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Israel Must Defeat Hamas—and Then Get Serious About Peace

The defeat of Hamas must be followed with a revised plan, probably including several key Arab countries, to allow the creation of a viable Palestinian state alongside Israel.

Tamir Kalifa/The New York Times/Redux
An Israeli soldier sits beside an Israeli flag near Urim, Israel, on October 17.

Both of us have spent our entire adult lives advocating for justice for Israelis and Palestinians alike. Within Israel, we have supported our friends on the left who have challenged the Netanyahu government, the settlers’ movement, and the religious zealots. We strongly oppose the claim that only Jews have a right to the land. We vigorously oppose efforts to destroy the judicial system and open the way for an authoritarian politics. We are longtime social democrats who cannot abide attempts to strip civil society and the social safety net from Israelis in a country that has grown economically unequal.

We know some of those who were killed or kidnapped or tortured, especially in the kibbutzim on Israel’s southern border, whose inhabitants are mostly leftists, many of them engaged in efforts to end the occupation in the West Bank and to halt, too, the Israeli-Egyptian blockade of the Gaza Strip. They work inside Israel to create a shared society for all Israel’s citizens. But the Hamas attack would be an atrocity whoever its victims were. This is an organization committed to the destruction of Israel and, on the way to that goal, willing and even eager just to kill Jews.

No sovereign nation could withstand an attack like that and fail to respond. The situation in Gaza is especially dire, and the response especially difficult, because Hamas has made it a practice to embed their fighters and their military command within the population, with an elaborate system of tunnels that are burrowed under the civilian population. Hamas protects its leaders but builds no shelters for the people of Gaza. Even as Israel warned the Gazan population to move south to escape the coming warfare in the northern part of the Strip, which is extraordinary difficult to do, Hamas made it harder by publicly opposing the move. Its strategy is to keep Palestinian civilians at risk, as shields against Israeli air and ground forces.

What happened at the Al Ahli Arab Hospital in Gaza is unspeakably horrific. It appears, according to President Biden, that it was a result of an Islamic Jihad missile striking a fuel supply near the hospital. This incident underscores the tragic fact that innocents will die in Gaza in large numbers if this war drags on. Even if Hamas and its ally, Islamic Jihad, are building capacity beneath or near hospitals, it is incumbent on the Israel Defense Forces to be extraordinarily vigilant—among the challenges in fighting a terror group is to not succumb to their terror tactics. We grieve deeply for all innocent victims of this war. It is imperative to get humanitarian aid into Gaza by all available means.

The rules of war apply to asymmetrical as to conventional warfare—that is, to armies organized by a state and supplied with high-tech weapons and to low-tech insurgents, in this case terrorists, who use the people they claim to be defending as camouflage and cover. The high-tech army (think of the French in Algeria or the Americans in Vietnam) does most of the killing and, often, loses the war—politically, if not militarily. The problem for the army is to minimize civilian deaths when the insurgents are doing everything they can to maximize them. That is Israel’s problem now and in the coming weeks.

It would help if journalists on the scene describe how Hamas fights—or simply recall how it fought in the past. In previous wars with Israel, Hamas has fired its rockets from schoolyards and hospital parking lots, from residential neighborhoods with children playing a hundred yards away. Even in crowded Gaza, it is possible to fight from places (the long beaches, for example) that don’t implicate the civilian population. When Hamas doesn’t do that, who is responsible for the civilian deaths that follow when Israel responds?

We don’t mean that as a rhetorical question with an easy answer. The high-tech army also has responsibilities, and these are not easy to meet. It has to do everything it can to prevent civilian injury and death. The crucial question, the hard and agonizing question for any army, goes like this: What risks must its soldiers take to reduce the risks they impose on civilians who are being used, willingly or unwillingly, by the enemy? In the American army, and we assume in the IDF, this is a much-debated question. When General Stanley McCrystal announced new rules of engagement for American soldiers in Afghanistan, designed to reduce civilian casualties, The New York Times reported that some soldiers complained that the new rules made fighting too dangerous. They were probably right. But McCrystal was also right. We hope that Israel has had a McCrystal moment, that the IDF is committed not just to avoiding killing civilians, which doesn’t seem the commitment of the current bombing, but also to acting positively to protect civilians.

But we must be honest: We do want the IDF to win—not a war of revenge but a war for justice. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, a failed leader trying to regain his footing, reverted to his usual—and dangerous—rhetoric when he said publicly that “we will take mighty vengeance for this black day.” Israel must seek justice and avoid the temptations of vengeance.

A just victory requires the defeat of Hamas. It is a maxim of just war theory that the rules of war cannot make it impossible to fight a just war. There has to be a way to fight. We believe there is a way, and with our Israeli friends we are ready to insist on that way and to call out war crimes by the IDF with the same vigor and anger as we call out Hamas crimes. This is the way: to fight with restraint, to reject indiscriminate bombing and shelling, to respect enemy civilians (many, many Gazans are opposed to Hamas), and take necessary risks to reduce their risks, and finally to maintain a clear goal: defeat for Hamas. Nothing more.

Israel must also fight with some sense of how the fighting will end and with a vision of the peace that comes after. That last part, a just peace, will require a government in Israel very different from the current government, which has failed its people in every sphere.

It’s important to recall that Israeli governments, mostly led by Benjamin Netanyahu, have pursued a policy of weakening the Palestine Authority created by the Oslo Accords. Any political negotiation would have to be with the Palestinian Authority dominated by the nationalist Fatah movement, and Netanyahu and the Israeli right overall don’t want to negotiate. They don’t want to engage in any talks that might lead to an independent Palestinian state. Like Hamas, they want the whole thing. And so, for them, Hamas was actually preferable to the P.A., since it also wants the whole thing and doesn’t want to negotiate.

That all must end now: The defeat of Hamas must be followed with a revised plan, probably including several key Arab countries, to allow the creation of a viable Palestinian state alongside Israel. Israel needs borders that are internationally recognized, and that means borders that recognize in turn the rights of the two peoples who now coexist in oppression and hatred.

Warfare is the worst and most dangerous way to practice politics, but sometimes it can lead to a better politics afterward. Prepare for that possibility; it will require renewed battles against ultranationalists and religious zealots on both sides—fought, we hope, without deadly weapons. If there ever is an end, we know what it must be: self-determination for two peoples in one land.