In a short speech from the White House on Tuesday, President Biden declared that the United States “stands with Israel.” He described the events of the weekend as “pure unadulterated evil” and said that Israel had not just a right but a “duty” to respond to Hamas’s attack with force. Already, a relentless Israeli campaign of airstrikes on the densely populated Palestinian enclave has killed at least 920 Palestinians, with reports and images coming out from the territory of overflowing hospitals and neighborhoods flattened.
In Israel, the shock of the strike has given way to a steely resolve. Questions loom over the astonishing intelligence failure that preceded Hamas’s assault, as well as the political future of polarizing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who failed to thwart the carnage. For now, though, authorities are projecting a show of unity. “Before we go and ask ourselves tough questions, we have a mission,” Gen. Dan Goldfuss, who commands the country’s 98th Paratroopers Division, told reporters Tuesday. “We are moving into the offensive now with all kinds of capabilities and angles.”
He added that the goal of the Israeli campaign would be to “teach the other side that there is no way that they can do this without us changing the reality.” That’s grim tidings for the more than 2 million people trapped within the Gaza Strip, roughly half of whom are children.
The unprecedented nature of what’s taken place and the uncertainty of what comes next has led to analysts reaching back into the past for some precedent. Here are three analogies that may help readers think through the broad, tragic sweep of what’s in motion.
The most immediate parallel that emerged in the wake of Hamas’s attack was reference to the al-Qaeda strike on the United States on Sept. 11, 2001. Per capita, in terms of the death toll, Israel suffered multiple 9/11s on Saturday. But the analogy lies in the shock and surprise of what happened, in the scale of the tragedy, and in the overwhelming national desire for retribution. “The effect this will have on our collective psyche and our shared consciousness, on our very sense of security and our confidence in our ability to live freely and securely in this land — it will be felt for decades if not generations,” wrote Avi Mayer, editor in chief of the Jerusalem Post who hailed the moment as Israel’s 9/11.
The analogy carries some worrying implications: The United States spent the better part of two decades prosecuting costly wars on terror, invading countries and casting a global dragnet against Islamist extremists. But the Islamist militant threat has not been expunged. The Taliban is back in power in Afghanistan and Iraq remains a geopolitical powder keg, somewhat aligned to Iran’s theocratic regime.
An Israeli victory over Hamas hardly guarantees a lasting peace. “Even assuming Hamas can be destroyed, neither Biden nor Netanyahu can answer the hard questions about what happens after Israel’s retribution: who will run Gaza, and what will be the status of the Palestinians in Israel’s midst?” noted the Economist’s Gregg Carlstrom.
Until this Saturday, no day in Israeli history had been as uniquely traumatic as Oct. 6, 1973, when the armies of Egypt and Syria launched a coordinated surprise invasion of Israeli territory in the Sinai Peninsula and Golan Heights. Israel eventually recovered its footing and pushed back the Arab forces with U.S. military aid. The battles then were existential — it seemed, if briefly, that the fledgling Israeli state could be snuffed out. That’s less the case today, given the vast asymmetry of power between Israel and the militant factions arrayed against it.
But the outlook may be all the more bleak. “Victory, even if definable, will likely be Pyrrhic,” wrote former Israeli diplomat Michael Oren. “The 1973 war created the conditions for negotiations between Egypt and Israel and led, six years later, to the Camp David Accords. But Egypt’s president at the time, Anwar Sadat, sought peace; Hamas’s leaders seek genocide.”
On Tuesday, Biden recalled his encounter with then-prime minister Golda Meir, whom he met as a young senator on a trip to Israel that took place some five weeks before the breakout of the Yom Kippur War. He said that Meir confided in him that Israel’s “secret weapon” was that its people had “nowhere else to go.”
This week, the more urgent question is where will Gaza’s 2 million people go. On Tuesday, an Israeli official told the country’s Channel 13 that Gaza would be reduced to “a city of tents.” The border crossings are shut, for now, and the death toll is steadily rising.
1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon
In the summer of 1982, Israeli troops, with tacit U.S. backing, entered Lebanon to eliminate the presence there of the Palestine Liberation Organization. Israel’s forces even besieged the capital Beirut for two months. While they succeeded in driving the PLO out of Lebanon, the legacy of “Israel’s first large-scale ground war against a non-state entity,” as Kim Ghattas wrote in the Financial Times, was that of a costly strategic blunder.
Right-wing Lebanese Christian militias allied to the Israelis carried out the hideous massacres of up to 2,000 Palestinians at the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps, as well as hundreds of Lebanese civilians. In reaction to the invasion, Syria and Iran forged an “axis of resistance” that shapes the geopolitical equation to this day.
“The lesson of the past four decades is also that every attempt to wipe out Palestinian armed groups has only produced more extreme iterations and worse conundrums,” Ghattas wrote. “Two days after Israel’s invasion of Lebanon, a planeload of Iranian Revolutionary Guards arrived in Damascus and headed to Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley with Syrian president Hafez al-Assad’s blessing. Since Iran arrived in the Levant, it has never left.”
Ghattas concluded: “The danger now is of more strategic blunders that will only perpetuate the violence for years to come.”