Pierre Atlas: Israel faced a moral dilemma in responding to Oct. 7

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Along with the wars of 1948 and 1967 and the 1993 Oslo Accords, history will view Oct. 7, 2023, as an event that fundamentally changed the nature of the century-old Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Oct. 7 was the deadliest attack on Israel since its founding and the deadliest single day for Jews since the Holocaust. Hamas, which vows to destroy the Jewish state, planned and implemented its assault while under a formal cease-fire with Israel. According to a BBC report, “Five armed Palestinian groups joined Hamas in the deadly 7 October attack on Israel after training together in military-style exercises from 2020 onwards.”

About 1,200 Israelis were killed and over 5,000 wounded on Oct. 7. This assault was up close and personal. Men, women, children, the elderly and babies were murdered in gruesome ways (burned alive, shot in the head multiple times, blown up with grenades, mutilated); women and girls were raped; over 300 young Israelis were murdered at an outdoor concert. Hamas filmed their acts with GoPro cameras and posted video on social media; terrorists can be seen or heard killing civilians with glee.

I did the math: Demographically, 1,200 Israelis is the equivalent of about 50,000 Americans killed in one day. Oct. 7 was Israel’s 9/11 multiplied 16 times.

In addition to the deaths and injuries, Hamas and other Palestinian groups kidnapped over 240 hostages, ranging from octogenarians to a 9-month-old infant (who may have died in Palestinian custody in Gaza).

In its military response to Hamas, which has ruled Gaza since 2007, Israel faces a moral dilemma: How do you fight an existential enemy that embeds itself and attacks from within—and from underneath—its own civilian population?

All parties in conflict are expected to adhere to International Humanitarian Law and the Law of Armed Conflict, which are grounded in three principles: discrimination between combatants and non-combatants, proportionality of the amount of force deployed, and military necessity of the targeting. The United States tried its best to adhere to these principles in Afghanistan and Iraq, sometimes falling short.

Hamas lives, fights and fires its rockets from within Gaza’s dense urban population, making it difficult for Israel to distinguish between fighters and civilians as it takes on Hamas. Israel Defense Forces airstrikes have killed or wounded thousands of Palestinian civilians, children and adults, and much of Gaza’s infrastructure has been damaged or destroyed. The scenes of death and destruction are horrific and disturbing.

While Israel does not deliberately target civilians (and even encouraged them to leave the northern war zone), some of its targeting decisions raise serious questions about proportionality and military necessity.

Hamas needs to be marginalized and militarily degraded, if not defeated outright. However, IDF actions in Gaza might prove counterproductive: Support for Hamas has actually increased, and a new generation of militants might emerge from the rubble.

Unlike Israel, Hamas has no struggle with a “moral dilemma.” Everything it has done from Oct. 7 onward constitutes a war crime. Hamas intentionally targets Israeli civilians and callously uses 2 million Palestinians as human shields.

I wrote my doctoral dissertation on political struggles in pre-1948 Palestine and have spent decades studying the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I addressed some of the broader historical issues in my June 11, 2021, IBJ column, “Middle East conflict requires two-state solution.” As I noted there, both Israelis and Palestinians have legitimate claims, and both are here to stay.

While it’s hard to imagine peace today, this conflict, if it is to be resolved, will not be ended by war or by terrorism.•

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Atlas, a political scientist, is a senior lecturer at the Paul H. O’Neill School of Public and Environmental Affairs at IUPUI. His opinions do not necessarily reflect those of Indiana University. Send comments to ibjedit@ibj.com.


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