Israel-Palestine conflict: What should be the liberal position? – Rohit Balakrishnan

“In the Gaza war, what should be the outcome? One, should Israel be forced to end the war without dismantling Hamas due to the perilous situation in Gaza? Or two, should Israel be pressurized to act with more restraint and caution while continuing on its aims to dismantle Hamas? Or the third option, should the ambitions of the Israeli far-right go ahead uninhibited? I go with the second option.” – Rohit Balakrishnan writes on Israel – Palestine conflict.

Perhaps the most polarizing topic in international politics in recent times has been the Israel-Palestine conflict. While this topic has always been in the limelight for decades, what has most recently pushed it to the top has been the events of October 7th, 2023 and what succeeded it.

Hamas, in conjunction with other Islamist militant groups perpetrated a terrorist attack, unprecedented in scale, in Israel on October 7th, directly resulting in 1,139 deaths in Israel – most of them Israeli civilians – along with a significant number of its military and security personnel, apart from civilians from other nationalities. Significantly, we know that this attack was not primarily focused on the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF), even if their military posts were also some of the initial targets. Arriving in para-gliders and vehicles, Hamas terrorists mass-murdered hundreds of civilians at a music festival, went to civilian communities, such as Kibbutzes, gunned down and burnt scores of people dead or alive at their homes and on the highways. Reports confirmed several instances of rape as well. More than a thousand Hamas and other terrorists were killed in the IDF defense. 200+ hostages were kidnapped from Israel and taken to Gaza, where the terrorist attack originated from.

It is not my intention to cover the designs and details of this terrorist attack completely. However, the above passage should give the reader a sense of the horror of the events and the scale of the damage, viewed from an Israeli perspective. As expected, the IDF counter-attacks in Gaza began swiftly – initially as a few air-strikes, gradually expanding in scale and frequency, before paving way to a full-fledged ground invasion of Gaza. At the time of writing, more than 24,000 Palestinian deaths were reported in Gaza by the Hamas-controlled Health Ministry without differentiating civilians from military. As the IDF targeted first the north and then the south of Gaza, most of Gaza strip’s 2.2 million population was displaced – often under evacuation orders sent by the IDF as well as due to the sheer scale of civilian infrastructure damage (as per an estimate published in Wall Street Journal, a total of 70% of all homes and over 50% of all structures in Gaza had at least some degree of damage – ranging from light damage to complete destruction). While allowing some level of humanitarian aid to flow in to Gaza, Israel also restricted the flow of water and electricity from outside to inside Gaza.

Needless to say, the situation in Gaza became perilous, rife with mass displacement, hunger and insecurity, and remains so at the time of this writing (as a note on civilian displacement, hundreds of thousands were displaced from Israel as well, mainly due to constant rocket attacks from Gaza and threats of further attacks near the border areas, including from Hezbollah in Lebanon). Several organizations including the UN and its affiliated groups strongly criticized Israel for the nature of its response, and many accused Israel of committing a genocide in Gaza, an accusation formally initiated by South Africa at the International Court of Justice (ICJ), something vehemently denied by Israel. Israel in turn pointed fingers at Hamas for embedding and operating themselves from among Palestinian civilians and actively using civilian infrastructure including homes, hospitals and schools while firing at IDF, citing this as the primary reason for the high number of civilian casualties and infrastructure damage.

Who is responsible?

It is often pointed out by critics of Israel that the events of October 7th “did not arise out of a vacuum” with hostilities between Israel and Palestine dating back to more than a hundred years. The pro-Palestine side argues that Israel has been primarily responsible for the suffering in the region and has been the aggressor for the most part. The pro-Israel side generally counters this by pointing to terrorism, including suicide-bombing carried out from Palestine against Israel and the rejected peace deals and proposals by Palestinians. This includes the UN partition plan of Israel-Palestine initially proposed in 1947, which was criticized as unfair to Palestine by the plan’s detractors.

A number of arguments could be made against both sides in the wider conflict historically, perhaps the most pressing of these centered on the massive injustice meted out to hundreds of thousands of Arabs by the very consequence of the UN partition plan (an estimated 750,000 Arabs were expelled from Israeli-controlled territories or were displaced by the resulting war). With that said, the events of 1947–49 (the first Arab-Israeli war), the infamous six-day war of 1967, Yom Kippur war of 1973 and so on lie well in the past, even if an understanding of these events is significant for a modern resolution of the conflict. It should also be taken into account that as many as 900,000 Jews were either expelled from or emigrated out of Arab/Muslim majority countries over the years due to reasons that are better explained by unfair living conditions rather than a desire to voluntarily immigrate to Israel even though both factors did play a certain level of role. A complete return to the UN partition plan of 1947 is no longer feasible for this and other reasons.

Separating the war from the conflict

The larger point I’m trying to make is the following: While the current war in Gaza is indeed a part of the Israel-Palestine conflict, in trying to determine accountability and culpability for the war in Gaza, we should stop drawing a straight line from the wider conflict to the war. This war had a primary root cause – the Hamas terrorist attack on October 7th in Israel. While Israel certainly deserves significant blame for the conflict and other parallel situations such as the occupation of the West Bank, we should be under no allusion that a terror attack, especially of the nature and scale of what happened on October 7th, was primarily a natural response to Israeli injustice.

So, why not look further and examine the root causes of the Oct 7th attack itself? Sure, but we have already noted that it was not primarily directed at the IDF, which is the source of violence from the Israeli side. One cannot rationally argue that attacks such as the mass-murder committed at a music festival and gunning down or burning people to death in Kibbutzes were instances were civilians died due to collateral damage. This argument is a non-starter because the civilians clearly were targets. One cannot argue either that these attacks were focused on Israeli settlers in occupied Palestine, for the simple reason that most areas that were attacked would be clearly part of Israel according to virtually any partition plan (even if some weren’t, that would not morally justify a targeted mass-murder of civilians residing in those areas as per any civilized norms).

How IDF operates as opposed to Hamas

When pro-Palestine people are pointed to the death and destruction in October 7th attack in Israel, the immediate retort would be to point to the even greater destruction in Gaza – with 24,000 plus deaths and counting (setting aside how many of these are civilians), it exceeds the October 7th toll in Israel by more than 20 times. This is something not upto debate – it is a fact that Gaza has indeed undergone a much larger scale of destruction than what happened prior to that in Israel.

However, one cannot begin to grasp the situation that is ongoing in Gaza without understanding the difference in the way Hamas operates as opposed to how the IDF operates – in three different levels – each of great importance. What are these differences, and why do they matter?

  1. The IDF operates as a distinct and separate entity from Israeli civilians. They don’t operate by embedding themselves amongst their own civilians. This is especially significant in the sense that when another armed force attacks the IDF and their installations, it is not difficult to ensure that out of all casualties inflicted on Israel, the vast majority of casualties are military. The point is not that it is easy to kill IDF, but that when targeting IDF, it is easy to minimize civilian collateral damage. Compare this to Hamas – they actively embed themselves amongst Palestinian civilians and operate using civilian infrastructure, such as homes, schools, mosques and sometimes even hospitals. In contrast to IDF, it is extremely difficult to avoid significant loss of Palestinian civilian life and infrastructure while eliminating Hamas militants or destroying their military installations. Israel and Hamas both use their tunnels/underground shelters in radically different and in fact diametrically opposite ways. Anyone familiar with how Israel responds to barrages of rocket fire from Gaza knows that the first thing that happens as a response is this – alarms/sirens sound in Israeli towns/cities in proximity and civilians run to the underground shelters while the military swings into action. Put simply, Israel uses underground shelters to protect its own civilians whereas Hamas uses its underground shelters primarily to protect its military. Picture this for a moment – the Hamas militants seek shelter underground leaving a layer of Palestinian civilians and civilian infrastructure between themselves and the IDF.
  2. The IDF operates strictly in their military uniforms, something that is a basic expectation on any armed group in the civilized world, for good reasons. Hamas do have their uniforms. Just that they don’t often use them while firing at the invading IDF soldiers. Military operating in civilian clothing is a clear violation of international conventions, because it makes the opposing military confuse civilians for military, which is unsurprisingly a recipe for disaster in urban warfare, that can lead to a significant amount of civilian casualties.
  3. Perhaps the best way to sum it up is this: Hamas operates in a way that ensures that the main deterrence of their enemy (IDF) is the prospect of causing Palestinian civilian casualties. In this way, Hamas uses Palestinian civilians as virtual human shields. Any civilized society ought to operate in a manner where their military protects their civilians, not the other way around. The IDF clearly operates in this manner. As a note, this is not to claim that the IDF doesn’t have its fair share of violations, including violations of international conventions and norms. This itself is a separate topic. The point I’m getting to is this: The way Hamas operates forces a lot of civilian casualties when an opposing military force tries to eliminate them.

Now, one could certainly ask: Wouldn’t Hamas get obliterated quickly if they operate conventionally versus Israel? Yes of course. Hence, is it fair to expect them to confront IDF directly? Well, the above three points don’t blame Hamas for the adoption of guerrilla warfare, even though guerilla warfare does practically increase the risk of civilian casualties. Guerilla warfare is still fair game. On the contrary, what I’m doing is blaming Hamas for putting civilians by design in harms way when Israel seeks to eliminate their soldiers and military infrastructure. Is this splitting hairs too much? Not really, but leaving aside the distinction between guerilla warfare and using civilians as virtual human shields, there is a larger point here.

If Hamas, as a military force clearly lacks the capability to eliminate IDF – and have to resort to the enemy’s deterrence at the prospect of causing civilian casualties (deterrence is not necessarily altruistic) in order to save themselves – then why do they have to commit a terrorist attack in Israel, majorly targeting civilians? Doing so inevitably forces the IDF to seek to violently eliminate Hamas. And Hamas very well knows that logically, the only thing that can really stop IDF is the backlash Israel will inevitably face for the civilian casualties. Clearly, there is no way for the IDF to eliminate Hamas by ensuring that civilian loss in the Palestinian side will be anything in the range of 1000 or so. We should comprehend the basic reason for the radically asymmetry in the civilian loss on both sides.

Violations committed by the IDF

It would be inappropriate to write a comprehensive article about the Gaza war without addressing the violations that are committed by the IDF forces. The IDF has been accused of indiscriminate airstrikes at locations including hospitals, markets, refugee camps, mosques, educational facilities and civilian neighborhoods. A lot of it is evidently true – the IDF has indeed struck these locations, something Israel has sought to justify by pointing to the use of these structures and the active presence in those by Hamas and other terrorists. Multiple analyses have concluded that the IDF has bombed areas that were designated by itself as “safe zones”, including the usage of 2,000 pound bombs in these areas that are bound to cause indiscriminate damage. Israel also imposed a blockade on food, water, electricity and fuel at times, while allowing the partial flow of these on humanitarian grounds especially during designated times.

One could go on and mention a larger and exhaustive lists of violations by the IDF, but that is not the point. The real problem with Israel is that there are more than enough far-right or strongly right-wing elements in its government, including cabinet ministers. These ministers and elements do exert a good amount of influence in the Netanyahu government – and the problems with Netanyahu himself as a Prime Minister warrants a separate article. He has throughout his career, covertly or overtly worked against the establishment of a Palestinian state and it is no secret that he opposes the two-state solution. Netanyahu is a significant part of the problem. What I’m getting to is this: With such far-right or anti-peace ministers in the cabinet including the PM, it would be no surprise that the IDF is given a go-ahead in doing reckless, disproportionate and irresponsible strikes that they can continue justifying under the cover of evil Hamas tactics.

Self-interest explains collective behavior

In explaining most collective activities or behaviors of groups of people, self-interest is the most overarching, dominant factor. This applies to the IDF, Hamas, Israeli government, Palestinian Authority and so on. A few examples of complex behaviors at play: It is generally not in the interest of IDF to cause a large number of Palestinian civilian casualties. Why? Because if anything is likely to stop IDF victory over Hamas, it is the indirect pressure exerted on the Israeli government by a number of prominent organizations including the UN, the pressure exerted by the USA public on Israel’s foremost ally, the USA to stop the funding and support for Israel. And how can this pressure come about? The more the loss of civilian lives, women and minors, the more the civilian infrastructural damage, the more there is a crisis of hunger – all such factors create the strongest pushback against the goals of the IDF.

But there’s a catch – the far-right elements in the Israeli government. I stated above that civilian casualties are against the IDF self-interest in general. However, it is very reasonable to believe that there are far-right forces in the government who care more than merely about the defeat of Hamas and other militant groups. Their goals can extend to a larger collective punishment for the Gazan population in general primarily from a revenge mentality for October 7th but also from their long-term goals with respect to the Israel-Palestine conflict. While the IDF has a certain level of independence with respect to their military actions, it is safe to assume that the extreme beliefs of the far-right do exert indirect influence on what the IDF is expected to do, what it is permitted to do, what it is not permitted to do and what it is strongly cautioned not to do.

Likewise, in explaining the behavior of Hamas, many people raise questioning eyebrows when it is said that Hamas intentionally places their own civilians in harms way. Actually, it should not be difficult to believe at all. As I stated earlier, the Hamas would quickly get obliterated in a conventional warfare versus the IDF and their best hopes for that not happening is pressure building on the IDF to stop the war. The same can come about only when there are a large number of Palestinian civilian casualties. If you think Hamas somewhat cares for its civilians, just think about one thing – what did they think that Israel was going to do in response to a mass murder of 1000+ people on its soil? Anyone with any idea about the conflict knew it was coming. In other words, Hamas knew all along that if they succeeded in killing a thousand Israelis, they could reasonably expect at least 10 times the loss of civilians in Gaza in the Israeli response. At present it is 20 times and counting.

what should be the liberal position?

I consider myself generally pro-Israel in this conflict. This has to do with my opinion that Israel is much more inherently liberal, despite its strongly pro-Jewish laws. I also believe that Israel is much better at creating economic prosperity compared to Palestine. However, while the reasons I cited for my pro-Israel inclination are factors to consider, we should break down the current situation and check a set of possible scenarios that should best happen.

Firstly, in the Gaza war, what should be the outcome? One, should Israel be forced to end the war without dismantling Hamas due to the perilous situation in Gaza? Or two, should Israel be pressurized to act with more restraint and caution while continuing on its aims to dismantle Hamas? Or the third option, should the ambitions of the Israeli far-right go ahead uninhibited? I go with the second option. No ceasefire without destroying Hamas, but Israel needs to be constructively pushed back in its excesses and further conditions be placed for its funding by the USA. Two possible conditions are a commitment to the eventual two-state solution and ending the occupation of the West Bank. Surely there can be more, such as massively increasing the flow of humanitarian aid in Gaza in the current war. Neither the status quo, nor ending the war without dismantling Hamas (even if they release all hostages) are the best options.

Secondly, what about the overall conflict? Netanyahu needs to go, not only for being an obstacle to any kind of peaceful resolution to the conflict, but also for his terrible and stated policies such as having propped up Hamas indirectly in the past to act as a “counterweight” to the Palestinian Authority. His terrible false equivalence between Hamas and Palestinian Authority is one of the biggest obstacles to peace in the region. As mentioned earlier, Hamas needs to be dismantled – and once we have an unprecedented crippling of Hamas and similar militant groups in Gaza and a crushing defeat for Netanyahu in the upcoming elections (the opinion polls suggest this is a strong possibility), we are at least getting somewhere. In a happy scenario, these two outcomes along with more reasonable terms and conditions placed on the continued US funding to Israel especially with respect to West Bank and support for two-state solution, and we do have a road ahead for a resolution of the Israel-Palestine conflict.