NEW YORK – Here is one of the more astonishing facts of an already fairly astonishing war: The tunnels that Hamas has dug under Gaza’s border with Israel — tunnels designed not for commerce, but for kidnapping — reportedly contain tranquilizers and handcuffs, seemingly meant to be used by Hamas terrorists to gain physical control over Israelis they’ve seized.
I sometimes find it tiring to listen to Israeli spokesmen ask the same question over and over again: What would you want your leaders to do if your country’s enemies were firing rockets at your home?
The answer these spokesmen seek doesn’t come entirely easily these days. This is in part because much of the world suffers from a kind of Hamas-specific amnesia, in which the group’s past deeds (hundreds of murdered Israelis) and extreme goals are forgotten as soon as they are learned. But it’s also in part because the success of the Iron Dome anti-rocket system complicates the whole subject a bit.
The Iron Dome batteries could have provided Israeli policymakers with at least one answer that was short of immediate aerial retaliation, or eventual ground invasion. Israel might have been smarter, at the outset of the war, to absorb some of these initial attacks (assuming, of course, that it had continued good luck in interception). This would have ultimately made its cause slightly easier to explain to the world.
A delayed, or minimalist, response to the rocket attacks would have also denied Hamas an obvious battlefield victory: Hamas’ morally perverted but tactically clever goal is to maximize Palestinian civilian casualties. Its rockets are bait. And Israel has become expert at taking the bait.
But there is no Iron Dome for tunnels. The tunnels give me real pause. It’s hard enough to imagine a situation in which your neighbors are quite intentionally trying to blow up your house and kill your children with rockets. But Hamas’ well-developed kidnapping strategy represents a whole other category of depravity. The handcuffs and tranquilizers are mere baroque, Pulp Fictionish details. The core depravity of Hamas is its long-standing policy of treating every Jew as a target for elimination.
So I would ask this question: What would you want your government to do if your enemy was digging tunnels under your village, in order to pop out at night to kill or kidnap you?
Could you imagine taking the risk that members of your family might be seized, dragged underground, handcuffed and tranquilized, and then held in the dark, perhaps for years, perhaps never to come home? Hamas terrorists have recently emerged from these tunnels inside Israel multiple times. This is not a theoretical threat.
An honest person would answer this question the following way: I would prefer that my government do whatever it must do to make sure that terrorists are not constructing tunnels under my house in order to kidnap me or members of my family.
Israel is a disputatious, fragmented, politically discordant place. But the country has been remarkably unified these past two weeks, in large part because Israelis — even those who find their government’s West Bank settlement project destructive and self-defeating, and who find their prime minister reactionary and unfeeling — understand the tactical and strategic goals of Hamas. The tactical goals are to terrorize Israelis and bring about the international de-legitimization of Israel. The strategic goal — the theological goal, in fact — is to bring about the end of their country.
The center-left columnist Ari Shavit seemed to speak for most Israelis when he wrote: “What are we fighting for? Our home. The Jewish people was a people without a home, who managed the impossible, and created a home for itself. The State of Israel is a miracle. We must not give up this miracle. We must not endanger it, and we must not take its existence for granted.
“When dark forces try to annihilate it, we must defend it. When hypocritical, self-righteous forces try to weaken it, we must make it stronger. We are surrounded by a new threat of Muslim Arab chaos. Enemies seeking our blood amass at our walls.”
They amass under their feet, as well. This is why Israelis appear adamant that any cease-fire agreement reached between the parties must eradicate the threat of these kidnapping tunnels, at a minimum. Anything short of this will fail to bring any stability to the region.
Hamas, which is incapable of envisioning peace and reconciliation like advocates for a two-state solution, and which has already rejected multiple calls for cease-fires, is demanding that Israel and Egypt (which has Gaza’s southern border blockaded as well) reopen both Gaza’s borders and its ports.This would be insanity.
For years, Hamas leaders demanded that Israel allow them to import concrete in order to build homes for Gaza’s poor. We now know where so much of this concrete went — into the tunnels that run under Israel’s border, and into bunkers and bomb shelters for Gaza’s ruling elite. (The civilians of Gaza, the ones exposed to Israel’s bombardments, do not benefit from these exclusive bomb shelters.)
The regime in Qatar, Hamas’ main friend in the region, is sympathetic to the group’s demand. No one else seems to be. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry is right to seek a cease-fire, but the price should not be an agreement to allow an unreformed Hamas to engage in free, uninspected, commerce.
Kerry appears to be pushing for a cease-fire that would allow Israel to continue the hunt for these tunnels. There is no way Israel would agree to a cease-fire without this right.
This is the third time that Hamas and Israel have fought since Israel withdrew its settlers and soldiers from Gaza in 2005 (a moment at which Gaza’s Palestinians found themselves with the opportunity, ultimately unseized, to build something other than tunnels and rocket launchers).
There will surely be another conflict unless Hamas is disarmed, or unless President Mahmoud Abbas’ more moderate Palestinian Authority can somehow be brought back to power in Gaza.
This is highly unlikely, both because the Palestinian Authority is weak and because Hamas will not willingly negotiate away the weapons that allow it to terrorize Israelis.
Israel, then, is faced with three enormous and difficult tasks:
• It must do a much better job of minimizing Palestinian casualties as it fights Hamas, because this is a moral necessity and a strategic imperative.
• It must also do something it hasn’t done well at all, which is to create an alternate reality on the West Bank, one that shows Palestinians a different and brighter sort of future than the one promised by Hamas.
• And, as its main task now, it must ensure that its citizens aren’t kidnapped and murdered by a group that seeks not an equitable two-state solution but the annihilation of their country.
Jeffrey Goldberg is a columnist for Bloomberg View writing about the Middle East, U.S. foreign policy and national affairs. He is a national correspondent for the Atlantic.