Far too many observers of the Israeli retaliation against Hamas see war as a theoretical construct, not a battlefield reality.
The famed Union Civil War General William Tecumseh Sherman is widely credited with popularizing the phrase “war is hell.” And he would certainly know, seeing action at some of the war’s bloodiest battles and captaining the controversial March to the Sea, where Union soldiers would run roughshod over Confederate lands from Atlanta to Savannah. That march, replete with the utter devastation of civilian infrastructure, farmland, and property, helped break the back of the Confederacy and has remained a textbook example of total war. The term ‘total war’ itself was a product of World War I, which saw entire societies mobilized for what they all saw – and some experienced – as existential combat. The sequel, which killed even more people and included the most heinous act of genocide in the modern era, was the last of these sorts of conflicts – or so many thought.
After the end of the Cold War – which was itself something of a totalizing rivalry – the mood in the West was triumphant, not just over Soviet Communism, but over History itself. Gone were the days of existential conflict, replaced by a world of progress where genuine alternatives to the liberal democratic capitalist world order were nowhere to be found. These naïve optimists were, however, flat out wrong. Alternatives to the American order have reared their ugly heads: from the CCP’s brand of techno-totalitarianism, to Vladimir Putin’s throwback imperialism, to the militant antisemitic Islamism of Tehran and Hamas, oppositional ideologies abound. And those ideologies are more than happy to engage in totalizing, existential conflict. We have seen that in Ukraine for the past 600-plus days, and we are seeing it in Israel now.
Make no mistake, the Hamas terror of October 7, combined with its genocidal ideology and the support of regional powers like Iran, poses an existential risk to the Jewish state. If Hamas is not utterly annihilated, Israel will face a future of constant attack from all fronts meant to eradicate the nation itself – and massacre its population in the process. Hamas and Iran have made this into a total war; Israel has recognized that reality and is responding in kind. And that’s where we run into problems.
The world – the Western one at least – has not seen such an existential conflict in a long time. Before the Russian invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, there had been no such war in the era of ubiquitous television and internet news. That media environment, combined with the End-of-History-bred complacency and brittleness that characterize the modern Western elite consensus, has made the realities of war seem all the more challenging to accept. Instead, many have retreated to the comfortable posture of turning war into a tabletop exercise, all theory and no practice. With respect to the war in Ukraine, this reflex mapped decently onto the actual conflict, since the common perspective is to sympathize with the weaker nation that was aggressed upon by an outright American foe. Of course, there are still the useful idiots, outright Putin admirers, and weirdo anti-American people on the far ends of the American political horseshoe who push Moscow’s narratives and blame the West for the conflict. Thankfully, these cretins are relatively few in number.
With respect to Israel, the situation is far more complex – especially given the fact that a large swathe of elite opinion actively abhors the Jewish state. This leads to perverted media narratives embraced by the mainstream press, progressive activists, members of Congress, & even – to an extent – the White House. The failure to understand the true nature of this existential conflict breeds misrepresentation, misplaced anger, and misapprehension.
Right now, Israel is carrying out the textbook definition of a just war: an operation of retaliation and self-defense meant in part to redeem hostages and eliminate the source of potential future threat on the border. Just War scholars going back to the Middle Ages would recognize this reality, especially given their relative proximity to war as a regular occurrence. Both fortunately and unfortunately, we no longer have that perspective, instead seeing war through the lens of simplistic stories promulgated by media and elite consensus. In this case, we are shown images of destruction in Gaza without reference to the fact that Hamas was the aggressor, not the aggressed-upon. The fact that Israel is stronger on paper does not mitigate the fact that the war began only after and in response to the atrocities of October 7. The deaths which will inevitably impact both sides of this conflict lie at the feet of the aggressor, Hamas, just as blame for the casualties in Ukraine belongs to Moscow.
Hamas, the enemy to be fought, is something of a unique threat: it is simultaneously a non-state actor terrorist group and also the de facto government of Gaza, having won (one) election in the mid-2000s. That dual identity allows it to take up either mantle when it is most convenient. When it hordes food, water, fuel, and electricity in its massive tunnel complex – funded by misappropriated international aid meant for the people of Gaza – it is merely a terrorist group. What else could you expect from such an outfit? When it is exaggerating death totals and blaming Israel for atrocities its own allies committed, it is the official government of Gaza. After all, who wouldn’t trust the accuracy of the Gaza Health Ministry’s death totals published mere moments after an explosion? Western media forwards this dual narrative constantly, using it to ascribe malice and blame to Israel for all negative outcomes.
Civilian casualties, although always regrettable in war, are an unavoidable part of modern conflict, particularly when one side deliberately places its military installations, fighters, and materiel within and among civilian populations. This is not like the war in Ukraine, where Russia is choosing to attack civilians, even when the Ukrainian army is out in the field; Hamas does not fight like a state and cannot be defeated like one. The West should know, having destroyed ISIS using very similar tactics – albeit with a much higher civilian casualty rate (look at Mosul, for example). Israel is the most scrupulous nation on earth in terms of avoiding unnecessary civilian casualties; it warns occupants of targeted buildings before destroying them, it uses precision munitions and tactics to assassinate specific targets, and it surveils its targets for long periods before attacking. This is true, even when our government fails to recognize it. In this instance, Israel has warned Gazans to leave the northern section of the Strip so as to avoid being in the way of the aerial assault and subsequent ground invasion, delaying that invasion by several weeks in order to give genuine civilian populations time to leave. In that time, Hamas has turned back refugees, appropriated humanitarian aid, and continued to launch indiscriminate rocket attacks at Israeli civilians. Israel has done more than it is obliged to in terms of avoiding civilian casualties; any remaining civilian deaths are on Hamas, even if the UN, that bastion of antisemitism, disagrees.
And that brings us to the biggest issue with Hamas as both terrorist group and pseudo-legitimate government: its dual status seems to absolve it of any responsibility to the people it is supposed to govern. Israel is expected to prosecute a war for national survival while wearing kid gloves and pulling any and all punches, while Hamas is excused for its targeting of Israeli civilians and its endangering of innocent Gazans. The mooks who constantly demand a “ceasefire” want Israel to sit there and not respond to the biggest antisemitic pogrom since the Holocaust, allowing Hamas to get away scot free. That isn’t happening. Hamas will be destroyed root and branch, as it must. Israel’s ability to successfully and effectively achieve this objective will not be interfered with by the opprobrium of the “international community” or the (incorrect) citation of the laws of war. Anti-Israel activists claim that it is committing war crimes solely because Gazan civilians are dying. They reference several issues, all of which are entirely wrong and would not be asked of any other wartime power.
First, we see Israel being attacked for unintentional civilian casualties which occur during its attacks on Hamas infrastructure, especially rocket launch sites and the immense underground tunnel network. Hamas chooses to locate these military installations within civilian structures, even going so far as to hide ammunition dumps in mosques and its command center underneath Gaza’s largest hospital. Of course, when Israel rightfully attacks those military targets, it is lambasted for destruction of civilian property and called out for war crimes. But according to the international law these pro-Palestinian groups deign to cite, Hamas is the one responsible for any civilian deaths due to its positioning of military assets in civilian areas. Article 28 of the 1949 Geneva Convention states: “The presence of a protected person may not be used to render certain points or areas immune from military operations.” So, under international law, Israel is not anywhere close to committing war crimes by attacking Hamas positions among civilian areas.
What about Israel’s cutting off of food, water, and energy? Those must be war crimes, right? Wrong. Have any of these activists ever read a history book? Have they heard of a ‘siege’ before? It is patently absurd to expect the besieging power to provide aid and comfort to the enemy it is besieging. Israel does not occupy or control Gaza; the blockade of the Strip could not work without Egyptian support; Israel chooses in peacetime to send Gaza significant humanitarian aid. During wartime, Israel has no responsibility for the regular well-being of the subjects of the government it is engaged in warfare with. Hamas is the government of Gaza and, as such, it should be expected to provide for the citizens under its aegis. Instead of doing this, Hamas has hoarded necessities like food and water, siphoned off energy from legitimate civilian purposes, and redirected humanitarian aid to its own benefit. (Sidebar: the whole fracas over humanitarian aid is such nonsense, as the people processing and distributing that aid are members of Hamas. Just like the credulity over the Gaza Health Ministry claims, this is an enormous failure of understanding by the Western elite.) There are significant stocks of necessities for the population of Gaza within Gaza itself, but the Gazan government (read: Hamas) has refused to act responsibly. That irresponsibility will cost Palestinian lives – and the blame lies with Hamas, not Israel.
Well, what about the Internet then? Surely, cutting off communications is meant to hide evidence of Israel’s crimes and deter journalism, isn’t it? Again, this is false. The very first act when engaging in a major war is to interdict the communication of the enemy; this has been the case since the dawn of recorded history. Famously, the initial act the British undertook after the outbreak of the First World War was to cut all German undersea cables and thus destroy Germany’s ability to communicate securely to its colonies and assets overseas. Cutting off the Internet to Gaza affects civilians, yes, but it serves a necessary and legal military purpose. Hamas terrorists communicate using encrypted apps like Telegram; disrupting those services requires disruption of the Internet as such. To think that other civilized powers would choose not to do this is to be detached entirely from reality. But still, this has been repeated and bought into wholesale, including by the Biden administration itself.
Detachment from reality is a theme when it comes to the elite perspective on the current Israel-Hamas war. Sitting in the comfort of their ivory towers far away from the front lines, journalists, academics, and activists can tell themselves a reassuring story of Israeli perfidy and noble Palestinian suffering, of war crimes on one side and legitimate resistance on the other. They can view this existential conflict as a theoretical exercise, critiquing Israel’s prosecution of the war while excusing Hamas atrocities and blatant violations of the laws of armed conflict. This distance from the ground allows these anti-Israel partisans to believe only what fits perfectly in with their priors: Israel bad, Palestinians good. This couldn’t be further from the truth. This war is for the survival of the nation of Israel, the lone Jewish state in the entire world. It is not a drill and it was not unprovoked. It is a response to the mass murder of innocent civilians and the taking of hostages by a terrorist group that is dedicated to the extermination of Jews. It is an attempt to deter a genuinely genocidal ideology from being put into practice. This is life and death. It is the very definition of a totalizing, existential conflict.
Total war ain’t beanbag. To paraphrase General Sherman, it is hell on earth. Hamas started this war, but Israel is going to finish it. And the responsibility for the subsequent destruction of Gaza, the deaths of Palestinian civilians, and the impoverishment of millions of ordinary Gazans falls entirely and solely at the feet of Hamas. That’s the reality of the situation, something which the pro-Palestinian contingent refuses to acknowledge. While they keep their heads firmly in the clouds, the IDF will be doing its damnedest to put Hamas members six feet underground. Anyone with a basic understanding of warfare, history, or morality should support them in that noble task. Ask yourself why so many don’t.