What do Reason and Rationality Have To Do With Israel and Hamas?

Did Netanyahu conduct this war rationally and reasonably? Did Hamas leaders? What is the rational and reasonable thing for each side to do now?

Middle East historian and expert on Iraq, Professor Amatzia Baram, examined Saddam Hussein’s behavior with respect to reason and rationality (or lack of reason and irrationality) between the 1970s and his ultimate capture. I asked him to describe for me the August 2014 military operation against Hamas in those same terms.

It seems that these words are often used interchangeably. For example, a rational being is often described as someone who is able to base his or her actions on reason, and a reasonable person can be described as one who is rational. So what do they actually mean?

In his article, Professor Baram defines rationality thus: “Saddam was fully rational, in the sense that he could and did create a logical chain of how to get from point A to point B and achieve his goals, all of which were very much of this world.” However, Baram argues, Saddam was unreasonable in the sense that he ignored evidence contrary to his theories that would have forced him to change his goals or tactics. In other words, he was not one to let inconvenient facts get in the way of his plans.

What do Reason and Rationality Have To Do With Israel and Hamas?
Professor Amatzia Baram Talks About Reason and Rationality in Israel and Hamas, July-August 2014.

Let us now turn to Operation Protective Edge and try to understand the leaderships’ behaviors in terms of reason and rationality. Professor Baram claims that Prime Minister Netanyahu’s behavior was both rational and reasonable. Winning this war against Hamas and stopping the missile attacks on Israel was a rational goal; there were several alternative routes by which this could have happened. Some critics of Netanyahu stated that he should have given the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) the freedom to do whatever they could to bring Hamas to its knees. Professor Baram says that this would have been both unreasonable and inhumane: “It would have been easy to kill 10,000 people in 2-3 days and stop the war.” If Hamas did not stop at that, he explained, the IDF could keep going in sets of 2-3 days, until Hamas would cry out for the carnage to stop. In Baram’s words, “This would be rational because it would stop them from bombing Israel; that is what the British did in Dresden (and failed) and the Americans did in Hiroshima (and succeeded). However, that would have been a war crime. If we did something that constitutes a war crime and that would turn the superpowers against Israel, then that would not have been reasonable.”

Professor Baram continues: “There was one more option to stop the war with a ‘bang’: to send special units into Gaza to hunt for Hamas leaders or to send our air force to perform ‘targeted killing’, as was partly done toward the end of the war. I do not know why this was not done (one such attempt failed when the Navy Seals were forced to retreat back to the sea). If the reason was lack of information, then nothing could be done about it. However, some sources claim that Netanyahu decided to keep Hamas leadership in place for fear that without Hamas someone worse would take over in Gaza. If this claim is true, then Netanyahu was neither rational nor reasonable. There is no doubt that deterrence can last only for a limited time before there is the need to revive it. Hamas are certain to begin to re-build their forces soon. They are far better organized than anyone else in Gaza and the damage they can inflict on us is great. Other groups: Jihad, al-Qa`ida, Da`esh (not yet there) cannot do the same. In the long run Hamas must be destroyed, and killing its leaders is the most effective way to do this because it does not involve a very costly re-occupation of Gaza.”

Hamas had (and still has) a plan – to rid the Middle East of the Jewish State of Israel. Quite rationally, Hamas leaders devised a strategy for doing this, a strategy of which we became aware after the capture of some of their fighters. It was a plan they had been working on for over a decade apparently, and included a large-scale attack on Israeli civilian populations near Gaza set, as we are told, for the Jewish New Year in September 2014. Using the tunnel system they had built, they planned on infiltrating Israeli kibbutz and moshav communities in order to murder and kidnap Israelis on an unimaginable scale.

However, to precede this, Professor Baram says, a huge Intifada was said to have been planned to take place on the West Bank in the month of July. It sought to render Mahmoud Abbas helpless and lead to a Hamas takeover on the West Bank. The arrest of many Hamas members following the kidnapping-murder of the three Israeli youth, led to the disclosure of the plan and because Abbas accepted this Israeli information at face value Baram tends to believe that it is true. The Hamas West Bank takeover would have been followed by the attack on the southern communities of Israel from Gaza. The entire plan was foiled by the eruption of Operation Protective Edge that was, for all intents and purposes, a war.

Based on previous experience, Hamas likely expected the operation to last a week or two; international indignation at Gazan casualties (helped along by their media manipulations) and leftist pressure from within Israel were both expected to force our government to accept a ceasefire under terms that Hamas would dictate. We in Israel, however, surprised Hamas with our resilience and the solid support Netanyahu enjoyed on the part of both our population and the government. They apparently did not pay attention to this. Hamas also did not accept at face value Netanyahu’s repeated warnings that if they continued, we would continue, each time applying a bit more force and military power. Thinking they could break us, they did not respect the agreed upon ceasefires, waiting for external forces to compel us to stop. They ignored the fact that world governments (if not the UN and loud and violent anti-Semitic groups in Europe and North America) backed Israel’s actions against Hamas, including Arab governments who, according to Professor Baram, wanted us to get rid of Hamas. In this misreading and ignoring of the facts as they emerged during the operation, Hamas did not behave reasonably in prolonging the fighting.

I think it was a shock to many rational and reasonable people around the world to realize how little Hamas cared about its own civilian population. Had they cared, they would not have had to reach the level of destruction, the number of deaths, and the closing in on Hamas leaders in the field before calling it quits. Even then, it seems that Hamas leaders outside of Gaza were willing to continue launching missiles on Israel; such an endangerment of an entire population, says Professor Baram, is not reasonable behavior: “Hamas was rational in its initial policy when it opened fire, but it was not reasonable when it ignored the evidence that Israel was allowed to continue the war. Just like Saddam, they stuck to their ‘logical’ guns and thus inflicted on their population much suffering.” Perhaps this served as a kind of wake-up call to Westerners to recognize the fact that it is not always possible to expect leaders from other cultures to behave in ways one would consider reasonable.

What would be reasonable behavior now? Professor Baram suggests it is in Israel’s best interests “that we make an offer to the people of Gaza that they cannot refuse.” He suggests that Netanyahu “tell the people of Gaza that Israel is ready to open the gates and give them all that they want in return for demilitarization. And he should say it in Arabic.” Professor Baram strongly emphasizes this last point and adds, “Every ten-year-old child in Gaza must be made fully aware of this Israeli offer.”

“Hamas cannot agree to demilitarization,” and this, Professor Baram claims, might provide the impetus for a revolution, perhaps along the lines of the uprising against Ceausescu in Romania. While the Gazans “are not an easy people, they are normal and would like to have a normal life. We need to hope that the Gazans can be rational and reasonable.”

Professor Baram explains that Hamas received so many votes in 2006 because until that time the organization functioned like a humanitarian nonprofit, looking after the peoples’ needs. Palestinians were fed up with Fatah corruption and therefore Hamas seemed to offer a good alternative. However, once in power, Hamas changed its priorities and, no longer needing to woo their electorate (having seized full control in Gaza in 2007), they became more concerned with staying in power than in anything else and their behavior is a direct and logical outcome of that goal. “Therefore,” Professor Baram explains, “Hamas is rational but not reasonable, and certainly not humane. There is a good chance that the Gazan people are fully aware of that by now.”

We can sum up thus: Netanyahu set out to deal a near-mortal blow to Hamas and thereby ensure our security in Israel. A reasonable man, according to Professor Baram, he took Hamas at their word – Hamas claimed to want to exterminate the Jews of Israel and beyond, and Netanyahu believed that Hamas’ deeds were in service of that goal. Not wanting to turn the world leadership against Israel as the IDF was defending her, he behaved responsibly and limited the military force to the minimum that was needed to accomplish his goal. Understanding the Hamas mentality, Netanyahu reasonably accepted each new ceasefire, knowing that such acceptance would maintain Israel’s international standing and not damage our goal of seeking an end to the missile attacks, since Hamas would not abide by the ceasefires until absolutely forced to do so by paying an enormous price regarding their terrorist infrastructure and manpower. Of course, had Hamas agreed to and maintained the ceasefire much earlier, Israel’s goal of resuscitating the Israeli deterrence and achieving tranquility would have been achieved earlier. The only flaw in this approach, Baram admits, concerns the issue of the tunnels: had the hostilities ended after a week of fighting, the tunnels would still been there. The Israeli government would then have been forced to deal with the tunnels from the Israeli side, a very expensive operation, but seventy Israelis would still be alive.

“If Hamas’ immediate goals”, Professor Baram explains, “were to demonstrate that Israel’s deterrence no longer existed, thus weakening Israel substantially, to establish Hamas on the West Bank, and to open a seaport and an airport among other less ambitious demands, then they had a plan of action that was certainly rational; however, Hamas leaders did not adjust themselves to new facts as they arose over the course of Operation Protective Edge and, thus, did not act reasonably.” They gained none of what they sought to achieve and were dealt a heavy blow.

The people of Gaza see all the destruction and that Hamas leaders number among the dead. They know that Hamas did not deliver on its promises and, had the local leaders not pulled the plug, the leadership in Qatar would most certainly have continued to sacrifice them with no end in sight. Maybe, if they are reasonable people, they will decide that supporting Fatah at this point is the more rational choice and the one most likely to restore to them hope for a better life. Professor Baram says that he has not lost his faith in their rationality and reasonable judgment and he believes that “there is a greater than fifty percent chance that they will rise up against Hamas. This would be a real Arab Spring. Success in Gaza would prove that a disarmed Palestinian state side-by-side and in cooperation with Israel is not a pipedream.” The Gazans’ choice is easier than for Palestinians in the West Bank, he suggests, since there are no Jews and no holy sites in Gaza to contend with. Professor Baram asks: ”What will the people of Gaza choose: killing Jews or prosperity?” That will show us what they are made of.

About the Author
Sheri Oz, owner of, is a retired family therapist exploring mutual interactions between politics and Israeli society.
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