As conditions for the population of Gaza worsen and the fate of the hostages in the hands of Hamas remains in abeyance, the legitimate call for a ceasefire is becoming increasingly emphatic. In this context, where a sense of both humanitarian and political urgency prevails, the question arises of the degree to which Israel should respond to the unprecedented crime that has struck it. Bruno Karsenti explores this issue by asking the equally crucial question of what Israel must be able to do in order to remain true to what it is.
With each passing day, the situation in Gaza worsens. Humanitarian crisis is top of the agenda, more and more civilians are dying under the bombs, and fierce fighting continues in the north of the territory, with Hamas still holding most of the hostages taken on October 7 and still having a powerful strike force turned against the Jewish state. Global public opinion was very divided in the early days of the war: On the one hand, there was an official Western political position generally supporting Israel’s right to defend itself, and on the other, non-Western positions were predominantly committed, with nuances depending on the country, to re-characterising the crimes of October 7 as the awakening of the “Palestinian resistance”, a position supported by the Western intellectual elites who are hegemonic in the academic world, the leading edge of which is expressed on American campuses.
Then the gap, though not abolished, narrowed. In view of the situation inside the Gaza Strip, the opposition lost its cutting edge, with general opinion now moving towards a kind of consensus: the call for a ceasefire. Once again, this call is underpinned by contradictory intentions, ranging from the denunciation of Israel as deprived of any right in a war that merely expresses its “colonial” essence, to the consideration of an effective limit reached by the war waged by Israel, taking into account the situation of the hostages and that of the civilian population of Gaza. Nevertheless, it is the ceasing of fighting that is sought. For Israel, this means giving up – temporarily or definitively, depending on the meaning of “ceasing” – on achieving its war aim: the annihilation of the Palestinian terrorist movement which, on October 7, committed a crime the likes of which the Jewish world has not seen since the Second World War.
There is more: a growing part of the Jewish world, in Israel and elsewhere, is gradually joining this consensus. It is important to see how this evolution is taking place, an evolution in which we ourselves are obviously a contributing factor.
On the Jewish side, there is certainly no question of relativising what happened. Far from reclassifying the October 7 massacre as an act of resistance, it is a matter of fully recognising its anti-Semitic, exterminatory motivation, of publicising it, and of demanding that everyone’s awareness is fully focused on the historical significance of the event: a pogrom carried out in 2023, of unprecedented violence and magnitude. This awareness is, we must admit, only partially established, even where understanding and compassion are involved. That being said, as time goes by, this demand is compounded by another, which has always been linked to it, but which the course of the war necessarily brings out more clearly. For that part of Jewish opinion to which we belong, it is equally clear that war is not only limited and contained by the law of war. It is also limited by the explicit political will, which defines a democratic state governed by the rule of law, to protect civilian populations, whether one’s own – of which hostages are obviously a part – or those of the other side. And so, what is being measured in the just war that Israel is waging at the moment is the degree to which it must retaliate, the point beyond which it cannot go if its justice is to remain in line with the requirements of a State governed by the rule of law fighting for its existence – this State governed by the rule of law that Israel actually is, and that, contrary to what its detractors claim, it has never ceased to be.
The deaths of Palestinians under Israeli bombs and the disastrous sanitary situation are not, and never have been, the intended result of Israel’s response. The use of terms such as “ethnic cleansing” and “genocide” by large sections of European and global opinion serves no purpose other than to disguise the Israeli-Palestinian national conflict as a racial conflict between the coloniser and the colonised, and to invert the meaning of the events of October 7 as quickly as possible. The fight against this distortion of reality is now more crucial than ever. This can only be done by recalling that what is at stake in this war is indeed the restoration of Israel’s security, for which the annihilation of Hamas is justifiably a precondition. In the same way, this work of clarification is not just a theoretical gesture. It must lead to the right policy for Israel to pursue given the trap into which Hamas has deliberately lured it.
Since Israel is a state governed by the rule of law, the re-establishment of its security cannot come at a price that would be tantamount to massive and intolerable loss of human life, in violation of fundamental rights, among the population of Gaza. This is where we are now in the course of the conflict. A point at which it is not a question of knowing what position to adopt in supporting Israel or not, but of what position Israel itself is capable of adopting in order to remain faithful to what it is. And by what means the Jews of the Diaspora, from the position they occupy, can stand by Israel to help it achieve this. For this is how they truly relate to Israel, i.e. whether they criticise or support its policies, in times of peace or war.
In this respect, we should recall some facts that the historic rupture of October 7 seems to have thrown back into a very ancient past, whereas they are still our present – albeit obviously completely reconfigured.
Since the installation of an extreme right-wing government a year ago, Israeli Jews and Jews in the Diaspora have been forcefully questioning this faithfulness to the standards of the rule of law, and the risks posed by the proposed bills put forward by the current government coalition. We played a major part in this questioning in K. The result of all of this, was the largest popular anti-government protest movement in the country’s history, with unprecedented support from numerous diasporic centres around the world. As the protests intensified, the State’s relationship with the Palestinians, divided into a population of Israeli citizens forming the country’s largest minority, and a second population under military rule inhabiting the territories destined to form a new state neighbouring Israel, increasingly became the central issue. And the point had been reached where the occupation, combined with the illegal colonisation that had been allowed to proliferate and even encouraged, after almost two decades of right-wing domination led by Netanyahu, had become what it really is: a danger to the Zionist political project as such, a danger that borders on its denial, and therefore on Israel’s infidelity to itself.
The attacks of October 7 of course also interrupted this salutary process of reflection. However, the key element is now echoing beyond the event. In other words, it is once again the question of faithfulness to oneself, this time in the context of war, which is taking centre stage as the war continues and intensifies in Gaza. A war waged by a security cabinet from which the religious Zionist camp has fortunately been expelled, but which has not been completely neutralised, since it continues to wreak havoc by stirring up reactionary and warmongering passions in other arenas and wherever it can. This makes it all the more important to clearly define the positions that are truly legitimate today, given the current state of affairs on the ground. Israel has no other recourse in this ordeal than to act in accordance with its principles, based on respect for the rights of all civil populations. In this case, the core proposition of this self-faithfulness is that, in the conflict and in its aftermath, the challenge will always be to enable two peoples to coexist side by side, in a region of the world where their respective historical trajectories are intertwined, no matter what.
Such must be the dilemmas on the minds of politicians and the army. Such are the dilemmas of every Jewish conscience. They all relate to the effective limit of the war that Israel immediately decided to wage, knowing that, from 1948 to 2023, nothing less than its survival is always at stake. Israel must resolve these dilemmas if it is to resume the other battle, the one begun before the war by the protest movement against Netanyahu’s government.
Israel today finds itself in this very situation: its other battle is now embedded in the current war, where it takes the form of its limit.