Discover more from Arc Digital
It’s Not Israel’s War on Terror
Beyond some basic similarities, Israel in the aftermath of Hamas’ October 7 attack is not like post-9/11 America, and forcing the analogy could lead to avoidable errors
Israeli officials, U.S. President Joe Biden, and various media figures have calledthe October 7 Hamas attack “Israel’s 9/11.” But while there are some partial parallels, and a few general lessons, thinking about Israel’s current situation through the lens of post-9/11 America can be misleading.
Let’s start with the similarities. Israel, like 2001 America, was surprised by the largest terrorist attack in its history, and launched military action in response. As Biden said, the U.S. sought justice and security after 9/11, but also became overwhelmed with anger, making mistakes both at home and abroad.
As a general warning against overreactions, post-9/11 America offers a cautionary tale. Israel is understandably outraged and frightened after the deadliest single day in its history. Force is a natural response to bring perpetrators to justice and reduce the threat of more attacks. But lashing out in anger, pursuing vengeance rather than security, and collectively punishing an entire nationality for the actions of a few would be immoral and strategically counterproductive. With insufficient planning for what comes next, even military victory could become strategic failure.
But beyond that, this is a different situation, with different challenges. Forcing it into a U.S. War on Terror frame could lead to misunderstanding and mistakes.
2001 America and 2023 Israel were both coming off close elections. But U.S. President George W. Bush was new to national office, and the country rallied around him. After 9/11, Bush’s approval rating shot up to 90%, the highest since Gallup began tracking in the 1950s.
In Israel, by contrast, Benjamin Netanyahu is the longest serving Prime Minister in the country’s history. Israelis were deeply divided over Netanyahu’s narrow, far right coalition’s efforts to change the judiciary, and majorities blame him for the security failures of the Hamas attack. Israel’s reaction already altered the governing coalition, as a unity “war cabinet” brought in security-minded centrists, partially reducing the power of the far right.
Bush got reelected in 2004, winning by a greater margin than in 2000. Netanyahu appears in trouble, since he’s argued for years that he provides security, and failed. Egyptian intelligence reportedly warned Israel that something big was coming from Gaza, but the Netanyahu government disregarded it, focused on violence between Israeli settlers and Palestinians in the West Bank.
Netanyahu has been trying to get out of criminal charges for corruption, and already cut deals with political extremes. Even if he manages to stay in office, he wouldn’t be able to lead the country on a foreign adventure like America’s invasion of Iraq.
Different Security Environment
9/11 transformed America’s approach to terrorism, expanding its domestic security apparatus and reducing civil liberties. Israel has lived with the threat of terrorism for decades. After 9/11, the U.S. became more like Israel, not the other way around.
America faced a terrorist attack from far away, by a group few Americans had heard of. In 1998, the U.S. fired some missiles on al Qaeda bases in Sudan and Afghanistan in response to attacks on American embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, but didn’t treat the group as a serious threat until after September 11th.
Israel, by contrast, faced rocket attacks and cross-border raids by Hamas before, albeit not at this scale. They’ve treated the group as a serious threat for decades, and fought multiple wars in Gaza since Hamas forcibly took power there in 2007. And the geographic proximity means they can’t separate. As long as both Israel and Hamas exist, they will be within close range of each other.
The U.S. wanted to win in Afghanistan, but could withdraw without sacrificing an existential interest. Israel cannot withdraw from Israel. And to reach Israeli civilians, Hamas has to cross or fire over a border, not an ocean.
Israel faces other nearby enemies, most notably Hezbollah to its north. The two fought a war to a draw in 2006. There’s also Syria, which fought multiple wars with Israel in the 20th century, and faces sporadic Israeli airstrikes, usually targeting weapons bound for Hezbollah. And then there’s Iran, supplying both Hezbollah and Hamas. The Gaza war could widen, whether Israel wants it to or not.
When the response to 9/11 widened to include overthrowing Saddam Hussein in Iraq, it was America’s choice. Israel isn’t considering forced regime change and occupation in, say, Qatar. And America didn’t have to worry about active enemies across its borders.
Different Media and Society
9/11 caused a sea change in American media and society, as many set aside their skepticism—of the U.S. government in general or George W. Bush specifically—to support the War on Terror, accept Bush administration claims at face value (eg about Iraq’s supposed nuclear weapons program), and shun dissent.
That’s not the case in Israel. Arab Israelis are being treated as second class, with some arrested for pro-Palestinian social media posts, which is bad, but also isn’t new. And Israeli media is more questioning of the government than American media was. Some major outlets run pieces opposing Israeli military action in Gaza, blaming leaders for failing to stop the Hamas attack, and for years of policy that lead to it.
Today’s information environment is different in America as well, which is especially relevant since Israel’s national security strategy relies far more on the U.S. than America’s relies on Israel. The American public is more divided than after 9/11, as feelings towards Israel and the Palestinians diverge along generational and racial lines. The mainstream media, perhaps influenced by criticisms of post-9/11 bias, has highlighted both Israeli and Palestinian victims, and given voice to the argument that Israel’s occupation is the ultimate cause of the violence.
In a telling example, major U.S. and international media outlets reported that an Israeli missile destroyed a Gaza hospital and killed 500 people, based on a claim from a Palestinian agency controlled by Hamas. As evidence emerged that the story was inaccurate—the hospital stands, something smaller hit the parking lot where displaced people were camping, most likely a rocket fired from Gaza that fell short, killing far fewer than the original claim—media adjusted headlines. But before they did, politicians and commentators denounced Israel, protests surrounded Middle East U.S. embassies, and the King of Jordan canceled a meeting with President Biden.
American media never would have believed an al Qaeda or Taliban claim like that.
Different Military Task
The U.S. launched a “global war on terror,” invading two distant countries, only one of which was involved in 9/11. The Taliban government harbored al Qaeda, but the terrorist group didn’t control Afghanistan, and could move through mountains into Pakistan.
Israel is fighting Hamas, which controls a relatively small strip of territory. Its main stronghold is one urban center, Gaza City. The terrorists and the political leaders are wings of a single organization. And unlike al Qaeda, Hamas is holding hostages.
America’s War on Terror warns Israel against regime change and indefinite occupation of Gaza trying to install a friendly democracy. But Israel’s history with Gaza is different from America’s with Afghanistan or Iraq, directly controlling Gaza from 1967 until unilaterally withdrawing in 2005. Since Hamas forcibly took over in 2007, Israel and Egypt blockaded Gaza, controlling most of what goes in and out.
Unlike America’s open-ended, world-spanning War on Terror, Israel is targeting a group inside a small, contained area. The military models are not the U.S.-led wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, but Israel’s previous operations in Gaza (which show how limited force that killed hundreds, sometimes thousands of Palestinians and reduced Hamas’ military capacity but left the group in charge doesn’t provide security) and the Battle of Mosul against ISIS (which shows that urban warfare to dislodge an entrenched enemy is slow, hard, costly, but possible).
Different Overall Situation
There’s nothing else like the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. While many can envision a long-term solution—e.g. end the occupation and get Palestinians a state—no one seems to know how to get there.
Post-9/11 America doesn’t offer an answer. Nor does it have one for Israel’s terrible, unavoidable short-term dilemma: Accept a major security threat—one willing and able to slaughter 1,000 Israeli civilians—continuing to control the territory right across its border. Or try to remove Hamas by force, at considerable cost to Israeli troops and Palestinian civilians, with success uncertain, and even the best case scenario leaving big challenges after.
America’s mistakes in Iraq tell Israel that, if they’re going to overthrow Hamas, they should have a detailed plan that doesn’t leave them trying to run Gaza for years. But Israel can’t withdraw like the U.S. did from Iraq and Afghanistan. And post-9/11 America didn’t have anything like the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to solve.
For this situation, “don’t be like America after 9/11” isn’t a strategy.