Israel Can’t Win With Military Action

Straight up, let it be said, Israel can’t win over Hamas through military action, and can only solve the issue through a political settlement. The fallacy of the thought that there are military solutions to what are essentially political issues has a name. It is called militarism. Not just in Israel, but throughout the world, the curse of militarism is stalking us, and could well end civilization, even eradicate complex life on Planet Earth.

Let’s start with the logic of Gaza. First, Israel has inflicted a level of damage on Gaza equivalent to some to the worst bombings of World War II. Dresden, Hamburg, Hiroshima, Nagasaki. By now bombs at least equal to two Hiroshima blasts have leveled much of Gaza. An estimated 1.9 million people, 85% of Gaza’s population, has been displaced, while 50% of dwellings have been destroyed or damaged, BBC reports. Tens of thousands are dead. More tens of thousands are wounded.

Yet Hamas fights on, continuing to inflict significant damage on Israeli forces. It uses the rubble as a shield, and emerges from its tunnels with one of the great equalizers in modern warfare, the rocket-propelled grenade launcher, to take out armored vehicles. Israel confronts the reality of guerilla war, much as the U.S. did in Iraq and Vietnam, and both the U.S. and the Soviet Union in Afghanistan. Vastly superior military forces find it almost impossible to eliminate guerilla armies that have a significant base of popular support, as Hamas does.

The logic is that the only way to eliminate Hamas is to eliminate the population of Gaza, which to many observers seems exactly what Israel is attempting. Even if Israel succeeded in that, it would be a pyrrhic victory. For Israel will never be safe from attacks originating in Palestinian communities which have been dispersed to other countries. That places Israel in endless conflict with surrounding nations, potentially including ones with which it has had peace including Jordan and Egypt. Meanwhile, the many who have lost family members to the Israeli campaign will be new recruits for Hamas. Violence begets violence. The cycle is unending. If Israel did succeed in shattering that organization, itself unlikely, another more extreme grouping would succeed it.

Meanwhile, the loss of support for Israel around the world, already a stark fact, would only intensify. Its path to normalization of relations with Saudi Arabia is already cut off. And support in western nations that has been vital to Israel’s survival, most notably the United States, will erode to the breaking point. The collapse of support for Israel among younger generations, including young Jews, is visibly evident on the streets. It is already having political implications for the 2024 elections. And everything Israel is doing in Gaza is accelerating that collapse.

Radical intervention required

All this is playing into Hamas’ hands. From past disproportionate responses to attacks, how could Hamas have expected anything less? It seems patently obvious that Hamas anticipated a brutal assault that would eviscerate political support for Israel on the world stage. In its political calculus, Hamas made a choice to sacrifice their own people, regarding it as martyrdom. For whatever any one of us thinks of that, Hamas has already achieved a strategic political victory, as the recent UN ceasefire vote of 153 for and 10 against indicates. Israel’s supporters were limited to the U.S., Austria, Czechia, Guatemala, Liberia, Micronesia, Nauru, Papua New Guinea and Paraguay. The Security Council ceasefire vote that preceded it was even more stark, with 13 in favor and the U.S. alone against, blocking the resolution with its veto power.

When Gazans attempted a peaceful protest in the 2018-19 Great March of Return to the fence line, they were killed and maimed en masse by Israeli snipers. What Hamas did on October 7 – and it remains unclear how many of the 800 civilians who died were killed by Hamas versus how many IDF killedin its response to the attack – was the desperate action of a desperate people. When you drive people into desperation, they will hit back.

It is clear there are no military solutions for this issue. Militarism has failed, and has placed Israel in an untenable situation. The only answer is a political solution that provides justice for the Palestinians, either a two-state solution or creation of a unified, secular state with equal rights for all. As independent Israeli observers such as Gideon Levy have observed, the current internal politics of Israel make it virtually impossible for such a solution to emerge internally. Israel, much as a troubled relative that refuses to address life-threatening problems, requires a radical intervention from without.

And that means by Israel’s prime supporter, the United States. Thus no people in the world are doing more important work that the protestors in the streets of the U.S. And there are no more important participants in those protests than the Jewish activists represented by organizations such as Jewish Voice for Peace and Not In Our Name, underscoring that a large part of the world’s largest Jewish community outside of Israel can no longer support that nation’s actions.

The futility of militarism

In a broader sense, Gaza underscores the futility of trying to solve problems with military force. The costs are unacceptably high. In the other big war going on in the world, in Ukraine, whoever comes out on top of that seemingly interminable conflict, it will come at the cost of hundreds of thousands of deaths, hundreds of thousands more physically and psychologically maimed for life, and many destroyed cities and towns.

The greatest cost of all, obviously, would be from nuclear warfare that, even if limited, would cause vast destruction and dispersal of radiation which poisons people and the land for generations. At its greatest extent, nuclear war would result in the immediate killing of tens or hundreds of millions, and the famine death of billions over a course of years caused by the shroud of smokes covering the Earth causing nuclear winter and crashing food production. Some even postulate that a full nuclear exchange would cause the collapse of complex life on this planet.

Yet nations build up their nuclear arsenals seemingly blithe to the danger. The U.S., Russia and China are all engaged in nuclear “modernization,” deploying new missiles, bombers and submarines. In the immediate conflict, Israel has its own arsenal of 80-200 nuclear weapons deliverable by missile, plane or submarine. An existential threat to Israel’s existence would almost certainly cause their use. Seymour Hersh called his classic work on the Israeli nuclear arsenal the The Samson Option because as Samson brought down the temple on his head, Israel would bring down at least its region. The first bomb, reports Hersh, was inscribed in Hebrew and English with the words “Never again.”

As I have written before, the world should have changed after July 16, 1945, the day of the first nuclear explosion at Alamogordo, New Mexico, when humanity first realized the power to destroy itself. It was already clear that the devastating fission bomb made possible the apocalyptic fusion bomb, many times more destructive. The hydrogen bomb, which should never have been developed, was created because of a great power competition which should have been seen as obsolescent. But President Harry Truman reasoned that because the Soviet Union already had the fission bomb, it could develop the H-bomb. So the U.S. had to build its own. He gave that order in 1950, setting off a process that would see the first bomb explode in 1952. The Soviets followed with their own in 1953, and the world has lived under the terror of mutual annihilation ever since.

By the view of many expert observers, including the late Daniel Ellsberg and Peter Kuznick, director of the Nuclear Studies Institute at American University, current tensions between the U.S. and Russia have put the world in at least as great a danger of nuclear conflict as the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, and perhaps greater. Meanwhile, tensions between the U.S. and China pose another set of threats. Retired Army Col. Lawrence Wilkerson, who served as Colin Powell’s aide while the latter was Secretary of State, notes he has participated in many war games involving a U.S.-China conflict over Taiwan. They all end in a nuclear exchange, he says.

Meanwhile, the science-fiction nightmare of robotic killing machines depicted in the Terminator movies is becoming a reality. In Ukraine both militaries are deploying AI-guided drones programmed with pattern recognition software that allows them to identify and target enemy vehicles with no human direction. The age of the autonomous killing machine has already arrived. Humanity seems determined to create Terminator’s SkyNet.

For humanity, and perhaps for much of life on this planet, militarism is quite literally a dead end.

The money-sucking war machine

At the same time, the world spends increasing amounts of money on militaries, sucking resources desperately needed to address critical challenges such as climate disruption, poverty and diseases. The Stockholm International Peace Research Institute says military spending grew 3.7% in 2022 to reach a record high of $2.24 trillion. From 2013-2022 it increased by 19%, growing every year for the past 8. It is likely this is an underestimate. A new study puts actual U.S. military spending at $1.573 trillion, twice the official Pentagon budget. The cost of the U.S. nuclear “modernization” alone is put at $1.5 trillion over the next three decades. With the way arms costs tend to balloon, that figure is likely to grow significantly.

A man who well knew the ways of war as the commanding general of allied forces in Europe during World War II, Dwight Eisenhower, and who on leaving the presidency warned us of the military industrial complex, during his term stated the cost of militarism.“Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed. This world in arms is not spending money alone. It is spending the sweat of its laborers, the genius of its scientists, the hopes of its children. This is not a way of life at all in any true sense. Under the clouds of war, it is humanity hanging on a cross of iron.”

Humanity is being nailed to another cross, that of climate disruption which is already wreaking havoc across the planet. McKinsey in January 2022 estimated that reaching net-zero global warming pollution by 2050 (and even this is regarded by many as an insufficient goal) will cost $275 trillion over 30 years. That amounts to $9.2 trillion annually, or 7.5% of global GDP. In addition to around $2 trillion per year now spent on low emissions assets, this would require redirecting current spending on carbon-intensive assets and then adding $3.5 trillion annually in new spending. It’s pretty obvious that much of that money should come from reduced military expenditures.

Militarism is a cycle that feeds itself, violence begetting violence, vengeance begetting vengeance. In an age when humanity is developing increasingly sophisticated and effective tools to destroy ourselves, we must find a way to break this cycle if we want to survive as a species. Militarism will provide no solution in Gaza, only continue the cycle of violence, as is the clear logic of the case. And not only will it provide no solutions for the world; it stands in the way of the solutions we urgently need. It is time to end this obsolete way of thinking and move into a new peaceful world, as we must to survive.

This first appeared in The Raven.