Israel’s invasion of Gaza awaits the parting of clouds. Clear skies favor Israel, which dominates the airspace and wants to be able to look down to see what awaits its ground forces. The early morning yesterday brought rain, and at dawn, orange cumulus clouds rolled over the Mediterranean. Today’s forecast calls for more rain, and therefore probably another day without Israeli infantry in Gaza. Rarely has the Weather Channel been such ominous and thrilling viewing.
Everyone knows the invasion is coming. Less clear is what it will ultimately bring for Palestinians. Within about a day of Hamas’s attack on October 7, an Israeli consensus emerged that no response short of total annihilation of Hamas would suffice. A second, corollary consensus didn’t take much longer: To annihilate Hamas, Israel would have to invade Gaza. Hamas has given Israel the best possible excuse to do so. Hamas hides in the civilian population, stores its weapons there, and fires those weapons from civilian areas. It does this by choice. And that gives Israel the rationale of self-defense, the most ironclad right of either a person or a nation.
Yesterday, the Israeli government brought a busload of journalists to Sderot, the Israeli town closest to the northern tip of Gaza. Sderot is vacant and partly destroyed. Rockets from Gaza barely need any fuel to reach the town—it’s so close that even a catapult or trebuchet might suffice—and as a result, it was badly battered on October 7. In the past few days, the entire population, 30,000 people, has been displaced to Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, and the resort city of Eilat. A wrecked city is an awesome sight, both eerie and infuriating. In Sderot, there is a children’s park with a splash pad still running. The police station was the site of the Hamas gunmen’s last stand. Once the Israelis had determined that no police officers remained alive within, they fired up bulldozers and demolished the building with the gunmen still inside.
Nearby buildings have broken windows and bullet scarring. On the ground, one can still see spent brass casings from the battle, as well as the recoil spring from a Kalashnikov. Parking lots are still filled with cars, many with smashed windows and ajar glove compartments, as if someone had been searching for a spare key to commandeer a vehicle, or perhaps for a gun stashed away. Sderot’s mayor came out to say that his community had previously enjoyed friendly relations with the many Gazans who came through the checkpoints to work. He said that while Hamas is still in charge in Gaza, he would use his own body to block the passage of any Palestinian who tried to enter his town.
Israel is now calling for Gazans to abandon their homes in Gaza City, in the north, and go south. The Israel Defense Forces are calling cellphones and dropping leaflets, begging civilians to vacate a whole city that is, by Hamas’s own admission, a labyrinth of tunnels (500 kilometers’ worth, across all of Gaza) used for military purposes. The best-case scenario for the fate of their city will be its conversion into a necropolis 20 times the size of Sderot, with buildings that once contained families or public services instead haunted by the last bloody gasps of those who remained.
The fear that the worst-case scenario will happen is not something Israel is trying its hardest to dispel. It is a promise of permanent demographic change. When Israeli forces left Gaza 18 years ago, Israeli settlements had been established, chiefly in the southern portion of Gaza, and it took the authority of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to order their forcible removal. Pangs of conscience over Palestinian dispossession were not, shall we say, his principal motivation. The Jewish state could most easily maintain its Jewish character when it was not mixed up with non-Jews. And Gaza, particularly Gaza City, is so packed with Muslims that no amount of Israeli-settlement construction could tip the balance toward Jews. That would take ethnic cleansing.
One can see why residents of Gaza City might, in this context, be reluctant to leave just because Israel tells them to. Gazans know that if they leave, they will have to rely on the goodwill of Israel to let them back in and not use this moment to remake the region’s demography. Even if Israel cannot empty the city and replace the population, the government could render the area uninhabitable and nudge some portion of its Arab inhabitants into permanent exile.
I have no reason to doubt the wickedness of those who raided Sderot and nearby kibbutzim. But the government officials who came to the press conference denounced them in terms that might worry even the Palestinians who are themselves oppressed by Hamas.
The Israeli government was unabashedly right-wing long before Hamas attacked, and even its recent emergency broadening of the coalition to include more centrist figures has not erased its tilt. The Israeli left has called the government’s leaders “fascists,” “fanatics,” and “unhinged.” The government representative who came to address the press gaggle in Sderot was a fine specimen of the cartoonish aggression that the left sees in Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s allies. Amichai Chikli, who leads two relatively minor ministries, Diaspora Affairs and Social Equality, showed up with a Glock tucked tightly against the small of his back. His main message was that the enemy was “not just Hamas,” and that “ordinary Gaza citizens” had been among those looting, “murdering people, burning people in their homes, beheading people—including babies.” He repeated the now-common Israeli-government line that “Hamas is ISIS,” a bit of rhetorical hyperbole echoed by even U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin. (The groups are both nasty, but they’re different, and in ways that matter.)
The more Chikli spoke, the more one doubted his commitment to avoiding the worst-case scenario. It’s true that Hamas’s trained killers were not the only ones who partook in the previous week’s pogrom. But his emphasis on the pervasiveness of the group’s violent ideology suggested that he thought the problem extended to just about everyone living in Gaza. Chikli noted Hamas’s tendency to poison their children’s minds. “In Gaza, they are forcing their children to witness how they slaughter animals on Eid al-Adha, to take the heart of the animal and to hold it, so they can be mean and brutal when they grow up,” he said.
Sacrificing a ram on Eid al-Adha, and the distribution of its meat to the poor, will not win you any awards from PETA, but it is a standard Muslim practice. It is based on a story known at least as well to Jews as to Muslims: God kept Abraham from sacrificing his son, and replaced the poor boy with a ram. Many parents might prefer to spare their own children the sight of an animal bleeding to death. But this ritual is not meant to train killers, and it sounded a lot like Chikli thought that even ordinary Muslims were homicidal child abusers.
Under what circumstances would an Israeli who shares this view allow Gazans to return? Giving up murder is easy; giving up a religious ritual is not. Chikli said the sole condition for Sderot’s repopulation was the total destruction of Hamas. He didn’t say whether Gazans could return under the same condition. But he did say, “There is no room for another military in the land of Israel—not in Judea and Samaria, and not in Gaza.” Having a security force to protect one’s citizens is the first function of any state. He’s against it for Gaza—which means permanent occupation, if not annexation, by Israel, and possibly the exclusion of Palestinians from Gaza entirely.
He said that his position reflected his own view, as well as that of the “Likud movement” that dominates the Israeli government. But other elements of the government, such as the National Unity alliance, have reportedly demanded that the government devise an “exit strategy” from Gaza. Sharon was Likud as well, and left Gaza because staying was even worse than leaving. The current version of Likud might make the same discovery.
Gazans are waiting for the clouds to part, too. What will happen immediately after they do is not a mystery to them or anyone else. Israel will go in hard; it will lose many soldiers; Hamas will lose many fighters; and many civilians who stayed behind will die. Israel has long claimed, with some moral and legal justification, that any fighter who uses a human shield is responsible for that civilian’s fate. But the civilians stick around and take their chances with Hamas because Israeli officials have given them a basis to wonder whether they could ever come back if they left their home and let Israel exact its vengeance. Intolerant rhetoric has consequences, and one of them is that this vengeance will be messier and more miserable for all involved than it needs to be. That, too, is a heavy moral burden.