When I saw the horrors perpetrated by Hamas against innocent Israelis, undoubtedly with the aid of their Iranian sponsors, I was reminded of similar atrocities committed by terrorists in the Algerian War from 1954 to 1962. In particular—and I hesitate even to write these words—the cutting of unborn children from their mother’s wombs and the slashing of their throats. Terrorists in Algeria engaged in identical barbarities, as recounted by Alistair Horne in A Savage War of Peace. Israelis would not be human if they were not filled with a nearly overwhelming desire for revenge.
These horrors, however, were not simply a blind lashing out—not just the massacring of Jews because, according to Hamas, they must be massacred. Rather, these unimaginable acts have a grim and diabolical purpose: to provoke an indiscriminate retaliation in kind. If your enemy is “prone to anger,” Sun Tzu said, “insult and enrage him, so that he will be irritated and confused, and without a plan will recklessly advance against you.” In Algeria, the terrorists achieved this goal. The communities they attacked responded with ferocious, indiscriminate violence against the civilian population in the midst of whom the terrorists operated. Hamas wants a violent response—the more indiscriminate, the better. Israel should not fall into this trap.
As is well known to those who have studied and prosecuted wars in the midst of civilian populations—such as counterinsurgencies and counterterror campaigns—the killing of innocent people can turn the population against a combatant force. Terrorists and insurgents know this, too, and seek to provoke violence against civilians. A popular backlash against the deaths of noncombatants can undermine the strategic objective of securing the population on the way to producing a politically viable peace. Tactically, avoiding civilian casualties means using less heavy firepower and more infantry and small arms. Essentially, soldiers have to put themselves at greater risk of being wounded, maimed, or killed by the insurgent enemy to safeguard the lives of the local population.
Now, put these recommendations in the context of the Israeli Defense Forces entering Gaza. The IDF is not an all-volunteer force like the U.S. Armed Forces but consists mainly of conscripts with varying levels of military training and combat experience. Keep in mind, too, that, militarily, Israel could simply level Gaza and not risk a single Israeli life. Instead, Israel will undertake one of the hardest military tasks: attacking into a defense that Hamas has been preparing for years. To do so, the Israeli government is asking Israelis, after one of the worst atrocities against its people in living memory, to put their children at risk to protect the lives of the population of Gaza, many of whom voted Hamas into power. Too much of the commentary by national security elites and others fails to appreciate how Israel has chosen the more difficult and, I think, humane path. We need to appreciate the truly herculean effort involved in the decision by Israel to launch this ground invasion.
We also need to be clear-eyed about who is to blame when civilians are inevitably killed in operations in Gaza. In his analysis of unconventional warfare, Paul Ramsey, an eminent scholar of the just-war tradition, argued that when an unconventional force chooses to fight in the midst of a populace and use civilians as a shield, it shares the blame when innocent people are inadvertently wounded or killed in the course of the fighting. This is not meant to excuse the loss of innocent life that will result from IDF operations in Gaza. I hope, as do all people of good will, that the IDF can discriminate between Hamas terrorists and innocent civilians. We need to acknowledge, however, that Israel has decided against a much more indiscriminate response. By doing so, it has already distinguished itself from those who massacred its people.
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