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In Gaza, the next generation of radicalization begins

In Gaza, the next generation of radicalization begins

Leadership in Tel Aviv claims that taking out Hamas will end its security problems. The evidence suggests the opposite

Analysis | Middle East

“The lesson is not that you can win in urban warfare by protecting civilians. The lesson is that you can only win in urban warfare by protecting civilians,” Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin recently made headlines by warning.

“You see, in this kind of a fight, the center of gravity is the civilian population," he said. "And if you drive them into the arms of the enemy, you replace a tactical victory with a strategic defeat.”

Austin’s remarks, made at the Reagan National Defense Forum in December, should be sobering for the sizable cohort of Israeli and Western officials and commentators who insist that a “military solution” to Hamas is the only way for Israel to ensure its long-term security. While the horrendous civilian death toll of Israel’s military campaign is regrettable, this line of thinking goes, the threat from Hamas means Israel has no choice but to prosecute the war until the group is eliminated, as long as it takes, and no matter the cost.

If it’s allowed to survive, it will simply choose another moment in the future to attack, and Israeli citizens will never know peace.

Yet Austin is only one prominent voice in recent months that has pointed out the faultiness of this logic, and reminded the world that when a state battling terrorism leaves a trail of human carnage in its wake, the resulting rage, bitterness and despair fuel the very problem it’s fighting, and many times over.

When Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Charles Q. Brown Jr. was asked directly if he feared that high civilian casualty numbers would create future Hamas members, he replied, “Yes, very much so.” “We’ll be fighting their sons in four or five years,” former Shin Bet chief Ya'akov Peri told the New York Times.

“Israel Is Fostering the Next Generation of Hatred Against Itself,” read the headline of a recent column by Haaretz’s Gideon Levy, as he warned readers to “look what hatred was sown in the hearts of almost all Israelis by one barbaric attack,” and consider what an even worse, prolonged slaughter might do to the Palestinian population. “These children will never forgive the soldiers. You're raising another generation of resistance,” one Palestinian father, his young son killed by Israeli soldiers, told Levy.

Former UK Defense Minister Ben Wallace recently warned, with reference to the Troubles in Northern Ireland, "that radicalisation follows oppression" and that "a disproportionate response by the state can serve as a terrorist organisation’s best recruiting sergeant."

Security services in the United States and around the world have already backed up these warnings. FBI Director Chris Wray cautioned last month that U.S. support for Israel’s war had led multiple terrorist organizations to call for attacks against Americans and the West, and had significantly “raised the threat of an attack” inside the United States.

That’s on top of advisories and intelligence findings by various U.S. government agencies warning of credible threats by groups like Al Qaeda and Hezbollah over U.S. support for the war. Both the German and British spy agencies have likewise sounded the alarm over the war potentially fueling militant radicalization, citing specific threats being made by jihadist groups and those sympathetic to them.

There’s good reason to believe them. Earlier this month, a 26-year-old French man killed one man and injured two others in a knife and hammer attack in central Paris, before telling police he was upset that “so many Muslims are dying in Afghanistan and in Palestine” and that he thought France was complicit in what was happening in Gaza. A day after Hezbollah called for a “day of rage” in retaliation for the October 17 explosion in Al-Ahli hospital, two people threw petrol bombs at a Berlin synagogue. Just last week, German authorities arrested suspected Hamas members who had allegedly been tasked with drawing on a secret weapons depot in Europe for attacks on Jewish sites on the continent.

Taking Tunisia as a bellwether for the rest of the region, a series of Arab Barometer surveys of the country found that the proportion of Tunisians favoring armed resistance to Israeli occupation had shot up dramatically in the three weeks after Hamas’ October 7 attack and the onset of Israel’s military offensive. Already, U.S. troops in Iraq and Syria have been attacked a total of 97 times since October 7, while the Houthi rebels who control most of Yemen have launched a series of successful attacks on commercial ships in the Red Sea, prompting possible U.S. military strikes in response.

Meanwhile, the war has been a boon for Hamas, despite — or arguably, because of — the human devastation caused by the war provoked by the group’s horrifying October atrocities. Polling shows that the group’s popularity has risen in both Gaza and, especially, in the much larger West Bank, where its standing has been bolstered by the events of the past few months and its popular support has risen by more than 30 points. At the same time, the position of more moderate forces has weakened, with an overwhelming majority of Palestinians favoring the resignation of President Mahmoud Abbas and a smaller, nearly two-thirds majority preferring the dissolution of the Palestinian Authority he governs.

None of this should be surprising or controversial. The United States’ own, more-than-two-decade-long attempt to bomb and shoot terrorism out of existence has demonstrated the counter-productive nature of such a strategy. Domestic terrorists have regularly pointed to U.S. and other Western governments’ military operations in the Middle East over the years to explain the motivations for their own violence. A decade or more after assassinating Osama bin Laden, as well as killing or capturing a spate of other 9/11 plotters and terrorist leaders while neutralizing terrorist groups like ISIS, U.S. forces continue to engage in ground combat against terrorists in at least nine countries, while taking part in counterterrorism training in a total of 73.

Meanwhile, terrorist attacks in Africa have exploded by 75,000 percent since the U.S. started conducting counterterrorism operations there two decades ago, and the number of transnational terror groups there has gone from zero at the time of September 11 to dozens, with the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point declaring the continent “the new global epicenter of jihadi violence” as of summer 2021.

All of this should inspire extreme skepticism of the Israeli leadership’s claims that taking out a few top Hamas leaders and killing the group’s fighters at the cost of causing extreme human suffering will end its security problems. Indeed, all evidence quite clearly suggests the opposite. And that means the only real solution is the long-term political settlement that Israeli officials reject and Netanyahu now boasts of having blocked for decades.

Otherwise, Israel and its U.S. supporters may only succeed in destroying an entity called “Hamas,” and face the exact same problems from one or more groups that have a different name, but the exact same violent designs.

FILE PHOTO: A view shows houses and buildings destroyed by Israeli strikes in Gaza City, October 10, 2023. REUTERS/Mohammed Salem/File Photo

Palestinians inspect their destroyed house after an Israeli air strike, in the city of Rafah, south of the Gaza Strip, on November 7, 2023. Anas-Mohammed/Shutterstock

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