Michael Bociurkiw is a global affairs analyst and senior fellow at the Atlantic Council.
Several decades ago, when I was with my UNICEF team in Rafah in the southern end of the Gaza Strip, we met Aisha, a teenage student at one of the local schools. Intelligent, articulate and confident, she was typical of thousands of other youths in the West Bank and Gaza who participated in an immensely popular school project to work side-by-side with municipal officials to improve their communities.
Sitting in front of a wall painting of Mickey Mouse, there was something clearly out of place. Even though schools were meant to be no-go zones and places of sanctuary, the mural had been almost completely obliterated by shrapnel from Israeli fire.
As she urged us to look around her violent surroundings, we asked Aisha what she’d like to do after graduating. Her answer came as little surprise: “I’d like to get even,” she said.
Fast forward about two decades later, and after more than a month of relentless Israeli bombing of the Gaza Strip, you can bet on the emergence of a tsunami of angry kids like Aisha. Those who’ve lost parents, grandparents, brothers, sisters and other loved ones as Israel goes about trying to flush out Hamas fighters. Some extremism experts say Israeli actions will create “an incubator for a new generation of terrorists.” Like Aisha, they will demand revenge.
For the beleaguered Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, meeting the expectations of the majority of Israelis who are demanding retaliation for the bloody events of Oct. 7 – while trying to heed the growing calls from allies such as Canada to spare the lives of innocent civilians – seems like two irreconcilable tasks.
In a defiant televised address to the nation Saturday night, Mr. Netanyahu not only vowed to carry on to crush every last Hamas fighter, but he also said Israel would not succumb to international pressure. Calls from relatives of the hostages to “bring them home” immediately are growing louder by the day.
Many Israelis lay the blame for the events of Oct. 7 squarely at the feet of Mr. Netanyahu. I haven’t met one Israeli who wants to see him occupy the highest office in the land for a split second longer than necessary. Some even suggested the war serves as a convenient distraction from his ills and columnists at even once-friendly newspapers like Israel Hayom are demanding that he “return the keys [to the office] as soon as possible.”
A few hours after Mr. Netanyahu’s address, I stopped by an enormous outdoor memorial site in Tel Aviv dedicated to the hostages. On an auditorium balcony, there are more than 200 mannequins dressed to represent every child and adult in captivity in Gaza; below, there’s more than 200 beds and cribs. It’s a scene that shakes you to the core.
At this point, it is doubtful that Mr. Netanyahu, a politician who clearly thrives on chaos, will miraculously come up with an alternative exit strategy, let alone a rehabilitation plan for Gaza. More than a month of war has left much of it a moonscape, with an estimated one-third of the buildings in Gaza City damaged. People will have to be resettled, infrastructure will need to be restored; the land cleared of the lethal remnants of war. The Israeli budget is under enormous strain from an expensive war, picking up the salaries of the approximately 300,000 reservists who have been called up, which could reach upward of US$3-billion. On top of that, displaced people are being subsidized and tourism and other sectors have ground to a halt. Whoever is in charge postwar will need to perform Herculean efforts to right the economy.
The war could pinch Israel in other ways: If the relentless bombing of Gaza continues to increase the civilian death toll at the current pace – the Hamas-run Gaza Health Ministry says 11,078 people have been killed since the start of combat – the diplomatic window will begin to narrow. Some foreign politicians have begun to call for sanctions against Israel.
Could things have been done differently in order to spare the lives of so many civilians while still achieving the twin Israeli military objectives of flushing out Hamas and freeing the hostages? Most likely, but it would take more time, more pauses to allow aid in, much more surgical military strikes – backed by a credible explanation to the majority of Israelis who are demanding retaliation for an attack which killed more Jews in any day since the Holocaust.
The iron fist that Mr. Netanyahu has employed may very well wipe Hamas off the face of the Earth, but at what cost? It is doubtful that more extremism on its doorstep, and diplomatic isolation when Israel needs friends most, will best serve its longer term interests.