9th Dec 2023


Israel: Is revenge the right answer?

  • The comparison with the Yom Kippur war in 1973 is apt. Hamas carried out its attack almost to the day 50 years later. Both then and now, Israeli intelligence agencies were taken completely by surprise (Photo: Israeli Air Force)
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Israel cries out for revenge. This is understandable. The horrific images of Hamas' attack on Saturday (7 October) have hit hard.

The number of Israeli casualties runs into the many hundreds, but it is mainly the way the attack happened that has left deep wounds. The fact that Hamas militants could simply enter Israeli villages, shoot people or abduct them from their homes is unprecedented. Moreover, it was totally unexpected.

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  • Koert Debeuf: 'This spontaneous and understandable call to war is not only dangerous, but likely to be counterproductive'

Israel's reaction is one we see everywhere after a brutal attack: a wave of unity and solidarity and a call for revenge. We saw exactly the same reaction in the United States after the September 11, 2001 attacks. Then, too, differences of opinion were put aside and then-president George W. Bush was given general support for a war in Afghanistan, and two years later in Iraq.

It is precisely this spontaneous and understandable call to war that is not only dangerous, but also often counterproductive.

The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq ended in catastrophe, completely disrupted the Middle East, and also weakened the position of the US in the region and other parts of the world. There are few Americans today who, with the knowledge they now have, think that both wars were a good idea.

The same question can be asked for Israel today. Isn't declaring war dangerous and counterproductive in the long run?

In my opinion, yes, and for several reasons.

Five reasons for restraint

The first reason is that the goal of this war, which is to eliminate or at least greatly weaken Hamas, may not be achieved. This is not the first time Israel would bomb and invade Gaza. Each time, a lot of Hamas fighters were killed or captured. Although a period of calm always followed those bombings, resistance was never broken. The fact that Hamas was now able to mount a very well-prepared and coordinated operation proves that Israel's previous military actions did not weaken Hamas, but rather strengthened it.

A second reason why an all-out war in Gaza is dangerous is the large number of hostages Hamas has brought to Gaza.

The numbers are unknown. The Israeli army speaks of 100 hostages, while Hamas claims there are many more. The Jerusalem Post reported 750 hostages on Sunday, but later deleted this report. Whatever the figures, it is clear that a lot of non-Israeli civilians are among them. The music festival that went on close to the Gaza border on the day of the attack had many foreign visitors. In addition to the perhaps 250 youths who were shot in cold blood, an unknown number were taken to Gaza and detained at various locations. Can Israel risk casualties among those foreign hostages in a war, possibly losing support from the countries they come from?

A third reason should be sought in the region. It is no secret that Israel has few friends in the Middle East. The Palestinian issue is very sensitive among the Arab population. Israel's 1978 peace with Egypt is hardly supported by the Egyptians themselves. The same goes for Jordan.

Yet this seemed to change in recent years. Abraham agreements were concluded with the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Sudan and Morocco. These agreements provide economic cooperation between Israel and those countries, with, for example, Israeli products being found in Dubai shops.

Moreover, Israel is also trying to make a deal with Saudi Arabia, and those talks are reportedly already well advanced. Doubts had already arisen among some of those countries as to whether those agreements were a good idea, especially since some parts of the agreements were not being honoured by Israel.

If the Israeli army starts a real war in Gaza, which will inevitably result in many casualties, the Arab population will no doubt strongly condemn it. The question then is whether those agreements will stand? The pressure on those governments will probably become so great that the regional support that Israel has carefully and patiently built up will soon collapse.

Fourth, a large-scale war could also pose security risks for Israel itself.

Since prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu's new far-right government has been giving all its support to settlers in the West Bank, those settlers have started behaving in an increasingly assertive and aggressive manner. This naturally provokes backlash from Palestinian residents who see their land, their olive groves and sometimes their homes taken.

It is this increased tension that has caused 70 percent of the soldiers normally stationed around Gaza to be moved to the West Bank in recent months. In a war, as many troops as possible are needed in and around Gaza. Reinforcement there inevitably leads to weakening elsewhere. It cannot be ruled out that this will create the space for a new Intifada, or uprising in the West Bank and Jerusalem. This must be a nightmare scenario for Israel.

The fifth and perhaps most important reason why Israel should consider revenge is humanitarian.

There have already been hundreds of civilian casualties in Israeli bombings. Do those families bear responsibility for Hamas' barbaric attack? Like many of its allies, Israel regards Hamas as a terrorist organisation that indeed makes no distinction between military and civilian casualties. Can a country that calls itself the only democracy in the region afford not to make that distinction either? It is as if the Belgian army were to bomb Molenbeek in retaliation for the 2015 terrorist attacks in Brussels and Paris.

The comparison with the Yom Kippur war in 1973 is apt. Hamas carried out its attack almost to the day 50 years later.

Both then and now, Israeli intelligence agencies were taken completely by surprise. In 1973, the surprise attack by Egypt and Syria caused psychological trauma. It made Israel realise then that for the sake of its own security, there was no other option but to make peace with Egypt.

Now, too, the country is traumatised. And that is more than understandable. Its own security is now threatened not from abroad, but from within.

Perhaps there is only one way to ensure the security of both Israelis and Palestinians: new peace negotiations that end the current untenable situation. This will be difficult, and require concessions from both sides, but that is always better than seeing both countries slide into all-out civil war.

Author bio

Koert Debeuf is professor of the Middle East at the Vrije Universiteit Brussel (VUB) and chair of the board of EUobserver.


The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

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