Corinne Mellul

The cost of ignoring Gazan suffering

The belief that only Hamas is responsible for the death & destruction shields Israelis from the horror being inflicted on civilians
Palestinians mourn after identifying the bodies of relatives killed in overnight Israeli bombardment on the southern Gaza Strip, at Al-Najjar hospital in Rafah, on February 10, 2024. (Said Khatib/AFP)
Palestinians mourn after identifying the bodies of relatives killed in overnight Israeli bombardment on the southern Gaza Strip, at Al-Najjar hospital in Rafah, on February 10, 2024. (Said Khatib/AFP)

The one debate Israel, the nationwide debating society, is not having is the one on the cost of the war to civilians in Gaza. The magnitude of the destruction, casualties and suffering wreaked by the IDF on, in Hebrew parlance, the “non-involved” population there is simply a non-subject in Israel.

On Israeli television, images from Gaza are overwhelmingly those of IDF forces fighting Hamas and uncovering arms caches in tunnels and around civilian-use infrastructure, while footage of displaced, wounded, killed and hungry civilians only get a few occasional seconds of airtime. This helps shield Israelis from the unsightly spectacle of what this war is inflicting on families, children and babies in Gaza, and maintain the national resolve to achieve “complete victory” against the elusive, devilish foe. The sparsity of such images encourages Israel’s seeming indifference to civilian suffering in Gaza. The rest of the world, whose media of all types have been fixated for months on what Gazans are enduring, cannot be expected to demonstrate the same level of callousness toward what most Israelis merely view as the inevitable collateral damage in a war not of their choosing.

In truth, the grotesque double standard applied to Israel around the world regarding the cruelty inflicted on enemy civilian populations makes it very difficult for Israelis to consider in earnest what this war is costing Gazans, or too easy not to. In this sense, the preposterous genocide lawsuit filed by South Africa at the International Court of Justice has had the opposite effect to that intended: with enemies like these, all Israel has to do is point the finger at the rest of the world, never at itself.

The standard Israeli narrative, for both domestic and hasbara use, puts the entirety of the blame on Hamas because Hamas uses civilians as human shields and capitalizes on mass casualties to stain Israel’s image and build international pressure that will force Israel to end the war. While Hamas does strategize the maximization of civilian suffering, this narrative no longer buys Israel much credit abroad, even among its ever-shrinking pool of supporters. To believe that Hamas’s use and abuse of its population means that Hamas alone bears the responsibility for the destruction and staggering death toll in Gaza is a collective fantasy that Israelis have been nurturing to shield themselves from the horror the IDF is inflicting on those civilians.

However much the Israeli population wants to continue believing in this rationale, which obfuscates the fact of Israel’s own agency, the rest of the world is not buying it. Nor is it buying the argument that the horrific Hamas rampage of October 7 justifies wholesale destruction in Gaza unless sheer vengeance is the main driver in Israel’s conduct of the war. To underscore Hamas’s repugnant use of its own population and condemn Israel for heartlessly doing Hamas’s bidding in the same breath is simply reasonable. But in Israel, this can’t be done.

Three distinct arguments could be advanced to prompt the debate Israelis are not having (but be assured, reader, that I have no illusion in the power of this piece to prompt such a debate). The first one is the moral argument, the second lies in a cost-benefit assessment of the situation on the ground, and the third addresses the cost to Israel’s image around the world.

The moral argument

This one should be self-evident yet it is undoubtedly the most difficult to raise. First, the unspeakable barbarousness of the massacres Hamas perpetrated on October 7, the fact that October 7 now constitutes an unprecedented ‘before-and-after’ milepost in Israel’s history, have numbed Israelis to any suffering that is not theirs in the wake of the attacks. Second, decades of control over the Palestinians and the belief that Benjamin Netanyahu had succeeded in entrenching in Israeli society until October 6 last year that the Palestinian issue had been relegated to the sidelines of history have hampered the Israelis’ ability to look at Palestinians as other humans. The violence unleashed by Palestinian terrorists on Israeli civilians for decades has spread the perception in Israel that virtually all Palestinians want to see Israel destroyed. The massive support to – or denial of – the Hamas assault among Palestinians reinforces this perception. Upholding a moral principle that Gaza’s civilians should be spared or protected by Israel in the current circumstances may require a degree of sainthood that few Israelis would actually aspire to reaching.

The IDF has deployed efforts to warn the Gaza population ahead of its operations, but the thousands of civilians killed and the destruction of over half the buildings to date on the ground are far from signaling an Israeli achievement on this count. The Netanyahu government, pandering to Israelis who oppose providing humanitarian aid to Gazans while Hamas still holds dozens of hostages, has had no consistent policy on allowing the supply of food and medicine, resulting in the looming specter of famine and the spread of disease among the most vulnerable civilians in Gaza.

Yet Israel is a state, and a state can choose to fulfill the ethical obligation to maximize the protection of non-combatant populations in a war, hence showing its moral superiority over the enemy, even as the enemy gambles on massive casualties – indeed because the enemy gambles on massive casualties.

The cost-benefit argument

Viewing the cost of the war to Gaza’s civilians as inevitable collateral damage could have been a more defensible position if, six months into the war, the results of the fighting unquestionably pointed to victory. However, though Hamas’s military capabilities have been significantly reduced, the Netanyahu government’s strategy of using military pressure to get the hostages released has utterly failed. Not one of the most senior Hamas leaders has been captured or killed, and Hamas fighters are returning to areas previously cleared by the IDF. In addition, Israel, given Netanyahu’s reluctance to envision a ‘day after’ that would be his day of reckoning, has not even begun to reflect on an exit strategy. In short, weighed against the cost to Gaza’s civilians – and arguably to Israelis themselves – the overall benefit of the war to Israel so far is underwhelming.

The cost to Israel’s image worldwide

This is the only argument that has any chance of penetrating Israel’s national psyche. Israelis are deeply attuned to and preoccupied with perceptions of Israel abroad. The problem is that Israelis tend to view international criticism focused on the suffering of Gazans as sheer antisemitism – yet another sign that the world is “against us.” Here too, the hatemongering pro-Palestinian and pro-Hamas demonstrations around the West have done Israel a huge favor. Even more than over decades of occupation, these heinous crowds have enabled Israelis to block out any attempt at soul-searching, any examination of what, in their own conduct of affairs in a poisonous neighborhood, is likely to stoke the anger and hatred directed at them. Only a small minority of Israelis today are able to discuss whether other approaches may produce less anger, hatred and terror among neighbors. Those who do are promptly vilified under the current government, whose survival strategy is to fuel divisiveness and brand dissenters as a version of the enemy.

Yet the cost of Gazan suffering to Israel’s standing among countries and publics that have been broadly supportive of Israel (the others are irrelevant here) is unfathomable. U.S. public opinion, historically on Israel’s side, is turning away. The Biden administration is losing patience, and Netanyahu’s handling of the essential U.S. ally threatens to jeopardize future relations. European countries that had expressed enormous empathy following the October 7 attacks – the U.K., Germany, France – are now reversing course in light of the destruction in Gaza. In short, Israel’s conduct of the war has all but exhausted the credit Israel had initially received abroad. How could Israelis ever think that the rest of the world would look at the thousands of dead, the famine and the destruction in Gaza as mere collateral damage? The disaster is such that it makes no difference to the West that Hamas has nothing to do with ‘Palestinian resistance’ and that the last thing it wants – as, it seems, most Israelis – is an independent Palestinian state existing peacefully alongside Israel, as the West itself is now advocating again.

What else?

To all of these arguments, reasonable Israelis I talk to invariably respond – “what else could we have done? We didn’t have a choice.” Unless one is a seasoned military strategist, which I’m not, this is a tricky question to answer. For one thing, though, there is the testimony by a former ranking IDF officer quoted in Haaretz that Israel’s form of combat has been “unusually wasteful” and that “it would have been possible to arrive at similar achievements with ten percent of the destruction we have caused.”

“Our assumption,” the former officer explains, “is that if we had sown less destruction, we would have sustained more casualties.” But “less destruction would have meant that we would be on the ground there for less time – and less time means fewer casualties.” Another obvious point is the measure of international support Israel would have gained by taking responsibility, even just for appearances’ sake and even at perhaps a high cost to itself, for the distribution of humanitarian aid on the ground.

Most acutely missing in Israel’s conduct of this war is a long-term vision. As Gadi Eisenkot has argued, the war is directed in accordance with tactical objectives, and strategic objectives, insofar as they are achievable, are far from being accomplished. Yet the destruction inflicted on Gaza will yield at least another generation of terrorists and hate-filled civilians. Israel errs in thinking that the solution to terror is to eliminate the ‘supply’ side of terrorist hatred. Supply will always take care of itself, because the root of the problem is in the demand (just ask policymakers attempting to combat drug cartels.) And demand is fueled by Islamic weaponization of the lack of prospect for a Palestinian future. Attempting to extinguish the supply, which can only be done through military means, without addressing the demand, which can only be done through political means, is bound to fail. These are facts that Netanyahu’s government is mentally unequipped to grasp, let alone face up to. This inability, as significant as the determination of Israel’s foes, poses a longer-term existential threat to Israel because its current political decision-makers are unable to produce a comprehensive assessment of where Israel stands at this crucial juncture, and what ought to be done to guarantee its survival.

If Israel responds to the October 7 attacks by doubling down on its refusal to engage on a diplomatic track that could offer the Palestinians some hope – an outcome of the attacks Hamas would loathe – Israelis will continue to bear the burden of Gaza’s destruction and to walk blindfolded toward a future of permanent insecurity, permanent war, and permanent pariah status – thus betraying the spirit of the Declaration of Independence, which sought to see Israel become a member in the family of nations.

About the Author
Corinne Mellul teaches political science and geopolitics at a Paris university. She has lived in the United States and Israel, and her research today focuses on the place of ethics and integrity in the behavior of elected officials and members of government in democracies.
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