By Richard C. Gross
“O war, thou son of hell.”
— William Shakespeare, “Henry VI,” Part 2, Act 5, scene 2
The Biden administration has pleaded with Israel repeatedly to pause its incessant bombing and shelling of a tiny Palestinian enclave packed with people and rubble with little escape, to no avail. It’s no surprise Israel responded with a no, not yet.
It’s a blitz seeming without end.
That means Israel wants to finish its goal to destroy the Hamas terrorist organization in and tunneled under Gaza, seeking to end more than 16 years of hostilities with what President Joe Biden last month labeled “pure evil.” Israelis expect a “long war.”
They can be stubborn when they know what they believe in they must do, despite appeals from their biggest and mightiest benefactor that stands “in solidarity” with Israel, as Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in Tel Aviv Friday.
But internal politics are involved, too: the demands of a solid right wing of hundreds of thousands of Jewish settlers in the West Bank, extremist nationalists, the Orthodox, the families and friends of those killed and wounded and soldiers in the horrific Hamas assaults and soldiers.
It seems as if everyone knows someone who was targeted; it’s a small country, no more than a village when catastrophe strikes.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu refused a U.S. plea for a “humanitarian pause” in Israel’s continual bombing of the Gaza Strip. Israeli armor and infantry have surrounded Gaza City, capital of the territory. It was administered by Egypt until Israel seized it in the 1967 Six-Day War.
“I have made clear that we are continuing forcefully and that Israel refuses a temporary cease-fire that does not include the release of our hostages,” Netanyahu said.
He has argued a cease-fire would let Hamas reset its defenses and rearm its fighters.
Blinken not only struck out with Israel but publicly with Arab officials in Amman Saturday. Jordanian Foreign Minister Ayman Safadi told him at a news conference to “stop this madness” in Gaza. Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry there called for an “immediate cease-fire” without such Israeli conditions as a hostage release.
Similar bad news came from Arab leaders elsewhere over concern the mounting death toll in Gaza could create instability among their own people even though they earlier favored an aggressive campaign against Hamas, U.S. officials told The New York Times.
Most Israelis, if not all, demand the destruction of Hamas “once and for all,” as Netanyahu put it. Hamas is an acronym that stands for Harakat al-Muqawama Al-Islamaiya (Islamic Resistance Movement).
Israel does not want to reoccupy Gaza. So, the U.N. Security Council could send peacekeeping troops to Gaza for an extended stay once there’s a cease-fire.
It did that in Cyprus in 1964 with UNFICYP to keep apart the Greek and Turkish Cypriot communities. And it’s still alive, even through the 1974 Turkish invasion. It renews it annually for the island nation, situated in the Mediterranean Sea about 150 miles from Israel.
The alphabet soup of U.N. forces in their blue helmets and white vehicles are spread elsewhere in the area, including the U.N. Relief and Works Agency for Palestine refugees (UNRWA), established by the General Assembly in 1949 and moved from Vienna to Gaza in 1996. The U.N. Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) was set up in south Lebanon in 1978 to confirm Israeli withdrawal from the area and restore peace following an Israeli incursion against terrorists.
Israel, despised or respected or loved as the disputed Jewish homeland, is putting on the biggest show on the world stage, and the reviews are bad. Innocent Gazans are paying the price as angry Israelis pummel their homes, businesses, playgrounds as they try to kill terrorists hiding in tunnels under civilian buildings, including hospitals and schools.
What better places to seek sanctuary?
Problem: Israel appears to have enraged big time Arab oil players like Saudi Arabia and some Persian Gulf states that could have a yearslong impact on the geopolitics of the turbulent Middle East. It’s been a trap for the West since the post-World War I death of the Ottoman Empire in 1922 after ruling for more than 600 years.
The Turkish Ottoman domains were split up among Britain, France, Greece and the Russian Empire. (Russia got Armenia and Bulgarian territories by treaty after it won the 1877–1878 Russo-Turkish war.) The British and French drew lines in the sand, creating borders for new desert countries.
The negative reactions to the repeated retaliatory Israeli bombings of the narrow Gaza Strip, a mere 25 miles long and packed with 2.1 million people. It’s precisely what Hamas hoped for in its long-planned brutal, bloody and unconscionable armed sweep toward mostly sleeping innocents in 20 or so settlements and small military bases just north of Gaza’s fence, broken apart in many places.
The terrorists killed upwards of 1,400 soldiers, men, women, kids, even babies, in an hours long rampage, captured another more than an estimated 240 and looted and burned homes, even with people inside, and vehicles. Another 5,400 were wounded, Israel said. It marked the biggest one-day killing of Jews since Hitler’s “final solution” wiped out 6 million of them during World War II’s Holocaust, burning the bodies.
Now, pro-Palestinian demonstrations have been held worldwide, including among thousands of Americans who marched in big cities, some waving black, white, green and red Palestinian flags. Protesters also gathered on some college campuses, reportedly creating concern and anxiety among Jewish students wary of the spread of antisemitism, which already is underway.
Israel never experienced such extensive terrorist attacks in its 75-year history, even during the 1970s decade of terror carried out mostly by Palestinians from Gaza and Lebanon, including the worst of them: The seizure in 1974 of 115 hostages, 105 of them schoolchildren, at Ma’alot, just south of Lebanon, killing 25 of them, 22 of them kids, and injuring 68.
In the Oct. 7 Hamas incursion, Israelis showed Blinken images and videos of the terrorist attacks after he met with President Isaac Herzog in a hurried visit to Israel before traveling to Jordan.
“It remains almost beyond human capacity to process, to digest,” he said of the slaughter, the Times reported. Others have reacted similarly.
But in Gaza, the optics — bloodied white body bags, collapsed concrete apartment houses and shops, huge bomb craters, destroyed streets — moved Blinken to urge Israel to call for a series of “humanitarian pauses” to facilitate supplying food, water, medicine and fuel to the people trapped by war and to secure the release of the hostages.
Israel won’t send fuel, arguing it will be taken by Hamas for its own use. But fuel is needed to run hospital generators and other powered equipment.
Fully 9,400 Gazans have been killed and upwards of 24,000 others have been wounded, according to the health ministry, which is run by Hamas.
“We provided Israel advice that only the best of friends can offer on how to minimize civilian deaths while still achieving its objectives of finding and finishing Hamas terrorists,” Blinken told reporters in Tel Aviv, tip-toeing with respect for U.S.-Israeli relations.
He said in Amman Saturday that he and the Israeli government discussed how the humanitarian pauses could be arranged. But he backed Netanyahu’s refusal of a cease-fire unless it included release of the hostages.
“It’s our view that a cease-fire now would simply leave Hamas in place and able to regroup and repeat what it did on Oct. 7,” Blinken responded. “No nation — none of us — can accept that.”
CIA Director William J. Burns headed for Israel Sunday to add his voice among Israeli officials about U.S. appeals for slowing the bombing runs.
Israel has permitted some aid into Gaza, where more than a million people have been displaced. Some 300 American citizens and foreigners caught up in the hostilities have been allowed to leave for Egypt through the southern Gazan crossing of Rafah.
Netanyahu and his three-member war cabinet, backed by his far-right government ministers, ignored repeated calls by Biden to obey the laws of war in their “rightful” retaliatory strikes against Gaza.
Having covered terrorism in Israel in the 1970s, I get the government’s decision to want to eliminate Hamas after having fought five wars since 2006 with the terrorist organization, founded in 1987 during the first intifada (civil uprising) against Israel.
Enough is enough. Israel must be very tired of playing Sparta.
I also get those who blame Israel for Hamas’ savage attacks, arguing that none of them would have happened if only the Israelis had given up the occupied West Bank, captured from Jordan in the 1967 war. Wrong.
Hamas’ stated purpose, in writing, according to its charter, is to eliminate the Jewish state, now with a population of 9 million. That’s why Israel wants to delete Hamas from the face of the Earth. I don’t believe it will succeed in that endeavor, hard as it will try; terrorism never dies.
It’s worth noting that Israel voluntarily withdrew its forces, settlements and 900 people from Gaza in 2005, handing it over to the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank. Hamas seized it with arms after winning the Palestinian election in 2007, much to Israeli disappointment. They regretted the pullout after the first terrorist strikes. Who can blame them?
I believe it would have been better for Israelis to have put their characteristic impatience aside and to silently deploy their special forces, such as the respected Sayeret Matkal (General Staff Reconnaissance Unit), and to take out Hamas’ leadership one by one or in groups when and where they can be found. They did just that with the terrorists who killed 11 Israeli hostages taken from the Munich Olympics in 1972.
Beyond the explosions and smoke and crushed bodies of mothers, fathers, children, family members and friends, the wholesale bombardment by planes, tanks and artillery probably has petrified the children, who make up nearly half of Gaza’s population and probably created a whole new cohort of terrorists growing up with a mind set on revenge.
At least two of the bombs were 2,000-pounders dropped Tuesday to hit tunnels under the densely populated Jabaliya refugee camp, the Times reported. Dozens were killed, hundreds wounded, hospital officials said.
How do you win hearts and minds with merciless bombs? If you care about hearts and minds, that is. The terrorists certainly didn’t. And what will that mean for the losses among equally terrified Israeli children? Who and what will they become?
What kind of future is yet another cycle of violence, for anyone? There must be another way for peace to be had.
A U.N. peacekeeping presence can’t hurt and could lead to an armistice, much like the one between Israel and Lebanon in 1949 and the one that ended the Korean War in 1953. Better peace than the explosions of weapons.
Richard C. Gross, who covered war and peace in the Middle East, was a Pentagon reporter for seven years, was foreign editor of United Press International and was the opinion page editor of The Baltimore Sun.