In spite of being caught unprepared for the devastating attack on October 7, the IDF has since shown itself to be a courageous, dedicated, and remarkably led fighting force, with hundreds of thousands troops ready to put themselves in harm’s way or even die for their country. But what if there is no military solution to the problem of Hamas, Hezbollah and other religious extremists – including Iran – and their determination to wipe Israel off the map? For those groups and many others like them there is a deeply held religious belief that any place that was ever what they call “Dar al-Islam” (a land ruled by a Muslim ruler and where the Shari’ah, Islamic law, is held as the rule of the land) – as indeed the land where the State of Israel is located once was – must forever remain so and if it somehow becomes ruled by non-Muslims where the Shari’ah is not recognized as the law of the land it becomes “Dar Al-Harb” (the house of the sword), a place of struggle and if need be holy war (jihad). For such believers, it remains a religious obligation to redeem and reconquer it for Islam. These are the believers of Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ) now attacking Israel, who hold that this obligation is not subject to negotiation because God’s laws are not subject compromise. Moreover, in many cases, they are prepared to subordinate all the other demands of their belief to this one end.
This should be familiar to Israelis since we have our own similar believers who are convinced this land was promised and given to us by God, and the obligation to redeem and hold on to it is an obligation worth dying or even killing for, treated as subordinate to many other Jewish obligations. A Muslim colleague and I have just finished a book entitled Following Similar Paths, in which we detail the parallels between religious Muslims and Jews in their adaptation to America, but there are similarities here in Israel as well.
Extremist believers, however, are not just concerned with faith. They also seek to put it into action. No matter how extreme and theological this belief may be, it can today be and has been harnessed technology’s power. That makes it of more than academic interest. It has been turned by those fundamentalist-like Islamists in Gaza, Lebanon, and Iran – among others – against Israel. And for a long time, those on the Israeli side, many Jewish counterparts, some of whom are an integral part of the current Netanyahu government and have been among its strongest supporters, have done no less by using the instruments of the state to fulfil their religious beliefs. Now we stand on the edge of a terrible war guided and nurtured by these people that threatens to bring more death and destruction to our region.
As an Israeli, with members of my family engaged in and subject to the consequences of this war, my heart is clearly with Israel who is now being attacked viciously by two regions that Israel long ago stopped occupying. Israel left Gaza completely in 2005 and withdrew from Lebanon in 2000, both to internationally recognized borders. But in both places Islamists insist that Israel’s existence — not occupation — is the original sin. This they demonstrate by aiming their weapons against villages and towns inside the green line, places that were part of Israel from the very beginning of its founding as a state. And they attack not only military targets but also and overwhelmingly civilians. It is no accident that the Gazans have not only brutally slaughtered more civilians than soldiers, and the 212 abducted Israelis are overwhelmingly civilian women, children, infants, senior citizens. While Hezbollah now threatens similar targets, as does Iran as well their proxies the Houthis of Yemen.
Not only does this targeting of Israel proper and its civilians exemplify that this war is not about occupation but about the very essence of Israel’s existence, it also seems to have taken on a kind of Armageddon character. Unfortunately, this leads to decisions that are often informed by self-fulfilling prophesies. The decision to abduct the Israeli hostages seems to be something that will lure Israel into a deadly ground operation, a response that appears imminent and the other side expects.
The confident – bordering on boastful – promises of former general and current Defense Minister Yoav Gallant and Prime Minister Netanyahu have both told the world that however difficult and costly in blood and treasure the coming intensification of the conflict will be, Israel will ultimately succeed in wiping out Hamas, PIJ, and their allies. Leaving aside this hubris from two men who are unquestionably responsible for the unpreparedness on October 7th, I wonder what ‘winning’ actually means? How will we know “we won?” We can kill leaders and fighters, but can we kill a belief rooted in an extremist religious ideology? Assuming there is no surprise technology – a dangerous assumption as the Washington Post suggests – that our adversaries will use to fulfill their extremist goals; can we truly destroy groups powered by a religious conviction that God is commanding them to destroy Israel? Can we kill people who do not fear martyrdom, whose battle cry is “Allah hu Akbar,” God is great and who are determined to act on their beliefs? Can we differentiate between “civilians” and Hamas if all it takes to turn the former into the latter is a belief and commitment?
I worry because our war cabinet is dominated by military people whose confidence in military solutions may underestimate and fail to comprehend the power of fundamentalist-like religious motivation. I worry because our government is still the tool of extremist cabinet ministers guided by a similar religious ideology, whose messianic and religious convictions are not unlike the current enemies whom we are fighting. I worry because almost everything Hamas and PIJ have done, from abducting Israeli civilians to its brutal provocative attacks on people unarmed in their homes, appears to be luring the Israelis to seek vengeance and carry out a ground invasion. In Lebanon, likewise, as Rania Abouzeid reports, Hezbollah militants urge Israelis to fight back, “We want them to make a mistake,” and “We want the front to open. We desire it.” Even as powerful a defense force as the Israeli’s have should not allow its enemies to determine the tactics or to goad them into a destructive series of military moves.
I worry because there is reason to believe that there are likely to be dangerous weapons in possession of both Hamas and Hezbollah that could surprise and possibly render the IDF as powerless and stunned as it was on the first few days of the current war. And I worry that the tide of sympathy for Israelis is turning quickly.
But I worry most of all because I believe Israel needs not just military solutions and religious justifications. We desperately need some people in a position of decision-making and war planning who are negotiators, who can imagine an approach that is non-military, who can penetrate the thinking of the adversaries and find some common ground with them. Although negotiation may not be very popular now, except among the families of the hostages, we need people who have a conception not only how to make war but how to imagine and negotiate peace, and even how to find partners for such talks.
Normally, the Prime Minister, if he had any leadership left in him, could be expected to appreciate that need. Alas, Binyamin Netanyahu has never in his life negotiated in good faith, and his callous concern for himself and lust for holding on to power, is unlikely to make him the one who can make or find peace. He cannot even find the strength of character to accept responsibility for his failures or demonstrate concern for his fellow-Israelis who have suffered tremendous losses. Nor can most of the other ministers in this incompetent and untrustworthy government.
It is past time for those who can think out of the military box and imagine what a peace would look like, who know the tools of diplomacy, who have moral courage and who know how a war ends to take the reins of power and manage the situation from those who only know how to pursue war and send young women and men into battle. It is time we had leaders who want to answer the Psalmist’s (34:13) question “who is the one who is eager for life?” The have gotten to his answer and “seek peace and pursue it.” The great 18th century sage Rabbi David Altschular, Ba’al Metzudat David, comments on this answer by noting that the pursuit of peace is more than just begging for help from the Almighty (as perhaps those who think just reciting the Psalms is enough to end this war); the pursuit of peace requires chasing it endlessly.