Rage and a thirst for revenge are not conducive to sound policymaking. But they have been, unsurprisingly and understandably, prevailing emotions in Israel since the Hamas-perpetrated atrocities of October 7. Emotions are now major drivers of Israeli policy. The resulting policies will be more cathartic than rational.
According to an old maxim, a definition of insanity is to do the same thing over and over while expecting a different result. The saying is germane to Israel’s violent history with the Gaza Strip. Israel has punctuated its suffocating blockade of the territory by periodically laying waste to it with ground invasions and aerial assaults, most notably in 2008–2009 and 2014. Those invasions incurred substantial costs to Israel and even greater costs to Palestinian residents of Gaza. And they did not buy safety and security for anyone, not even Israel—as Hamas’s actions this month demonstrate.
Those earlier Israeli military operations were not responding to anything comparable in either physical or psychological impact to the brutal Hamas attack on October 7. Thus, one might argue that, with the extra rage and motivation, this time will be different—that rather than just another mowing of the grass, to use the favorite applicable Israeli phrase, a new ground invasion of Gaza would be a tearing up of the lawn.
But there is no reason to expect the fundamental result to be any different. The more destructive any new Israeli invasion will be, the more anger and resentment it will cause, and the more it will fuel future anti-Israeli violence.
And that is not to mention the apparent absence of any plan to bring order and tolerably good governance to the Gaza Strip, even if it were possible to destroy Hamas. Nor does it get to what ought to be a prime consideration for anyone with a humanitarian sense, which is that a ground invasion would multiply the suffering of innocent Palestinians—already measured in, among other things, thousands of deaths from Israeli aerial assaults, a casualty count far higher than what Hamas inflicted on Israel.
To speak of “destroying” Hamas, with or without an Israeli ground invasion of the Gaza Strip, misses the most relevant questions about what would be needed to attain better security for Israelis as well as for other people in that part of the Middle East. Too much discourse about destroying Hamas considers the group as some sort of primeval evil, with a thirst for blood and hatred of Israel that emerged through spontaneous generation, the elimination of which would solve a major security problem.
Hamas has moral agency and should be condemned for what it did on October 7, regardless of what came before that event. But the Hamas of today is part of, and emerged from, a much larger, decades-long conflict that has brought much suffering—to both sides, but far more to the people being subjugated than to those doing the subjugating. The notion of an ancient evil ignores the rest of that larger conflict, including the history of Hamas and the policies of Israel and other actors toward it.
It is highly uncertain whether even a no-holds-barred ground invasion, with brutal fighting in the alleys and tunnels of Gaza, could destroy Hamas as an organization. It definitely would not destroy it as a concept of violent resistance to occupation, apartheid in the West Bank, the blockade of the Gaza Strip, and the denial of Palestinian self-determination. As long as those conditions continue, if the Hamas organization were destroyed, it would be replaced by another group just as violent—and maybe even worse. Indeed, even Hamas once accepted peaceful means of pursuing power, such as free elections. Its hypothetical successors may not.
Israel, too, has moral agency, and whatever suffering it inflicts on innocents in the Gaza Strip—whether from the air or on the ground, and whether from munitions or blockade—should be judged accordingly, regardless of what came before.
Paul R. Pillar is a former national intelligence officer for the Near East and South Asia and a nonresident fellow at the Center for Security Studies at Georgetown University and the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft.
Image: Anas-Mohammed / Shutterstock.