Andrew Vitelli

Let’s heed Thomas Sowell’s warning on ceasefires

During the American-led war on ISIS, the US and her allies killed as many as 12,000 civilians in their fight against the jihadist groups, according to some independent watchdogs (at least 1,500, per official US estimates).

The war on ISIS came after a handful of Americans were theatrically executed by the terror organization. ISIS held territory thousands of miles away from America’s shores and posed no existential threat to the country’s existence. But the collateral damage was all but ignored; there were, to memory, no protests against the US. There were no shrieks of “genocide,” no pro-ISIS marches at college campuses.

And there were certainly no calls for a “ceasefire” with ISIS. You cannot co-exist with that deranged and bloodthirsty an organization in power, everyone understood at the time, and a ceasefire would just allow ISIS to wage more war and kill more innocent people. If it is legitimate to wage a war, as it surely was for the US against ISIS, it is legitimate to accomplish the war’s aims even at the cost of some innocent civilians.

A 2014 column by the brilliant Thomas Sowell has been circulating on X (formerly Twitter) since Hamas’s barbaric attack in Israel and the resulting Israeli response. The column was written as Israel and Hamas battled in what Israel called “Operation Protective Edge.” Like today, calls were mounting for Israel to agree to a ceasefire as the civilian death toll climbed. But insisting on a ceasefire after an act of aggression by a weaker party in order to avoid such civilian casualties, Sowell explained, is in fact likely to lead to far more death in the long run.

In most of human history, Sowell continues, wars generally ended either with one side either being conquered or surrendering. This is accurate and intuitive; ceasefires were generally reserved for when the sides were equally matched and determined it was mutually beneficial to stop fighting.

This idea that a country that is attacked is obligated to reach a ceasefire instead of forcing surrender simply to avoid civilian deaths, especially when its opponent is trying to maximize such deaths by using human shields, would seem a historical absurdity. World War II killed 500,000 German civilians; should the Allies have stopped short of ending Nazi rule to spare the innocent women and children of Berlin? And even today, this line of thinking seems to only apply to the Jewish state – again, no one cared how many civilians died in the fight against ISIS.

In the end, as Sowell points out, this practice leads to more war, more violence, and more civilian deaths. This is the fifth time Hamas has launched war against Israel since its 2007 takeover of the Gaza Strip, not to speak of the near-constant trickle of rocket fire. Each of Hamas’s wars has ended in a ceasefire, often due to pressure from the international community. Each ceasefire has led to another war, and ultimately to the ISIS-like October 7 attack. If Hamas felt that declaring war against a stronger power guaranteed they’d have to either win or be crushed/surrender, would they have launched any of these wars? 

The question is rhetorical, but I will answer: Hamas would have been very unlikely to launch any of these wars if it did not think it could count on reaching a ceasefire and staying in power because the international community would stop Israel from a conclusive victory. This convention, this expectation, is what has caused all five of these wars.

None of this discounts any of the suffering of the people in Gaza. But war is hell. War is barbaric. War should be avoided whenever possible. And that is why we should not be incentivizing groups like Hamas to start wars by shielding them from the historical consequences of doing so.

There are people now who are calling for a ceasefire that would leave Hamas in power. It is impossible to overstate how wrongheaded these calls are. Hamas’s attacks on innocent Israelis are like nothing the world has seen in our lifetimes. Fourteen hundred people were murdered. Women were raped and executed by the dozens. Children were tortured, their limbs cut off, then executed, while their parents watched helplessly. Families were bound together and burned alive.

To allow this group to carry out such acts, then hide behind calls for a humanitarian ceasefire, would guarantee more of these attacks, both by Hamas and by its stronger ally, Hezbollah. These groups and others will receive a message loud and clear: we can launch the most depraved, gruesome, and evil attacks imaginable, kill as many people possible, and as long as we use our own population as human shields and assure a high civilian causality count on our side, there will be limited consequences. We can just hide underground until the inevitable calls for a ceasefire are heeded.

Israel’s war now is purely one of defense. Its aim, eliminating Hamas, is clearly justified and would without question make the world a better place. A ceasefire might spare some lives in the short term, but over time it will result in more war, more death on both sides, and more barbarity.

About the Author
Andrew Vitelli is a New York-based journalist. A former Fellow for the Government Press Office in Jerusalem, Vitelli earned his master's degree from Tel Aviv University.
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