After the 9/11 attacks, the United States faced a momentous choice: should it engage in a narrowly targeted counterterrorism campaign, one designed to bring Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda to justice, or attempt to fight terrorism and remake the Middle East through much more expansive wars of regime change?
The US made the latter choice — and blundered into one of the greatest foreign policy disasters in the country’s 250-year history.
I fear that Israel is on the verge of making the same mistake. In the wake of the worst terrorist attack in its history — one that President Joe Biden described as being “like 15 9/11s,” given the scale of the death toll versus Israel’s smaller size — it is poised to launch a ground invasion with the stated objective of “toppling Hamas and destroying its military capabilities.”
But some of the means it has used to wage this war, including shutting off water and electricity to Gaza, are morally indefensible — much as elements of America’s 9/11 reaction were. Some of the rhetoric on the Israeli side has tended toward the extreme and the dehumanizing, as when Defense Minister Yoav Gallant said, “We are fighting human animals, and we act accordingly.”
Moreover, every report out of Israel suggests the government has zero answer to the “day after” problem: what does Israel do in Gaza once they’ve toppled Hamas’ government? This is the exact problem the United States faced in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the one that led it into a strategic and moral abyss — hundreds of thousands, perhaps even millions dead, and trillions of dollars wasted on wars that made the world less secure.
But at the same time, Israel cannot simply do nothing. Governments have an obligation to protect their citizens. With Israelis still sifting through evidence of torture, and captives languishing in Hamas custody, nearly everyone in Israel agrees that the country must fight to create an environment where a repeat of this attack becomes unthinkable. Given the demonstrated nature of the Hamas threat, military force has to be part of that equation.
Two things are true: Israel must do something, and what it’s doing now is indefensible. So what’s the alternative?
I put this question to anyone I could think of: a large group ranging from retired Israeli officers to Palestinian intellectuals to counterterrorism experts to scholars of the ethics and law of war. I read everything I could find on the topic, scouring reporting and the academic literature for better ideas.
The answer that emerged was deceptively simple: make the right choice where America made the wrong one. Israel should launch a targeted counterrorism operation aimed at Hamas leadership and the fighters directly involved in the October 7 attack, one that focuses on minimizing both civilian casualties and the scope of ground operations in Gaza.
“Go in for a few weeks or less, trying to find Hamas leaders and destroying tunnels, weapons caches, etc,” says Dan Byman, a professor at Georgetown who studies Israeli counterterrorism.
But this counterterrorism approach must be paired with a broader political outreach designed to address the root causes of Hamas’ support.
In her book How Terrorism Ends, Carnegie Mellon professor Audrey Kurth Cronin examined roughly 460 terrorist groups to figure out what caused their collapse. She found that pure repression — trying to crush them with military force — rarely works. And in the few cases that it does, like in Sri Lanka’s long campaign against the Tamil Tigers, it tends to require an unthinkable level of sustained and indiscriminate violence.
“Israel, as a democracy, is extremely ill-suited for the long-term repression approach to counterterrorism,” she told me.
That means, once the current war ends, Israel needs to begin addressing the root causes of Hamas support. That starts with rolling back its de facto annexation of the West Bank — making life better there to show Palestinians that cooperation, not conflict, is the pathway toward a better future, and that Israel can be a reliable partner in that future. Absent this political outreach, the most counterterrorism can do is buy Israel some time at the cost of Palestinian life.
This dual approach — counterterrorism now, paired with future political outreach to Palestinians — is not perfect. Hamas is an antisemitic organization dedicated to wiping Israel off the map; Israelis are entirely justified in wanting its regime eliminated. And even a more limited operation will still be terrible in human terms — for both Israeli soldiers fighting in an exceptionally dangerous urban environment and for Palestinian civilians every bit as innocent as the Israelis killed on October 7.
But the truth is that Hamas’ attack, and the disastrous decisions on both sides that preceded it, have painted Israel into a corner where it has no good policy option. Of all the possible options, a focused counterterrorism strategy is the best, most realistic military option available on every level — strategically, morally, and politically.
Israel must learn the lessons of America’s experience after 9/11. If it doesn’t, it risks making the gravest mistake of its history — and causing untold harm to millions of innocent Palestinians.
The military case for counterterrorism
Gaza is, on the whole, a relatively urbanized place, with large population centers including Gaza City in the north and Khan Younis in the south. We know for a fact that Hamas is based in these cities and has built an extensive network of tunnels under them to facilitate movement. This creates what military analysts call a four-plane conflict environment — with Israeli soldiers having to watch for threats in the sky, the buildings, the street, and below ground.
Clearing and holding this kind of environment poses an immense challenge for the Israel Defense Forces (IDF). Their soldiers would need to move very slowly with limited air support, intentionally putting their own lives at risk — or else risk absolutely massive civilian casualties. Success also requires good intelligence, but the fact that Hamas managed such a horrific surprise attack on October 7 suggests that Israel’s understanding of militants in the Strip — including their defenses — may be much weaker than widely appreciated.
Military experts generally believe the IDF could surmount these challenges. It’s a capable military, by far the most powerful in the Middle East, with advanced technology and soldiers who have trained for operations like this.
Let’s say Israel does manage to seize control over Gaza. It can’t immediately leave, as then Hamas would quickly reconstitute itself as a governing entity. It can’t install a puppet regime and then leave, as the recently brutalized Gazan population would topple a collaborationist entity without IDF soldiers stationed in Gaza engaging in constant and bloody repression.
That means an Israeli regime change operation would all but inevitably lead to an indefinite Israeli military occupation of Gaza and extended counterinsurgency campaign. This appears to be what Gallant, Israel’s defense minister, proposed in a Friday cabinet meeting, in which he defined Israel’s war plan in three stages: defeating Hamas in an invasion, eliminating remaining “pockets of resistance” (i.e., counterinsurgency), and eventual “creation of a new security regime in the Gaza Strip [and] the removal of Israel’s responsibility for day-to-day life in the Gaza Strip.”
This would be much like what the United States attempted after toppling the Taliban in Afghanistan or Saddam Hussein in Iraq — except with an even greater degree of difficulty and a smaller likelihood of success.
The US military is considerably stronger than the IDF, did not have to worry about defending a border from terrorist attacks in the homeland, and was dealing with a civilian population that hated them approximately 100 times less than Gazans — even the many who do not support Hamas — currently hate Israel, which has immiserated them since 2007 through a crushing siege and has frequently killed Palestinians amid its various conflicts with Hamas.
“There were a lot of Iraqis who were glad to see Saddam gone — especially Shiites and Kurds,” says Marc Lynch, an expert on Arab politics at George Washington University. “But in this case, there’s no community like that in Gaza which views Israel as anything other than evil.”
Hamas, of course, knows all of this. It’s possible they would even offer token resistance to the initial regime change operation in order to be better prepared for an insurgency down the line.
“What Hamas is really thinking about is eight months from now,” says Hussein Ibish, a senior resident scholar at the Arab Gulf States Institute. “They can pick off Israeli soldiers, a few at a time, capture them, kill them.”
And the more Israel fights, the more likely it is that the war escalates beyond anyone’s control — with serious consequences for Israeli security.
The 9/11 attacks were designed to provoke the United States into overreaction, pulling it into unwinnable foreign conflicts and bleeding its treasury dry. Some experts on Hamas think the point of the militant group’s attack, the sheer brutality of targeting entire families, was to have a similar effect on Israel: to provoke an overly violent response that could widen the war to a regional conflagration.
“Designed to elicit a response so ‘disproportionate’ from Israel that it would draw international condemnation and overshadow memories of Hamas’ own violence, the operation could — by Hamas’ reasoning — bring others to its side,” writes Devorah Margolin, a fellow at the center-right Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “Such escalation could include a potential war with Hizballah in the north, uprisings in the West Bank, internal struggles fomented by Arab citizens of Israel, and targeting of both Israeli and Jewish targets abroad.”
Any regime change operation, then, will drag Israel into a nightmare: an occupation, measured in many years rather than months, that will lead to more of its soldiers dead and sap huge amounts of military resources that could be deployed elsewhere. It would turn the conflict with the Palestinians, already a serious security problem for Israel, into a regional nightmare with no end in sight. This will do untold damage to Israel’s standing on the global stage, potentially supercharging the global Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement it so fears.
So if not regime change, then what? Yagil Levy, a scholar of the IDF at the Open University of Israel, suggests “the obvious conclusion” is “to draw up far more modest aims for a ground operation, and preferably to avoid such an operation entirely.”
The objective would not be toppling Hamas, but rather severely weakening its military capabilities, deterring it and other organizations from near-term attacks, and taking away Hamas’ leverage by rescuing Israeli hostages.
Accomplishing the first two goals requires similar means: killing Hamas fighters, especially its leadership, and blowing up its weapon systems and tunnels. The more Hamas takes damage, the harder it will be — in literal organizational terms — for it to launch any more terrorist attacks in the immediate future.
And the more it suffers, the more likely it will be deterred from trying anything else in the near term — as hard as it is to imagine an organization that conducted the October 7 attacks being deterred by anything.
Groups like Hamas have to make strategic calculations about their capabilities to function as an organization; its leaders have to make calculations about how much of a risk to their own lives their decisions create. This imposes a degree of means-ends rationality on even organizations with millenarian or genocidal end goals — part of why Hezbollah, which has no shortage of enmity toward Israel, has not launched a full-scale war in the north. Deterrence is possible with Hamas too, albeit not easy.
“For deterrence to work, Hamas casualties need to be very high,” Byman tells me.
The third goal, bringing home hostages, may prove especially difficult given Israeli intelligence weaknesses. The best hope lies not in an overwhelming invasion — which would telegraph to Hamas that Israel is coming and give them time to execute their prisoners — but through surprise special forces raids. No one should delude themselves: the odds are not good for such a strategy to bring home most of the hostages. But again, it’s better than a full-scale regime change invasion.
Put these together, and the broad outlines of an alternative to regime change becomes clear. Israel should not try a full ground invasion that aims to put tanks in the streets of Gaza City. Instead, it should employ airstrikes and special forces targeted at high-value Hamas targets paired with limited mass ground operations — if any.
This strategy will depend heavily on Israel ensuring it has high-quality intelligence about what’s going on in Gaza. It will still involve significant airstrikes, which will inevitably kill civilians — the kind of death that has already outraged people around the world. Israel has both a strategic and moral imperative to keep this to a minimum, which is why taking the time to ensure it has the best possible intelligence is essential.
Victory can still be defined as “destroying Hamas,” but understood less as eradicating the organization entirely than as eliminating the elements of Hamas responsible for the attack. Specifically, this means the killing and capture of Hamas’ top leaders as well as the vast majority of foot soldiers who perpetrated atrocities on October 7, alongside parallel efforts to rescue as many hostages as possible.
Such accomplishments would not only be symbolic victories for Israel, but practical ones: with that many Hamas leaders and soldiers dead, the group would have difficulty executing another major attack anytime in the near to medium term.
Natan Sachs, the director of the Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution, compares such a policy to Israel’s early- to mid-2000s campaign of targeting Hamas leaders for assassination — one so effective that, at one point, the group refused to publicly name its new leader for fear that he’d be killed.
Sachs, along with many Israelis, believes this policy contributed to the end of the Second Intifada. While targeted killings obviously did not destroy Hamas entirely, they did play a role in weakening its ability to plan and execute attacks in the near term — and could do so again.
“In terms of prevention, [you need] a dramatic degrading of the Hamas military structure and the Hamas political wing reminiscent of the assassination campaigns of the mid-2000s,” he tells me.
It is not politically impossible for Israel’s leadership to scale down to such a campaign. A poll of Israeli Jews suggests roughly half support reoccupying all of Gaza, while the other half support a less aggressive approach. This likely undercounts Israeli opposition to reoccupation, as the survey excluded Arab citizens. This group makes up 20 percent of Israel’s population, and is far more critical of its use of force against Palestinians for obvious reasons.
Not just obvious reasons: good ones. As we’ve seen, any Israeli operations in Gaza carry with them immense human costs for Palestinians. Which makes it important not just to think in terms of Israeli security needs, but in balancing those needs against the moral imperative to avoid mass suffering and death among Palestinians.
And on that crucial metric, a more narrow counterterrorism campaign is vastly superior to an unlimited war of regime change.
The moral case for counterterrorism
Bradley Strawser, a former US Air Force captain, has an unusual job: he is a moral philosopher working for the US Navy. His title is professor of philosophy in the defense analysis department at the Naval Postgraduate School; his actual job description is teaching America’s special operators how to fight wars as ethically as possible.
When I asked Strawser how he would approach the current conflict between Israel and Hamas, he said that it was essential to hold two ideas in one’s head at the same time.
First, that Israel had not only a right but a moral obligation to respond to Hamas’ vicious attack on its civilian population.
This may not seem obvious, as a ceasefire would certainly lead to some immediate reduction in civilian suffering. Indeed, a temporary ceasefire to provide humanitarian relief before further Israeli escalation might well be a good idea.
But an indefinite ceasefire is politically impossible in Israel — no major faction could countenance it — for reasons that speak to the very purpose of having a state. Governments owe their citizens a duty of protection, to keep them safe from external threats. If Hamas is not militarily degraded and deterred by the end of this operation, the Israeli state will have failed in this basic task.
“Even with all the history, and even with their culpability and failures and how they’ve [wronged Palestinians] for decades, this is self-defense against horrific aggression. You have to respond,” Strawser says.
Second, that no matter how barbarous Hamas’ conduct, Israel cannot itself ignore the laws and moral codes governing warfare in response. While civilian casualties are a terrible inevitability in warfare, there are clear moral rules that any state must follow — even when facing a brutal enemy who disregards all of them like Hamas. Unfettered, a modern military like the IDF could cause carnage on an even more horrific scale than it already does.
“If you’re going to become the monster you fight, what’s the point of fighting the monster?” Strawser asks.
The dilemma he poses — Israel must act, but it must do so within moral limits — is the heart of the moral case for replacing a regime change strategy with counterterrorism. It is a way, perhaps the only way, to satisfy Israel’s legitimate security needs without crossing the line into brutality.
A regime change operation, one that sends IDF tanks into the urban core of places like Gaza City in the north, would inherently threaten civilians in the densest parts of the Strip, far more than the current bombing offensive. Though Israel has warned residents of the northern Gaza Strip to leave, this is exceptionally difficult to accomplish in practice.
They cannot get out entirely: neither Israel nor Egypt will accept mass numbers of Gazans into their borders. Within Gaza, they have trouble getting south: armed Hamas fighters have warned them not to leave, and the roads themselves are difficult and dangerous thanks to Israeli airstrikes. Nor is it obvious they’re willing to flee: given the history of Palestinian dispossession at Israeli hands, they have legitimate reason to worry that they will never be able to return if they leave.
So long as there are large numbers of Palestinians where Israel wants to invade, there is virtually no way for it to fight without massive civilian casualties.
Moreover, it matters morally that Israel has no clear endgame. If the post-invasion situation is almost certainly going to be a bloody insurgency, one that could strengthen Hamas in the long term, Israel would need — morally speaking — to make the case that it has a credible plan for achieving civilian security in the postwar environment. It would be profoundly unjust, and cruel, to either leave Palestinian civilians in anarchy or subject them to an painful occupation and years of bloody counterinsurgency.
Some of the tactics Israel has resorted to in preparation for such an expansive war — most notably the cutoff of electricity, water, and humanitarian supplies — are themselves obviously indefensible.
It is widely accepted that it’s immoral to intentionally starve civilians as part of a tactic to weaken your opponents: this kind of siege has, in recent history, been used only by the world’s most vile regimes (like Bashar al-Assad in Syria). If you think about the war against Hamas as a total existential war, it opens the moral door to a much more expansive set of potential tactics designed to facilitate this much more expansive objective — some of which amount to atrocities.
In moral terms, then, the case for limiting Israel’s ambitions is fairly straightforward: nothing it can hope to accomplish with a regime change operation can outweigh the harm it will do to civilians in the process.
In fact, there’s a very good case that there’s less tension between morality and military necessity in Gaza than it seems. A counterterrorism campaign would likely produce better strategic outcomes than a larger invasion in part because it kills fewer civilians, denying Hamas horrific imagery it could use to recruit more fighters or galvanize external forces like Hezbollah to come to its aid.
“The most important thing [strategically] is to separate Hamas, as a military organization, from the Palestinian population,” says Kurth Cronin, the Carnegie Mellon professor.
What force Israel may use, permissibly, needs to be tightly limited and designed to accomplish feasible ends. Regime change is not one of them — however understandable it may be for Israelis to want Hamas annihilated.
The political case for counterterrorism
Unprecedented disasters, like Hamas’ October 7 atrocity, force political leaders and analysts to rethink their assumptions: what had been done in the past to bring us to this unthinkable place? In this case, that should prompt some reflection on the many Israeli policies — not just in Gaza, but toward the Palestinian people — that have worked to strengthen Hamas in the long run.
The truth is that kinetic counterterrorism cannot be the be-all and end-all of Israel’s response to Hamas’ assault. At the very best, it can buy Israel some time: make it hard for Gaza militants to launch any more large-scale terrorist attacks, and deter them from doing so, for a matter of years.
Yet this kind of periodic time-buying has historically been substituted for a broader political approach to Hamas by Israeli leadership. The theory, euphemistically called “mowing the grass,” went like this: you weaken Hamas through bombings, they get stronger, you have to fight them again, repeat ad infinitum.
Under Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, in power for 13 of the past 14 years, “mowing the grass” created the room for an inertial political approach to Gaza. His governments mostly left the foundations of Hamas rule alone, even propping them up, to maintain the status quo of a divided Palestinian leadership that foreclosed the possibility of a two-state solution to the conflict.
Periodic terrorist attacks and even low-scale conflict was a price that Israel was willing to pay for a freer hand in the West Bank and normalized relations with Arab dictatorships. Palestinian suffering under Israel’s blockade and periodic violence was, in this thinking, not really Israel’s problem.
The October terrorist attack has shattered this illusion, exposing the false security on the Israel-Gaza border for what it was. Most Israelis have concluded this means they can’t tolerate a Hamas regime in Gaza — which is, in a deep sense, correct. But military force alone isn’t a good strategy for ending Hamas. To truly defeat the organization, you cannot play its game of escalating brutality. You need to address the political grievances that, per polling, underpin its support in Gaza.
“Hamas grew and was strengthened when Israel was occupying Gaza on the ground for 38 years,” says Yousef Munayyer, a Palestinian American political scientist. “The stated goal of eliminating Hamas is unlikely to be accomplished. But even in some fairytale world where this happens, unless you address the underlying political conditions that brought us here, you are effectively just rewinding the tape on this horror film.”
Put differently: while destroying Hamas might not be a feasible military objective, it is (on a longer time horizon) politically possible. Hamas need not be the eternal and inevitable leader of the Palestinian people; other factions could rise and displace it, including ones with genuine commitments to peace and mutual coexistence.
Many things have to change for this to happen. But the first, and arguably most important, is that Israel must change its approach to the West Bank.
The Palestinian Authority (PA), and the moderate Fatah party that controls it, is sclerotic, corrupt, and authoritarian. It is increasingly seen by Palestinians as an Israeli quisling, giving rise to recent mass demonstrations in West Bank cities where protesters chanted for the fall of PA President Mahmoud Abbas.
Israel can help the PA in one obvious way: by releasing its grip on the West Bank. Under Netanyahu, and especially his current far-right governing coalition, Israeli settlements have expanded and settler violence has increased. Israel’s military occupation, always suffocating, has increasingly become a noose around West Bank Palestinians’ necks.
Part of the thinking, stated explicitly by current Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich, is that Israel can snuff out Palestinian resistance by destroying their hope for a state.
“Terrorism derives from hope — a hope to weaken us,” Smotrich argued in a 2017 paper. “The statement that the Arab yearning for national expression in the Land of Israel cannot be ‘repressed’ is incorrect.”
It’s now clear that effect runs in the other direction. The more Israel represses Palestinians, the weaker its moderate leadership becomes — and the more support for violent resistance rises. Smotrich’s approach has not only failed morally, but it has failed strategically: the single worst terrorist attack in Israeli history happened under his watch, as he used his powers to implement his desired policy in the West Bank.
To actually stop terrorism, Israel needs to reverse moves toward de facto annexation of the West Bank. It needs to cease settlement expansion, take steps to improve the West Bank economy, crack down on settler violence, and scale back the network of checkpoints that currently make life extremely difficult for ordinary West Bank citizens.
This is the best way, politically, for Israel to use the temporary calm that a successful counterterrorism campaign will buy it. The time immediately after a war is the time when it’s least likely for a new one to start again. Israel then has a window to try and do something that could really hit Hamas where it hurts: its position as the leading political power in the Palestinian orbit. Show Palestinians that violence will be met with violence, but peace met with cooperation.
Discredit Hamas, and undermine the foundations of its power, by giving Palestinians an opening to pursue a better path.
For a long time, it seemed like moving to a more conciliatory policy in the West Bank was politically impossible. After the Second Intifada and Hamas takeover of Gaza in the 2000s discredited the peace camp, the Israeli polity seemed to be shifting ever-rightward. Political scientists found that terrorist attacks specifically played a major role in increasing support for right-wing parties.
You’d think that would mean the October terror attack would accelerate this rightward shift. But according to current polls, the exact opposite is happening.
One recent survey found that, were elections held now, Netanyahu’s Likud party would lose 40 percent of its seats in Israel’s parliament — and its governing majority. Another poll of Israeli Jews specifically found that three-quarters believed the current government bore either “great” or “very great” responsibility for the attack.
“There won’t be a turn to the left. But there could be, for lack of a better term, a turn to the radical center,” Sachs, the Brookings expert, tells me. And such a centrist government, he believes, would be far more willing to unwind the various intricate legal steps taken to accomplish de facto annexation under Netanyahu.
There is, in short, a chance that the right’s utter failure to provide for Israeli security creates an opening for a new political approach: one premised not on repressing the Palestinians through sheer might, but by fighting terrorism and building up a peaceful Palestinian alternative at the same time.
In the longer run, Israel should move toward relaxing the post-2007 siege on Gaza that so punishes Palestinian civilians, and seriously return to the two-state negotiating table. So long as both Israelis and Palestinians live between the river and the sea, peace can only be found through coexistence: by giving people on both sides good and fulfilling lives that creates conditions for living side by side.
A truly effective strategy for fighting Hamas thus cannot simply amount to returning to the status quo ex ante: it requires addressing the legitimate grievances of the Palestinian people, which Hamas exploits for their own vicious purposes.
Right now, Israel needs to defend itself. But it needs to do it within acceptable moral bounds, and not in service of revenge or blind rage. As an American, I know all too well where that path leads.
But ordinary Israelis, thankfully, do not appear to be acting like Americans did after 9/11: they have shown themselves remarkably willing to criticize their own government’s approach and blame it for allowing the catastrophic Hamas violence to happen. They should hold on to this instinct: followed to its logical conclusion, it might actually lead to a better future for Israelis and Palestinians alike.