Peter John Beyfus

War Cannot be Sanitised

War is cruelty. There’s no use trying to reform it. The crueller it is the sooner it will be over.”   W. T. Sherman

I regard myself as being a reasonable guy, trying very hard to understand the arguments on both sides of a  dispute; but there are occasions when the issues become so mired in illogicality and emotional hype that navigating to the crux of the problem becomes a Herculean task. This is the way the world’s media have presented and continue to showcase the Israel-Hamas War. There is much talk about a ceasefire; about the need for humanitarian aid to be delivered to Gaza; to avoid civilian casualties; to reconsider the two-state solution to the long-running Israeli-Palestinian conflict; but very little about the the primary issue: hostages. Clearly something is complicating the present scenario by ignoring what is self-evident: release all hostages held by Hamas and its affiliates = a ceasefire and potential peace negotiations. 

Netanyahu, not everyone’s favourite politician, recognises, what may others fail to do, that to concede to Hamas’ latest terms would be damaging to Israel’s future security. He is under immense pressure from families of hostages, and one has enormous sympathy for what they are going through, to accede to the demands of Hamas. Israel has always regarded its first priority the safety of its citizens and in the past has gone to great lengths to do all in its power to bring home those captured by enemy forces. The IDF soldier, Gilad Shalit, was released in October 2011. It was the first time an IDF soldier had been returned since 1985. The price: the release of 1000 Palestinian prisoners including Yahya Sinwar, the current leader of Hamas! But the present situation is different: the hostages are civilians, not combatants, and they are being used in a depraved way, orchestrated by Hamas, to bring about division among Israelis and capitalising on global anti-Israel sentiments. It has been said on many occasions Israel may win a military victory in either destroying Hamas or so degrading it that it cannot wage war in the future, but it has lost the fight to establish the justice of its military campaign against a self-proclaimed genocidal organisation. With the January ICJ interim judgement, already grossly misrepresented by Israel’s enemies as having “proven” South Africa’s accusation of Israel’s genocide against Palestinians, it is becoming increasingly difficult for a beleaguered state to counter the swell of popular indignation, largely expressed by demonstrations and posts on social media.

The focus of the conflict shifted very quickly from the massacre of 7 October and the abduction of hostages to the plight of the Palestinians, so within four months those being held by a variety of Islamist terrorist groups have been largely forgotten by the world, their existence being kept alive by the families of those kidnapped and many Israelis and  diaspora Jewry, along with those who have unwaveringly condemned the actions of Hamas. Yet the hostages should be the main concern of the world community, with a constant barrage of demands from all countries that regard hostages-taking as an evil; the UN, in particular, should apply maximum pressure on Hamas and other Islamist groups to release those held against their will, but, for some perverse reason, this is not the case; the only possible explanation being a deep-rooted hostility toward Israel, fuelled by many governments that fall well short of being liberal democracies. The demand for a ceasefire without any preconditions appears to be all the international community has to offer, thereby allowing Hamas to rearm and to continue to hold hostages as bargaining counters. 

None of us know how this war will end, but end it will, and then the long debates about strategy and fault-finding will begin in earnest. Netanyahu has committed Israel to destroy Hamas and that objective may or may not be realised. It is difficult to imagine how Israel can extricate itself from this terrible war of attrition without weakening itself in the eyes of its enemies. If the IDF manages to destroy Hamas’ centres of operation within Gaza and secures, either by finding the hostages, a very tall task, or negotiating their release, then Israel will have achieved what it set out to do. However, the cost in terms of Palestinian deaths and casualties and the destruction of the infrastructure of Gaza will be cited as too great a  cost for military success. What those who support this view fail to realise is that is the price of war. The vast majority of the world’s population do not gloat over the deaths of people, whether they be combatants or civilians. It is easy to forget what happens when people take up arms: they die. The switch between victim and aggressor is whimsical. One day there is a chorus in support of the hostages, and shortly afterwards  they are seen as less important than the casualties who are used as human shields by Hamas. Israel was the victim on 7 October, now she is the aggressor and opprobrium is heaped on her by all and sundry, including those regimes that have appalling records of human rights abuses, namely South Africa; such is the Topsy-turvy world of 2024.

Was Israel’s response to the pogrom of 7 October ill-conceived and played into the hands of Hamas? Over the last 75 years Israel has met Arab aggression by hitting back hard, to establish the principle that attacks will be met by massive retaliation. This formula may have had some limited success in deterring would-be adversaries; how effective it has been in stemming terrorism is debatable. If Israel had not launched an air and ground  offensive against Hamas in the wake of the atrocities of October but had played the cunning game of its enemies by keeping the spotlight on the massacre and hostages, would that have served the state any better? Perhaps for a time, but as was the case with the American hostages held in Iran in 1981, the public soon becomes tired and moves on to the next newsworthy story. We will never know whether there was a workable alternative strategy to deal with Hamas. 

Amidst all the clamour of war, vociferous, threatening weekly demonstrations in support of Palestinians and Hamas, there is talk, from Lord Cameron and others, to recognise a Palestinian State, that does, in fact, not exist. The two-state solution is once again being pressed as the only way to end the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. To that end the Palestinians have got to find a trustworthy advocate. The PLO leadership leaves a great deal to be desired, but Abbas is not planning to  step down soon, so he is likely to spearhead talks with an Israeli government. How much reassurance he can give to allay Israeli concerns about security is crystal ball gazing. It is highly unlikely Hamas, assuming it still exists, Hezbollah and Islamic Jihad and a bunch of other terrorist groups will be content to abide by any peace settlement negotiated by Abbas. Even if a Palestinian State came into being, Abbas would have limited control over those groups who do not recognise his authority or the right of Israel to exist. 

One last thought. As we fast approach the festival of Purim it is worth remembering the views of two fifteenth century Sephardi rabbonim. They said Amalek deviated from the norms of war. The Amalekites were prepared to attack the most vulnerable, not because they would gain spoils but simply motivated by hatred. 

About the Author
Peter John Beyfus is an historian, published author, poet, and a person who prides himself on “thinking outside the box”. I have written many essays on Jewish themes, published in various journals, including ‘Wessex Jewish News’ and ‘Westminster Quarterly’, the magazine of Westminster Synagogue, London.