Israel should be wary of repeating the 9/11 mistakes

Published by The i paper (13th October, 2023)

When I wrote on Sunday as horrifying details of Hamas atrocities started emerging, my column here was starkly headlined “This is Israel’s 9/11” – a comparison since widely echoed given the scale of the surprise attack, sickening massacres and shocking security failures. Now the traumatised nation has moved onto war footing as military jets carry out retaliatory raids on Gaza and ground forces mass for likely invasion. Yet Benjamin Netanyahu and his generals should reflect on the lessons of that lethal attack on America since their actions will have profound consequences.

There is understandable anger against the gangsters who carried out the grotesque rampage of killing and kidnapping. Israel, determined to punish the perpetrators and save hostages, is blocking food, water and energy in besieged Gaza. It claims to be targeting Hamas with its bombardment. The United Nations, however, says at least 338,000 people have been displaced – even before launch of any ground attack. Bear in mind only 2.3m people live in this miserable sliver of land by the Mediterranean – and two-thirds are under 24 years old,  trapped in a cage lacking hope and jobs even before this latest soul-destroying conflict.

The murder of 3,000 people in the United States also shocked the world in 2001. Even Russia’s Vladimir Putin pledged military support. Washington sent its forces into Afghanistan to hunt al Qa-ida terror chiefs on a wave of global sympathy. Nine weeks after the attack, American-led troops took Kabul from the Taliban. Then the desire for justice and revenge transformed into ideas of regime change, delusions of nation-building and the disastrous war on terror that led to the debacle of Iraq.

This was driven by a naive idea that the West could impose our beliefs and values around the world down the barrel of a gun – but instead Washington lost the moral high ground amid abuse, bloodshed and corruption in the quagmire of occupation. The legacy – at terrible cost in lives and money – was the humiliating withdrawal from Afghanistan two years ago as the Taliban returned to power. This led Putin to conclude the West was so weak it would not stop his attempt to seize Ukraine.

The biggest beneficiary of the chaos unleashed in Iraq was next-door Iran, which emerged strengthened in its tussle with Saudi Arabia for regional supremacy, while jihadists went on to spread savage tentacles across the Sahel. Yet when George W Bush spoke in the shadow of the September 11 attacks, he talked about defeating an “axis of evil” – highlighting how Iran repressed its own people’s “hope for freedom” while threatening peace with “their terrorist allies”.

Two decades later, the religious fanatics running Iran are still in power – brutalising women who refuse to cover their hair and hanging protesters while assisting the butchers of Hamas. Israel has the absolute right to respond militarily against terrorist atrocities and do anything possible to recover captured citizens. But it should be wary of being so blinded by grief and rage that it rushes into retributive actions that inadvertently assist Islamist terrorists and the Iranian theocracy once again.

Unfortunately, this risk is acute under Israel’s longest-serving prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, despite his formation of a national unity government. He knows his reputation has been tarnished by the failure to perform his most basic duty to protect citizens as he pandered to far-right allies in government, divided the nation over foolish judicial reforms and expanded settlements in the occupied West Bank. This makes it even more likely this shameless opportunist will respond by falling into the trap laid by his country’s enemies.

There is nothing Israel’s foes would like more than to see it lash out now with such destructive intensity that it shatters sympathy around the world – just as Osama bin-Laden sought to sow unrest in Western societies and stir Islamic uprisings against our values. Hamas and Iran do not care about deaths and destruction in Gaza. They seek to spark trouble in the Middle East tinderbox at this time of thawing relationships between Israel and Arab states, most notably Saudi Arabia. They want to incite fresh violence from frustrated Palestinians and perhaps Hezbollah attacks from Lebanon, along with infuriated protests against Israel around the planet.

The people trapped in Gaza, like those kidnapped hostages, are simply pawns in the palms of these toxic extremists. Containment and fences failed. Israel wants to eliminate Hamas, a group wedded to its genocide, which would be no loss for the world. One hardline minister says “now is the time to be brutal.” A military spokesman talks of turning Gaza City into a “tent city.” Yet draconian collective punishment of people in Gaza will not further their ultimate cause of living in peace.

The former president and Nobel Peace Prize winner Shimon Peres once famously said, “the good news is there is light at the end of the tunnel – the bad news is there is no tunnel.” Yet even amid this latest agony, there are flickers of hope. Take the remarkable interview given by the father of Noa Argamani, that terrified 25-year-old woman pleading for her life as she was seized from a music festival by militants on a motorcycle. His pain felt palpable yet his decency shone through his suffering. “Gaza also has casualties…mothers who cry,” said Yaacov Argamani. “Let us use this emotion, we are two nations from one father, let’s make peace, a real peace.”

The events of the weekend are a hideous reminder of the atrocities of the past that led to establishment of the Jewish state. The desire for vengeance is natural. And the dilemmas faced by its leaders as they confront Hamas, Hezbollah and Iran are disturbing. Peace, however, does not come from bombs, bullets and repression but from the humanity shown by that distraught father. Israel should heed the lessons of 9/11 as it targets the apostles of evil, not fuel fires of hate and inflame the cycle of violence.

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