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Gaza: The Cost of Escalation

President Biden Delivers Remarks On Terrorist Attacks In Israel

Drew Angerer/Getty Images

President Joe Biden delivers remarks on the Hamas attacks in Israel at the White House, Washington, D.C., October 10, 2023

On Saturday, October 7, I was awakened in the middle of the night by a news organization seeking comment on Hamas’s invasion of Israel. After listening to the message, I scrolled through my phone to figure out what was happening on the other side of the world and felt an eerie familiarity. In my eight years as a deputy national security advisor to President Barack Obama, I was often called early in the morning by desk officers in the White House Situation Room, who would alert me to some distant crisis demanding attention, including multiple wars in Gaza. Yet as I read headlines that barely managed to convey the scale of the carnage, I felt a deeper sense of foreboding. Here was violence unleashed in a way that would force us to reckon with history’s ghosts at a time when we are particularly ill-equipped to learn history’s lessons.

The worldviews of Israelis and Palestinians have been shaped by trauma. The images of Jewish men, women, and children being hunted, killed, or captured by gunmen evoke the specter of pogroms, the bottomless cruelty of the Holocaust, and the waves of terrorist attacks, rocket fire, and antisemitism that have followed Israel’s founding. The Israeli bombardment of the people of Gaza, which began last weekend and has been underway ever since, recalls the helplessness so many innocent Palestinians have felt through decades of military occupation, humiliation, and indiscriminate use of force, as well as the fear of another permanent displacement that has haunted Palestinians since the Nakba. These competing stories of collective trauma, grief, and grievance have trapped the two peoples in a conflict that now threatens to spiral out of control.  

The immediate comparisons to the September 11 attacks felt apt to me not only because of the shock of violence on such a scale but also because of the emotional response that followed. I remember standing on the Brooklyn waterfront that day and watching as the first tower crumbled to the ground. As a twenty-three-year-old American who had to that point been insulated from the wider world, I found myself longing for vengeance as a path to security. I felt a sense of clarity about good and evil that made it difficult to scrutinize the actions that my own government soon began to take. I felt anger toward people who even flirted with discussing the political context of the attacks, whether it was American support in the 1980s for the mujahideen who evolved into the Taliban or our partnership with an oil-rich and autocratic Saudi Arabia—the birthplace of Osama bin Laden and most of the hijackers, and an incubator of the extremist ideologies they embraced.

Human beings react unconsciously in the face of threats, rarely stopping to consider the potential consequences before we respond to violence with greater violence. This is particularly true when you are the stronger party—as the US was relative to al-Qaeda and the Taliban after September 11, and as Israelis are now relative to Hamas. What was the result of America’s response to a traumatizing terrorist attack? Yes, the “Global War on Terrorism” launched under President George W. Bush and refined under President Obama disrupted terrorist networks and destroyed the version of al-Qaeda that attacked us; in the past two decades, the US has not faced an attack at home anywhere near the scale of September 11.  

But imagine if you were told on September 12, 2001, about the unintended consequences of our fearful and vengeful reaction. That we would launch an illogical war in Iraq that would kill hundreds of thousands of people, fuel sectarian hatred in the Middle East, empower Iran, and discredit American leadership and democracy itself. That we would find ourselves facing an ever-shifting threat from new iterations of al-Qaeda and from groups, like ISIS, that on September 11 did not yet exist. That we would squander our moment of global predominance fighting a war on terror rather than focusing on the climate’s tipping point, a revanchist Russia under Vladimir Putin, or the destabilizing effects of rampant inequality and unregulated technologies. That our commitment to global norms and international law would be cast aside in ways that would be expropriated by all manner of autocrats who claimed that they, too, were fighting terror. That a war in Afghanistan, which seemed so justified at the outset, would end in the chaotic evacuation of desperate Afghans, including women and girls who believed the story we told them about securing their future.

This accounting does not begin to encompass the effects of America’s renewed militarized nationalism, jingoism, and xenophobia on our own society after September 11, which ultimately turned inward. While it is far from the only factor, the US response to September 11 bears a large share of the blame for the dismal and divisive state of our politics, and the collapse of Americans’ confidence in our own institutions and one another. If someone painted that picture for you on September 12, wouldn’t you have thought twice about what we were about to do?

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Israel has been freshly traumatized and is now poised to launch a large-scale invasion of Gaza. The impulse behind both this operation and the bombardment of Gaza already underway is to destroy Hamas and to send a message that if you harm Israelis—and the Jewish people—you and your people will suffer an overwhelming retaliation. For factions of Israel’s right-wing government, the aims are likely even larger: to displace Gazans into Egypt, end any pretense of hope for a Palestinian state, and settle accounts with Iran.

The risks of this escalation are similarly clear. Over a thousand Palestinian children have already been killed, and according to some reports more than a million Palestinians have been displaced during a siege that has cut off access to the necessities of life—food, water, fuel, and electricity. Today hundreds of wounded and displaced civilians were killed in an explosion at a hospital in Gaza. These casualties, even before a ground invasion, underscore the immense danger that the two million people of Gaza, half of whom are children, face right now. Violence has erupted in the West Bank and Jerusalem and could intensify. Hezbollah could enter the conflict from Israel’s north. Broader Arab opinion could be further enflamed. Divisions could be exacerbated within the world’s democracies, as they already have been this past week, at a moment when social media seems designed to heighten our fear and anger and when nations sorted into competing blocs seem to be growing more acclimated to competition, conflict, and violence.

We don’t yet know how events will unfold. But the history of the Israeli–Palestinian conflict, the Middle East, and the US’s own recent experience suggests that violence is likely to beget more violence, that trauma will beget more trauma. It is easier to start or escalate wars than to end them, and the consequences of war are always unpredictable. Short-term victories can engender longer-term challenges. Victors on the battlefield can lose something of themselves at home.

Israel has legitimate security concerns and has the right to go after the military wing of Hamas, a faction that has proven to be the worst version of itself. Of course, Hamas bears responsibility for instigating the nightmare we are all living through. Its militants chose a path of nihilism and escalation. But they are arsonists, and we must remember that arsonists seek a world in which everything burns. Meanwhile, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s long-standing policy of squeezing Gaza, expanding West Bank settlements, and making deals with Arab autocrats has not delivered security but led Israel to let its guard down while Hamas plotted its attack.

Other paths are available to Israel. A more targeted campaign against Hamas’s leadership and capabilities could be coupled with a historic effort to secure significant Arab support and resources for an alternative Palestinian leadership and a reconstructed Gaza. Israel’s military and political leadership could treat respect for the laws of war as a central goal rather than a tactical hindrance, avoiding collective punishment and respecting safe zones for civilians. Gaza’s southern border could become a conduit for humanitarian support to Palestinian civilians rather than a route to expel them permanently into Egypt. The aim of the war itself could be a lasting Israeli–Palestinian peace rather than the military defeat of Palestinian aspirations for statehood. Prime Minister Netanyahu’s past decisions and the nature of his current government suggest that these are not the paths that Israel is likeliest to follow, but that does not mean we should succumb to the belief that there are no alternatives to the overwhelming and unrelenting use of force. There are always alternatives, just as there were for the United States after September 11.

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The United States is a party to this conflict as Israel’s security guarantor, as the principal mediator in efforts to resolve the Israeli–Palestinian conflict, and as a superpower whose interests and fingerprints are all over the modern Middle East. The rest of the world certainly sees it that way. President Joe Biden did not initiate this reality, but he has reinforced it by embracing Israel in the immediate aftermath of the Hamas attack, engaging in intensive diplomacy in the days since, and deciding to visit Israel on the precipice of its anticipated invasion of Gaza.

The US government’s normal reflex is to simplify the genuine difficulties of achieving better outcomes in the Middle East by resorting to outdated formulations: making a half-hearted commitment to a two-state solution; expressing support for democracy and international norms but shelving that support when it comes to autocratic Arab partners or the excesses of the Israeli occupation. The US has tended to abandon diplomacy when the political risk creeps upward and scrapped painstakingly negotiated diplomatic agreements like the Iran nuclear deal to suit the impulses and strongman identity politics of Donald Trump.

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Thus far, President Biden has coupled his outspoken support for Israel with words of caution. He has supported Israel’s right to defend itself, pledged additional military assistance, and sought to prevent further escalation by trying to deter Iran and Hezbollah—for instance, by deploying two aircraft carrier strike groups to the region. At the same time, he has publicly warned Israel against reoccupying Gaza, and his administration reportedly made Israeli support for humanitarian assistance to Palestinians a precondition for his visit to Israel.

The Biden administration has engendered goodwill in Israel with this initial response and retains more leverage on Arab partners than it has been willing to exercise—including through the sale or provision of vast amounts of arms. For these reasons, the United States will have a degree of ownership over what’s happening in Gaza and what comes next. It should have an ongoing interest in alleviating Gaza’s humanitarian crisis, finding pathways to deescalation, seeking the release of hostages, securing Arab commitments for a Palestinian leadership other than Hamas, and genuinely pursuing an Israeli–Palestinian peace as the end of this war.

The world seems to be careening from one crisis to the next, many of which originate in the scars of the twentieth century. A catastrophic war of conquest rages in Europe while tensions rise over the unresolved status of Taiwan in Asia. Strongman politics and ethnonationalism are once again ascendant. Now Hamas’s brutal attack and Israel’s bombardment of Gaza risk igniting a war of undetermined length, cost, and consequences. This is a time to arrest cycles of trauma rather than perpetuate them. Drawing on our own recent past, the US must counsel careful deliberation, the judicious and lawful use of force, creative diplomacy, and consistent respect for the true equality of human beings—priorities that compel protecting festivalgoers and kibbutznikim as well as the children and peaceful citizens of Gaza. Otherwise even more innocent people will suffer, and I fear there will be many more phone calls in the middle of the night before the world undergoes a correction.

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