The Hamas Terrorist Attacks, the Gaza Humanitarian Catastrophe, and the Israel-Palestine Conflict: Reflections from David Snelbecker, IDG’s CEO

I am writing to share some personal reflections on the last few months of events in Israel and Palestine—on the Hamas terrorist attacks, the humanitarian catastrophe unfolding in Gaza under Israel’s military incursion, and the overall Israel-Palestine conflict. I am pro-Palestine. And I am pro-Israel. I see these two positions not as contradictory but as mutually consistent and based on my general beliefs in the rights of all peoples to live in freedom, security, and economic prosperity—the very same core general beliefs that motivate me to engage in supporting international development globally. I am half-Jewish, which gives me a personal tie to Israel, although the only time I’ve ever visited Israel was when temporarily residing there while crossing over each day to Ramallah, in the Palestinian territories, working as an advisor to the Palestinian Authority on a project trying to help with monetary and fiscal policy, so I also have some professional ties to Palestine as well. These are my own personal views and not intended to be interpreted as an official organizational statement.

The violence of the last few months in Israel and Gaza has been shocking. In the October 7 terrorist attack, Hamas killed 1200 Israelis, mostly civilians including women, children and babies, and Hamas injured hundreds more, used widespread sexual violence against women and girls as a weapon of war, and kidnapped over two hundred people ranging in age from nine months to 84 years. This was the worst atrocity committed against Jewish people since World War II and the Holocaust, and it was the third largest terrorist attack in terms of civilian deaths anywhere in the world in the last half-century (only after 9/11 in the US in 2001 and an ISIL attack in Iraq in 2014). Israel’s subsequent war on Hamas has led to almost 20,000 Palestinian deaths, mostly civilians, 70% of whom have been women and children, as Israel indiscriminately pursues Hamas leaders and fighters who hide among the civilian population and use civilians as human shields. More children were killed by Israeli military action in several months in Gaza than all the children killed in conflicts around the world over all of 2022. And the internal displacement of Palestinians has been greater than any time since the “Nakba” (the “catastrophe”, during which 700,000 Palestinians were displaced around 1948 during Israel’s founding). Palestinian families in Gaza face death, destruction of their homes, starvation, disease, and constant upheaval as they flee from one bombed area to another.

Reactions to all this violence in the United States and globally have been alarming. Extremist voices on both sides have dominated attention, in each case condemning some horrors while remaining silent on others, while more moderate voices have mostly stayed quiet or issued bland statements that don’t actually take any positions on core moral issues. In the US and globally, antisemitism and Islamophobia are exponentially rising. On US college campuses: a threat was made against Jewish students to shoot them and cut their throats; a rock with a threatening antisemitic message on it was thrown through a window; antisemitic rants are increasing on anonymous student chat platforms; pro-Palestine students are losing job offers, having their organizations closed, and having their speech prohibited; and a mobile billboard was hauled around town publicly shaming a Palestinian-American professor for not condemning the initial Hamas attack when in fact she had done exactly that – and all this happened just on the several college campuses where members of my family attend as students. Elsewhere in the US, a Jewish protester in Los Angeles was hit over the head by a pro-Palestine demonstrator and died of his injuries, three Palestinian-American students in Vermont were shot in a hate crime, and a Palestinian-American family in Chicago was stabbed by an assailant in a hate crime in which a six-year-old child died.

Where do we go from here? How can this cycle of violence be unwound, and how is it possible for people on both sides of the conflict to find common ground? Five outcomes seem, to me at least, to be essential for the way forward from here—none of which will be easy to achieve:

First, Israel must follow the rules of humanitarian law (including the Geneva Conventions), and the US and the international community must pressure Israel to do so (even when Hamas ignores these rules, which it always does). The numbers of civilian deaths in Gaza directly resulting from Israeli military action, especially among children, has been horrific and is morally indefensible. As long as Hamas leaders and fighters cowardly hide among children, there are going to be civilian casualties, but Israel needs to do its very best to follow a basic code of conduct of war: to minimize civilian casualties, to not engage in collective punishment of the population, to permit in humanitarian aid, and to ensure proportionality of its actions. “Proportionality” means that Israel must ensure that military actions do not cause more civilian harm than is proportional to (or justified given) the military objectives achieved. Disproportionality in terms of excessive civilian harm given military objectives achieved is a war crime, and so is collective punishment of an entire population. Israeli authorities should be criticized and held accountable for the astounding extent of loss of civilian life, and they should be pressured to drastically change their military tactics going forward to adequately ensure minimal civilian harm.

Second, Hamas must be eliminated to the maximum extent possible from Gaza, and no longer permitted to maintain any military threat or significant political presence in Gaza. Israel has a moral right and even an obligation to bring an end to Hamas’s reign in Gaza after its terrorist attack, in order to provide for Israel’s basic security. As just noted above, this objective cannot morally be achieved by any means necessary but rather must be pursued in a manner that maximally safeguards civilian lives. Nonetheless, Israeli citizens have a right to live free of rockets raining down on them and free of fear of a repeat terrorist attack. Pauses in fighting that facilitate hostage releases or delivery of humanitarian aid should be welcomed. However, telling Israel to entirely cease its war against Hamas would be like telling the United States after 9/11 or after Pearl Harbor to do nothing. Countries need to have a right to keep their people safe and defend against attacks. Moreover, to anyone who supports Palestine’s freedom and self-determination, I would note that there is no way that these outcomes ever can be achieved as long as Hamas rules Gaza – not only would Israel and the US not permit this, but also Egypt, Jordan and several Gulf states would never allow an Iran-backed terrorist organization to rule a free and independent Palestine, despite what these states might say publicly. Hamas’s presence makes a free and unified Palestine impossible.

Third, in addition to addressing the immediate recent events (Hamas’s attack and Israel’s response), Israel, Palestine and the international community need to address the underlying systemic issue by actually achieving a two-state solution. Palestinians deserve freedom, self-determination, and a significant degree of sovereignty. The path to a two-state solution needs to be made clear and short, as a process that directly flows from the current hell. The recent horrific events do not change the underlying dynamic of the region: Israel’s apartheid-like occupation and blockade of Gaza and the West Bank over many decades deprives Palestinians of their basic human rights and creates conditions in which widespread support for terrorism can fester and in which Israel can never be secure. King Abdullah II of Jordan wrote in a recent Washington Post editorial: “What happens next will be a turning point for the entire globe. A concerted international effort to develop a regional architecture of peace, security and prosperity, built on a Palestinian-Israeli peace based on the two-state solution, is a priority. It is up to responsible leaders to deliver results, starting now.” The Oslo Accords from the 1990s can be a starting point for this.

Fourth, stronger leadership on these issues is needed in Palestine, in Israel, in the US, and globally. In Palestine, not only must Hamas be removed, but the leadership of the Palestinian Authority also needs a revamp – a new generation of competent Palestinian leaders is needed who are proactive, who have the administrative capability not only to govern the West Bank but also to take on overseeing the rebuilding and governance of Gaza, and who have the confidence of the Palestinian people and are not viewed by the Palestinian population as corrupt. In Israel, Israelis need to reckon with all that Prime Minister Netanyahu has wrought on their country over several decades during which he has served repeatedly as prime minister and in other top roles: a twenty-year stalemate in resolving the Palestinian question during which Palestinian resentments only grew; aggressive actions that expanded settlements in the West Bank and exacerbated the political situation; increased corruption and authoritarianism at home; and a shift in intelligence and military resources toward the West Bank where Netanyahu’s personal political interests lay and away from Gaza where in hindsight much more focus was needed. Netanyahu’s main shortcoming is that he is a small thinker. He consistently has put his personal interests, to consolidate his political power and to protect himself from corruption investigations, over the interests of the country as a whole. Each year, my family has celebrated the Spring Passover holiday in the house in suburban Philadelphia where I grew up, which happens to be a ten-minute drive from where Netanyahu grew up – Netanyahu spent is teen years also in the Philadelphia area, where his father worked as a teacher for some time. And each year in our Passover dinner when it comes time to name modern-day plagues, someone in the family always names Netanyahu, who has been an impediment to democracy and peace in Israel for decades. As Israeli opposition leader Yair Lapid said recently: “Netanyahu must go now!” Israelis need to replace Netanyahu and his extremist government with a forward-looking government that will rein in the settlers and take the brave visionary steps needed to move Israel toward recognizing an independent Palestine, while simultaneously protecting legitimate security interests. In the US, political leaders need to put far more time and effort into catalyzing specific solutions to the conflict. No US administration, Democratic or Republican, has made any significant steps forward in resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflicts since the Bill Clinton administration. Strong and proactive US intervention is needed to drive a peace process forward that yields a geographically contiguous and economically viable Palestine as part of a two-state solution, supported by a massive economic reconstruction effort, building Palestinian institutions of governance, and some system of international security safeguards to protect Israel. Similarly, leaders in Egypt, Jordan, and the Gulf States need to step up their political support for a balanced, negotiated settlement. And international foreign assistance providers should be making plans now for how to support the rebuilding of Gaza and the creation of effective governance institutions across a unified Palestine.

Fifth, around the world, there is a need for a lot fewer expressions from people that are only “pro-Israel” or only “pro-Palestine”, and a need for a lot more expressions that are simultaneously “pro-Israel” and “pro-Palestine.” In an important New York Times editorial, Amaney Jamal, Dean of Princeton University’s School of Public and International Affairs (a Palestinian-American), and Keren Yarhi-Milo, Dean of Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs (an Israeli-American), recently wrote: “Condemnation of the Oct. 7 massacre of Israeli civilians by Hamas — and calling it out as an act of terrorism — shouldn’t be avoided out of risk of offending Palestinians and their supporters. Not condemning the terrorist attacks is a failure of a moral core, and by no means should condemnation of terrorism be viewed as incompatible with believing in Palestinian rights and statehood, alongside Israel. Terrorism is, by common understanding, an attack on all humanity.” Similarly, it is not inherently antisemitic to condemn Israel for its indiscriminate and disproportional violence against Gazan civilians, or for its longstanding occupation and blockade of the Palestinian territories. A belief in basic universal moral values should lead us to criticize clear moral failings regardless of who commits them (including condemning Islamophobia, antisemitism and other hate speech), and to support the rights of both of these peoples to live in peace, security and economic prosperity.