Discover more from Discourse
The Attack on Israel Gives Us a Glimpse of the Inferno
The genocidal Hamas attack shows us what the world is like when the global liberal order fails
Israelis are calling Saturday’s disastrous Hamas attacks Tofet: The Inferno.
Bari Weiss describes it as Israel’s 9/11, but I find this analogy strangely minimizing. What happened in Israel is not the equivalent of what happened to the U.S. on 9/11. What happened there is our darkest, wildest imaginings of what might happen after 9/11. I recall a 1998 film, “The Siege,” that projected the kind of raw fear we would live in if New York City were subjected to a large-scale, unpredictable string of terrorist bombings. That film was trotted back out after 9/11 because it evoked our deepest fear: What if this is only the beginning?
But even that does not quite capture what happened in Israel, because Israel is vulnerable in a way America is not. It is a small country wedged in among people who hate it, deeply and viciously. Its entire existence is predicated on the ability to keep those people out. On Saturday, they broke in.
This is a catastrophic event with big lessons for Israel, and for America.
A Boot Stamping on a Human Face
The most important fact is that this was not a military strike and was not intended to achieve any tactical goal. Its sole purpose and goal was the murder of Jews. Saturday showed us concretely the only conception Palestinian leaders have of victory: Gunmen wandering the streets of an Israeli town, murdering, raping and brutalizing a helpless enemy. This was not a means to a goal. It was the goal.
Note that this attack was meticulously planned over two years. And note specifically how Hamas fooled Israeli politicians and Israeli intelligence. According a Reuters report, they engaged in years of subterfuge to convince Israel that Hamas leadership cared about the economy and the well-being of its people.
Since a 2021 war with Hamas, Israel has sought to provide a basic level of economic stability in Gaza by offering incentives including thousands of permits so Gazans can work in Israel or the West Bank, where salaries in construction, agriculture or service jobs can be 10 times the level of pay in Gaza….
An Israeli security source acknowledged Israel’s security services were duped by Hamas. “They caused us to think they wanted money,” the source said. “And all the time they were involved in exercises/drills until they ran riot.”
The goal of Hamas is not peace or prosperity; it is not independence or wealth or the well-being of its people—goals they have repeatedly rejected in the past and that have now been permanently shattered. Their goal was death for the Jews, even at the cost of their own lives, something that is likely to now happen.
The best commentary, in this regard, is from Haviv Rettig Gur in The Times of Israel.
This reclamation of Islamic dignity through the ultimate defeat of the Jews occupies a great deal of Hamas’s political thought, permeates its rhetoric, and profoundly shapes its thinking about Israeli Jews and its strategy in facing Israel. Israel is more than a mere occupier or oppressor in this narrative, it is a rebellion against God and the divinely ordained trajectory of history.
Precisely this call to religious genocide has been part of the charter of Hamas from its inception. What struck me most, though, was this example:
In one video released for Israelis to see, a little Israeli boy, perhaps six years old, was put in a circle of Gazan children who were told to bully and terrorize him while he stood there helpless. It was a planned and purposeful moment. Israelis’ weakness was paraded through Gaza’s streets and celebrated on social media. It was the point.
George Orwell captured the nihilism of the totalitarian vision for the future when he described it as “a boot stamping on a human face—forever.” This is the Palestinians’ uniquely depraved variation on that: a child brutalizing another child—forever.
The sense of power-through-murder was a moment so precious to the Hamas militants, and to many of their supporters in Gaza, that they were willing to trade it for what is likely to be the complete destruction of their society. Note again that, in spite of all of their planning for the attack, Hamas appears to have no plan for how to defend themselves afterward or for what happens next. That is because what happens next does not matter to them.
A society raised on the ideal of children brutalizing other children is sick at the deepest level. It is built from the ground up to inculcate the mentality of a psychopath or a serial killer. It is the suicide bomb as the organizing principle of a society.
The upshot is that we can dispense with any talk about the root causes of terrorism or the political steps that can be taken to appease Palestinian grievances in Gaza. The Hamas cause is genocide of the Jews, and no concession can be offered to that.
The Delusion of Disengagement
The key word used in Haviv Rettig Gur’s article is “defenselessness.” As “heirs of a collective memory forged in the fires of the 20th Century,” he writes, Israelis “cannot handle the experience of defenselessness.”
The whole point of Israel’s existence, especially after the Holocaust, is the rejection of defenselessness. Never again would they be incapable of fighting back to preserve their own lives. Yet that is precisely the situation they found themselves in, for the first time in many decades. That’s why this will reshape Israeli politics at a profound level.
This is the end for Binyamin Netanyahu. The best analogy I can think of is if George W. Bush had dominated American politics for 30 years by promising to save us from another 9/11—and then something worse than 9/11 happened, and his administration was caught completely unprepared. That is what happened to Netanyahu, who left the Gaza border so lightly defended that Israeli troops were quickly overwhelmed and unable to protect civilians. This failure is a repudiation of his entire political career.
More widely, this is a failure of the consensus Israeli policy of many decades. Thirty years ago, they gave up occupation of the Palestinian territories because it was supposedly too difficult and costly—though it proved far less traumatic than what they are going through now. Instead, they tried “disengagement,” literally walling themselves off from the Palestinians and relying only on passive defenses or brief, temporary retaliatory strikes. The result is the most Jews killed in a single day since the Holocaust.
So far, West Bank Palestinians do not seem willing to share the same fate as their counterparts in Gaza, which provides some reason for hope. But dealing with Gaza will require a massive change in Israeli policy. As one official put it, “What was in the past will no longer be in the future.” There are no good solutions, but the ones that have been tried so far have clearly failed.
Israel is already laying siege to Gaza, cutting off its power and its ability to pump water—a rapid death sentence for people living in the desert. The Israelis may well be using this as a way of demanding the release of Israeli hostages taken by Hamas.
Unfortunately, what I think will be required is the re-occupation of Gaza, and at this point, the only way to occupy it will be to go neighborhood by neighborhood, house by house, evacuating the women and children, so far as this is possible, and processing all men of military age. The processing will be to catalog them using biometric identification—fingerprints and facial scans—and to impose on them the strictest controls and scrutiny. Hamas leaders and attackers who can be specifically identified—and they posted hundreds of hours of footage of their attacks on the internet—should be executed, and many of their helpers will have to be imprisoned.
What is required will be one of the most intrusive and intensive counter-insurgency campaigns ever attempted. It can be done. Despite the public perception, counter-insurgency wars are winnable, and most of them are successful. But it will be brutal and wearing and require exactly the kind of sustained effort Israel has been trying to avoid for decades. I don’t think the Israelis remotely want to do this. But they can’t go back to the status quo ante, and the other alternatives—the truly biblical, Old Testament options—are ethnic cleansing or genocide.
What Comes After Pax Americana
If disengagement didn’t work for Israel, it won’t work for us, either. The current bipartisan consensus of American foreign policy is to retreat from the world. The Republican Party, which 20 years ago defined itself, in part, by its hawkishness, is now embracing isolationism. Yes, there is an argument that the term “isolationist” originated as a caricature—but in this respect, as in so many others, Republicans have embraced and embodied their worst caricature.
Consider, for example, that the one thing House Republican radicals won for themselves in the recent budget showdown was the removal of funding for Ukraine. The party that spent the Cold War going toe-to-toe with the Russians is now beginning to run interference for Russia.
The Democrats have begun to turn more hawkish now that they’re the ones with a partisan interest in giving the Russians a bloody nose. But they are doing so after decades of reflexively denouncing America as the villain in every world event and urging us to retreat from engagement with the world. This is an attitude that was extended long ago to Israel. Observe how the party’s horribly misnamed “progressive” wing has practically been cheering on the Hamas massacre and shifting all the blame to Israel.
The symbol of this bipartisan foreign policy—its high point or low point, depending on how you look at it—is the disastrous withdrawal from Afghanistan two years ago. It was truly bipartisan: a policy crafted by Donald Trump and implemented by Joe Biden.
That this led to brutal rule by the Taliban was predictable. But since then, the Russian invasion of Ukraine revealed what is likely to happen across the world as America withdraws. Russia’s invasion had many of the same characteristics as this new Hamas attack. First, it was suicidal, motivated by resentment and wounded imperial pride, but in a way that is obviously damaging to any rational conception of Russian interests. Second, it was murderous, with looting, rape, torture, and slaughter carried out indiscriminately and as ends in themselves. And third: We were unprepared.
Russia’s attack on Ukraine and Hamas’ attack on Israel are reminders that the alternative to Pax Americana is the law of the jungle. A “multipolar world,” in which America is just one power among many and no longer capable of shaping world events, would be a chaos more barbaric than most people realize.
This is not a state of the world that is in our interests. As just one indication, I’ve seen reports of increased airport security in the U.S. this weekend, as well as at American synagogues. Most flights to Israel have been canceled. We will not be able to sit back comfortably behind our oceanic moat. This is a reminder of how much of the world and trade and our freedom of action will shrink if the fires of war are once again unleashed. And it is just a preview of the inferno that will consume us if America withdraws from the defense of liberal democracy and global order.