I spent much of the past few days doomscrolling through social media about the Hamas-Israel war. It’s tough watching war in real time. But it’s important to witness the reality of the bombings in Gaza and the October 7 attack in Israel. I stayed away from the overly gruesome stuff, wondering how far I should immerse myself. The Israeli government this past week put up a website displaying graphic images and videos of Hamas’ massacre of civilians. And when Israeli bombs hit near a hospital in Gaza a few days ago, within minutes smartphone footage of the dead and injured lying in pools of blood was online. None of this is new. During Hamas’ original assault, its terrorists filmed their savageness. From the outset, the barbarous violence has been displayed on X, Instagram, and other sites. Both sides are engaged in a battle for eyeballs and sympathy. How much should we absorb?
Besides the heartbreaking tragedy of all this destruction and death, what I find dispiriting are the debates over the terms of the debate—which seem to dominate social media. Should supporters of Palestinian rights be chanting, “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free”? Is this a call for genocide? Should Israel’s strikes on Gaza be labeled genocide? Is it antisemitic to be anti-Zionist?
Language shapes reality—and is a powerful force in a time of war. These linguistic fights do reflect significant elements of the fundamental conflict at hand. Each side has an interest in pinning the genocide label on the other. Hamas has clearly declared its genocidal intent to annihilate Israel and has used the “from the river” slogan. And some scholars and commentators have declared Israel’s assault on Gaze to be genocidal. If Israel’s actions are not genocidal—that is, if they are not designed purposefully to destroy national, ethnic, racial, or religious group—they certainly raise the question of war crimes. (“Given the high number of civilian casualties [and] the scale of destruction following Israeli air strikes on Jabalia refugee camp, we have serious concerns that these are disproportionate attacks that could amount to war crimes,” the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights said on social media.) And the effort to conflate criticism of Zionism or Israel with antisemitism is obviously an attempt by some Israel supporters to smother discourse. (See the open letter signed by scores of Jewish writers calling this a “dangerous conflation.”)
But do these skirmishes, as well as the stories about conflicts on college campuses, disputes over the tearing down of posters of kidnapped Israelis, and other clashes, as important as they may be, distract us from the most pressing issues of the moment: How to stop the violence, and what to do afterward?
Whatever the strategic aim of the Israeli counterassault—if Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his war cabinet even have one—Israel is losing ground on the most important battlefield: public opinion. The brutality of the October 7 massacre has been eclipsed by the horrific accounts of the civilian casualties of Israel’s subsequent attacks. In the United States, far more Americans watch the NFL than scan social media for upsetting reports from Gaza. But the war in Gaza has sparked the largest antiwar demonstrations in the United States and abroad since the runup to the misguided Iraq War, and that opposition here threatens the coalition that President Joe Biden needs to keep Donald Trump from regaining the White House next year (as I noted in the last issue).
In recent days, Biden and Secretary of State Antony Blinken have pushed Netanyahu to implement a pause—not a ceasefire—to allow for humanitarian aid to be delivered to Gaza. But as of this writing, Netanyahu has resisted. That certainly takes chutzpah, given that the United States provides $3.8 billion in military assistance annually to Israel—a large chunk of its entire $23 billion defense budget. This ties Biden to Israel’s assault on Gaza, as it does all of us. We share culpability for Israel’s actions. Israel is bombing Gaza with weaponry we have financed through our tax dollars. Yet Netanyahu thumbs his nose at Biden, daring the American president to raise a stink and be branded by his political foes as anti-Israel, heretofore a tremendous sin within US politics.
Biden has been walking a tightwire: fully supporting Netanyahu in public so he can privately nudge Netanyahu away from a course of action that could trigger an all-out regional war and perhaps something worse. At the moment, it’s not clear whether this strategy is working. Meanwhile, around the world Biden is being seen—and pilloried—as Bibi’s wingman in this bloody enterprise.
At the heart of the current conflagration is a simple question: If a terrorist force slaughters civilians, is it right for the victim of that attack to do the same? I am tempted to say that to ask the question is to answer it. But these days, I am not sure the answer is obvious for all.
It’s important to keep in mind that the assault Israel is waging is not Israel’s only option. Okay, some ask, then what should it do? Two weeks ago, Zack Beauchamp at Vox took a look at this, and I’m not sure I can improve on his conclusion:
Two things are true: Israel must do something, and what it’s doing now is indefensible. So what’s the alternative?
I put this question to anyone I could think of: a large group ranging from retired Israeli officers to Palestinian intellectuals to counterterrorism experts to scholars of the ethics and law of war. I read everything I could find on the topic, scouring reporting and the academic literature for better ideas.
The answer that emerged was deceptively simple: make the right choice where America made the wrong one. Israel should launch a targeted counterrorism operation aimed at Hamas leadership and the fighters directly involved in the October 7 attack, one that focuses on minimizing both civilian casualties and the scope of ground operations in Gaza.
“Go in for a few weeks or less, trying to find Hamas leaders and destroying tunnels, weapons caches, etc,” says Dan Byman, a professor at Georgetown who studies Israeli counterterrorism.
But this counterterrorism approach must be paired with a broader political outreach designed to address the root causes of Hamas’ support.
Beauchamp was using 9/11 and the US reaction, which led to the disastrous Iraq War, as a historical guide. No doubt, there are policy advocates who will criticize this approach as ineffective or unrealistic. But Biden and Blinken have been pushing the 9/11 history lesson in their interactions with Netanyahu and his comrades—apparently to not much avail. Thus, every day, the civilian death count increases, as those of us who do not turn away encounter the most awful sights. And each additional day of violence—with its production of more outrage and more sadness—will likely make it harder to reach a future of peace, security, and dignity for both Palestinians and Israelis.
We should not forget that just as Israel has a choice, so does the United States. Biden can unlock his bear hug of Netanyahu. He can set conditions on US assistance. He can apply more pressure. That might cause a political explosion that could negatively impact his reelection prospects. But it remains an option.
While doomscrolling I came across an article in the Atlantic by Raja Shehadeh that offered a dollop of hope. He is a lawyer, a writer, and the founder of the Palestinian human rights organization Al Haq, and he lives in Ramallah in the occupied West Bank. He writes:
What if this war should end, as it must, not by a cease-fire or a truce, like other wars with Hamas, but with a comprehensive resolution to the 100-year-old conflict between the Palestinian and Israeli people?”
To imagine anything good coming out of such a destructive war is not easy, especially for those of us witnessing its cruel prosecution from Ramallah, on the Israeli-occupied West Bank. And yet, as bad as things are, I feel compelled to resist giving in to despair.
Shehadeh points out that Biden has declared, “When this crisis is over, there has to be a vision of what comes next…There’s no going back to the status quo as it stood on October 6.” But he notes that “Palestinians have heard such invocations before, and they have proved empty promises.” The last major peace imitative, the Oslo Accords, led to Palestinians losing more land to Israeli settlers in the West Bank and the formation of a feckless and corrupt Palestinian Authority. But Shehadeh seems to believe there’s a chance—albeit slight—that this latest bloodshed can persuade the United States it should convince Israel that “choosing the path of peace with the Palestinians through recognition of their rights is best for the future of all—for ending the violence, and for the possibility that one day, the two nations of Israelis and Palestinians can live together in peace and security.”
In recent years, the plight of the Palestinians has been largely sidelined by the United States, Arab nations, and, of course, the Netanyahu government. President Donald Trump and son-in-law Jared Kushner, his key adviser on the Middle East, focused on the easier task of brokering deals between Israel and Arab governments to normalize relations through accords that ignored the Palestinians. The Biden administration followed suit, trying to negotiate a similar agreement with Saudi Arabia. Taking on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was just too difficult, especially with Netanyahu and his right-wing allies opposed to a peaceful resolution. (Netanyahu even helped prop up Hamas to sabotage the possibility of a two-state solution.)
Shehadeh’s hope is that the daily horrors of this war will concentrate minds in Washington and elsewhere, forcing leaders to conclude that Palestinians must be afforded rights and dignity and that the decades-long conflict between Israelis and Palestinians must be brought to an end with a just resolution that benefits both parties. That’s a mighty big hope now. Can we doomscroll our way to that better future?
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