Subscribe to our newsletter for exclusive editorial emails from the Byline Times Team.
I’m scared even to put this thought in writing, because who am I, a non-Jew, to judge a nation which has had to fight so hard for its survival? How can I presume to know how Israel should respond to the horrific attacks of 7 October? How dare I?
But as someone who has studied and worked on this conflict for years, has spent time in the West Bank, Gaza and Israel, and has both Jewish and Arab friends, I find it impossible to watch this latest tragic cycle of events unfold, without comment.
It is precisely because I care about the suffering on both sides that I feel compelled to put this down: with its devastating onslaught on Gaza, I believe Israel is making not only a strategic mistake, but also a moral mistake, which will come back to haunt it.
I know many will accuse me of antisemitism or of judging Israel by standards that I don’t expect of others. Many will claim that I am ignoring Hamas’ barbaric attacks on 7 October, or even justifying them, by arguing that Israel’s response is wrong.
Others, knowing that I have strongly condemned Hamas’ terrorism, and repeatedly supported Israel’s right to self-defence, will argue that my sympathy for Israel was too shallow and short-lived to be genuine, and that my true colours are now emerging – biased towards the Palestinians.
I strongly reject any such characterisations. It is possible to hold more than two thoughts at the same time.
It is possible to abhor Hamas’ attacks, and yet feel Israel’s response is disproportionate. It is possible to deeply empathise with what Israelis experienced on that dreadful day, and yet deeply feel for the Palestinians experiencing Israel’s vengeance now. It is possible to be a friend of Israel, and yet criticise it.
As a non-Jew, I know it is presumptuous of me even to try to encapsulate their feelings. But, if I was Jewish, I would have felt the trauma of 7 October like a dagger to the soul, resurrecting the very worst memories of the Holocaust.
Don’t miss a story
If I was a relative of one of the hostages, I would be feeling a depth of anguish that cannot be put into words. I would be struggling to contain my anger, and struggling to retain my humanity.
I’m actually beyond amazed at the number of Israelis who are still able to look beyond their own anger and grief, to empathise with the Palestinians today.
I would also be outraged at the instances of naked antisemitism which have occurred across the world, including by those who have not just failed to condemn Hamas, but in some cases even celebrated its attacks. I would be outraged by the video clips of Jewish students being harassed on university campuses, and of posters of the hostages being torn down. It is unacceptable that Jewish children again feel scared to go to school.
Even as a non-Jew, I can understand how lonely many Jews must feel right now. I can understand why many Israelis feel they cannot trust anyone else to protect them. I understand why Israel feels it must obliterate Hamas and remove the possibility of any such attack being launched on them from Gaza again.
I also understand how angry some Israelis must feel at being judged at the United Nations by countries whose own human rights records are appalling. I can understand how resentful many must feel at being asked to justify their military actions, or to take account of the humanitarian suffering of Palestinians, after experiencing such a brutal, unprovoked attack on 7 October, by terrorists who made no attempt to distinguish between soldiers and civilians, young or old, male or female.
I can understand how warped the world must seem, when Israel is now bearing the brunt of global criticism, more than Hamas; and the fate of all those who died or were taken hostage on 7 October now seems to attract less attention than the fate of people in Gaza, who have been put at risk by Hamas’ own actions.
I understand that Israel has tried in the past to make peace with the Palestinians and been repeatedly let down. I can understand Israeli frustration at too many Palestinians’ apparent inability to come to terms with Israel’s existence or to elect competent leaders. I understand why the peace camp has become weak, and why Israelis have become more inclined to support hardline governments that reject a two-state solution.
I understand why, after the 7 October attacks, it will seem even more bird-brained and naïve to hope for a peaceful reconciliation with the Palestinians. I am not letting the Palestinians off the hook for their manifold failings and mistakes.
But, even understanding all these sentiments, and challenges, I do not believe Israeli actions in Gaza are right.
It is not just that their military actions seem disproportionate: in war it is always invidious to try to compare numbers of deaths, as if there were an acceptable number, but the scale of death and destruction in Gaza is truly horrific. It is not just that I do not believe they will achieve their aims. It is that Israel’s own concept of itself as a peaceful, democratic nation risks being irrevocably damaged by such excessive violence.
Even if Israel succeeds in defeating Hamas on the battlefield, it will not succeed in eliminating the idea of Palestine. It will not remove the need for Palestinians to have a homeland of their own. It will not reconcile Palestinians to the idea of Israel, but sow the seeds of hatred for more generations to come. It will also scar the souls of Israeli soldiers, who will either become desensitised to the violence, or forever traumatised by it.
Nor will Israel’s assault on Gaza provide it with long term security. Even if it expels every Palestinian, or Arab, from their land – an unconscionable policy, though sadly one which some extreme right wing Israeli politicians seem to indulge – they will still not be safe from the odd lone wolf attack.
Even if Israel introduces the most repressive systems possible of surveillance and control of Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza – such as exist in North Korea, China, Belarus or Myanmar – they will not be able to eliminate all resistance to their rule. And such extreme measures will poison Israeli society, which will either have to harden its hearts against the Palestinians or pretend not to see the repression.
Subscribers Get More from alex
Alexandra Hall Hall also writes a regular An Englishwoman Abroad column, exclusive to the print edition of Byline Times. So for more from her…
Israel was not founded to become a repressive, police state, but a peaceful, democratic one. It probably did not intend its occupation of the West Bank to become permanent. But 56 years on, Israel’s occupation has become entrenched. It has continued to build settlements in violation of international humanitarian law. Israeli settlers seize Palestinian land and attack Palestinians in the West Bank with impunity. Israeli treatment of Palestinians has become ever more restrictive and harsh.
There is, in fact, no longer even any attempt by the current Israeli Government to treat Palestinians as equal human beings. It has been happy to see the Palestinian Authority remain weak and ineffectual, even allowing Hamas in Gaza to thrive, as part of a strategy to undermine the PA in the West Bank. Now, apart from destroying Hamas, and pulverizing Gaza to rubble, it is unclear that the Israeli Government has any long-term vision for its relationship with the Palestinians.
Ultimately, the hardline course of recent Israeli governments has not actually brought Israel security. In fact, the more Israel has tried to control the Palestinians with harsh measures, the more corrupted Israeli democracy has become. Israel risks turning into the kind of oppressive pariah nation from which Jews originally sought safety in its very creation.
The price of trying to achieve security through ever more heavy-handed tactics might be the cost of Israel’s own soul. Is that a price worth paying?