Israel, Al-Shifa Hospital, and Iraqi WMDs

November 20, 2023 Topic: Israel-Palestine Region: Middle East Blog Brand: Paul Pillar Tags: IsraelPalestineGazaIraq WarTotal War

Israel, Al-Shifa Hospital, and Iraqi WMDs

Israeli citizens can become secure from Palestinian violence only if Palestinian aspirations for self-determination are met through a negotiated settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.


“What Israel finds—or doesn’t—” at the Al-Shifa hospital in Gaza City, the New York Times has declared, may shape the course of the Gaza war. Given the attention that this matter already has received, whatever further stories come out of Al-Shifa will probably help shape international sentiment and debate about what Israel is perpetrating in the Gaza Strip. But on questions about this war that really matter—including what will or will not ensure the security of Israeli citizens, and what does or does not justify the humanitarian catastrophe that Israel has imposed on Gaza—what is or is not found at the hospital hardly matters at all.

The Israeli government clearly places importance on its sentiment-influencing public relations campaign. The Israelis are devoting much effort at the site not to combating Hamas but instead to scouring for anything that can be presented to international media and the world as evidence that Hamas was there. The effort is all rigidly controlled. New York Times reporters tell of how, in a rare visit that Israel has allowed the international press to make to the war zone, they were shown a hole in the ground at the hospital but not allowed to talk to hospital staff or see anything else at the site on their own.


Despite the tight controls, the priority Israel is giving to its PR campaign, and the proven Israeli prowess for “hasbara” or propaganda, the campaign has so far not gone smoothly for Israel. A video the Israeli military released had to be edited into a second version because the original version made a readily falsifiable claim that a laptop displayed was supposedly part of seized Hamas documentation of its hostages (the computer was really Israel’s own machine.) The “evidence” that Israel has come up with, besides that hole in the ground, appears to consist chiefly of a few rifles and rifle parts that were reportedly found in a storage closet by the MRI room, along with a bulletproof vest, some Qurans, some dates, and a few other items. Nothing presented so far comes close to having the appearance of a Hamas “command center.”

And nothing comes close to the kind of military use of the hospital that would clearly justify an exception to the longstanding prohibition in international law against attacking medical facilities. Invoking that exception would require that Hamas was actively using the premises to attack Israeli forces, such as by firing rockets or artillery rounds from the hospital’s grounds.

Israel is still searching the hospital site for something it could display as more convincing “evidence.” That search evokes memories of the Iraq War twenty years ago. After the United States invaded Iraq, U.S. forces spent significant time and effort searching for the postulated Iraqi weapons of mass destruction (WMD). As time went on, the search became less a matter of ensuring security for U.S. troops or anyone else and more a matter of justifying what had been one of the Bush administration’s principal arguments for launching the war.

The search was a major digression from the war’s primary objectives. Although the administration had used the WMD issue as a selling point to muster support for its war, it was not the principal motivation for launching the war. As Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz—one of the war’s most fervent promoters and a strong supporter of using military resources, even in the face of a brewing Iraqi insurgency, to keep searching for the missing WMD—admitted in a moment of candor, the WMD issue was, for bureaucratic reasons, just “the one issue that everyone could agree on” as a basis for selling the war. The main motivations lay elsewhere, especially in the neoconservative ambition to use regime change in Iraq as a way of injecting democracy and free market economics into the Middle East.

Whether the elusive WMD ever would or would not be found also had nothing to do with the reasons the war was such a costly blunder. That war of choice killed more than 4,400 Americans and wounded 32,000 others, cost American taxpayers more than $2 trillion, exacerbated sectarian tensions in the Middle East, gave rise to terrorist groups, left Iraq unstable, and damaged U.S. credibility in trying to hold accountable other aggressors such as Russian president Vladimir Putin. All those costs would have been incurred whether or not there were any Iraqi WMD.

Moreover, to the extent that an Iraqi WMD program was a genuine concern, even discovering evidence of such a program would not have constituted justification for committing aggression. To launch that costly war was to ignore the alternative of using diplomacy and other peaceful measures to control a worrisome state’s remarkable weapons potential—an alternative demonstrated by later diplomacy that closed the possible paths to an Iranian nuclear weapon.

To the extent that protecting Israeli citizens from future violence at the hands of Palestinians is a genuine concern—as it surely is—then whatever that search at the Al-Shifa hospital may or may turn up says nothing about the best way of securing that protection, or about what costs to others are justified in seeking it. More broadly, the security of Israeli citizens does not depend on the declared Israeli war objective of “destroying Hamas.” Violence in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict did not begin on October 7, and Hamas is not some well-delineated capsule of evil whose elimination will solve the problem of that violence. Hamas, which is a nationalist movement and one organizational manifestation of anger shared by many Palestinians over their nationalist aspirations being denied, cannot be “destroyed” anyway.

By increasing that anger through the infliction of enormous devastation and suffering on residents of the Gaza Strip, Israel is increasing, not decreasing, the danger of its citizens falling victim to future violence at the hands of Palestinians. If Hamas in its current form is not the perpetrator of such violence, then it will be Hamas 2.0 or some other group entirely, as well as enraged individuals and cells. Again, nothing that might be found at the hospital changes this gruesome reality.

Also, like the Iraq War, the declared war objective is not the only motivation behind Israel’s devastation of the Gaza Strip. The words and actions of Israel’s own leaders point to several others, some of which have little or nothing to do with exactly what Hamas was doing and where it was doing it.

Raw rage and a thirst for revenge for the atrocity of October 7 surely constitute a large part of what is driving the Israeli assault. The anger is understandable and consistent with the justified outrage that most of the rest of the world felt about Hamas’s action. Still, the policy result—with Israel evidently having no clear idea how to govern the Gaza Strip after the invasion—has become largely divorced from rationality. Given the indiscriminate nature of the Israeli assault, it also is divorced from anything resembling precise targeting of Hamas’s activities.

Related to the rage is hatred of Palestinian Arabs. Such bigotry has infused many Israeli attitudes for a long time, but in the current situation, it has broken out in full force in the inflammatory rhetoric of Israeli leaders. The Gazans on the receiving end of the Israeli attack are “human animals,” in the words of defense minister Yoav Gallant, or “Nazis,” according to former prime minister Naftali Bennett. Social media in Israel are swamped with calls to “flatten,” “erase,” or “destroy” Gaza.

Related to the previous two factors but applied in a more instrumental way is the idea of collective punishment—that is, punishment of all residents of the Gaza Strip for whatever Hamas has done. This idea has underlain the blockade of the Gaza Strip that Israel has had in effect for years. In the current situation, the blockade has become more restrictive, and its rationale is more openly expressed. Israeli president Isaac Herzog has stated that there are “no innocent civilians in Gaza” and the entire Palestinian nation is “responsible” for what Hamas did on October 7. Given this posture, the suffering of Gazans becomes intentional rather than collateral damage of an operation aimed at purely military objectives. The posture also calls into further question the meaning and limits of the objective of “destroying Hamas.” 

Finally, the current war has been the occasion for Israel to accelerate the process of driving Arabs off of land in Palestine. An Israeli government planning document has recommended expelling Gazans to the Egyptian Sinai. Meanwhile, in the West Bank, violence and intimidation by Jewish settlers, left largely unrestricted by the Israeli military and police, have surged and led to several Palestinian villages being vacated by their beleaguered residents.

Any judgment about the propriety of what Israel is doing today in the Gaza Strip needs to consider these motivations as well as the nature of the Israeli military actions themselves. It is hard to see how any revelation that might come out of the Al-Shifa site—even of a full-blown Hamas “command center” operating somewhere under that dirt hole—would put these considerations in a softer rather than a harsher light.