The limits of vengeance
We should be careful to avoid natural outrage inspiring irrationality
“Germany has sowed the wind, now it shall reap the whirlwind,” Churchill said after bombs had rained down on Coventry. It only took five years for Nazism to be reduced to little but ash and rubble. The Nazis had brought “scorched earth” war to Europe, and all too quickly they felt the consequences of their actions.
I am sure similar thoughts were going through many of our minds on October 7th. Israel and her citizens were victims of a horrific massacre — engineered by evil men revelled in the torture, humiliation and killing of innocent men, women and children. Those who had committed and supported such evil acts, many concluded, had to be wiped off the earth as we might squash a bug.
This impulse is understandable. Indeed, given historic attempts to eliminate the Jewish people, it is more than understandable. This history — more recent than many care to recall — has not been stopped in its appalling tracks. It has continued. The history of Israel is littered with attempts to wipe it from the map by its neighbours. The state endures a level of international scrutiny that regimes with much worse human rights records avoid.
Yet, as Hobbes warned us, our natural passions are intemperate and unlikely to establish any form of stability. Rather than resolving the conflict, revenge only deepens the entrenchment — spreading violence and diminishing the possibility of future cooperation. The victory is only temporary, with each side stewing in resentment of the other.
That revenge breeds violence and distrust, stifling the potential for political ideas to allow us to transcend a cycle of violence. Whilst pro-Palestine Internet revolutionaries may be fond of Franz Fanon and Jean-Paul Sartre, this ignores the inconvenient fact that violence alone cannot establish statehood. As Hannah Arendt argued in On Revolution, the centralising of violence in revolution undermines it — poisoning the principles that inspired one to act in the first place.
The Israel–Palestine question has delivered anything and everything but political order. Dating back over a century, it has been a cycle of revenge which neither side has managed to escape. Israel may be a state, but it suffers from a continual drumbeat of violence against its citizens — punctuated by exceptionally atrocious crimes. Palestine is no state, and despite significant international support Palestinians feel further from statehood than they have ever been.
Hamas carried out this attack, we can be sure, knowing the reaction which would come. Not unlike Osama Bin Laden, who believed the US lacked the stomach for a long fight but anticipated a swift response, Hamas have invited Israel onto the offensive hoping to provoke the chaos and violence that has been unleashed.
Military options alone will not solve this conflict and could exacerbate it
“Who cares what they hope,” one might be tempted to respond. Yet the past thirty years should have taught Israel that their desire to destroy Hamas is likely to be thwarted. As a terrorist group, Hamas does not have a standing army. It cannot be confronted through traditional means. It has a long history of operating out of civilian institutions, such as schools, hospitals and apartment buildings. This is not simply borne out of an arguable necessity but a deliberate choice: placing Palestinian civilians between themselves and Israeli bombs and bullets. It is a coward’s choice but an effective one, leading to profound ethical and tactical dilemmas.
Previous incursions into both Lebanon and the territories have not led to the destruction of terrorist groups. At best these groups have been degraded in the short term but carried on to fight another day. At worst they have gained sympathy, regional support and ever more recruits to fight their ideological battle. This is not to say Israel doesn’t have a right to defend itself. Nor does it suggest Israel should make no response to this latest devastating assault. However, military options alone will not solve this conflict and could exacerbate the crisis.
Hamas provoking a strong Israeli response will only help to legitimise the organisation. Palestinian civilians are unlikely to see the carpet bombing as the fault of those who attacked the Israelis, but as the rotten fruits of the enduring malice of the people they already see as occupiers. As terrorists cower in the tunnels they have carefully dug out, innocent civilians will die, and Hamas will be there to take advantage of the ruins. Paradoxically, the stronger the Israeli response to such atrocities, the greater the chance of a renewed terrorist threat emerging in the region.
Despite the noble intentions of Michael Walzer, I cannot see either the destruction of Hamas or a just peace arriving out of these desperate circumstances. We are forgoing essential humility and leaning on our outrage, which, as well-founded as it is, can give us the unreasonable sense that whatever follows will be vindicated. This was, of course, what American leaders thought after 9/11, too.
The only answer in the long term is de-escalation. That is not tantamount to the kind of rogue pacifism that Jeremy Corbyn offers up. Instead, it is the need for a proportionate response, re-engagement with genuine actors for peace, and a process of mutual grieving for each other’s losses. Destroying Hamas is a political as well as military endeavour. You cannot defeat an ideology with bullets alone. Vengeance may feel good, and even right, but it is a poor substitute for resolving the conditions that have bred violence in the first place.
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