Israel's full-scale air, ground and sea military operation in Gaza, where 47.3% of civilians are children (Awad, 2022, pp. 2), in response to an attack that could have been anticipated given the historical context of Israel-Palestine relations (Jaber & Bantekas, 2023, pp. 1071), is expected to have enduring consequences for Muslim and Jewish communities worldwide. This paper contends that Israel's retaliatory campaign appears impulsive and brutal, without a logical goal. This will inadvertently work to Hamas's advantage: by redirecting public attention from their actions to those of Israel, the Israeli government will bear greater responsibility for their use of force.
Hamas’s brutal attack on Israeli civilians, including women and children on October 7 resulted in the kidnapping of almost 230 hostages and killing of over 1,400 people. The UK, USA, and Israel appeared genuinely taken aback by the attack, characterizing it as "unprovoked" (Al-Shakeri, Eaton & Mansour, 2023). President Joe Biden remarked "I'm the first U.S. president to visit Israel during a time of war" (Biden, 2023). These statements imply that Hamas derailed existing peace upon carrying out operation ‘Tufan al Aqsa’. Nonetheless, they fail to acknowledge that, from Hamas's perspective, a state of war has been continuous. Indeed, Gaza has remained an “open-air prison” (Human Rights Watch, 2022) since 2007. As Simon Handler notes: “the cycle of terrorism and retaliation periodically escalates into full scale wars that feature Israeli air strikes and ground invasions of Gaza” (Handler, 2022). This paper argues that the Israel-Palestine issue has never ended, as only when the question of Palestinian and Israeli territorial sovereignty is “resolved and the boundaries defined will the most difficult stage of the Jewish-Palestinian problem come to an end” (Sinadinovski, 1991, pp.231).
Regardless of Israel’s highly fortified borders and advanced military capabilities, Hamas carried out operation ‘Tufan al Aqsa’ on October 7 2023 with a success they didn’t anticipate — In an interview with the New Yorker, Moussa Abu Marzouk, a senior member of Hamas, said the organization “never expected to wreak the havoc it did” (Lahoud, 2023). Hamas's initial objectives appeared to aim at rallying resistance groups across the Middle East, so in this regard they failed as no resistance group thus far has allied with Hamas. The conflict has been characterized by significant losses and military challenges in terms of their ability to both launch offensive actions and defend their territory. Concomitantly, the scale of Israeli attacks since October 7 caused a Palestinian death toll exceeding 7,700, including 3,595 children, and resulted in over 19,000 injured Palestinians (AJLabs, 2023).
The Western public is not quick to forgive losses. We are witnessing a disconcerting shift in public opinion throughout the world, but most importantly within the United States. The widespread protests occurring in the United States, as well as across Europe, Asia, Oceania and the Middle East, indicate the mounting pressure on governments domestically to call for a ceasefire.
Israel’s retaliation is looking less like a humanitarian mission to return the kidnapped civilians and more as a ‘cloaked’ hostage rescue. Israel’s brutal air campaign led it to the point where they appear to assert themselves over the United Nations by “teaching them a lesson” (Common Dreams, 2023). This is evident by the government threatening to refuse entry visas to UN officials, a punitive response to UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres’s remarks regarding international law violations. The domestic consequences of a ceasefire without the release of hostages would have further corroded public trust in Israel’s leadership and political institutions. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu would have been perceived as a weak leader, blamed by Israelis not only for the breach on October 7, but also for resigning from the conflict before rescuing hostages. Arguably, the Israeli government was compelled to disregard the UN Gaza resolution to prove to the population that it was fighting for its captured citizens, regardless of any political backlash (UN News, 2023).
However, Israel is currently refusing to negotiate with Hamas or release Palestinian prisoners (Addameer, 2023) in return for Israeli hostages. There seems to be no genuine commitment to a ceasefire as civilians, including children, in Gaza lack necessities such as water, medicine and electricity. This stance contributes to a highly unfavorable public perception of Israel, creating significant concerns regarding the military’s disproportional use of force and the purpose of their military offensive. Israel’s initial act of self-defense has now escalated to a point where they now resemble the actions of an antagonist with no remorse for civilian lives.
When assessing the effectiveness of Israel’s retaliation, one must consider how far Hamas is willing to compromise — Despite 7,700 civilian casualties, Hamas has released just four hostages in exchange for humanitarian aid to enter into Gaza — aid that Hamas itself needs to survive. Hamas has been accused of not allowing civilians to flee as well as harboring beneath hospitals, using innocent civilians as human shields to safeguard its war machine. Israel nevertheless proceeds with even heavier bombardment during their second phase of the war, killing yet more civilians and eroding their image as defenders of human rights.
Israel, with the United States as its major military and political ally, is attempting to execute a western method of warfare (Coker, 2002, p.63) against a terrorist organization that harbors among civilians. In short, a humanitarian rationale is essential to warrant a comprehensive air, sea, and land campaign. However, Israel's humanitarian rationale, centered around Israeli hostages, lacks coherence. Even though the current 226 hostages are at the center of media attention, Israel's military campaign appears impetuous when considering that the whereabouts of the very hostages Israel aims to bring home remain unknown. This leaves them susceptible to Israel's retaliatory actions.
Furthermore, if Israel accepted Hamas’s offer of exchanging hostages for all Palestinian prisoners held captive in Israel, there would be no viable humanitarian cause to justify sustained strikes on Gaza. In this scenario, Israel would persist in its offensive, yet encounter mounting pressure to halt the attacks by disgruntled Western nations. This would also raise questions regarding the Israeli government’s accountability for the extensive collateral damage inflicted on Palestinians.
Israel is unintentionally playing into Hamas’s hands. With each bombardment, Israel bolsters its image as the aggressor. Following October 7, Israel was bound to change the perception that its military was fighting “human animals” (Diaz, J., & Batrawy, A. (2023): Three weeks later, Prime Minister Netanyahu claimed that Israel has the most moral army in the world, with civilian casualties avoided wherever possible (Kaplan, 2023). The shift in narrative demonstrates the increasing pressure on Israel by the international community for ceasefire and humanitarian aid into Gaza. It reflects the increasing pressure on their closest ally — the United States and the Biden administration itself. The US-Israeli alliance is of extreme importance to Israel as one could argue that the US naval warships deployed “deterr[ed] Iran and its proxies in the region” (Kenyon for NPR, 2023).
Amidst these continuous attacks, it is crucial to acknowledge that Jewish people worldwide with no direct ties to Israel face increased risks. European countries such as the United Kingdom are on high alert. Police patrols have doubled around synagogues and, since October 7, anti-Semitic incidents have quadrupled in the UK alone (McGarvey, 2023). Israel’s geopolitical strategy not only claims the lives of innocent civilians but also fuels the flames of anti-Semitic and Islamophobic extremism across the world. As Zein Rimawi, founder of the Islamic Society of Bay Ridge in New York, stated, “every one of us feels unsafe” (Rimawi for CNN, 2023).
Israel is engaging in instrumental warfare, fully aware of the level of collateral damage left behind. It is ineffective for two reasons — First, Hamas’s culture is that of a terrorist organization, where barbarism is limitless. Their use of human shields increases political pressure on Israel; if they were to bombard civilian infrastructure, the international community would turn against Israel’s cause. Second, Israel is assuming a western warfare stance used in the post-Cold War era where winning over public support is essential (Coker, 2001, p.53). Israel’s objective is to dismantle a terrorist organization, yet their own military actions have caused more casualties than the organization itself. The eyes of the Western world are focused on the tragic loss of countless civilian lives, including innocent children. It is for this reason that Israel’s current military strategy is inadvertently undermining their own cause.
In this regard, Israel is purporting to act in self-defense, despite brutally attacking another state which they previously held under occupation. Their humanitarian cause is increasingly weakened by the scale of attacks and their refusal to exchange Israeli hostages nor negotiate ceasefire while humanitarian aid enters Gaza.
The question of what a fitting countermeasure to Hamas’s actions on October 7 entails has been answered by the numerous protests held in favor of a ceasefire. As we enter the third week of the conflict, Israel's military strategy has failed to secure the release of hostages; resulted in significant collateral damage; tarnished its global image; and inflamed anti-Semitism across the world. Israel's retaliatory campaign has garnered international attention for its perceived brutality, lacking a clear and logical objective. This has inadvertently played into Hamas’s favor by diverting public scrutiny away from their actions and shifting it towards Israel's actions. Israel has significant responsibilities in this war and the global community is closely observing the developments that follow. If this will be a long war, as Prime Minister Netanyahu stated, one should question at what cost Israel is willing to secure victory.
Katarina Sikimic Martinovic holds an undergraduate diploma in International Relations and Politics from the University of Westminster and a Masters of Science diploma in International Relations, from the London School of Economics and Political Science.
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