There Is No Good Reason to Oppose a Ceasefire In Gaza

The rest of the world sees what the United States still does not: Israel’s actions in Gaza can only succeed in producing an endless cycle of violence and suffering.

The words “humanitarian crisis” do not suffice to describe what is happening in Gaza. The U.N. tells us that over half the population is now starving to death, with 9 out of 10 Gazans not being able to eat every day. Over 18,400 Palestinians have been killed, and many more wounded and traumatized. Virtually everyone has fled their homes, and over a million people are huddling in U.N. facilities. In some shelters, 600 people share a single toilet. Even there they are not safe, since Israel has bombed hospitals, schools, and U.N. facilities. (Over 100 U.N. workers have been killed, the deadliest attack on U.N. workers in the history of the organization.) 

The basic fabric of society is breaking down. The stories are sickening. The images are harrowing. The World Health Organization has warned that disease outbreaks could prove even deadlier than the airstrikes. The E.U.’s top diplomat has called the situation “catastrophic” and “apocalyptic.” The U.N. has warned of a “tipping point” where a lot more people will start to die from the effects of sustained deprivation of basic needs. The bombings of northern Gaza are comparable in their destructiveness to the bombings of Dresden and Hamburg in World War II, and Nicholas Kristof of the New York Times says we need to look back to the Rwandan genocide to see a comparable civilian death toll. 

Ahmed Moghrabi, a doctor in one of Gaza’s last remaining functional hospitals, pleaded with the world to stop the violence: 

What is going [on] here actually is real massacres all over. If you see the pictures and the videos, actually, you will be shocked.… [N]o words can describe what is going [on] here. What is going here actually is a real genocide.… [H]undreds and thousands of people…are passing away every day because of these attacks. They’re attacking schools. They’re attacking church, mosques, civilians’ areas…Everywhere, they’re attacking. Oh my god, I can’t describe what is going [on] here. It’s massacres. Massacres, what is going [on] here. The entire families are wiped out…I developed [a] psychological disorder to see these children actually…how to say it?—like—how to say?—I don’t know how. They are burned ’til bone. They are burned ’til bone. Children. If you see my [inaudible], you will see all these, you know, horrible—it’s horror, horror, horror, what is going [on] here. My god, I hope this will end soon.… We are living in [a] big prison under siege, actually, and nobody listen[s] to us…. We are human being[s]. Me, like you, I’m a human being. I’m a human being. I want to live in peace. I want a better future for my children…. You give Israel these mass destruction weapons. But on the other hand, nobody gives us even food. Here, I can’t find food, clean water. Me, as a surgeon, I can’t find clean water to drink. I can’t find food. I eat only once a day…. I can’t afford my children[’s] food. I can’t see my children, because I can’t provide simple…food for living. I can’t. I can’t. I can’t provide this food to my children. We eat once a day, simple rice. You know, my little daughter yesterday, 2 years old, she asked me — you know, she asked me apple, an apple. There’s nothing here. Nothing here. 

We are dying from starvation. From everything, we are dying now. All over, actually, they send these rockets over our heads everywhere, every time. Please, please stop this war against us. Please stop the genocide against us. Stop this war. Please, please, I beg you.

Revolted by the carnage, most of the world wants both Israel and Hamas to cease the violence. Humanitarian organizations like Doctors Without Borders have called for an immediate ceasefire. The United Nations Security Council voted 13-1 in favor of a ceasefire resolution that would require both sides to lay down their arms and for Hamas to release all of its remaining hostages. The “1” was, of course, the United States, which—thanks to the structure of the Security Council—meant that the resolution failed. It doesn’t matter what global public opinion says, the U.S. can use its power to defy the rest of the world. The General Assembly then voted 153-10 for a ceasefire, with 153 votes in favor and only 10 against.1 Israel and the U.S. are expected to simply ignore the global consensus.

The Biden administration has made it abundantly clear that it thinks the fighting should continue. It is subverting congressional approval processes (and its own rules) to continue supplying weapons to Israel. The administration has signaled that it does not intend to investigate whether Israel is following the laws of war, nor will it place any conditions on the arms it gives Israel. In fact, there are no “red lines,” meaning there is no atrocity so horrific that it would cause the U.S. to reconsider its support. (The Biden administration has made transparently insincere public statements suggesting it is “pressuring” Israel to avoid excess casualties.) The Biden administration shares Israel’s view that until Israel destroys Hamas, it can continue blowing Gaza to pieces, in complete disregard for the welfare of the civilian population. 

The U.S. is isolated in thinking this is a good idea. But in this country, the argument against a ceasefire is very common: unless Israel destroys Hamas, Israel will not be safe. Israel is entitled to be safe. Therefore Israel is entitled to destroy Hamas by any means necessary, even if this means starving half of Gaza to death, blowing up hospitals, maiming and killing thousands of children, etc. In vetoing the U.N. ceasefire resolution, the U.S. said that if Hamas is left in its leadership position, the “seeds of the next war” will be sown. Peace, then, can only come through the use of extreme violence. Alan Dershowitz has explained this ruthless, ends-justify-the-means logic: “sometimes attacking a hospital saves lives.”

The logic of the anti-ceasefire argument appears compelling to many Americans. Even Bernie Sanders repeats it, saying that Hamas simply can’t be allowed to remain in existence, which gives Israel the right to finish its existing military operation. Opponents of a ceasefire say that the U.N., Doctors Without Borders, etc. are naive and unrealistic. A ceasefire would allow Hamas to “regroup” to attack Israel again, which Israel cannot accept.

What is the response to this? A few points are critical. First, if you value human lives equally, protecting Palestinians matters just as much as protecting Israelis. And while those who do not remember history before October 7 might assume that Israel is acting purely defensively and has the “right to defend itself,” in the underlying conflict Israel is ultimately the aggressor. Israel occupies Palestine in violation of international law. It had Gaza under an illegal blockade. Gazans are mostly refugees and the descendants of refugees who were thrown out of their homes when Israel was founded. When Gazans have tried methods of peaceful civil disobedience to fight for their rights, they have been ruthlessly gunned down by Israeli snipers.

This context doesn’t justify the horrendous October 7 attacks. But Israel’s “right to defend itself” is complicated. If I break into your house, and you attack me, do I have a “right to defend myself” and how far should that right extend? Occupying powers have far more responsibilities than rights. 

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If the Palestinians said they needed to wage war on Israel, and could not stop until the Israeli political leadership was “destroyed,” and cited Israel’s previous mass killings of Gazan civilians as justification, would they have the right to inflict endless “collateral damage” on Israel in order to destroy the occupying power? No. Why should Israel, then, which has much less of a right of defense in the underlying conflict, have this right vis-a-vis Palestine? You can tell me that October 7 provides such a justification. I could point you to Operation Cast Lead, in which Israel killed a similar number of Palestinians to the number of Israelis killed on Oct. 7 (in a conflict that began after Israel broke a ceasefire). Would that operation give Hamas the right to turn Tel Aviv into Dresden in “self-defense”? If it is the case that when one side commits an atrocity, the other side has the right to wipe out the entire political leadership of the perpetrator (no matter how many civilians are killed in the process), Israel’s leaders and civilians would also be fair targets. (They aren’t, but this “Bin Ladenist” logic is routinely deployed to say that Palestinian civilians, even babies, can justly be attacked.) 

Let us review the situation from the outside: Israel was founded on an act of expulsion that created a large refugee population. Israel keeps Gaza as a kind of enclosed prison or “reservation,” while the West Bank is kept under a strict apartheid regime. Hamas, believing Israel is an illegitimate state, launched a horrifying and brutal attack on Oct. 7. To the extent that attack was against military targets, it might have been construed as legitimate self-defense, but Hamas also murdered and sexually violated civilians. Hamas also took hostages, which is a war crime. In response, Israel has indiscriminately bombed civilians and is starving the population, causing one of the worst humanitarian catastrophes of our century.

If we look at this from the outside, without special loyalty to anyone, it should be obvious that what is needed is a diplomatic settlement of the conflict. This was what the U.N. Security Council was trying to initiate with its resolution, requiring both sides to stop firing and hostages to be released so that negotiations could commence. Hamas was in the wrong for its Oct. 7 attack, while Israel has been in the wrong since 1967 for illegally occupying Palestine (and was in the wrong in 1948 when it expelled 750,000 Palestinians). A diplomatic solution would involve getting both sides to recognize the authority of international law (Hamas would have to accept the existence of Israel, while Israel would have to end the occupation and the siege of Gaza). As Jeffrey Sachs writes, an internationally brokered settlement that gives both Israel and Palestine security is easily conceivable:

Hamas can be demobilized through diplomacy, and only through diplomacy. Israel and the United States need finally to abide by international law, accept a sovereign state of Palestine alongside Israel, and welcome Palestine as the 194th member state of the UN. The US needs to stop arming the Israeli operation of ethnic cleansing in Gaza and stop protecting Israel’s rampant violations of basic human rights in the West Bank. Fifty-six years after its illegal occupation of Palestinian lands, and after decades of illegal settlements in the occupied territories, Israel needs finally to withdraw from the occupied Palestinian lands. With such steps, peace between Israel and the neighboring countries could and would be secured. On that basis, UN peacekeepers, including both Arab and Western troops, would in turn secure the Israel-Palestine border for a needed transition period. At the same time, all international flows of financing to anti-Israel militants would be choked off by joint and coordinated actions of the US, Europe, and Israel’s Arab and Islamic neighbors. The diplomatic route is open because the Arab and Islamic countries (including Iran) have once again reiterated their long-standing desire for peace with Israel as part of a peace agreement that establishes Palestine along the 1967 borders and its capital in East Jerusalem.

Unfortunately, such an agreement is impossible when the United States fuels the conflict by arming one side and blocking a truce at the United Nations. 

Of course, those who agree that Israel needs to destroy Hamas should consider another crucial point as well: obliterating civilian infrastructure is unlikely to actually destroy Hamas. Israel has also offered no convincing answer to the most obvious question in the world: doesn’t bombing civilians create resentment that will fuel the next wave of violence? Even if Israel degrades Hamas’ capacity to stage another October 7 attack, Israel’s current approach creates massive anger and hostility. Plenty of people across the Muslim world will see photographs of Israel humiliating Palestinian prisoners and become enraged. We are likely to see new terror plots against both Israel and the United States. Hamas will rebuild, and the memory of the tens of thousands of Palestinians killed will give the organization all the recruiting material it needs.

Democratic Congressman Seth Moulton, a member of the House Armed Services Committee (and no dove), has said that while Israel is pleased that it is killing at least two civilians for every Hamas member, it’s ignoring the fact that killing civilians creates new militants. He cited “a study commissioned by retired Army Gen. Stanley McChrystal, which said for every civilian killed about 10 terrorists are recruited.” Moulton commented: “By [the IDF’s] number, Israel so far killed about 5,000 Hamas terrorists but in the process they’ve recruited about 100,000 new adherents. And this is bad news for Israel.” So if the goal is to eliminate Hamas, Israel is thinking very short-term and stupidly. (While the supporters of a ceasefire are often said to be “unrealistic,” and those who want Israel to continue are said to be “pragmatic,” clearly, Israel’s approach here is hardly “pragmatic.”)        

So the answer to the question “Doesn’t Israel need to destroy Hamas and guarantee its security?” is: pummeling Gaza actually endangers Israel’s own security. Israel is going to be faced with an enraged, desperate population who despise it (and have many good reasons to). How does it think this is going to go? Does it think that the people of Gaza will simply “forgive and forget” that their neighbor destroyed everything they had?

In fact, we should be skeptical that the purpose of Israel’s bombing campaign even is to “destroy Hamas.” It seems far more likely that Israel is trying to make Gaza unlivable, driving the population to the Egyptian border. Netanyahu has reportedly said he wants to “thin”out the population to a “minimum,” an alarmingly genocidal thing to say. Other Israeli officials have talked openly about a second Nakba. Israel has reportedly shopped around a proposal to “resettle” Gazans in Egypt. “Many Israeli government ministers make no bones about this being their goal,” says Daniel Levy, a former official Israeli peace negotiator. 

Israel’s current approach does not make sense if the goal is to limit Hamas’ power since the assault is making Hamas more popular. So “Israel must be allowed to destroy Hamas” cannot be considered a legitimate argument against a ceasefire. Israel’s current actions make more sense on the theory that it’s trying to “solve” the problem of Gaza’s hostile population by driving that population out through shelling and starving them. Israel will create a choice for the international community: does it accept Gazan refugees or let them die of starvation and disease in the ruins of their city? Either outcome is fine with Israel, because the psychopaths in Netanyahu’s government would like to see Gaza nuked if they could.  

Philippe Lazzarini, head of the U.N. Palestinian refugee agency UNRWA, has concluded that “developments we are witnessing point to attempts to move Palestinians into Egypt, regardless of whether they stay there or are resettled elsewhere.” U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres said recently that he expects “public order to completely break down soon and an even worse situation could unfold including epidemic diseases and increased pressure for mass displacement into Egypt.” That “increased pressure” might be exactly what Israel hopes to create. It knows that its bombing of Gaza is not going to achieve the objective of destroying Hamas, an objective for which bombing is totally counterproductive. What it could achieve is Netanyahu’s stated goal of “thinning out” the population, so that only a small number of poor, starving wretches remain in the bombed-out shell of a city that’s left. 

We keep reading that “Israel’s goals are still vaguely defined.” To that end, I’m not sure how allowing Israel to continue is the more “realistic” course—or we should assume that Israel’s horrific atrocities are part of some careful plan for achieving Israel’s security? I suspect a lot of Israel’s motivation comes from an emotion-driven desire for revenge, and a sense of humiliation that Netanyahu feels requires a show of strength. We must remember here that Benjamin Netanyahu is a very stupid man, having deliberately boosted Hamas on the theory that it would split Palestinians and prevent a two-state solution. It did help with that, but it’s clear that Netanyahu doesn’t know a thing about how to achieve “security” for Israel’s population. We shouldn’t assume that he’s any smarter now than he was before, and I suspect he has waved away the idea that his current operation will ultimately harm Israel, just as he waved away the idea that bolstering Hamas would harm Israel.

The Financial Times observes that Israel “so focused on its goal of the destruction of Hamas” that “the Netanyahu government has not elaborated any kind of new long-term vision for the Israel-Palestine question.” Either, then, the Israeli government has only a short-term plan for attacking Hamas (in which case its current strategy is not going to achieve the goal of security, and the arguments against a ceasefire), or it has a very clear “long-term vision” that centers around massive depopulation of the strip (in which case the arguments against a ceasefire also fail, because one is necessary to prevent an act of ethnic cleansing).

So, no, blocking a ceasefire does not show that the U.S. cares about Israel’s “security.” In fact, it means we are once again refusing to see what is obvious to the rest of the world, which is that the disaster in Gaza right now serves no one. It does not help Israel, because it is creating many new enemies for Israel and risks escalating into a regional conflict. It certainly does not help the Palestinians, despite U.S. professions of compassion. It even endangers the U.S. by isolating us from the rest of the world, fueling global anger, and even making the election of Donald Trump more likely

Those who oppose a ceasefire say that further attacks on Gaza are necessary for security. The opposite is the case. Every day this war goes on makes the whole world less secure. Both sides need to be told firmly to put down their arms and the world (including the U.S.) needs to firmly impose a settlement in accordance with international law. 

  1. The dissenters comprise about 5% of the world’s population, with the U.S. making up 4% on its own. The U.S. and Israel did find an ally in Narau (population 12,000), but failed to secure “no” votes from usually reliably supportive island nations like Fiji, Palau, and the Marshall Islands. 

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