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What if Israel didn't set out to 'destroy Hamas'?

What if Israel didn't set out to 'destroy Hamas'?

The case for a limited response after the October 7 attacks.

Analysis | Middle East

The notion that a restrained reaction to outrageous provocation is often the wiser course has wide relevance. For example, it certainly applies to the U.S. reaction to 9/11, which cost trillions and led to well over a hundred times more deaths than the impelling event.

And a case can be made for the proposition that it would have been better for Israel if its understandably vehement response to the murderous Hamas incursion of October 7 had been much more limited. The response could have focused on pushing the offensive back, a few strikes against isolated targets in Gaza, shoring up border defenses, mounting covert operations to undermine Hamas, and launching a coordinated international effort to get the hostages released.

That approach would have sought to capitalize on the fact that the appeal of Hamas and its message was in decline before its attack. This process seems to have been motivated by at least two central considerations.

First, Arab Barometer reports conclude that the organization had become deeply unpopular in Gaza. While it seems to have been successful at squandering funds and at digging tunnels to protect itself, its governance has been incompetent and corrupt. Over time, substantial majorities in Gaza had come to say they did not trust it, had experienced food shortages during its rule, and did not share its eliminationist perspective on Israel.

Second, support for Hamas in the broader Middle East was waning. This is suggested by the Abraham Accords in which the message from former well-wishing and fund-donating states seems effectively to have been: “For god’s sake, get a life! You've been bashing your head against Israel for something that happened 75 years ago, and you have nothing to show for it except an ever-bloodier head. We've been on your side for most of this, but you’ve got to realize finally that Israel is not going anywhere and that it’s time to find another policy.” Gaza’s leadership reacted by accusing the Abraham Accords countries of seeking to throw it under the bus. Perhaps they were. For example, UAE cut its support for Palestinian relief from $51 million to $1 million.

If this analysis is correct, Hamas was not deterrable by the prospect of Israeli retaliation. Indeed, in its view, a destructive response from Israel would work to its advantage by boosting its support in Gaza and elsewhere and by alienating those Arab countries that had signed, or, like Saudi Arabia, might have soon signed, the Abraham Accords. For the most part, of course, this has happened, at least so far.

Internationally, Israel enjoyed much sympathy when it was the sole victim. But much of this was dissipated when Israel reacted by killing far more civilians and destroying far more property than the Hamas invaders.

The declared goal of the Israeli government has been to “destroy Hamas.” This may not be quite as extravagant as the goal declared by President George W. Bush in the wake of 9/11 which was “to rid the world of evil,” but there is something of a resemblance. Hamas members can likely avoid destruction by simply going underground (in both senses of the word), and then rising again over time.

Even if it were possible to destroy Hamas one way or another, more radical groups could rise from the rubble, playing on the deep resentment in Gaza that has been engendered by the wildly disproportionate Israeli bombing and invasion.

The more restrained approach outlined above would have worked not to “destroy” Hamas in a physical sense, but to isolate it as an international pariah — something that was already in process before its deplorable attack on Israel and, as suggested, likely helped inspire it.

Overreaction is not necessarily required politically. It is true that no one seems to have put forward the observation after Pearl Harbor that there might be something absurd in sending tens of thousands of American soldiers and sailors to their deaths in a war triggered by an attack that had killed 2,300. And if someone had done so, the proposition would likely have been roundly rejected. However, while the option of doing nothing or next to nothing in response to an outrageous provocation might not be accepted or might not even be wise, it is one that should at least be on the table for consideration in any rational decision-making process.

And sometimes a restrained approach to outrageous provocation has been accepted. Thomas Friedman of the New York Times and others have pointed out that India did not overreact when ten gunmen sent from Pakistan shot up Mumbai in 2008, killing 175 people. Nor did the U.S. overreact when terrorists blew up an airliner filled with Americans over Lockerbie, Scotland, in 1988. Instead, it launched a determined and lengthy effort using legal methods to go after those responsible.

Neither of these terrorist events was as destructive as the Hamas attack on Israel of October 7, of course. But for the most part, the world sided with the victims and aided their efforts. And it may be relevant to note that, although both attacks generated tremendous publicity for the perpetrators and for their cause, neither was attempted again.

A soldier prepares 155m shells for firing during IDF military training in the Golan Heights with self propelled cannons in 2020. (Shutterstock/Gal_Rotem)

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