When Al Qaeda terrorists flew airliners into the Twin Towers on Sept. 11 in 2001, it invoked an immediate and comprehensive declaration of war on terror, which spawned a two-decade-long conflict — tens of thousands of dead Americans and civilians, and hundreds of billions of dollars spent in an attempt to eradicate a security threat that saw little perceivable success. In the wake of such a shocking act of violence, national decision-making was hijacked by irrational emotional impulses, which ultimately resulted in what many consider to have been a wholly futile endeavor.
At the present moment, Israel seems perched on the brink of a similar predicament. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been ruthless in his aggressive rhetoric in response to the Hamas attack on October 7, which he has used to justify a full-blown invasion of Gaza and further consolidate his power. Such an operation has the potential to bring about unimaginable global humanitarian and security repercussions in the short and long term. However, both Israel and its Western allies are inclined to be blind to these potential consequences in such a moment of somewhat justified retributive desire.
Hamas is a terror group that has consistently displayed no genuine commitment to peace or the protection of civilians, massacring hundreds of innocent concert-goers, deliberately using civilians as human shields, and kidnapping Israeli citizens. They have made their antisemitic agenda clear.
But while Israel has a definite right to defend itself in the face of organized terrorism, it cannot be allowed to use such an attack as justification for unleashing an unrestrained war on Hamas — war that will inevitably kill tens of thousands of civilians and displace hundreds of thousands more with minimal strategic progress towards peace.
Caught in the Crossfire
Gazan civilians have been caught in the crossfire of the Israel-Palestine conflict for decades, and Israel is setting the stage for an even more cataclysmic catastrophe. This precedent will only be reinforced with a full-scale invasion that threatens to reduce the Gaza Strip to a worn-torn wasteland.
Although Israel issued an evacuation order warning residents of the Gaza Strip to leave their homes, Hamas called for the residents to disregard the order and “remain steadfast in [their] homes.” Analysts and officials have repeatedly warned that it is unrealistic to expect the entirety of Gaza to be completely evacuated of civilians in short order, and the massive refugee crisis that is already unfolding as a result of the ongoing aerial bombardment will be further exacerbated by a full-blown ground invasion. With around a million people still corralled in a 140-square-mile area, the potential for collateral damage is massive, and the IDF is unlikely to be especially cautious — Reuters reports that over 2,300 people have already been killed due to retaliatory airstrikes in Gaza over the span of only a week.
Even when utilizing precision-guided munitions, IDF aircraft have been leveling entire buildings and causing widespread civilian casualties, which will only worsen when Israel determines enough civilians have departed the conflict area to justify more reckless use of force. A ground operation will inevitably bring reports of even greater civilian casualties, the terrorizing of suspected Hamas militants, and high costs among Israeli forces — not to mention the further displacement of hundreds of thousands of refugees to neighboring Arab nations who may be unable — and in some cases, unwilling — to accept large swaths of migrants for a protracted period.
At the Brink of War
Such an operation constructed under the pretense of a quick victory could easily devolve into Israel’s version of Iraq or Afghanistan. Given the extensive history of competing imperial ambitions between Israel and Palestine, the prospect of open war is no doubt enticing for Israel, but intelligence suggests that Hamas was heavily prepared for such a possibility. They are undoubtedly intending to bog down their technologically superior adversary in a protracted and costly urban conflict. And Israel, with the full backing of the U.S. and its general public, seems poised to take the bait. However, the IDF has neither the experience nor the capability to effectively wage such a conflict — no nation ever truly has.
Since past actions against Hamas have almost always involved air campaigns, the IDF has no experience conducting large-scale counter-insurgency ground operations, aside from a brief two-week incursion into Gaza during Operation Protective Edge in 2014. Despite Israeli efforts to weaken enemy defenses through aerial bombardment, Hamas’ network of underground tunnels and well-equipped guerilla forces will present huge challenges to the IDF akin to those experienced by U.S. forces during the War on Terror.
A ground campaign to completely rid Gaza of Hamas could drag on for years, and the IDF’s primary ground assets like the Merkava tank are ill-suited for counter-insurgency operations in an urban setting, rendering them highly vulnerable to threats like landmines, drones, and anti-tank weapons fired from point-blank range. The dense urban environment and innate Israeli prejudice towards Palestinians also means the IDF will be increasingly tempted to utilize indiscriminately destructive methods of warfare to combat Hamas, especially when frustration builds.
An escalation of such magnitude also carries the risk of involving more actors and destabilizing the entire region. IDF forces have already been trading fire with Iranian-backed Hezbollah militants in Lebanon, and Reuters is reporting that Israeli aircraft struck the Aleppo International Airport in Syria to disrupt Iranian assistance to Syrian militias, rendering it inoperable. Syria and Iran both possess formidable long-range weapons such as C-802 anti-ship missiles and tactical Scud ballistic missiles, which have been covertly supplied to Hezbollah and used to attack Israeli warships off the coast of Lebanon in the past.
Continued escalation could easily undo all the efforts at peace-making in the region over the past several decades.
The Moral Obligation of the U.S.
Although Hamas has shown an even greater disregard for innocent lives throughout the course of its attack, our moral analysis cannot be selective.
The U.S. should remain a stalwart in its commitment to prosecuting Hamas’s terrorism, but it cannot allow its short-term regional security interests to supersede its commitment to prudence and humanitarianism. If that means President Biden must offer strong words of warning to his Israeli counterpart on the massive moral risks of his recklessness, so be it. After all, if the foundational criticism levied against Iranian influence is one of human rights negligence, U.S. credibility will suffer if it unapologetically supports a nation engaged in acts of similar nature.
Israel cannot simultaneously be a state that claims divine moral agency yet engages in such egregious displays of prejudice against its neighbors, regardless of the implications of comparative analysis. Rather than unconditionally supporting Israel for the sake of realpolitik, the U.S. should use this opportunity to assign moral conditionality to that endorsement, emphasizing that uncalculated aggression and indiscriminate warfare are intolerable in any form.
As long as Israel continues to act impulsively and fails to critically examine the long-term implications of its actions in the coming weeks, it may ultimately find itself less secure, less unified, and less trustworthy.