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Even Destroying Hamas Won’t Make Israel Safer

Our Zoom call this week will be at the usual time: Friday at Noon EST.

Our guests will Dr. Lina Qassem-Hassan, the Chairperson of the Board of Directors of Physicians for Human Rights Israel and Guy Shalev, the organization’s Executive Director. They’ll talk about the unfolding public health catastrophe in Gaza.

Paid subscribers will get the link this Tuesday and the video the following week. They’ll also gain access to our library of past Zoom interviews with guests like Rashid Khalidi, Thomas Friedman, Ilhan Omar, Benny Morris, Noam Chomsky, and Bret Stephens.


Sources Cited in this Video

US officials tell the New York Times that Israel can’t destroy Hamas’ military capacity.

Mouin Rabbani on why Israel can’t win the war.

Jean-Pierre Filiu on Israel’s attacks on Gaza in the 1950s.

David Shipler on Israel’s initial support for Hamas.

Hamas recruits from families of people Israel has killed.

Benjamin Netanyahu’s plan to reduce the size of the Gaza Strip.

Israel announces it will build thousands more housing units in the West Bank.

Professor Heba Gowayed on Palestinian resistance.

Things to Read

(Maybe this should be obvious, but I link to articles and videos I find provocative and significant, not necessarily ones I entirely agree with.)

In Jewish Currents (subscribe!), I wrote about the campaign to abolish UNRWA.

For the Foundation for Middle East Peace, I interviewed UNRWA’s former Spokesman and Director of Strategic Communications, Chris Gunness.

Given my last newsletter about Abraham Joshua Heschel’s moral fury during the Vietnam War, I thought it might be useful to highlight rabbis and other Jewish leaders who are taking similar stands about Gaza today. If you have anyone to suggest, let me know. Here is British Rabbi Jonathan Wittenberg, who declared on February 13 that an Israeli invasion of Rafah “may haunt us, and the good name of Israel and the Jewish People, for generations.”

Jon Stewart’s on Joe Biden’s rhetoric about Israeli’s war.

Zaid Jilani argues that Palestinian activists could draw broader support with different rhetoric.

Ayelet and Paul Waldman on their father’s liberal Zionism.

An Australian student’s Go Fund Me to evacuate her family from Gaza.

An online discussion on March 6 with Professor Geoffrey Levin about the history of American Jewish dissent over Israel.

I’ll be speaking virtually at Southern Connecticut State University on March 4 and in person on March 6 at the University of Texas at Austin.

See you on Friday at Noon,



So, I would like to believe, I would really like to believe that drawing people’s attention to the horror in Gaza—the absolute horror in Gaza, what’s happening to ordinary people—could convince the leadership in my community, in the Jewish community, and most American politicians, to oppose this war. But the harsh reality is that for many of the most powerful people inside the American Jewish community, and for many in American politics as well, there is only one metric that matters. And that metric is the safety of Israeli Jews. Essentially, any number of Palestinian deaths are acceptable if it produces an increased safety for Israeli Jews. That’s essentially the equation that leads the American Jewish establishment to continue to support this war, even as the number of people who are dying and wounded and displaced goes up and up and up.

So, I want to accept that framework for the purpose of this video. It’s not my view, but I want to argue in those terms because, frankly, I think those are the only terms that for many people who matter will reach them. And the argument that I want to make is that this war will make Israel less safe—not more safe but less safe. And I want to start with a massive concession. I want to imagine that Israel in this war can destroy Hamas. Now, by the way, US officials say that’s not possible. Palestinian commentators say it’s not possible. Even some Israeli officials are saying it’s not possible within their lifetime. But I want to grant this for the sake of argument. I want to grant that Israel can destroy Hamas and eradicate it. And still, I want to argue that Israel is going to end this war less safe than it began.

And the first thing for people who find that hard to believe—what I would really encourage them to do is—look around at what Palestinians are saying. Listen to what Palestinians are saying. See if you can find a single credible Palestinian commentator on Palestinian politics and on this war who believes that destroying Hamas would make Israel safer. I suggest that you will have an extremely difficult time finding a single reputable Palestinian commentator who says that destroying Hamas, if that were even possible, would make Israel safer. Now, why is that? Because Palestinians recognize that Palestinians do not resist Israel because of Hamas. They began resisting Israel long before Hamas was even created and Palestinians resist Israel because Palestinians are not free.

And to illustrate this point, I want to go back to a period in time long before Hamas was created. This comes from an essay called “The Twelve Wars on Gaza” by a French academic name Jean-Pierre Filiu. And he writes about the early 1950s. So, most of the people in Gaza are from the families of refugees. Most of them were expelled from Israel during Israel’s war of independence. Many can actually see the lands from which their families were expelled or fled in fear. So, from the very, very beginning of Israel’s creation, Palestinian refugees, especially in Gaza where there’s such a high percentage of refugees, have been trying to return back to their homes. And since literally the first years of Israel’s creation, Israel has been going in and invading Gaza because it’s a problem. Again, 25 years before Hamas was created in the late 1980s—this is the early 1950s—Israel was going in militarily to Gaza because Gaza represented a threat to Israel. And the fundamental threat it represented was all of these refugees who wanted to return.

So, Filiu talks about an incident in 1953 when a young Ariel Sharon comes in with a group of commandos and kills 20 people in a refugee camp in Gaza. In 1953! Because the fundamental problem, then as now, was not the particular Palestinian resistance organization. There have been many. It was the fact that Palestinians were crowded—particularly in Gaza—crowded into this territory, this extremely overcrowded, extremely poor, burdened territory, and they wanted to return to their homes. And, so that’s why, if you look at the armed resistance in the 1970s by Palestinians—including terrible acts of violence against Israeli civilians, the Munich Olympics attack, the Ma’alot massacre on children in 1974, the airline hijackings—none of them were done by Hamas because Hamas didn’t exist. None of them were even done by Islamists. They were largely done by leftist and nationalist Palestinian factions. And that is part of the reason, indeed, that Israel in the late 1980s was actually sending money to the Muslim Brotherhood, the precursor of Hamas in Gaza, because they thought, given their experience with leftist and nationalist groups, that they could not imagine that a Palestinian Islamist group would be more radical. They assumed that it had to be more moderate because they had endured so much armed resistance from Palestinian leftist and nationalist factions. Because the reason for the resistance didn’t have to do with the particular ideology or name of the Palestinian resistance organizations. It was because Palestinians had been dispossessed and were fighting against their dispossession.

So, you destroy Hamas. Let’s imagine. And I’m talking to people who only care about Israeli Jewish safety here. You destroy Hamas. And what then? We know that Hamas recruits from the families of people that Israel has killed, right? So, some future Palestinian group—give it whatever name you want, think about whatever ideological predisposition it might have—it will almost certainly do the same thing. And think about how many potential recruits there are now. Not only do you have a population of people who are of refugees, who have been seeking to return to their homes since 1948, who have been repeatedly traumatized by Israeli attacks over the years, but now you have a population, 90% of whose homes have been destroyed. Every single person in Gaza will have family or close friends who have been killed in this war. People will see their homes, their entire neighborhoods destroyed. Just imagine—again, I’m talking to only you people who care about Israeli Jewish safety—think about the desire for revenge that will produce among Palestinians. You don’t think that Palestinians will create another organization based on trying to fight back, indeed using violence, given the extreme unimaginable violence that Palestinians have now suffered. Netanyahu says he wants to de-radicalize Gaza. I mean, it’s absolutely a sick joke to think that what you’re gonna get out of this horror is de-radicalization.

Now, maybe it would be possible to imagine that if Palestinians could be convinced that giving up armed resistance, indeed, working with Israel to prevent armed resistance, could bring them closer to freedom. Maybe not for refugee return, but at their own state, self-determination, human rights, the right to govern their own lives. If Palestinians believe that, perhaps even given this horror, you might be able to imagine that Palestinians would say, you know what, armed resistance is not the way to go.

But here’s the problem: that we’ve run this experiment. We’ve seen this movie. In the West Bank, Mahmoud Abbas and the Palestinian Authority have been doing exactly that. They’ve been cooperating with Israel, collaborating with Israel to prevent armed resistance from the West Bank for almost 20 years. And you know what? They’ve been pretty darn successful at it. And what have Palestinians seen that they have gotten out of that cooperation, that collaboration that is skewing of armed resistance? More and more settlement growth that’s forced them into smaller and smaller little kind of ghettos in the West Bank, little cantons with Israel controlling all the territory in between, and more and more settler violence, right? You’d be very, very hard pressed to find any Palestinian who believes that strategy would work, right? Especially given what the Israeli government is now saying about what they want to do after this war, right? They’re not saying that if Palestinians did absolutely everything right, they might move towards statehood, right? In fact, Benjamin Netanyahu and Israel, for more than 15 years now, have had a government that is explicitly opposed to Palestinian statehood. And now, the Israeli government is saying it wants to actually create a buffer zone that makes the Gaza Strip smaller, that crowds people in Gaza into smaller and smaller territories, probably an even harsher blockade that will make any prospect of genuine reconstruction out of this absolute catastrophe impossible, right?

And, of course, Israel’s also just announced another big new increase in settlement growth in the West Bank. Given these circumstances, why would any reasonable person believe that what comes after Hamas—if there is an ‘after Hamas’—would be more moderate, would be less likely to use armed resistance against Palestinians? If you think of Palestinians as normal people who want their freedom and who, when they see their family members killed, many of them they’re gonna be inclined to want to take revenge, nothing about what we see would lead to the likelihood of a more moderate group post-Hamas.

And I want to end by quoting Heba Gowayed, who’s a sociology professor at CUNY, who I thought made this statement very effectively. She said, ‘Palestine is as diverse as its Palestinian resistance. It has been Arab socialists and Marxists. It has had Christian leadership. It has been secular and Islamist. Hamas does not begin Palestinian resistance, nor does the resistance end with them. It ends only with a free Palestine.’ And I would just add that since Palestinian resistance is inevitable because resistance to oppression is human, if you want Palestinians to resist that oppression in ways that are ethical, in ways that are in conformance with international law, which do not lead to the killing of Israeli civilians, you need to show Palestinians that that kind of ethical and legal resistance works. You need to support forms of boycott, and sanctions, and conditions of military aid, and efforts at the International Criminal Court, and efforts at the International Court of Justice, and things like the largely non-violent Great March of Return. The more you fear armed Palestinian resistance, the more you should be supporting nonviolent, ethical Palestinian resistance.

Israel, historically, has never been able to imagine that the Palestinian group it was fighting at that moment was not the worst enemy it could ever face. But it has a history of, by wreaking catastrophic devastation, it has created enemies that prove to be worse. In the early 1980s, it couldn’t imagine anything worse than in the PLO. It went into Lebanon, destroyed large parts of Lebanon, and laid the foundation for Hezbollah. It couldn’t imagine anything worse in Gaza than the PLO either. It supported the creation of, and helped the creation of, Hamas. And now it can’t think of anything worse than Hamas. But you want to know what frightens me? And I’m speaking here to those people who only care about Israeli Jewish lives. You know what frightens me more than Hamas? And Hamas frightens me. As someone who cares passionately about Israeli Jewish life, Hamas certainly frightens me. What frightens me more is what comes after Hamas, given the unimaginable violence and destruction that Israel has now committed in Gaza.

The Beinart Notebook
The Beinart Notebook
A conversation about American foreign policy, Palestinian freedom and the Jewish people.