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Is Israel at War? Maybe, Maybe Not

Israel Thinks It’s in a War; Others Disagree

On December 7, 1941, Japan launched a surprise attack on American forces at Pearl Harbor, killing over 2400 people, almost all of them soldiers and sailors. The United States immediately declared war on Japan.

On October 7, 2023, Hamas launched a surprise attack on Israel, killing over a thousand Israelis, most of them civilians, and kidnapping well over 200 more. Israel immediately declared war on Hamas.

These two situations may seem very similar, but in fact they’re not similar at all–at least not in the eyes of much of the world. The United States was seen as being at war, and was expected to continue fighting Japan using every means available until Japan was defeated. Israel, in contrast, seems to be involved in some kind of conflict, but not a war.

During World War II–commonly thought of as a “real war”–Germany began bombing Great Britain in July, 1940, and blockaded it to prevent it from getting desperately needed food and weapons. The U.S. and Great Britain, in turn, bombed Germany mercilessly, and the U.S. similarly bombed Japan. They did so because they believed that in order to win the war, they had to destroy Germany’s and Japan’s arms factories, transportation networks, electricity production, and everything else that made it possible to continue waging war.

Israel, in contrast, is not supposed to use every means available to defeat Hamas. It’s not supposed to continue bombing Gaza; it’s not supposed to harm the Gazan civilians among whom Hamas soldiers hide; and it’s not supposed to blockade Gaza to reduce Hamas’s ability to wage war. In short, while Israel sees itself in a war with its national survival at stake, it’s being told, no, it’s not in a real war. And because it’s not in a real war, victory is out of the question. Instead, according to many European countries, countless NGOs, newspapers, and other media outlets, and, of course, Hamas and its many supporters around the world, Israel should agree to an immediate permanent cease-fire. It should just stop fighting an enemy that breached a cease-fire on October 7 and has repeatedly said that it will attack Israel, again and again and again, until Israel is destroyed. Israel, that is, should let Hamas rebuild and prepare to attack Israel at a time of its choosing.

What’s more, Israel is not only being asked to stand by and watch Hamas rebuild, it’s actually being called upon to help Hamas do so–surely a demand unprecedented in the history of warfare. If, during World War II, someone suggested that not only should the U.S. and Great Britain drastically cut back on their bombing of Germany, but also have the bombers followed by other planes dropping food, clothing, and medical supplies to help their enemies, that would have seemed insane. But that is what Israel is being asked to do–to help organize the resupply of food, clothing, and medical supplies to Gaza (completely dominated by Hamas), and to allow others to do so. The United States is planning to build a temporary port so that supplies can be brought to Gaza more easily–that is, to prevent Hamas and Gaza from suffering the consequences of October 7–and virtually no one points out how absurd this is.

Why would Israel agree to such proposals? It’s hard to imagine that they’re so kindhearted that they’d happily aid those trying to kill them. More likely they know that the seemingly strong support they got from European countries and the U.S. after October 7 was bound to be short-lived and very conditional–conditional on Israel pulling its punches and not trying to defeat Hamas. Yes, many countries say, a terrible thing happened on October 7, but isn’t it time that Israel moved on and stopped being so serious about this “war” thing?

Hamas attacked Israel, yet we don’t hear much about Hamas these days. Israel is excoriated for not agreeing to a cease-fire, but few people seem bothered by Hamas’s refusal to support one. Hamas’s pledge to attack Israel and destroy it–wasn’t that weeks ago? Israel is expected to help Hamas; why isn’t Hamas expected to help Israel? Because Hamas is at war, and no one expects a party at war to help its enemy–obviously.

We could imagine that there’s an easy way to resolve the war/some kind of conflict between Israel and Hamas. Hamas could surrender, lay down its arms, and leave Gaza. Then there wouldn’t be any more bombing and Gaza could begin to recover.

Instead, Hamas is being urged in some quarters to give up a few hostages–children, the elderly, some women–in return for a cease-fire and the release of hundreds of their supporters now in Israeli jails. They refuse. No one even suggests they surrender. Someone should.

About the Author
Paul Burstein is emeritus professor of sociology, political science, and Jewish Studies at the University of Washington, Seattle, where he was Pruzan Professor of Jewish Studies and Chair of the Jewish Studies Program. He has taught courses at the UW on the American Jewish Community and on Israel, and has published on American Jewish economic success and on Jewish organizations in the U.S. He serves on the editorial board of the journal Contemporary Jewry, and is also on the board of the Seattle region of the American Jewish Committee.
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