Military vehicles deployed at Gaza border in Sderot

Israeli soldiers on a tank move near Gaza border as Israeli army deploys military vehicles around the Gaza Strip in Sderot, Israel on October 09, 2023.

(Photo by Mostafa Alkharouf/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

If Israel Reacts to Its 9/11 Like the Americans Responded to Theirs, Innocent Civilians Will Pay the Heaviest Price

The US achieved nothing in the Middle East, but millions of civilians paid the price – the same will be true now

After the devastating failure of the Israeli intelligence to foresee the sudden Hamas assault at the weekend, many Israelis are describing the huge loss of lives as ‘Israel’s 9/11’.

Although the two events cannot be fairly compared, given the attack on Israel came from a country it has occupied and inflicted a deadly and brutal regime of apartheid on for many decades, the assault by Hamas has had a similarly visceral impact.

The Israeli loss of life is actually almost ten times worse than the US’s in 2001, relative to population size. This is despite successive Israeli governments having spent massively on the military, putting a premium on the Jewish population’s security. Security specialists across the world saw Israel as one of the leading states when it came to defence tactics and equipment to control dissenting peoples.

That reputation is now in tatters at a time when Israel has its most hard-line ultranationalist government in its 75-year history, headed by an utterly determined political survivor, Binyamin Netanyahu. Israel’s response to Hamas has been the extreme use of force. Its defence minister has described Hamas supporters as “human animals” and has sealed the border to Gaza, putting 2.3 million people under siege, with access to food, water and power denied.

In the aftermath of 9/11, openDemocracy was one of the few sites to argue that the US should not rush into war. As I wrote in my first column on the site, 22 years ago: “The group responsible for the attacks has engaged in detailed planning over many months and has substantial numbers of supporters with total dedication to its aims.

“A core aspect of the current situation is that the group responsible for the attacks needs a strong US counter-reaction. Indeed, this should be recognised as one of the prime motivations for the attacks.”

The US did indeed take such action, first in Afghanistan and two years later in Iraq and it seemed to work. The Taliban was defeated in barely two months in late 2001, and 18 months later US troops got to the Iraqi capital, Baghdad, in barely three weeks.

It didn’t last and multiple wars ensued: killing some 940,000 people – many of them civilians – maiming hundreds of thousands more for life and displacing 38 million people. Over three million have died prematurely from the indirect impacts of the post-9/11 wars, which have cost around $8trn.

What’s more, Iraq and Libya remain deeply unstable, while al-Qaida, ISIS and linked groups are active across North and East Africa, the Middle East and South Asia and, above all, the Taliban has taken back control of Afghanistan with all that means for the loss of human rights, especially for women.

Does this have a bearing on what is happening now in Israel? The harsh answer is probably yes. From Netanyahu’s perspective, he sees no alternative but to launch a counter-attack; any elected government, let alone his extreme-right government, would struggle to remain in power if it did not respond to such an attack with great force.

Netanyahu has declared Hamas will be eliminated but he and his government cannot conceive that Hamas wants such an attempt

And so, in the coming days, the Netanyahu government – having said it will dismantle Hamas and destroy it piece by piece – will stage a ground invasion with many thousands of troops backed by air power, drones and naval artillery

But Hamas will have been preparing for this attack for many months and quite probably years. The consequences for Israel may be both short-term and longer-term.

Recall what happened in Israel’s last major confrontation with Hamas, Operation Protective Edge, in 2014. The elite Golani Brigade led a substantial ground attack, aiming to destroy rocket launchers and the network of tunnels used for infiltrating Israel from Gaza. Hamas paramilitaries were waiting and fought back with unexpected force, killing 13 soldiers and wounding 50 from that Brigade on the first day alone.

Israel never did stop Hamas’s rockets, nor its use of the tunnels, but over a seven-week war, it lost 64 troops and had more than 450 injured. It responded with a bombing assault on Gaza that killed 2,250 people and injured as many as 10,000, mostly civilians and many of them children. A ceasefire was eventually brokered – Hamas survived and nine years later has returned stronger.

Then there is the longer term. Elements within the Hamas leadership are no doubt thinking many years, if not decades, ahead. Most inhabitants of Gaza are the descendants of refugees who fled their homes in the Nakba (‘catastrophe’) in 1948. For them, the conflict with Israel is at least 75 years old, what is another quarter century?

Netanyahu has declared Hamas will be eliminated but he and his government cannot conceive that Hamas wants just such an attempt. If there is no early ceasefire then we will see the systematic destruction of Gaza’s civil infrastructure, many thousands of deaths and maiming, and the risk of the war extending to southern Lebanon and the occupied West Bank.

For Hamas, though, we will also see the radicalization of many more thousands of young Palestinians in the days, months and years to come, not least in Gaza, where 45% of the population is under 15.

The chances of a peaceful outcome may be remote, but the alternative will be years more of conflict. Those few Western politicians calling for an immediate ceasefire may be shouted down, but they are right.

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