With the Middle East on the cusp of a full-blown ground war, I was thinking on Friday morning about how Israel’s last two major wars have two very important things in common: They were both started by nonstate actors backed by Iran — Hezbollah from Lebanon in 2006 and Hamas from Gaza now — after Israel had withdrawn from their territories.
And they both began with bold border-crossing assaults — Hezbollah killing three and kidnapping two Israeli soldiers in 2006 and Hamas brutally killing more than 1,300 and abducting some 150 Israeli civilians, including older people, babies and toddlers, in addition to soldiers.
That similarity is not a coincidence. Both assaults were designed to challenge emerging trends in the Arab world of accepting Israel’s existence in the region.
And most critically, the result of these surprise, deadly attacks across relatively stable borders was that they drove Israel crazy.
In 2006, Israel essentially responded to Hezbollah: “You think you can just do crazy stuff like kidnap our people and we will treat this as a little border dispute. We may look Western, but the modern Jewish state has survived as ‘a villa in the jungle’” — which is how the former Israeli prime minister Ehud Barak described it — “because if push comes to shove, we are willing to play by the local rules. Have no illusions about that. You will not outcrazy us out of this neighborhood.”
So the Israeli Air Force relentlessly pounded the homes and offices of Hezbollah’s leadership in the southern suburbs of Beirut throughout the 34 days of the war, as well as key bridges into and out of the city and Beirut International Airport. Hezbollah’s leaders and their families and neighbors paid a very personal price.
The Israeli response was so ferocious that Hezbollah’s leader, Hassan Nasrallah, said in a now famous interview on Aug. 27, 2006, with Lebanon’s New TV station, shortly after the war ended: “We did not think, even 1 percent, that the capture [of two Israeli soldiers] would lead to a war at this time and of this magnitude. You ask me, if I had known on July 11 … that the operation would lead to such a war, would I do it? I say no, absolutely not.”
Indeed, since 2006, the Israel-Lebanon border has been relatively stable and quiet, with few casualties on both sides. And while Israel did take a hit in terms of its global image because of the carnage it inflicted in Beirut, it was not nearly as isolated in the world or the Middle East over the short term or long run as Hezbollah had hoped.
Hamas must have missed that lesson when it decided to disrupt the status quo around Gaza with an all-out attack on Israel last weekend. This is in spite of the fact that over the past few years, Israel and Hamas developed a form of coexistence around Gaza that allowed thousands of Gazans to enter Israel daily for work, filled Hamas coffers with cash aid from Qatar and gave Gazans the ability to do business with Israel, with Gazan goods being exported through Israeli seaports and airports.
Hamas’s stated reasons for this war are that Benjamin Netanyahu’s government has been provoking the Palestinians by the morning strolls that Israel’s minister for national security, Itamar Ben-Gvir, was taking around Al Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem and by the steps that he was taking to make imprisonment of Palestinians harsher. While these moves by Israel were widely seen as provocations, they are hardly issues that justify Hamas putting all its chips on the table the way it did last Saturday.
The bigger reason it acted now, which Hamas won’t admit, is that it saw how Israel was being more accepted by the Arab world and soon possibly by the birthplace of Islam, Saudi Arabia. Iran was being cornered by President Biden’s Middle East diplomacy, and Palestinians feared being left behind.
So Hamas essentially said, “OK, Jews, we will go where we have never gone before. We will launch an all-out attack from Gaza that won’t stop with soldiers but will murder your grandparents and slaughter your babies. We know it’s crazy, but we are willing to risk it to force you to outcrazy us, with the hope that the fires will burn up all Arab-Israeli normalization in the process.”
Yes, if you think Israel is now crazy, it is because Hamas punched it in the face, humiliated it and then poked out one eye. So now Israel believes it must restore its deterrence by proving that it can outcrazy Hamas’s latest craziness.
Israel will apply Hama Rules — a term I coined years ago to describe the strategy deployed in 1982 by Syria’s president, Hafez al-Assad, when Hamas’s political forefathers, the Muslim Brotherhood of Syria, tried to topple Assad’s secular regime by starting a rebellion in the city of Hama.
Assad pounded the Brotherhood’s neighborhoods in Hama relentlessly for days, letting no one out, and brought in bulldozers and leveled it as flat as a parking lot, killing some 20,000 of his own people in the process. I walked on that rubble weeks later. An Arab leader I know told me privately how, afterward, Assad laconically shrugged when he was asked about it: “People live. People die.”
Welcome to the Middle East. This is not like a border dispute between Norway and Sweden or a heated debate in Harvard Yard. Lord, how I wish that it were, but it’s not.
This Israel-Hamas war is part of an evolving escalation of craziness that has been underway in this neighborhood but getting more and more dangerous every year as weapons get bigger, cheaper and more lethal.
Like Biden, I stand 100 percent with Israel against Hamas, because Israel is an ally that shares many values with America, while Hamas and Iran are opposed to what America stands for. That math is quite simple for me.
But what makes this war different for me from any war before is Israel’s internal politics. In the past nine months, a group of Israeli far-right and ultra-Orthodox politicians led by Netanyahu tried to kidnap Israeli democracy in plain sight. The religious-nationalist-settler right, led by the prime minister, tried to take over Israel’s judiciary and other key institutions by eliminating the power of Israel’s Supreme Court to exercise judicial review. That attempt opened multiple fractures across Israeli society. Israel was recklessly being taken by its leadership to the brink of a civil war for an ideological flight of fancy. These fractures were seen by Iran, Hamas and Hezbollah and may have stirred their boldness.
If you want to get just a little feel for those fractures — and the volcanic anger at Netanyahu for the way he divided the country before this war — watch the video that went viral in Israel two days ago when Idit Silman, a minister in Netanyahu’s ruling Likud party, was tossed out of the Assaf Harofeh Hospital in Tzrifin when she went to visit some wounded.
“You’ve ruined this country. Get out of here,” an Israeli doctor yelled at her. “How are you not ashamed to wage another war?” another person told her. “Now it’s our turn,” the doctor can be heard screaming in a video published on X, formerly known as Twitter, and reported by The Forward. “We are in charge. We will govern here — right, left, a nation united — without you. You’ve ruined everything!”
Israel has suffered a staggering blow and is now forced into a morally impossible war to outcrazy Hamas and deter Iran and Hezbollah at the same time. I weep for the terrible deaths that now await so many good Israelis and Palestinians. And I also worry deeply about the Israeli war plan. It is one thing to deter Hezbollah and deter Hamas. It is quite another to replace Hamas and leave behind something more stable and decent. But what to do?
Finally, though, just as I stand today with Israel’s new unity government in its fight against Hamas to save Israel’s body, I will stand after this war with Israel’s democracy defenders against those who tried to abduct Israel’s soul.
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