Humanity Versus Security: Balancing Humanitarian Instincts & Military Realities

Thomas Sowell once said, “The first lesson of economics is scarcity: There is never enough of anything to satisfy all those who want it. The first lesson of politics is to disregard the first lesson of economics.”  Dream, imagine, change, hope, yes we can –just some of the more famous political slogans, all of which promote the notion of progress, successful action and change, without mentioning any possible costs or negative externalities. 

This is how dialogue on the current conflict in the Middle East seems to be developing, or rather, devolving; often without nuance, the cost-benefit analyses of certain actions, whether it be Israeli government policy, IDF military action, or the international response, are ignored in favour of heavy rhetoric and emotion. Moreover, the framing of the debate as pro-Israel versus pro-Arab is unproductive, inflammatory, and degrades social cohesion as community tensions flair up. Rather, I will frame the argument between security (realism) and humanitarian (liberalism). 

Those whose primary concern is humanitarian decry the ongoing siege of Gaza. They deplore the constant bombardment and lament at each photo and news video showing the carnage wrought. Therefore, they requested an end to the siege and the entrance of humanitarian aid. In contrast, those whose primary concern is security are against the lifting of the siege, which will undoubtedly in their opinion worsen the Israeli military situation by allowing the covert flood of weapons into Gaza to resume. They may sympathise with the humanitarian outcry of civilians, but in the wake of the largest terrorist attack in the country’s history, they are understandably not in a forgiving mood. De-escalation does not seem to be a realistic option. 

Every action has a tradeoff. There is no solution to make everybody happy, if there were there would not be a conflict. Regardless of how the war proceeds, whether a cease-fire is achieved or if the war escalates, the idea that peace, love, and respect for our fellow man will flourish in the aftermath is ultimately out of reach. Unfortunately, John Lennon will just have to keep on imagining. So, are any solutions realistic, and what are the positives and negatives of each situation according to a pro-humanitarian and pro-security framework?

Firstly, let’s dissect the notion of a ceasefire. Since the siege of Hamas began, over one month ago, the discussion around a ceasefire has intensified as the civilian population in Gaza suffers. From a humanitarian point of view, the death of non-combatants, especially women and children is horrifying, not to mention the destruction of civilian infrastructure. So, calls for a cessation of hostilities have intensified in tandem with the rise in the humanitarian crisis. Moreover, many Israeli families hoped that a ceasefire would mean the return of the hostages. All noble goals. 

However, a ceasefire, from a political realist’s point of view, does not consider the legal right for Israel to respond to an attack on its people. Even the international community does not largely support an outright ceasefire, due to the precedent it may set impacting the legal ability of a state to defend itself against foreign aggressors, whether they be state, or non-state actors (terrorist groups). It also does not take into consideration Israel’s future ability to protect its citizens (one of, if not, the top priority of any state). If Hamas is not toppled they will certainly use the time to build up stockpiles of weapons and munitions to attack Israel again, as their stated goal is the destruction of the state of Israel. “From the River to the Sea,” as the slogan goes. This is also why many in the IDF are so hesitant to allow humanitarian corridors to be established, they are worried that it will be used to strengthen Hamas, allowing them to regroup and resume their smuggling operations to get more weapons. 

Although many people internationally are protesting for a ceasefire it will not occur due to the security concerns, but also due to domestic Israeli politics. If Netanyahu stops the conflict it will make him appear weak at home, and anger the base of his political support, which is already in trouble due to the seeming governmental failures which occurred before, during, and after, the initial Hamas attacks. Besides the obvious humanitarian aspects, the only clear benefit (from a security standpoint) would be de-escalation. If Israel were to immediately end the war tensions would undoubtedly ease, and Hezbollah (the Iranian proxy militia in Southern Lebanon) might stand down and not join the fight. However, in a region ruled by despots, strongmen, monarchs, dictators, and theocrats, weakness, even the appearance of weakness, cannot be shown; it only invites further aggression, making Israeli de-escalation unlikely. 

So, because a full ceasefire is a politically untenable position in Israel, Bibi opted for a compromise. A truce was agreed, using the Gulf monarchies as middlemen when negotiating with HAMAS. The terms freed many Israeli hostages in exchange for the release of prisoners from the West Bank, several of whom stand accused of serious terrorism and murder charges. This truce began on Nov. 24th with 1 additional day being granted for every 10 Israeli hostages returned. Unfortunately, as of Friday Dec. 1st the ceasefire ended and hostilities resumed. Unfortunately, this outcome seemed inevitable because the likelihood of the truce turning into a formal ceasefire was low. Politically speaking, there were large protests to extend the truce across the world, and ever-increasing pressure domestically to have the Israeli hostages returned. But, in recent opinion polls Israeli’s seem to not want to end the conflict. According to the Israeli Democracy Institute, and Tel Aviv University’s Peace Index, the Israeli population is more hawkish on foreign policy now than at any time in recent memory –undoubtedly an instinctual response to the Oct. 7 attacks. These polls stats show the following: only 10% of Israeli Jews surveyed supported a pause in fighting to get the hostages back, 44.3% approved of the government negotiating for the hostages without pausing the fighting, and another 26.6% wanted absolutely no negotiation with a terrorist organisation –this is likely due to valid fears that negotiating with terrorists only validates their use of kidnapping as an effective strategy to bring the Israeli government to the negotiating table, thereby incentivizing HAMAS to do it again. 

Using the same humanitarian versus security framework, we can examine other plausible scenarios and see that many of the same issues regarding each proposal for the conflict remain constant: domestic Israeli politics, regional Arab backlash, international perception, security concerns, and the humanitarian crisis. 

So, how about the ground invasion? At the time of writing this, the fighting has just resumed. Before the truce, northern and southern Gaza were effectively split by Israeli Defense Forces (IDF), who then encircled Gaza City, slowly constricting their vice grip on the city which has been reduced to a bombed-out moonscape. So, what are the competing concerns? How will it play out? Undoubtedly, the start of the ground invasion made a full ceasefire even more unlikely; after a weeks-long barrage, the Israeli government decided to escalate the conflict, rather than de-escalate, through the use of ground forces in Gaza. From a security point of view, this makes sense. To thwart future attacks the IDF wants to remove Hamas leadership, in the process reducing the military risk from the area by killing terrorists and destroying military hardware. This is what the IDF has often described using the callous euphemism of “mowing the grass”, reflecting the military perception that the Gaza Strip is an ongoing security threat which needs to be contained. Removing Hamas could see the PA, or another more moderate Arab group, take power in Gaza which Israel could negotiate and deal with peacefully. 

 Regardless of military necessity, Netanyahu’s decision to commit what will likely end up being a lengthy ground invasion has various political implications domestically. A) it will help solidify his carefully moulded persona as a strong man, the protector of Israel, and demonstrate that Likud is the responsible party that can defend the nation –all this was called into question when Hamas committed the deadliest terrorist attack in Israeli history. B) This will of course stir up the far-left Israelis opposed to military action, but they weren’t going to vote for Bibi anyway. Moreover, over the last year, the country has been beset by ongoing protests over proposed judicial reform –a few more unpopular anti-war activists won’t change the government’s course. C) A protracted war could lead to a “boiling over” of violence in the West Bank, which has been simmering for a long time. 

Internationally, the ground invasion is a divisive subject. Most countries hold the right to self-defence from a foreign aggressor as an inalienable aspect of International Law. Ergo, many countries have been hesitant to denounce an Israeli military response to Hamas out of worries that it may set a bad precedent in international law whereby a country does not have the right to defend itself and eliminate hostile forces who threaten the state. Nevertheless, sympathy for Israel fades with each day that passes, especially as gut-wrenching photos from Gaza circulate across the web. Israel can rely upon the staunchly pro-Israel UK & USA to veto any resolutions in the United Nations, but regionally the reaction to Israel’s invasion of Gaza has not gone over well in the Arab world. 

In terms of reactions from Israel’s more immediate neighbours it can be safely presumed that Israeli officials have done the maths and realised that besides Hezbollah, the fears of a widening war are overblown, based on emotions, not reality. Egypt, once the occupier of Gaza, will rhetorically support the strip’s besieged residents, all the while hypocritically maintaining their own blockade. In truth, there is no love lost between the Palestinians and the Egyptians, the latter of which is fixated on an economic crisis and ongoing conflict in their southern neighbours of Ethiopia and Sudan. Syria is in a protracted civil war, unable to secure its borders let alone invade Israel. Jordan is dependent on American security architecture, so won’t go to war with their patron’s chief regional ally. Lastly, Lebanon is quickly becoming a failed state with the 2020 Beirut port blast accelerating the nation’s complete financial collapse. Therefore, none of Israel’s regional neighbours have the capacity or inclination to join the conflict.

There are no simple solutions to the conflict, no easy way to balance the pro-security versus pro-humanitarian desires. Israel needs to eliminate a deadly terrorist organization and doesn’t want to seem weak to their regional rivals. Letting up on the offensive allows Hamas more time to rearm, and commit another attack such as Oct. 7th. But, it also would allow civilians to flee to the relative safety of southern Gaza, and get aid shipments in to alleviate the humanitarian crisis rapidly unfolding. Simultaneously, there are largely unfounded worries that being too aggressive in Gaza could draw rival states into the war, combined with very real worries that non-state actors such as Hezbollah could join. Everything is a tradeoff, and there will be no time throughout this conflict when both sides are 100% satisfied with its conduct. 


About the Author
I did my BA at Mount Allison University in Canada, studying History & Political Science. Thereafter, I began to pursue a degree in Journalism but took a hiatus from school to accept numerous job offers. I got my start in writing working for ERETZ: the Magazine of Israel in Tel Aviv, Israel. From my homeland Canada I have been published by both the National Post, and Jewish Post & News. The paper I currently write for and help publish is The Jewish Post -the successor to the now defunct paper: The Jewish Post & News. As a researcher and writer, I believe that applying historical context along with an in-depth knowledge of regional identity and political ideologies is the best way to identify and explain current geopolitical trends as well as forecast growing tension and unrest in future areas of conflicts -militarily, politically, and economically.
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