The cost of fighting, the cost of not fighting

Hamas’s conduct is not irrational – merely vile. God help us if we can’t persuade them that it is irrational after all.

IDF paratroopers unit in Gaza (photo credit: IDF SPOKESMAN'S OFFICE)
IDF paratroopers unit in Gaza
(photo credit: IDF SPOKESMAN'S OFFICE)
"Here’s my question for people who support Israel’s bombing campaign,” Peter Beinart said on his Facebook page on July 14. “Let’s agree that Israel has the right of self-defense. Let’s agree that Hamas bears a lot of blame for this war, and for the deaths of Palestinian civilians that result from it. But let’s also agree that no matter how hard Israel tries to be precise, its missiles have killed a lot of innocent human beings. To justify that, you must believe Israel is going to gain something important from this war.
"What do you think that is? Given that this war will almost certainly leave Hamas in power in Gaza, and that Hamas will almost certainly rebuild the weapons infrastructure Israel is now destroying, and use it against Israel again (absent some dramatic political change), what is Israel accomplishing that’s worth the death of even one Gazan child?” Such questions ought to be answered seriously. But those who pose them should, on their part, be willing to grapple seriously with the obvious mirror question: What do you think would be the cost of not taking strong military action against Hamas, under present circumstances? What would be gained by that, and what would be lost? A decision not to fight those who are determined to fight Israel is as much a political decision as a decision to fight; both should be examined critically.
What will happen if Israel adopts the logic implied in Beinart’s criticism of the present operation – which, surely, applies to any military operation of this kind, and not only to the present one, which Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu obviously tried hard to avoid? What will happen if Hamas gets the message that Israel has accepted that it does not have a military option (beyond a token response that gives the other side no real reason to stop) in the face of rocket fire? Surely, the answer is more and more rocket fire, until life becomes impossible in this country. What exactly is to stop Hamas before this point is reached? In a difficult situation like the one we are facing, it is never enough to point to the heavy costs of a certain course of action in order to prove that it is wrong. One must also ask what the cost of not taking this course of action would be.
Similarly, the Israeli Right likes to point to the costs and dangers of partitioning the land between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea. These are indeed considerable, and need to be acknowledged by supporters of the two-state solution – even though we know well that the ideological Right has other reasons that have nothing to do with Israel’s security.
Moreover, the cost of partition will become much graver – perhaps really unbearable – if it turns out that Israel is powerless to defend itself when attacked from areas it has evacuated, which is why defending the country against Hamas in Gaza, as well as Hezbollah in Lebanon, means also defending the chance that it will ever – even if not presently – be possible to get rid of the occupation in the West Bank.
But the problem with the right-wing objection to partition is that the Right does not consider the costs and dangers of non-partition. The moral cost of perpetuating the occupation will be assessed differently by different people, depending on their worldview and on the weight they attach to other considerations.
But no right-wing Israeli, or supporter of Israel, can afford to ignore the argument that while partition is indeed dangerous, non-partition is, in the long run, fatal, because if there are not two states in this land, sooner or later there will be one state here, and this state will not be Israel. They cannot afford to ignore it – but ignore it they do, regularly. By the same token, the cost of fighting Hamas – obviously high and tragic – should be measured against the cost of failing to fight it.
But what about the proviso, “absent some dramatic political change”? Doesn’t it point to a way for Israel to escape the cruel dilemmas of warfare? Indeed, there are very serious doubts regarding Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s readiness to pay the territorial price of a two-state solution to which he is officially committed. Similarly, there are serious doubts regarding Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas’s willingness to give up the demand for a Palestinian right of return to Israel, which amounts to a negation of the two-state solution officially adopted by the PLO. In fact, both sides’ official positions are presently making a two-state solution impossible; the question is whether there is a chance that they will change them in the future. Even absent the final deal, there are good grounds for criticizing the Netanyahu government’s policies, above all as regards the settlements.
But Hamas is a different story altogether.
Hamas is not interested in peace with Israel on any terms whatsoever. Nor is it interested in ruling a peaceful and prosperous Gaza Strip enjoying a quasi-permanent truce with Israel. Beyond keeping its hold on Gaza, what it wants is to preserve and foster its standing as the standard-bearer of armed resistance. This is what it believes in, this is what it builds its prestige on and moreover, this is what is demanded of it by Iran.
What serves it best are periodic outbreaks of heavy fighting, with intensive war preparations and a “drizzle” of Kassam rockets on Sderot and other southern Israeli towns in between. In each round of fighting, Hamas assumes that its rule in Gaza is in no real danger, because Israel obviously doesn’t want to reoccupy the Strip, and it relies on Israel’s political, legal and moral constraints to limit the damage that can be inflicted on it. Assuming all that, and given its utter indifference to Palestinian civilian casualties, Hamas’ conduct is not irrational – merely vile. God help us if we can’t persuade them that it is irrational after all – the way that their Hezbollah colleagues were persuaded as a result of the 2006 Second Lebanon War, and have remained so persuaded until now.
The author is a research fellow at Shalom Hartman Institute and a member of the iEngage Project team. Learn more about iEngage at