Mar 1, 2024

The Zionist case for a ceasefire.

The Zionist case for a ceasefire.
A young Palestinian boy stares at the destruction caused by Israeli attacks in Rafah on March 1, 2024. Photo by SAID KHATIB/AFP via Getty Images).

Today's newsletter is a special Friday edition opinion piece from Tangle founder and CEO Isaac Saul. We are making this post public for all, so feel free to share it.

I am a Zionist, and I believe there should be an immediate ceasefire in Gaza.

There should be a ceasefire not just to alleviate the humanitarian disaster Palestinians are experiencing, but to create a safer present and future for Israelis and the global Jewry, too. And I think it's worth making the case for a ceasefire on both of those grounds — not one or the other.

Before I explain my position, let me say that I know this is an emotionally charged issue for many people. I am an American Jew who has spent time in Israel, and while I know many Jews and Israelis who also want a ceasefire, I imagine there will be many I am close with who will be upset with me for writing this piece. I also know there will be many Palestinian, Arab, Muslim and liberal readers and friends of mine who will think this post is five months too late, or that you can’t support Zionism and peace in the region, and criticize me on those grounds.

I know this is likely to draw strong reactions because over the last five months, I've spent hours and hours on Zoom, on the phone, exchanging emails, and texting with friends and readers and new connections from all across the political spectrum about this conflict. I've done my best to find other people to challenge my views, to challenge the views of others, and to model how I think we can have open dialogue about difficult topics.

Unfortunately, my success with that has been decidedly mixed. Many of the folks I've tried to talk with across this disagreement are, to put it mildly, not very happy with me right now. There are devout Zionists in Israel who are refusing to talk to me anymore, Palestinian-Americans who have unfollowed me on Twitter or Instagram, American Jews who think I’m blind to the threat of anti-semitism and Muslims who think I’ve demonized Islam and Egyptian-born Muslim Zionists who have decided I’m too thick-headed to understand the situation clearly. Tangle readers and folks in between and of all stripes have registered their various displeasure with me throughout our coverage.

I am still processing the reasons for both the ferocity of the responses and the breadth of their sources. I don't think it's as simple as "my views are close to the middle, and therefore everyone is mad at me." My dominant hypothesis is that the reaction I've experienced is just a testament to how charged this conflict is, and how distraught, scared, and angry so many people are in this current moment — Zionist, Palestinian, Jew, Muslim, Arab, Israeli, etc.

Given that, I expect what I'm about to write to land very differently for everyone. All I ask is that before responding you read the entire piece, consider my view with an open mind, and don't simply exit the conversation if you disagree with my position. I’ll start by making the common humanitarian argument for a ceasefire, and then lay out the Zionist case for one.

The humanitarian argument.

The common argument for a ceasefire is a good one, and I'm not sure there even needs to be a second.

Roughly 30,000 Palestinians have now been killed and 70,000 have been wounded since Israel's ground invasion and bombing of Gaza began. Many are quick to point out that the death toll comes from the Hamas-controlled Gaza Health Ministry, but it is largely undisputed — Israel, international aid groups, and the few reporters who remain on the ground seem to believe it's roughly accurate. If anything, it is likely an undercount, as the healthcare system in Gaza has been so disrupted by the bombings, ground invasion, and evacuations that it has been difficult to keep count of the dead. Northern Gaza's last functioning hospital shut down this week due to a fuel shortage and lack of medical supplies, and the health ministry had primarily been counting the dead through hospitals. It is not hyperbole to say the healthcare system in Gaza has “collapsed.”

The number of Palestinians killed who were armed combatants is unknown. Israeli officials have estimated it kills two civilians for every militant, and says it has killed more than 10,000 militants, though there is little hard evidence for that number. Even taking it at face value, that'd mean about 20,000 civilians have died in Gaza in five months. For context, that's twice as many civilians as have been killed in Ukraine in two years. 40 million people were living in Ukraine before Russia invaded, while a little more than two million people were living in Gaza before Israel’s invasion.

On top of the sheer number of dead, the living situation in Gaza has become increasingly desperate. 80% of Gazans, or 1.7 million people, have been displaced. Half of Gaza's civilian infrastructure has been destroyed. Gazans are continuously evacuating to where Israel tells them to go, then finding out Israel is going to invade that area next. Humanitarian groups have struggled to get food and aid into the strip. These are things everyone reads in the news, but I don't think these statements of fact properly articulate the situation.

To give a better sense, I’m going to share excerpts from a first-person account I read recently from Irfan Galaria, an American plastic surgeon from Virginia. Galaria had volunteered in other war zones before deciding to go to Gaza, and when he got home he shared what he saw in The Los Angeles Times. Put simply, Galaria called Israel’s invasion "an annihilation." His writing contains some of the most distressing descriptions of what is happening on the ground that I've come across.

Our noses were consumed with the stench of 1 million displaced humans living in close proximity without adequate sanitation. Our eyes got lost in the sea of tents... People also spilled into the hospital: living in hallways, stairwell corridors and even storage closets. The once-wide walkways designed by the European Union to accommodate the busy traffic of medical staff, stretchers and equipment were now reduced to a single-file passageway. On either side, blankets hung from the ceiling to cordon off small areas for entire families, offering a sliver of privacy. A hospital designed to accommodate about 300 patients was now struggling to care for more than 1,000 patients and hundreds more seeking refuge.

There were a limited number of local surgeons available. We were told that many had been killed or arrested, their whereabouts or even their existence unknown... I began work immediately, performing 10 to 12 surgeries a day, working 14 to 16 hours at a time. The operating room would often shake from the incessant bombings, sometimes as frequent as every 30 seconds... We performed amputations of arms and legs daily, using a Gigli saw, a Civil War-era tool, essentially a segment of barbed wire. Many amputations could’ve been avoided if we’d had access to standard medical equipment. It was a struggle trying to care for all the injured within the constructs of a healthcare system that has utterly collapsed...

On one occasion, a handful of children, all about ages 5 to 8, were carried to the emergency room by their parents. All had single sniper shots to the head. These families were returning to their homes in Khan Yunis, about 2.5 miles away from the hospital, after Israeli tanks had withdrawn. But the snipers apparently stayed behind. None of these children survived.

On top of all this, hunger is now setting in. Starvation has become so acute that Jordan, Egypt, the United Arab Emirates, and France are all airdropping rations into Gazan towns, and the U.S. is considering doing the same. After assessing the situation on the ground, a senior U.N. aide official said "famine is almost inevitable."

On Thursday, The Washington Post described a scene in Gaza where over 100 Palestinians were killed:

Officials in the Gaza Strip said more than 100 people were killed and hundreds more injured in Gaza City on Thursday, accusing Israeli forces of opening fire on a crowd of people waiting for humanitarian aid. Israel said an unspecified number of the casualties were caused by a stampede as residents scrambled to reach a convoy of trucks. Israeli forces opened fire on members of the crowd who approached soldiers in a manner deemed threatening, according to Israeli officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss an ongoing investigation. President Biden told reporters Thursday that he expected the incident would complicate negotiations over a hostage deal.

All of this should be more than enough to warrant a ceasefire.

Most of us know the numbers by now: Half of all Gazans are under the age of 18. There hasn’t been an election in close to 20 years. Many of the dead, starving, and maimed in Gaza are women and children (the United Nations and the Gaza Health Ministry say the majority of the dead are women and children).

The Gazan people did not choose this. They are being subjected to it by the choices of the Israeli government. 

Perhaps not having a stomach for war is why I'm not a military commander or politician. On the other hand, perhaps we need more people in power who read the above and determine that the totality and scope of the devastation Israel has wrought on Gaza is not justified by killing a few thousand Hamas fighters. 

Even in the larger context of the threat Israel is facing from Hamas, and the brutal October attack Israel is responding to, I think the hardest Israeli hardliners should be able to look at the last five months and say enough is enough. By Israel’s own count over 10,000 of Hamas’s fighters have been killed and their infrastructure has been mostly destroyed. Hamas leaders are likely now in hiding outside of Gaza. If a "show of force" was going to work as a deterrent, the force has been shown. The point has been made — and it was made a long time ago.

But even if you find all this unconvincing, even if you take the Palestinian interests out of it, I think there is an equally strong argument for a ceasefire exclusively from the Zionist perspective.

The Zionist case for a ceasefire.

I believe there is an overwhelming amount of evidence that an immediate ceasefire will make Israelis and Jews safer, while also improving the odds of a longstanding, thriving, and safe Israeli state.

Israel's stated goal in its bombing and invasion of Gaza  — the goal of its war cabinet and prime minister — is to destroy Hamas.

Its goal is not to inflict mass horror on Palestinians or to destroy them as a people or to permanently displace them. It is to bring an end to the group that won the 2006 elections in Gaza and has been leading it — if you want to call what Hamas has provided leadership — ever since. It is to eliminate the group that committed the largest mass killing of Jews since the Holocaust, and which broadcast and celebrated that killing, then promised to do it again and again to anyone who would listen. Fundamentally, Israel’s offensive is about living next to a neighbor they believe they can live with peacefully. 

I don’t think Israel is succeeding in its stated objective. In pursuit of its goal, Israel has inflicted mass horror on all two million of the people living in Gaza. It has also made Israelis and Jews less safe, by destabilizing the region and crossing the line of what most of the world views as a proportionate or reasonable response. It has not deterred violence, but drawn its neighbors into more. It has not garnered international support, but driven it away. It has not sown the seeds of peace but has instead ensured that another generation of Palestinians will live through heartbreak and war and watch their friends and family die in front of them, which will make forgiveness or reconciliation with Israel next to impossible. No, the response has not made Israel or Jews safer; it has further isolated and divided not just Israel but Jews across the globe.

In December, Israel claimed it had killed about half of Hamas's mid-level commanders — though it has failed to find Yahya Sinwar, the leader of Hamas in Gaza, who has in all likelihood crossed the border and fled. Nor has it killed Mohammed Deif, head of Hamas's armed wing. Netanyahu says his war cabinet is currently approving plans to evacuate Rafah, the Gaza city on the border of Egypt where roughly one million people are currently seeking refuge, in order to invade. He's doing this because, according to Israeli officials, four of the six remaining Hamas battalions are concentrated in Rafah. Up until now, the region surrounding Rafah is where Israel has been telling civilians to go in order to stay safe from their military campaign.

"Once we begin the Rafah operation, the intense phase of the fighting is weeks away from completion. Not months," Netanyahu told CBS, in a message that was meant to be reassuring.

Here is the reality, though: Destroying Hamas cannot be done with soldiers, bombs, and gunfire alone. 

Hamas does not get its power from military might. That may seem abstract, but understanding it is critical to lasting peace. Hamas’s power comes from an idea. Specifically, it thrives on the idea that it is standing up for an oppressed people living under an evil occupier that must be eliminated. Then Hamas builds up the next parts of its argument, that armed conflict is required to defeat this occupier, and that the goal for that armed conflict is the destruction of Israel. 

Israel is fighting Hamas on the battlefield, where Hamas is weak, and it will win that fight if it wants to. But it is not doing anything to fight Hamas in the battle where it is strong — it is not winning the battle against the idea that Hamas depends upon for its survival. It is not winning the battle against the idea Hamas is convincing two million Gazans of (and many millions more across the world), which is that the Palestinian people are living under an evil occupier that must be eliminated.

It is losing that battle decisively.

Consider how things have changed since October 8, the day after Hamas’s attack.

On October 8, the world’s sympathies were with Israel. Though some had already been accusing Israel of war crimes before it even invaded Gaza, across the globe there was a great sense of injustice and mourning for the Israeli people. Hamas was widely, and appropriately, being described as barbaric and evil. It was self-evident to most people that Hamas conducting this attack should be disqualifying to their leadership position in the Middle East — and support for a future where Hamas did not control Gaza was strong, even (perhaps especially) among Arab nations.

Today, Israel is being accused of genocide in The Hague and United Nations’ resolutions to end Israel’s military response are receiving near-unanimous approval. Israel’s most important and only consistent partner, the United States, appears to be increasingly upset with how Israel is conducting itself. Meanwhile, Israelis and Jews globally are under a greater threat. Many are being protested on college campuses or in urban areas across the U.S. in a way we have never seen before. The Jewish world is fractured too, as Jews in America were already sharply divided over Israel, and domestic protests in Israel against the government’s response (and to get the hostages home) continue

On October 8, Israel had a clear mission: Get the hostages back and fight Hamas if it had to. Hamas’s attacks generated a shockwave, but the broader regional situation was still mostly stable. Joe Biden’s national security adviser had just said the Middle East region was quieter at that time than it had been in two decades, and he was right. Israel was nearing a normalization of diplomatic relations with Saudi Arabia, and had already made notable progress with other Arab nations.  

Today, Hamas and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad are still firing rockets into Israel from Gaza. And now so is Hezbollah from Lebanon. The Houthis in Yemen are attacking ships it believes are associated with Israel. Iran and Iraq are warning of a larger-scale, regional war. Israeli relations with Saudi Arabia (and Egypt and Jordan) are worsening. The region is less safe, as is Israel. All parties, including Hamas, expected and accepted the idea that Israel would respond (I’d argue that Hamas is getting exactly what it wanted, which is worth considering), but the current regional situation is a result of Israel going too far — of its decision to maintain this invasion for five months, its insistence on pushing Gazans into smaller and smaller corners, and its unwillingness to avoid causing so many civilian deaths and creating such a far-reaching humanitarian crisis. 

On October 8, Hamas was ruling over an increasingly disenchanted population in Gaza. In the West Bank, where Hamas does not rule, skepticism of Hamas leadership was already widespread. Back then, just 12% of people in the West Bank supported Hamas. Even now, amid Israel’s invasion, plenty of Gazans are still openly registering their displeasure with Hamas.

Today, those dynamics have shifted in important ways. In December, support for Hamas nearly tripled, hitting 44% in the West Bank where settler violence and clashes between Palestinians and Israelis are on the rise. Support for Hamas has gone up in Gaza, too, and support for armed resistance in Gaza has also risen by 10 percentage points. Perhaps most notably, a majority of respondents from the West Bank and Gaza (53%) said they believe Israel’s goal is to destroy the Gaza Strip and kill or expel its population. 42% said it was exacting revenge on Hamas, including 50% of Gazans — showing that half of Gaza believes they’re experiencing an ethnic cleansing while the other half is open to believing Israel’s stated intentions. At least, they were in December.

Sympathy for Hamas's cause — a genuinely genocidal one, to kill Jews and destroy Israel — is rising even among American intellectuals. That’s maddening, but not too hard to understand: The brutality of Israel’s army is making many people want to give their wholesale support to the side that is getting brutalized. They don’t see two civilians dead for every military combatant as a good thing. They are seeing that some 30,000 Palestinians have died since October 8, while a few hundred Israelis have. They are seeing photos of dead Palestinian children buried under rubble, reading stories of Palestinian kids with sniper shots to the head, watching videos of Israeli soldiers rifling through Palestinian womens’ underwear, or hearing stories of innocents being killed even when they do exactly what Israel says. They are seeing what looks to them like good and evil. Meanwhile, all anyone in Gaza has to do is look around to feel a strong desire for payback.

Israel believes it is winning the important fight by winning on the battlefield, but in reality what it’s doing on the battlefield is ensuring it loses the real battle — the important one, the battle against the idea, the battle where Hamas is strong. 

To me, it seems quite obvious that a ceasefire is the first step — of many — toward reversing course. 

When Netanyahu says that Hamas could be destroyed in weeks, not months, he is lying. Hamas won’t be destroyed by killing 20,000 combatants instead of 10,000, and it won’t be destroyed in 2024. Hamas will be destroyed by disproving the premise its ideas are based on, and that will take years. Decades. There are plenty of Palestinians ready to push Hamas out, but that will only be achievable with an actual peace plan, with reconciliation, with generational healing, with leadership on both sides committed to acknowledging the existence and humanity of their long-time enemy. In my opinion, a lasting peace means fully realized Palestinian rights and statehood, but at a minimum it will require what it took for the Germans and the French or the Japanese and the Americans to form a lasting peace — and then some

What Hamas did on October 7, and what Israel has done in Gaza since, has created a new generation of extremists and stoked hatred and division on both sides. And every day that this goes on will be another day longer until anything different can come to fruition, allowing that division and hatred to metastasize. A ceasefire is the very first step. It is the bare minimum. It is mandatory.

I’m aware that all ceasefires are not the same, and implementing one now is not some magic solution to resolving every existing tension. And no, I am not suggesting an unconditional ceasefire. Concrete terms are worth discussing. Hamas must release its remaining hostages, and there must be an actual ceasefire — that means one where Hamas and Hezbollah stop indiscriminately firing rockets into Israel from across the border, as they have since October 7. Israel isn’t going to back down when every Israeli living near a border spends half the week scuttling into bomb shelters. In exchange, Israel should commit to leaving Gaza and ending its military operation, but hold its ground on not releasing any more Palestinians convicted of terrorism. Hamas has claimed it would accept terms roughly along those lines, and it’s worth remembering that it takes two parties to agree to a ceasefire — it’s not just up to Israel. 

But that’s a deal I would take. It’s a deal everyone should take. 

Finally, let me say this to the many Zionists, Israelis, and Jews I expect to read this piece: I know what many of you are feeling. Anti-Israel sentiment is as high as it's ever been. Jews, Zionists, and Israelis are being conflated constantly, and simultaneously fighting among themselves while being described as a monolith. The most educated people in America seem to be falling for anti-semitic lies, while the world and even many Jews distance themselves from the Israeli cause. Jewish people all across the globe seem simultaneously as united and divided as we’ve ever been. Israel is being run by a leader many now loathe, concern for the remaining hostages in Gaza is acute, no clear future for a safe and secure Jewish state exists, and many of us watch what is happening in Gaza with a deep sense of guilt.

All the while, Zionists across the globe are responding the same way Americans did after 9/11: With devotion to their country, to their neighbors, and to their own defense. It's in this environment that Israel's military operation in Gaza is taking place, and it creates an enormous amount of cognitive dissonance in many of us that we feel compelled to defend it.

This defensive response is natural. I feel it, too. When I see someone saying something objectively true about the horrors the Palestinians are experiencing, but they do it in a way that frames Israel as the unambiguous bad actor in this arrangement, I feel defensive. When I see people framing all Zionists as evil, racist, Jewish supremacists, it makes me want to switch the focus to Hamas rather than the children in Gaza. When I see people gloss over, ignore, excuse, or downplay the events of October 7, it's easy for the generational trauma of the Jews before me to bubble to the surface. I felt the inheritance of that trauma acutely on October 8.

But it is no longer October 8. These feelings are defense mechanisms — tribal and basic and understandable, but defensive nonetheless. We are in the here and now, with decisions to make about what to do to create a better, safer future. What kind of nation do we want Israel to be? What kind of morals do we want our people to represent? What life do we want to imagine for the Israelis, Palestinians, Jews and Muslims who are inevitably going to be living side by side in this very same region for the coming centuries? In 50 years, do we want to remember this period of time like the beginning of the “War on Terrorism” or the beginning of the end of this conflict?

Palestinians are pleading for a ceasefire. Jews, Zionists, and Israelis should support one, too. And so should everybody else. The horrors Gazans are experiencing are unconscionable. We should all want those horrors to end for little other reason than empathy for our fellow human beings, and I implore you to genuinely hear and feel what they are living through. But whether you can or not, I think it’s clear that a ceasefire is the right step forward, even through the Zionist lens.

Please, join the calls for a ceasefire, and lean into hope for a new era of something different than what we have now.

Thank you for reading.

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Isaac Saul
I'm a politics reporter who grew up in Bucks County, PA — one of the most politically divided counties in America. I'm trying to fix the way we consume political news.