons, cutting-edge missile defense systems like the Iron Dome, and the most capable conventional military in the Middle East by an astonishing margin. It was never in serious danger of being militarily overrun, let alone annihilated, by Hamas’ 30,000-strong militia or its relatively crude rocket arsenal. It defies credulity to say that Israel had to strike back with overwhelming force within days and then launch a ground war to head off a nonexistent existential threat from Hamas.

There's no question that Israel has every right to defend its borders and destroy (or, at the very least, decapitate and seriously degrade) Hamas. No one could expect Israel to accept living next to a territory governed by a genocidal death cult bent on its annihilation. But this could have been accomplished at a time of Israel’s choosing, with the support of a broad multilateral coalition, through more focused strikes on discrete military assets, leadership targets, and tunnels. Such a strategically restrained response would have limited civilian casualties while accomplishing Israel’s key security and geopolitical objectives.

Instead, the bloody scorched-earth campaign in Gaza will fail to deliver security for Israelis while inflicting horrible suffering on Gaza’s civilians, providing Hamas with an invaluable propaganda victory and recruitment tool, and fueling anti-Israel sentiment across the world. This strategic miscalculation will leave Israel weaker, not stronger, than it would have been if it had taken a more measured, deliberate, and internationally coordinated approach.

As Hamas surely knew on the eve of Oct. 7, the real threat to Israel was always that its response would alienate its allies and partners, push the Palestinians (and the Arab world, the Global South, and parts of the left in advanced industrial democracies) further into Hamas’ corner and away from the two-state solution, and ultimately undermine Israel’s long-term security. No doubt, that’s exactly what Israel’s enemies were counting on. And so far, they appear to be getting their way.


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