Kristof: Israel can abandon hope if it invades Rafah

Further deaths of civilians to get at Hamas is likely to create a new generation of Palestinian fighters.

By Nicholas Kristof / The New York Times

Now that President Biden is pressuring Israel to back away from an all-out invasion of the southern Gaza Strip city of Rafah, some supporters of Israel feel betrayed.

They ask: How can Israel protect itself and ensure its security if it can’t eliminate Hamas leaders hiding in tunnels under Rafah? Why sacrifice thousands of lives, Palestinian and Israeli alike, but stop short of a definitive end to the war that would lay the groundwork for rebuilding Gaza?

They raise legitimate questions, but I think they misunderstand Biden’s motivations as purely humanitarian and intended simply to avert a bloodbath in Rafah. Saving lives is an important factor — and for my part, I wish Biden would apply more pressure on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to protect Palestinian civilians; but even if you put aside humanitarian concerns, many observers also believe that Israel itself would be better off if it showed restraint.

It may be in Netanyahu’s interest to flatten Rafah, because anything that prolongs the war keeps him in office, but it’s not in Israel’s interest.

For starters, the premise of those favoring a Rafah invasion is that the assault might be bloody but would enable the complete destruction of Hamas. But I’ve been arguing since the beginning of this war that Israel is unlikely to eradicate Hamas, any more than the United States eradicated the Taliban in Afghanistan, the Viet Cong in Vietnam or violent militias in Iraq.

Gadi Eisenkot, a former chief of staff of the Israeli military and a member of the current Israeli war Cabinet, also warned earlier this year that talk of the “absolute defeat” of Hamas is a “tall tale.” Likewise, Secretary of State Antony Blinken argued that invading Rafah will not eliminate Hamas fighters or end the insurgency; so it looks as if the demolition of Rafah would mostly just kill more Palestinians, risk the lives of Israeli hostages, further inflame Palestinians to seek vengeance and advance the growing isolation of Israel in ways that undermine its long-term security.

Note that Israeli intelligence on Gaza has been dismal from the start. Israel didn’t anticipate the Oct. 7 attack, and then it seemed to expect Hamas leaders to be under Gaza City and so destroyed it. Then it apparently thought they were under Khan Younis and destroyed it. Now Netanyahu thinks that they’re under Rafah. Maybe they are, or maybe he’ll just kill thousands more civilians while looking for them. The United States reportedly believes that the top Hamas leader in Gaza, Yehia Sinwar, is not even in Rafah but in Khan Younis.

Israel has always gotten Hamas wrong. In the 1980s, the Israeli government nurtured the rise of Hamas in Gaza because it thought religious figures would spend their time praying in mosques rather than firing rockets. And in the run-up to Oct. 7, Netanyahu helped prop up Hamas financially because he thought that it would split Palestinians and reduce pressure for a Palestinian state.

Acting against one’s own security interests is not peculiar to Israel. The United States believed it needed to protect itself by fighting in Vietnam and Iraq. Russia insisted on fighting in Afghanistan. Israel invaded Lebanon in 1982 and in the process midwifed Hezbollah, now one of its great enemies.

I opposed the U.S. war in Iraq not because I was anti-American but because I believed it would cost many lives while undermining U.S. security. In the same way, opposing Israel’s invasion of Rafah does not make me (or Biden or anyone else) anti-Israel. Indeed, Biden may be the most pro-Israel president in American history.

One reason to be skeptical of the Israeli plan to deal with Rafah is that there isn’t one. The Israeli military previously waged war in northern Gaza and appeared to defeat Hamas there, but without a strategy to hold the territory. So Hamas rose there once more, and Israel’s lack of any coherent plan for Gaza suggests that this could go on indefinitely.

An important reason I doubt that invading Rafah is in Israel’s security interest is a lesson the U.S. forces learned in Iraq: Pay attention not only to the number of fighters you kill but also to the number you create. “It is likely that the Gaza conflict will have a generational impact on terrorism,” Avril Haines, the director of national intelligence, warned in March.

That seems right to me, partly because of reporting that I’ve done over the years in Gaza before Oct. 7. Palestinians, like all people, have diverse views. After the 2014 Gaza war, I interviewed people in Gaza, and some — women in particular — reacted as Israel might hope, wanting to end armed resistance so that they would never again face such bombing and destruction.

Other Palestinians reacted by wanting more than ever to hit back at Israel. I talked to Ahmed Jundiya, then a 14-year-old boy, who told me that he aspired to massacre Israelis.

“War made us feel we will die anyway, so why not die with dignity?” Ahmed said. He added, “Maybe we can kill all of them, and then it will get better.”

I have no idea what became of Ahmed, but I wonder if angry kids like him grew up to be those who brutalized Israeli civilians on Oct. 7. I likewise fear that children who are bombed and starved by Israel today may be among those who attack Israel a decade from now.

Republicans accuse Biden of betraying America’s friendship with Israel by pausing the transfer of 2,000-pound bombs and taking other steps to discourage a full invasion of Rafah. I’d say it’s the opposite, a measure of Biden’s concern for Israel’s own interests. On balance, it seems to me that Biden is more clearly on Israel’s side than Netanyahu is.

Contact Kristof at Facebook.com/Kristof, Twitter.com/NickKristof or by mail at The New York Times, 620 Eighth Ave., New York, NY 10018.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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