The Convention Against Torture says that “no exceptional circumstances whatsoever … may be invoked as a justification of torture.” The same applies to deliberately murdering infants, children, elderly people, and other defenseless human beings. No amount of whataboutism justifies the terrorist attacks Hamas carried out against Israeli civilians. Sure, civilian casualties aren’t uncommon in an armed conflict, and as tragic as that may be, it’s not a crime. Collateral damage – a sterile term for death and destruction – is an inevitable consequence of war. In this case, however, civilian deaths were not a collateral consequence, they were the intended consequence, and the United States and other countries have rightfully condemned Hamas for these atrocities.
While Hamas must be held accountable for the war crimes it committed, events like this also call for an examination of what led up to it. Understanding why it happened this time helps mitigate the risk of there being a next time. There is a long history of conflict between Israelis and Palestinians, and likely there’s a collection of factors rather than a single one that culminated in over a thousand deaths. I lack the depth of knowledge for a comprehensive discussion of why Hamas chose to attack or how Israel allowed it to happen, but I want to address one factor that should serve as a warning to all Americans about the path we’re on.
Yuval Noah Harari is an author and a professor at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Amos Guiora is a retired member of the Israel Defense Forces and a law professor at the University of Utah, and we’ve been friends for over twenty years. Both wrote op-eds – Professor Harari in the Washington Post and Amos Guiora in the Salt Lake Tribune – that identify the populist fervor fomented by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as one of the factors that contributed to the massive death toll.
Professor Harari writes that the State of Israel was “missing in action” when Hamas attacked because Israel is in a state of dysfunction due to populism. He calls Netanyahu a “populist strongman … who is a public-relations genius but an incompetent prime minister.” Professor Harari says that Netanyahu “has repeatedly preferred his personal interests over the national interest and has built his career on dividing the nation against itself. He has appointed people to key positions based on loyalty rather than qualifications, taken credit for every success while never taking responsibility for failures, and seemed to give little importance to either telling or hearing the truth.” Populism, according to Professor Harari, “corroded the Israeli state and should serve as a warning to other democracies around the world.”
Amos Guiora writes that “notwithstanding his imperiousness, Netanyahu bears absolute responsibility for where we find ourselves.” He says Netanyahu’s “acquiescence … to extreme, racist right-wing parties” led to the deployment of Israel Defense Forces to the West Bank to protect Jewish settlers committing “pogroms against innocent Palestinians,” which left Israel’s southern border along the Gaza Strip undefended and thousands of Israelis helpless.
When Hamas terrorists attacked Israel that Saturday morning, how prepared were we? The United States does not have a confirmed ambassador to Israel, or to Egypt, Oman, or Kuwait, key Middle East countries. Posts for the State Department’s top counterterrorism envoy and the human rights envoy are vacant. Thanks to Senator Tommy Tuberville, over 300 senior military promotions are on hold, leaving the officers slated to head the Navy and the Navy’s Fifth Fleet in limbo. Four days before the attack, the House of Representatives fired Speaker Kevin McCarthy, leaving the post empty and the House in disarray. Last month, Donald Trump suggested that outgoing Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Mark Milley should be put to death. Last week, he praised Hezbollah and took revenge on Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who didn't back his stolen election sham. On the day Hamas terrorists struck Israel, American unity and preparedness were missing in action.
At a meeting of influential donors this week, Senator Mitt Romney said Republicans are “schizophrenic … we don’t know what we are or what we stand for within our party,” leaving Republicans unable to address complex issues. He said the word “bipartisan” has become “an evil word” as has “compromise.” Former Speaker of the House Paul Ryan warned that the Republican party is driven by “populism untethered to principles” and instead tethered to “the cult of Donald Trump’s personality.”
Populism, whether it’s here in America or in Israel, is destructive. It weakens rather than strengthens.
America’s military remains strong, but America as a nation is as fractured and weak as it’s been in my lifetime. Pulling us apart isn’t a collateral consequence of normal political wrangling, it’s the intended consequence of those who want to corrode the ties that bind us. In times like these, we need to turn to selfless servants and away from selfish actors who use division to benefit themselves. If America fails, it won’t be because of Hamas, or ISIS, or Russia, or China. There’ll be no one to blame but us.