Israel’s ultimate response to Hamas could go very wrong
Ambassador Curtis A. Ward
(12 October 2023) — The broad-based empathy with the people of Israel could quickly erode if Israel’s response is one of mere vengeance devoid of rationality. While applauded by some, Israel’s scorched earth and indiscriminate bombings of Gaza, as Palestinian civilian casualties rise, could see applause change from defense of Israel’s right to defend itself to international opprobrium and condemnation. Israel’s objective is to eliminate Hamas as an organization and a threat to Israel. Israel’s right to defend itself and ensure it’s long-term security cannot be denied. The initial and continued bombing of Gaza is only a precursor to an expected protracted military operation. As being discussed by Israeli leaders, the total destruction of Hamas is the ultimate goal. In order to accomplish this feat, much of Gaza and the way of life of the Palestinians occupying that space will be destroyed.
What will Israel do when Gaza is completely destroyed – indefinite occupation? What of the future of the two million Palestinians in Gaza? How will the international community respond? In answer to the latter, will the international community seize upon these tragic events and push to a final two-state solution to the Palestinian-Israeli issue? Or, will the international community respond with humanitarian assistance to the Palestinians in perpetuity? Will the Israeli people abandon the hardline policies of the rightwing political forces led by Benjamin Netanyahu and choose a path to coexistence, peace, and security for Israelis and Palestinians alike?
Hamas’s deadly missiles reigned down on Israeli civilians killing and injuring hundreds of innocent people and destroying civilian property and way of life. These heinous acts have been described by me as acts of terrorism. I defended Israel’s right to self-defense against an armed attack – a right of all sovereign states enshrined in article 51 of the United Nations Charter. The right to self-defense, including by use of military force in response to an armed attack is international law. But this right to self-defense and a military response is not unconditional. There are rules of war which govern conflicts which sovereign states are obliged to uphold. One of the most important rules is that international human rights and humanitarian laws must be observed. Civilian casualties must be avoided at all costs.
Israel’s response must reflect the responsibilities of a sovereign state and must not be a reflection of a terrorist organization. Israel faces daunting challenges in abiding by its responsibilities under international law and norms. The standards of responsibility to avoid civilian casualties is different from the modus operandi of terrorist organizations. Mass casualties of civilians is a major objective of terrorism.
Arguably, the early response by Israel may have already crossed the line. Raining bombs on Gaza – densely populated with Palestinian civilians – violates the standards expected of responsible sovereign states. Although Israel claims to be target-bombing, and that may very well be the military’s intent, mass casualties of Palestinian civilians are inevitable. We have seen similar intentions by other sovereign states to avoid civilian casualties, in the past, but the results have been the opposite. Bombing of populated areas will have similar results. Israel’s military campaign in Gaza will spark another humanitarian crisis for the Palestinian people.
We have also seen deliberate targeting of civilians. Most recently, Russia has indiscriminately launched missile attacks against civilian targets in Ukraine. Most agree Russian political and military leaders must be held accountable under international criminal laws for those and other crimes against humanity perpetrated against the people of Ukraine. As difficult as it might be for the international community to hold those culpable Russians accountable, justice demands it.
The Israeli government and military say they are dropping leaflets and issuing warnings to civilians to vacate certain buildings and leave certain areas prior to the dropping of the bombs. While that is laudable, given the geographic construct and population density of Gaza there is no place for the Palestinian civilians to flee. The Israeli civilians were not accorded the same opportunity to flee Hamas’s missiles. That’s a strong argument for Israel to make. But I again stress the importance of Israel – a sovereign state – upholding standards of war we do not expect from terrorist organizations. Crimes against humanity are egregious whether perpetrated by sovereign states or by terrorist organizations.
As the bombings subside, Israeli military forces in great numbers will invade the Gaza. There will be many casualties on both sides. Civilians will be in the crossfire. The collateral killing of civilians will be attributable to both sides. Hamas is reputed to have used civilians as human shields, also a war crime. That will not be a concern for Hamas but it should be for Israel and the entire international community. Getting to Hamas means going through Palestinian civilians.
At the same time, we cannot ignore the tension in the West Bank. Palestinians in the West Bank, already reeling from the oppressive policies of the Netanyahu government, may be moved to respond to the killings of their kith and kin in Gaza. The Palestinian Authority does not have the capacity to contain this growing anger, and an uprising in the West Bank will have devastating results. The proliferation of Israeli settlements make Israeli’s quite vulnerable to reprisals. The Israeli government may find itself fighting on yet another front.
In the meantime, Israel’s northern border with Lebanon is a cauldron ready to explode. Hizbollah poses a greater threat to Israeli overall security than Hamas does. Hizbollah is a far more organized military force with an arsenal of missiles and military hardware which dwarfs that of Hamas. As tensions rise in the region the gamble is that Hizbollah will not launch an attack on Israel without Iran’s imprimatur. The gamble is that Iran will not give Hizbollah the green light for fear of the U.S. entering the war and holding Iran accountable. President Biden’s quick response by sending significant U.S. military assets to the Mediterranean and warning to any country that may contemplate taking on Israel should restrain Iran from any irrational action.
In the long-term attention will inevitably turn to Iran’s role as chief sponsor of Hamas and Hizbollah. Some actions will be taken against Iran. I expect further sanctions, but it could go beyond that. In the meantime, reducing tensions in the region is a top priority.
© Curtis A. Ward