Friday, October 27, 2023

Airstrikes While You Wait

On October 13, Israeli defense officials made the infamous announcement giving Gaza residents "24 hours" to evacuate the northern Gaza Strip in advance of an imminent ground invasion.

Three hundred thirty-six hours later, the ground invasion still hasn't materialized. The Israeli government appears internally divided about the feasibility of a ground invasion -- how it could be managed, whether it can practically achieve the objective of "destroying Hamas", how it interacts with the objective of freeing the hostages, is it possible to accomplish without unacceptable losses. And so, weeks after the invasion seemed to be imminent with the space of a day, we continue to wait on an uneasy precipice.

[T]he government called up around 360,000 reservists and deployed many of them at the border with Gaza. Senior officials soon spoke of removing Hamas from power in the enclave, raising expectations of an imminent ground operation there.

But nearly three weeks later, the Netanyahu government has yet to give the go-ahead, though the military says that it has made a few brief incursions over the border and that it will make still more in the days ahead.

The United States has urged Israel not to rush into a ground invasion, even as it pledges full support for its ally, but domestic considerations have also played a role in the delay. Beyond the hostages, there is concern about the toll of the operation and uncertainty about what exactly it might mean to destroy Hamas, a social movement as well as a military force that is deeply embedded in Gazan society.

When asked what the military objectives of the operation are, an Israeli military spokesman said the goal was to “dismantle Hamas.” How would the army know it had achieved that goal? “That’s a big question, and I don’t think I have the capability right now to answer that one,” the spokesman, Lt. Col. Richard Hecht, said at news briefing a week after the attack.

At one level, this looks like yet another illustration of the Netanyahu government's broader pattern of dithering and incompetence that has characterized its response to this entire crisis. Yet while I bow to no one in viewing Netanyahu as an ineffectual and criminal buffoon, on this narrow point I won't fully agree: if one doesn't yet have a workable plan for how an invasion will destroy Hamas, it is better to hold off on the invasion than to do it just in order to do "something". The only thing worse than dithering about in uncertainty because you don't have a plan is doing a full-scale invasion of a neighboring territory because you don't have a plan, and given the choice between the two I'm glad the Israeli government has so far chosen the former route.

That being said, this puts the Israeli aerial strikes into Gaza in a different light. With the Israeli government locked in paralysis over how to resolve the current crisis, the airstrikes have all the appearance of a deadly holding pattern -- a "something" to do while the army waits for the politicians to figure out an actual plan. Taken that way, it's hard to justify the airstrikes -- and the massive devastation they've caused to Gaza's civilian population -- as justified. 

The airstrikes are cast as necessary to a campaign of "destroying Hamas", and maybe if they actually would accomplish that end they could be warranted. But in reality, when you drill down to it, there's virtually no evidence presented that the airstrikes are at all effective at securing that goal. The airstrikes are not "destroying Hamas". Rather, it seems like Israel doesn't yet have a plan for how to "destroy Hamas" and is lobbing missiles into Gaza while it tries to figure it out. The term "proportional" is often misused in international conflicts -- it's not a requirement that all military violence be meted out at a 1:1 ratio -- but here the actual legal meaning is illustrative: the question is whether the expected military benefit is proportionate to the anticipated civilian cost. There's been little evidence presented that these airstrikes actually have much in the way of expected military benefit vis-a-vis the objective of destroying Hamas, and so is hard to justify against the damage dealt to innocent civilians.

One name given to Netanyahu's overall failed strategy for relating to Palestinians was "managing the conflict". The term, like "mowing the lawn", was a self-conscious abdication of any effort to actually resolve the conflict; it accepted that the conflict would exist in perpetuity and tried to tamp down on the costs (to Israel) to acceptable levels. Hamas' attack on Israel on October 7 is a genuine crisis for Israel, but to a large extent the Netanyahu government's response can be characterized as "managing the crisis", because they have no idea how to resolve it. The goal of destroying Hamas is unquestionably just, but they can't figure out how to accomplish it. They can't give Hamas a win by just capitulating to its demands. They have a justifiably furious populace for whom they've got nothing to show, and an international community that's running out of patience. They're stuck. A "better" government than them would also probably be stuck, but this dilemma is certainly beyond the capacities of the pathetic rabble  of fascists and lickspittles that comprises Netanyahu's coalition. And so again, the airstrikes really seem more than anything like a stalling tactic. They are not a route out of the crisis, they do not even move Israel materially in the direction of emerging from the crisis. Rather, they are a relatively costless (for Israel; for Palestine the costs are devastating) measure it can dole out to do something while it gropes for an actual way out of the crisis that has eluded it thus far.

It is infuriating that the proximate villains of the atrocities on October 7 are largely inaccessible to be brought to justice. At some level, what we're seeing is an interplay between Israel's immense power (in the form of bombs and missiles and tanks) and terrible impotence (to have stopped the attacks in the first place, to bring justice to their actual perpetrators).

And yet: airstrikes on Gaza cannot be justified in perpetuity on the basis of "we can't figure out how to bring Hamas to justice, and we can't think of anything else to do." It is, I'll repeat, infuriating that we can't figure out a way compatible with basic human rights standards to make it so that Hamas pays its deserved price for the atrocities it committed on October 7. This is why I've been repeating ad nauseum that we need to devote a lot more of our creative energy to thinking about alternatives that can secure Israel's existential security interests in the wake of those attacks (including the interest in not sending the message that brutal massacres of civilians are the best way to secure boons for the Gaza population, which is why even from a left-humanist perspective "just give Gaza everything it wants" is horrifyingly less feasible now than it was on October 6). But it's also the case that the argument against a ceasefire, insofar as it takes the form "we can't cease our fire precisely because we haven't figured out yet how our continuing to fire will secure our valid security interests" simply does not work as an argument, and with each passing day it grows less and less persuasive.

To put it in stark terms: when do the airstrikes have to stop? When "Hamas is destroyed"? We've already said that the airstrikes don't seem like they'll do much to advance that agenda, so if that's the answer then it merges with "never". Just a perpetual bombing of Gaza until the "rubble bounces". But, as horrifying as October 7 was, it does not and cannot serve as a foundation for "Israel can bomb Gaza forever for no apparent significant military gain or purpose." The mismatch between the conceptual justification ("Hamas must be destroyed") and the actual practice (airstrikes which nobody seems to think will actually do much to destroy Hamas) means that the two categories will never actually merge, and that is a direction of perpetual, endless war.

I've spoken critically about the calls for a "ceasefire" which really aren't about a "ceasefire" at all, but boil down to the desire for "a flat rule that Israel is not permitted to pursue any of its security objectives via projection of military power". But the notion that, if Israel cannot figure how to actually pursue its valid security objectives via projection of military power it shouldn't be given license to simply exert military power indefinitely for its own sake, has a lot more purchase. The simple fact is that if Israel can show an actual plan for how a military operation -- whether we're talking airstrikes, a ground invasion, special forces raids, or something else -- actually will accomplish the end of "destroying Hamas", that's a conversation, and is not something that should be preemptively and categorically ruled impermissible. But right now, Israel doesn't seem to have any such plan, and the notion that it can indefinitely immiserate Palestinian civilians as a sort of holding pattern while it tries to figure one out is harder to stomach. 

Put differently: it is understandably infuriating to those who were directly and indirectly terrorized by Hamas' violence to witness Israel dithering about in uncertainty because it doesn't have a workable plan to resolve this crisis. But it's still better than Israel lofting bombs into Gaza indefinitely because it doesn't have a workable plan to resolve this crisis. If Israel can't determine how a military operation will actually translate into significantly advancing its legitimate security objectives, then it should cease fire unless and until it can figure it out.

DeSantis, ADL Call for SJP Ban

A few days ago, Gov. DeSantis ordered Florida universities to "deactivate" campus chapters of Students for Justice in Palestine, on the grounds that SJP provides "material support" to an international terrorist organization (i.e., Hamas). Yesterday, the ADL (along with the Brandeis Center) sent a letter to nearly 200 university presidents effectively urging them to do the same: demanding that the universities investigate their SJP chapters for "potential violations of the prohibition against materially supporting a foreign terrorist organization."

That the ADL has joined this campaign is, at this point, probably overdetermined, given the confluence of:

  1. The ADL's general rightward turn on matters relating to Israel and Zionism over the past year;
  2. The genuine decay in the campus environment for young American Jews, for which SJP bears more than a share of the responsibility; and
  3. The long-standing intense (mutual) loathing between the ADL and SJP, where either one would sell out the constitutional rights of the other for a quarter and give back two dimes in change.

Nonetheless, this call is an obvious flouting of the First Amendment (for public universities) and academic freedom (for privates). As Howard Wasserman puts it, I resent being "[forced] to side with people who want to see me and my family dead," but thanks to DeSantis and the ADL, I'm now in that position.

To be clear: the "material support for terrorism" claim is -- with respect to the evidence presented -- absolutely spurious (FIRE's letter to Florida universities explains why). While the ADL claims to "recognize and support students’ First Amendment rights to freedom of speech, even odious speech," it flags nothing in its letter that goes beyond "odious speech" in support of Hamas. The sole example of alleged "material support" provided by SJP is rhetoric in its toolkit stating:

“We must act as part of this movement. All of our efforts continue the work and resistance of the Palestinians on the ground.” The toolkit refers to the Hamas-led terrorist attack in Israel as “the resistance.” 

This in no way supports an inference of "material support" under the statute. "Material support" has to include more than just advocacy in support of the terrorist organization or rhetorical claims of alignment -- it must entail things like transfer of funds or the provision of a tangible, material benefit. As the Supreme Court made clear in Humanitarian Law Project v. Holder, as expansive as the "material support" statute may be, the prohibition on providing material support to terrorism nonetheless cannot encompass "a regulation of independent speech ... even if the Government were to show that such speech benefits foreign terrorist organizations." "Material" requires actual materials, not just speech.

Just a few weeks ago, there was a virtual consensus that campus SJP actors were a disreputable fringe that nobody should take seriously (this was how the left justified their complaints that we were paying too much attention to "letters sent from Harvard" -- they conceded the letters were gross, but argued that they represented a piddling and insignificant political faction toiling in deserved marginality. Intentional or not, I appreciated the concession!). Now, thanks to DeSantis and his buddies, the SJP can adopt the far more comfortable mantle of First Amendment martyrs. Of course, if there is evidence of actual "material support" -- SJP funneling funds to Hamas, for example, the ADL should provide it (and I'd add, the proper investigators of such claims are law enforcement officials, not university bureaucrats). But as it is presented here, the effort to ban SJP is nothing more than an effort to ban a noxious organization on the basis of its noxious viewpoint, and one cannot support that and claim to be comporting with either the First Amendment (for public universities) or academic freedom.

Thursday, October 26, 2023

The Dangerous Weave of Historical Maximalism

The principle that it is wrong to slaughter civilians -- going house-to-house with the express agenda of gruesomely murdering the men, women, and children you find there -- is seemingly so obvious it seems impossible imagine it must be "taught". Surely, it is a principle we all understand at some intuitive, base level. And yet, history is replete with such murders and massacres -- in all parts of the world, in every time period, amongst persons of every social strata and political proclivity -- a history that somehow must be compatible with our knowing, at some deep level, that it is wrong. As a species, we are good at murder. But we're experts at rationalizing it.

It's important to know history. But arguments from history are dangerous things. History offers a near-infinitely rich and diverse series of threads, from which one can weave virtually any tapestry one desires. For a species that excels at rationalizing brutality of the worst forms, this should concern us, for all of us can easily be seduced by a historical narrative that eases us back into apologia, justification, or even celebration of unthinkable atrocities. 

The experience of the past few weeks has been, to a large extent, the witnessing of folks -- sometimes our colleagues, sometimes our friends -- weaving tapestries of death in real time. There is little more depressing than reading Facebook posts and op-eds and blog posts by people you know and, on most days, like, and watching them work through the process by which they become apologists for massacres.

None of us should be too confident in our immunity from the pattern. Indeed, there's a degree to which this danger is most prominent for the well-informed, the educated, the "experts". There's research that suggests that education increases ideological polarization, because every bit of knowledge -- every book you read or conference you attend -- is, or can be, the raw materials through which one can support and fortify one's own preferred narrative against challenge or refutation. It is no accident, I think, that many of the worst voices on Israel and Palestine are "the professionals" who've steeped themselves in the debate for years -- the PhD students, the organizational warriors. It's not just that the debate itself is so toxic that it can't help but have a corrupting effect (though it is that). It's that the process of learning more, if one isn't careful, paradoxically becomes a mechanism to hate better and more righteously than would otherwise be possible.

One can easily tell a historical tale through which Israel is naught but a savage European colonial imposition, to which any form of resistance is necessary and appropriate. Tell this narrative frequently and loudly and univocally enough, and it degrades one's ability to call atrocity "atrocity", potentially beyond repair, as we saw over the past few weeks:

Suddenly forced to decide whether, in the wake of occupation and besiegement, a Palestinian response of "a systemic campaign of house-to-house kidnappings, rapes, and executions" is a valid one, we saw far, far too many individuals unable to say "no" (or at least, say it with any level of decisiveness). This failure stems directly from the tempting broth that assures us that, if the provocation is severe enough and the injury severe enough, no amount of "response" could ever be disproportionate. And so we see that, if you refuse to let yourself think that anything could be "too far", there's no end to the depths of hell you may find yourself apologizing for.

But to be clear: others can tell other tales, wherein Israel is naught but Jewish decolonization and liberation, for which any measures are justified to valorize and defend (there's a story, I've said, where revanchist Zionism is what happens when Fanon wins in a rout); or where Palestine (in quotes) is itself a colonial invasion which cannot be permitted to exist and must be extirpated by any means necessary. All of these tales weave history differently, and all of them (this is important) pull from portions of "reality" (neither the colonial or decolonial elements of Zionism are simply made up), but in their maximalism and extremity they are seductresses back to the pattern of atrocity justification.

That I used some version of "(de)colonialism" in all of those stories is no accident, but not because I think the concept of "(de)colonialism" is inherently diseased. To the contrary, we speak in the argot of the times, and so it is unsurprising (albeit not especially revelatory) that today's maximalist narratives will try to bootstrap them onto those terms which seem most vibrant in the potential for justifying radical action (and what are atrocities if not radical?). In different times and contexts, the argot will be different, and once again that very polysemous character of history is part of what enables it to so easily serve as raw materials for justificatory atrocity. Monsters justify the infliction of atrocities via many words -- "decolonialization", "self-defense", "averting genocide", "patriotism," "turnabout", "just deserts", "liberation" -- and their usage neither discredits the words, nor does their use of the words mean we must credit their atrocity.

So what do we do, when confronted with this vast, untamable polysemousness of history and ideology? One choice is to try to assert, with evermore earnest, desperate, or self-righteous vigor, the One True Story (Zionism IS ethnonationalist colonialism, Palestinian nationalism IS exterminationist antisemitism) that can supply the threads necessary to weave our tapestries of death; that can explain why it is okay (or understandable, or a tragic necessity, or commensurable tit-for-tat) to machine-gun concert-goers or to torch olive trees, or to permanently deprive millions of Palestinians citizenship rights on the land where the live, or to eradicate the one political space on the planet where Jews have control over their own destiny. That so many find that path appealing is, I think, precisely because of the destination it promises -- the seduction of being able to hate and murder and pillage and deface and expropriate and have it all be justified.

But that is not the only choice. We should know history well enough to respect it, and respect it enough to know that it cannot truly be mastered for the service of any one political cause. Historical maximalism is, ultimately, a corruption of history, and for that reason it will never persuade anyone not already primed to be persuaded. In cases of protracted group conflict, what one inevitably gets is dueling maximalists; two sides both utterly convinced of their righteousness and ready to scorch the earth on the path to heaven. 

Precisely because the path of historical maximalism promises everything, it can ultimately offer nothing: "a moral race to the bottom" that is inevitably a path towards death. Acknowledgment of the pluripotent strands of history can be the means through which we resist maximalism and extremity, resist the siren's call of boundless violence, and instead reform around a pragmatic humanism whose very lack of complete self-assuredness serves as a bulwark against our instinct to rationalize atrocity.

One does not need to behead infants near Sderot. One does not need to set fire to Huwara. These are choices, as is the choice to serve as apologists for them. They're choice made inside a weave of history that sings out with the false promise that they are justified or inevitable or in some way not as bad as we know, in our heart of hearts, they truly are. 

It is a terrible thing, to watch people you know and love and care about submit the temptation of history and ideology to defend brutality in the service of maximalism. I hope more people make better choices.

Tuesday, October 24, 2023

The Third Stage of Road Construction

Years ago, I remember reading a Dave Barry column that was centered around the various stages of road construction. The first stage entailed closing down the road and making everyone's life impossibly inconvenient. "In the second stage", he continued, "nothing happens. This stage may last for several years."

This old column came to mind recently as I was navigating my own commute to Lewis & Clark. This past summer, some signs went up saying that the street which anchors my normal route to work would be closed from July 13 to October 13. Why? I couldn't find any information (finally, just a few days ago, I found this). But no matter -- the detour wasn't too extensive, and of course, most of the work would be done over the summer when I wasn't going into the office that frequently.

July, August, and September go by. I drive past the work site, and I never once see anybody doing anything. There's just a lonely sign announcing a road closure and a promise that the route will reopen on October 13.

Finally, October 13 rolls around. I drive past the work site to see if the closure has ended, and I see two things: (1) People finally doing something that looks like work (at the very least, some construction vehicles and folks in orange vests; and (2) a sign saying that now the road is closed through November 1.

As far as I can tell, for three months from the time the road was closed until the time it was scheduled to be reopened, nothing happened. Work didn't actually start until after it was scheduled to have finished.

Come on Portland -- get it together.

Sunday, October 22, 2023

In the Middle of It All

Shaul Magid has a very interesting, provocative, and thoughtful essay in Religion Dispatches about the current state of affairs in Israel and Palestine -- where it came from, and where it is going. Magid is an author for whom my general orientation is that I rarely agree with everything he says, but always find him worth reading, and so it is here. But one point in particular that he makes that very much resonates is that Hamas' attack on Israel "is not the beginning, nor the end, but as with most things, somewhere in the horrifying middle."

Nothing in geopolitics comes on a fresh slate, and there will always be history trailing behind us (and laid out in front of us). It is not justification or excuse to observe the obvious truth that Hamas' attack did not emerge ex nihilo. The same, of course, goes for the responses to that attack, which also cannot be viewed as wholly discrete, isolated events that can be analyzed and approved of/condemned atomistically. But one thought I keep returning to, as I read both justifications for Israel's campaign against Hamas and calls for that campaign to end in a ceasefire, is that a lot of people seem to think that we're not in the middle, that we could be on the verge of (if we make the right moves, anyway) the end. And in doing so, I think they're skipping past some essential but difficult question about what comes after whatever comes next.

Start with Israel's backers, for whom the call of the day is that things cannot proceed as they did before vis-a-vis Hamas in Gaza. I agree. As I said in my very first post on these atrocities, they were (among other things) a catastrophic failure of Israeli security policy; a complete discrediting of what came before. But before we go into what might change, we need to correctly identify what it is that was "before".

For most of the time following Israel's disengagement from Gaza and Hamas' ensuing takeover of the territory, Israel's policy has been one colloquially dubbed "mowing the lawn." In this metaphor, "the lawn" is Hamas' military capacity and willingness to inflict violence against Israelis across the border. When that capacity/willingness gets too dangerous (the grass grows too high), Israel launches an attack that depletes Hamas' stockpiles of men and munitions (the grass is cut), forcing Hamas to recuperate and recover. As time passes, Hamas inevitably replenishes its stockpiles of weaponry and its willingness to use them (the grass starts growing again), and the cycle repeats itself.

Notice that this policy is not one even aimed at securing a durable peace. It presupposes an ongoing and essentially endless cycle of violence; albeit one controlled at levels that are presumptively tolerable (for Israelis, anyway). That each Israeli attack inevitably will be followed by another one however many months or years later is not a failing of the strategy, it is the point of the strategy (just as it is not a "failure" when mowing the lawn that you'll have to do it again in a few months).

This was the strategy that failed and was decisively discredited on October 7. It is a failure both in its view that an endless cycle of low-grade violence could be kept at "tolerable" levels indefinitely, and in its broader apathy towards actually pursuing something that looks like a just and durable peace.

So now we move to today. The call to "destroy Hamas" is presented as a change from the prior policy of mowing the lawn; it's no longer about temporarily depleting Hamas' capacity to inflict violence, it is a decisive resolution -- the end of the story.

But how is it different, really, from "mowing the lawn"? To be clear, I shed no tears for Hamas' destruction; they're an evil terrorist organization who've inflicted untold misery on Israelis and Palestinians alike. But it's hard to imagine what "destroying Hamas" means in practice. If we're just talking about degrading the actual, social-political-military organization's specific ability to conduct operations, then maybe it's feasible -- but only because another organization will rise to take its place (and if "Hamas" is in 2024 replaced by "Babas" which does all of the same things, what has actually been accomplished?). If the goal is to permanently obliterate the ability of any actor, under any name, in the Gaza Strip to engage in insurgent violence against Israel, then it's not feasible at all -- surely, at this point, we've discredited the notion that Gaza can be bombed into permanent acquiescent quietude vis-a-vis Israel.

Put differently, a call to "destroy Hamas", without more, is just another iteration of mowing the lawn -- cutting the grass shorter, perhaps, but otherwise a repetition of the same failed strategy. It is not an end, it is a middle, and if left to its own devices it will continue the endless immiseration of the Palestinian people in service of eventually leading to another repetition of the terror we saw on October 7. So anyone calling to "destroy Hamas" has to have some plan for what to do afterwards. Those who say "destroy Hamas" and then stop there are committing the fallacy of assuming that "destroying Hamas" is the end of the problem in Israel and Gaza, and that's just obviously untrue.

So what is the "more" I propose? Simple: massive aid and reconstruction for Gaza. I spoke a few days ago of the grimmest silver lining of terrible war sometimes finally yielding a comprehensive peace, and if the terrible war is already upon us, we might as well try to leverage it to get the lasting peace.  Call it realistic, call it an ego-salve, but exploit the opportunity to say "now that Hamas has been destroyed, we can do ...." X, where X is good, humanitarian, reconstructive policies that break the pattern of entrapment and immiseration that has characterized the Gaza Strip for decades. 

There will be plenty of people who resist this; who say "how can you propose giving billions to Gaza after what happened on October 7?" Worse, Hamas -- being a terrorist organization -- isn't as prone to being "destroyed" in the way that, say, a corporation or even a state government could be. It'd likely be impossible to fully obliterate them; there will always be someone with a gun and a commitment to Hamas' ideology running around somewhere.

But my mind returns to the Marshall Plan after World War II, which surely was one of the greatest foreign policy decisions in modern history. No doubt, one could say, no country deserved less in the way of repair and support than Germany after World War II. Yet there's little doubt, comparing the outcome of post WWII to post WWI, that the choice to invest in reconstruction and repair paid off in incalculable dividends. The decision to focus less on retribution ala the Treaty of Versailles -- or, perhaps more accurately, to let "retribution" be in the military defeat and in the Nuremburg Tribunals, not in the post-war occupation of Germany (on the western side, at least) -- and more on creating future conditions of prosperity and fraternity seems, in context, almost impossibly humanistic, and yet it paid off beyond I imagine even the wildest hopes of its architects. If we can do it for Germany in 1946, we can do it for Gaza in 2023. Otherwise, we're just going to relive the same cycle again and again. 

So that has to be the deal: if you're going to destroy Hamas, then once you've declared "mission accomplished" there has to be a commitment to reconstruction. And moreover, one cannot use the impossibility of fully, completely, and in toto destroying Hamas as an excuse to never declare "mission accomplished". There's no universe in which a commitment to reconstruction doesn't take some leap of faith, but that has to be part of the deal.

That's the short-sightedness I see on the pro-Israel side of things. But there's actually something similar happening from those calling for a "ceasefire". Now, ceasefire can mean many things, and at its most literal it can mean nothing more than an intentionally temporary and short-term reprieve of hostilities to permit humanitarian aid to enter and medical and civilian evacuations to proceed without danger. It also can be temporary in the sense of a hope that the objectives which parties might rightfully be able to pursue in war could also be achieved via peaceful negotiation, so we should at least try the latter before (if talks fail) resorting to the former. 

But my sense is that most people calling for a "ceasefire" want something more durable than a few days where aid trucks can go in and out of the territories unmolested. Nor are they, in any realistic sense, hoping that with a few days of conversation Israel will be able to achieve its valid security objectives through a process of negotiation, while recognizing that a military option remains validly on the table. They think that any Israeli military response is inherently unjust and must be opposed, under any circumstances. "Ceasefire" is in some ways a misnomer; the actual demand is something closer to "the international community's position should be a flat rule that Israel is not permitted to pursue any of its security objectives via projection of military power".

A few days ago I wrote about why the call for a cease-fire seemed so futile. The basic thrust of my argument was that (a) Israel existentially cannot allow Hamas to view October 7 as a net victory, and (b) nobody has yet come up with a credible alternative beyond a bruising military response that would prevent Hamas from seeing October 7 as a net victory. An "everyone, go back to your corners" ceasefire would, at this point in time, still be seen by Hamas as it coming out ahead. Horribly, this sense would be amplified, not diminished, the more "ceasefire" is conjoined with new momentum for aid to the Gaza Strip or alleviations of the Israeli blockade -- it would suggest that brutally and shockingly massacring Israeli civilians is the most effective strategy at convincing the international community to come to Palestine's aid. And internalizing that lesson, as I said, really would be an existential threat to Israel -- it's something that the state absolutely cannot allow to happen.

But what I've come to realize over the past few days is that, just as many of Israel's supporters thinking "destroying Hamas" will be the end, rather than the middle, of the story; many of its detractors also think that we could be close to the end. Anyone who went to Hebrew School is familiar with an old saw, repeated ad nauseum in certain circles, that goes "If the Palestinians laid down their weapons there would be no more war; if the Israelis laid down their weapons there would be no more Israel." And it occurs to me that many of the pro-ceasefire commentators genuinely believe this, but in the reverse. They really believe, with absolute, 100% confidence, that if Israel just stands down and turns the other cheek, and presumably does various other pro-Palestine actions (which might include anything from "end the blockade of Gaza" to "permit a right of return for descendants of refugees"), this whole thing will be over. In a sense, Israel has no valid security interests going forward because it always, at any point it chooses, has the immediate and unconditional capacity to end the situation of security threat at its sole discretion.

From that vantage point, proponents of a ceasefire don't have to come up with an "alternative" to military action that will prevent Hamas from viewing October 7 as a net victory, because the whole thing will be moot. It wouldn't matter if Hamas "internalized the message" that brutally and shockingly massacring Israeli civilians is the most effective strategy at convincing the international community to come to Palestine's aid, because they'd have already achieved all that they wanted, and wouldn't have need to resort to that tactic again. We'd be at the end of the story, not the middle.

Framed that way, the logic -- indeed, the moral imperative -- of a ceasefire becomes undeniable. But it all depends on believing, with 100% certainty, that all Hamas wants is whatever boons and succor would result from a ceasefire and any ensuing alleviation of Gaza's humanitarian conditions. That seems unrealistic on two levels. First, of course, a ceasefire could not realistically provide conditions that represent a permanent and durable end to the conflict. But second, it is based off a dogmatic and unsustainable believe that all Hamas wants and all Hamas is fighting for is justice. It fails to take seriously the seemingly undeniable reality that Hamas actually, genuinely wants unjust things vis-a-vis Israeli Jews, and will be inclined to keep fighting in order to attain these unjust ends. It's not all they want, but it is the height of naivete to think that Hamas will be satisfied -- that the story would end -- if only Israel agreed to the demands of justice as conceptualized by western peace activists. And again, that belief is essential to the project, because if we're still in the "horrifying middle", then we do have to think about the risks and consequences of enabling Hamas to view October 7 as a winning strategy, and we do have to figure out what alternative to a military campaign could prevent that being the moral of the story.

That last part is an earnest plea. War is awful in general, and will be especially awful here to innocent Palestinian civilians who are functionally trapped in a zone of active hostilities. Moreover, as alluded to above I'm dubious this war, for all the death and destruction it will ladle onto an already overflowing pile of human misery, will even achieve the (not-so-)modest objective of permanently degrading the ability of Palestinians in the Gaza Strip to inflict violence on Israeli civilians. Nobody should be excited for this, nobody should think this is a good thing.
What's needed now is an off-ramp, something that can plausibly induce Israel to not go down a seemingly inexorable path without it being seen as giving Hamas a win. How do we, to alter the sardonic advice given to the U.S. as it found itself stuck in Vietnam, convince Israel to declare victory and then stay home? Keep in mind that, with respect to everything I just said about the strategic necessity of shifting the moral of the story, none of it at all alters the initial set of observations that an Israeli ground campaign in Gaza would be disastrous for Israel, to say nothing of Palestinians. The whole problem is that this terrible option still seems to be "better" than all the alternatives, and if that is to change it will only be if an alternative that successfully convinces Israel that Hamas didn't win and won't perceive itself as having won.
If someone can propose a genuine off-ramp that can credibly avert this calamity, they deserve a Nobel Peace Prize and everyone's support. And I'll say I'm not opposed to a ceasefire that's meant to hold the peace while that solution is generated. But to come up with an alternative, it's necessary to recognize that we're in the middle of the story, not the end. As much as we might like to, we cannot skip to the conclusion.