Steve Bien

There is no question that the atrocities committed by Hamas on Oct. 7 were shocking in their brutality, and no government could allow this deed to go unpunished.

But how much punishment is enough? Is this self-defense or disproportionate revenge? And where will it lead?

When we think of Israel as the safe haven for a people targeted in the Holocaust, our sympathies are naturally kindled by the terrible history of Jewish oppression, and the attack by Hamas can easily be seen as yet another in a terrible string of violence against Jews. But the other context is the century of Arab resistance to their disappropriation and subjugation in Palestine, of which Gaza is a part.

The idea of a Jewish homeland actually began 50 years before the Holocaust. In the late 19th century, Zionist Jews, led by Austrian Theodore Herzl, desired a  homeland to escape the persecution they were facing in Europe. Turned down first by the Ottomans and Germans, Zionists finally found a sympathetic ear in the British, who had their own imperial motives for supporting this movement.

With the collapse of the Ottoman empire during World War I, huge swathes of territory were claimed by the Allies. The British controlled the largest part of the region and sought a way to buffer the surging Arab nationalism that was rife in Iran, Iraq, Egypt, Syria and Palestine. They welcomed the notion of a Jewish colony in Palestine that would help administer the region for the British while taking pressure off Jewish immigration into the United Kingdom, which was not popular at home. Herzl agreed, famously saying that the Jewish state “would form a part of a wall of defense for Europe in Asia, an outpost of civilization against barbarism.”

So, in 1917 British Secretary of State David Balfour submitted his famous position paper on the Jewish Homeland, now known as the Balfour Declaration, declaring British support for a Jewish homeland. We often gloss over the concluding line of his proposal, that  “nothing would compromise the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities.” At that time 94% of Palestine was Arab, 6% Jewish.


The ensuing years, leading up the 1948 Jewish war for independence, were punctuated by frequent spirals of violence, most especially the Arab uprisings of the 1930s, but it all came to a conclusive head with the 1948 war.

In that conflict, 750,000 Palestinians were forced out of Israel into the adjoining territories. By war’s end, Israel captured 78% of the total of the mandated territory, leaving the Arabs 22%. Though this is still the only internationally recognized border, Israel has pushed ahead and currently controls 95% of historic Palestine.

Of course there has been much violence since: 1967, 1982 (war with Lebanon and the Palestine Liberation Organization), the 1987-95 Intifada, and the campaign against Hamas and Gaza in the early 2000s.

In each case and the present case, the pattern holds of Arab provocation followed by disproportionate response by Israel. In fact, Israel has explicitly claimed for itself a disproportionate force strategy in all of these and the current conflict. The Dahiya Doctrine, was named after a southern suburb of Beirut that they destroyed in 2006:

“What happened in the Dahiya quarter … will happen in every village from which Israel is fired on … We will apply disproportionate force … From our standpoint these are not villages, they are military bases … This is not a recommendation. This is a plan,” said General Gadi Eisenkadt, former Israeli chief of staff and military commander.

This is indeed what we are seeing today on the entire 140 square miles of Gaza. In an area one-tenth the size of Franklin County, Israel has conducted more bombing than the U.S. did in three years in Iraq. To date, 65% of Gazans have had a family member killed or wounded. Of the 26,000 killed to date, more than half are women and children.


The United Nations estimates that 17,000 children are either orphaned or separated from their families. Fifty percent of their housing is either heavily damaged or destroyed. They are running out of food, water, heat and health care as starvation and epidemic disease, particularly hepatitis, start to spread. And the Israelis are far from done.

While the Hamas attack was despicable and traumatic for Israel, it did not and does not constitute an existential threat to the state of Israel. Israel is the only nuclear power in the region and has by far the strongest military. More importantly, as the Court of Justice pointed out in its recent ruling, Gaza is part of Israel, and self-defense cannot apply to part of one’s own country. This is revenge for Israel, not survival.

In fact, the opposing argument is stronger: that this campaign has weakened Israel. The International Court of Justice has decided there is reasonable cause to think Israel (Israel!) is conducting genocide. Meanwhile, more than 100 days into this campaign, Israel’s leadership remains mired and unsuccessful in its goals of annihilating Hamas and freeing hostages. Nor does it have any exit strategy.

I fear that Israel will do what Israel will do, indifferent to world opinion and the ICJ. It appears bent on turning Gaza into an uninhabitable wasteland, removing the resident Palestinians and claiming the land for Greater Israel.

While the Israeli government has not listened to the importunings of President Biden and Secretary of State Blinken, it may pay attention if we threaten withdrawal of military funding.

The United States must not be part of this crime.

Dr. Stephen Bien of Jay, a family practice physician, is a member of Jewish Voice for Peace.

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