October 30, 2023
At least 1,300 Israelis have been killed since the war began,
We seem to never learn that might alone does not guarantee safety or long-term victory.
On the way to Israel many years ago, we stopped off in Great Britain and then wandered through Wales. As we drove over the narrow two-lane roads, we found a series of historical sites marking centuries of warfare between local rulers and the growing power of British royalty. The sites standing above the rest of the ruined castles were towers with gaping holes along the base. These were what was left of the keeps that were thought to be impregnable; the places that were going to withstand any attempt by the invaders to prevail. Their walls were thought to be thick enough and high enough to withstand any attack. They, for their time, were the technological answer to safety against the invaders.
And then they were not. Explosives got better and impregnable walls were no longer impregnable walls. The image of a hole blasted in the side of those towers and being able to see the blue sky above has stuck with me.
I thought about that when I reflected on our nation’s futile efforts to win a war in Vietnam. We marshaled the most technologically advanced army of its time to fight against an ill-armed and ill-fed opponent, and we lost. I thought about that as we tried to understand the horrors of 9/11 when a small band of terrorists could find a way to turn a civilian airplane into their weapon of mass destruction. And again, as we invaded Afghanistan and Iraq to find that being stronger did not guarantee victory.
And then, tragically, I came back to this image of ruined castle keeps in Wales as Hamas carried out its savage attack on October 7th and Israel responded with its overwhelming military advantage seeking to wipe out its enemy.
Gaza is a small area, only 141 square miles and about 21 miles north to south. Israel had, until October 7th, thought it was safe from an organization that the world had ostracized as terrorists. They built an impregnable wall around the strip, with state-of-the-art technology to make that wall impregnable. Israel was so confident in that wall that it reduced the number of soldiers who were needed to defend and watch its borders.
All of this imagined security evaporated on October 7th when, as described by the Washington Post, “The massive, complex attack …stunned Israelis, who watched in horror as fighters easily bypassed one of the world’s most advanced security systems.” Hamas, it appears, was able to find the weak points in this barrier and make all of its state-of-the-art, high-tech capability vanish. The result was terror, death, and capture for soldiers and for civilians.
Having painfully seen history repeat itself, Israel is now continuing to ignore other historical lessons that, to me, are so clear.
If Israel cannot understand that eliminating Hamas, if that is even possible, without a clear understanding of the larger conditions from which Hamas emerged will leave Israel less safe and less secure then it is heading for the same painful and costly “long war” that Viet Nam, Iraq and Afghanistan have been for this country..
The missing plan for what comes next must address the underlying reality that the aspirations of another people, the millions of Palestinians, for their own homeland, cannot be ignored as they have been since 1948. As New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman recently observed:
“If Israel goes into Gaza and takes months to kill or capture every Hamas leader and soldier but does so while expanding Jewish settlements in the West Bank — thereby making any two-state solution there with the more moderate Palestinian Authority impossible — there will be no legitimate Palestinian or Arab League or European or U.N. or NATO coalition that will ever be prepared to go into Gaza and take it off Israel’s hands.
“There will be no one to extract Israel and no one to help Israel pay the cost of caring for more than two million Gazans — not if Israel is run by a government that thinks, and acts, as if it can justifiably exact its revenge on Hamas while unjustifiably building an apartheidlike society run by Jewish supremacists in the West Bank. That is a completely incoherent policy.”
There is one more painful lesson that I fear Israel is ignoring. The brutality of war destroys not only “enemies” but also those we ask to fight for the cause. Its brutality erodes everything it touches. And so American Soldiers and Vietnamese Soldiers were changed. Unspeakable actions became possible as the moral fiber of a people was rubbed away. The stories of the treatment of American prisoners held in brutal captivity for years have been told and commemorated in movies from Hotel Saigon to Rambo. And the war crimes of American soldiers were finally outed by the story of Mai Lai.
And for the significant number of American veterans who struggle with PTSD showing up in their homelessness, their difficulty in returning to the normality of life, speaks to what we should not ignore. And what of the PTSD of the Palestinians living through the current horror (and the decades of their ongoing captivity) What will be the inevitable and lead to more disfunction and violence?
Israel ignores all of these lessons at its own risk.
Put aside the political discussion. Put aside whether or not you think there is a Palestinian people, or if you think they have a right to their own state. Put all of these arguments aside.
You cannot win unless you are prepared to exterminate ALL Palestinians. You cannot win unless Gaza is cleared of its people unless the Palestinian territories and East Jerusalem and Israel itself is cleared of all Palestinians. Doing less than erasing that slate clean will mean that new ways will be found to overcome the might and power of armies, and the height and depth of walls.
Whether you want or like this reality, I think your choice is to find a real political solution now or pay a price in the future. A price in your own people’s ruined lives and a price in the next act of resistance, or revenge of terrorism.
And if you do that you will be a changed people. You will have broken the souls of those whom you asked to be soldiers in that war. You will be a nation that can no longer be seen as a “light unto the nations” and a beacon of democracy. You will be a pariah. That will be the price of that victory.