This piece was first published in The Atlantic.
If 10/7 was Israel’s 9/11, as many of the country’s leaders have said, the meaning of the comparison is not self-evident. Its implications still have to be worked out, and they might lead to unexpected places.
The horror is comparable, but the scale isn’t. The 1,000 or more civilians butchered on Saturday by Hamas are, relative to Israel’s population, many more than the 3,000 killed in the United States by al-Qaeda; a proportionate number of dead on 9/11 would have been close to 40,000. Al-Qaeda, a transnational group based in the deserts and mountains of Afghanistan, had the ability and will to strike terror anywhere in the world, but it could not destroy the United States. Hamas threatens Israel’s very existence—both in principle, according to the genocidal goals set out in its founding manifesto and subsequent statements, and also in practice, as an arm or ally of the more powerful entities in the region that share its aims, Hezbollah, Syria, and the Islamic Republic of Iran. Facts like these suggest that the analogy has no more value than most historical comparisons.
And yet something makes Israelis reach back to September 11, 2001. The facts are different, but the feelings are the same: profound shock, unbearable grief, humiliation, rage, and solidarity. Shock because nothing this terrible had ever happened before, even to Israel. The government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, like the George W. Bush administration, seemed to discount evidence of a coming attack—a failure of intelligence and preparedness that was, perhaps, at bottom, a failure of imagination. Solidarity demonstrated in the spontaneous effort of ordinary Israelis, without waiting for official directives, regardless of ideological differences, to save and comfort one another. Ours didn’t last long; neither will theirs. May the memory endure as a reproach to the stupidity and tribalism that plague Israeli politics and ours.
“Let there be no doubt: The United States has Israel’s back,” President Joe Biden said on Tuesday at the White House. He reported having just told Netanyahu by phone, “If the United States experienced what Israel is experiencing, our response would be swift, decisive, and overwhelming.” It sounded like unconditional support, a green light for Israel to respond as violently as the U.S. did after 9/11. But Biden also told Netanyahu, “Terrorists purposefully target civilians, kill them. We uphold the laws of war. It matters. There’s a difference.” This sounded like a warning in the form of flattery: democratic countries like ours don’t kill civilians—so don’t. NBC News later reported, “Biden was more direct than in previous calls that the Israeli military should take pains to avoid civilian casualties.”
At around the same time as the leaders’ phone call, Israel’s defense minister, Yoav Gallant, was telling troops massed for an offensive on the Gaza border, “I have released all the restraints.” As he spoke of the accounts of murders and beheadings of children, women, and elderly Holocaust survivors, Gallant’s face was clenched with rage. He had already ordered “a complete siege” of Gaza that would cut off fuel, power, water, and food. “We are fighting human animals and we are acting accordingly,” the defense minister said. As of Wednesday, according to Palestinian and international sources, more than 1,000 people in Gaza were dead, the majority of them civilians, including entire families buried under the rubble of air strikes.
After 9/11, Israelis essentially told Americans, Now you know. In fact, most of us knew almost nothing and had to spend years learning by painful experience. If Americans now have anything useful to tell Israelis, it would be: Don’t. Don’t let your justified fury replace reason. Give vent to rage, but think coldly—avoiding civilian casualties is in your self-interest. Don’t storm into Gaza without a plan for afterward. Don’t imagine that overwhelming military force can solve an immensely complex historical and political problem. Don’t continue to ignore or inflame Palestinian grievances in the West Bank, even if they’re raised by people who celebrated Israeli deaths.
Don’t poison your national unity, as Bush did ours, by using the crisis for partisan advantage; Israel’s new unity government is a good sign. Don’t squander your moment of global legitimacy, or assume that the world’s support will last a day longer if news emerges of mass civilian deaths in Gaza, or believe that its loss wouldn’t matter. It matters that democratic countries, which have criticized the Jewish state but know the difference between Israel and Hamas, are now expressing outrage, just as the same countries’ support mattered when Ukraine was brutally invaded by Russia. “It was very important not to be alone,” President Volodymyr Zelensky said Thursday, extending his solidarity to Israel. This is more than the Netanyahu government, which has been carefully neutral on Russian aggression, deserves from Ukraine. Vladimir Putin is holding his cards close on Israel and Hamas. Zelensky understood, as Netanyahu didn’t, that Russia, Iran, and Hamas will land on one side, and Ukraine and Israel on the other.
America should have its friend Israel’s back while conveying unpleasant truths to its face. After Saturday it’s clear that two things, apparent contradictions, have to be accepted at the same time: a group that seeks Israel’s destruction must be destroyed, and Israel’s cruel treatment of Palestinians in the occupied territories only helps that group’s cause. It’s impossible for Israel to live in peace alongside Palestinians who will never accept its right to exist, and it’s impossible for Palestinians to accept a fate of permanent subordination. To address these together will require profound change from both sides. It’s beyond the ability and will of the current Israeli government, and on the West Bank, a sclerotic Palestinian government, weakened by its own corruption and by continued Israeli domination, is just as useless. Perhaps, out of this horror, better alternatives will emerge.
George Packer is a staff writer at The Atlantic and the author of Last Best Hope: America in Crisis and Renewal.
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