On a reporting trip to Gaza two decades ago, I interrupted some high school boys playing soccer and asked them about their lives and hopes. The conversation veered to Israel and terrorism, so I quizzed them about whether they believed it would be morally acceptable for a Palestinian to bomb a group of Israeli women.
“That’s OK,” said Motaz Abuleilah, then 15, as I wrote at the time. “They all fight in their army.”
I pushed harder. Would it be reasonable to set off a bomb in an Israeli high school for girls?
More nods. “Fine, fine,” said Ibrahim Abudaya, then 18. “God knows, the girls will become fighters.”
What about blowing up the American Embassy?
I asked, what about blowing up an Israeli nursery school?
“No, no, no.” They had found their limit and prided themselves on their compassion. In recent days, as I’ve thought about the people I’ve met in Gaza while reporting there over the years, I’ve wondered if some of those boys — sweet and friendly to me — had grown up to be among the terrorists participating in the savagery in Israel last weekend.
Israel may now be poised to undertake a ground invasion of Gaza in ways that I fear would layer another humanitarian catastrophe onto the existing one — and instead of uprooting extremists would buttress the Hamas narrative of hatred and amplify the venom these boys expressed.
Israel’s demand that more than one million people leave their homes in northern Gaza, when they have nowhere to go, could constitute the war crime of forced removal, according to Jan Egeland, the much respected secretary general of the Norwegian Refugee Council. There are fears that Israel will treat all those who are unable to flee as combatants to be wiped out.
Israel has tactical superiority, but what’s the strategy? Who will govern the rubble afterward? And how will the mass slaughter of Palestinian civilians possibly lead to harmony with Israel afterward?
Yet it’s also true that Israel faces a serious conundrum when it has a neighbor led by terrorists and inhabited by teenage soccer players who applaud terrorism. Where does that anger come from, that openness to butcher even high school girls?
In my reporting in Gaza over the years, I’ve come to believe that one source is the incitement of Hamas and some other Palestinian groups, creating a culture that glorifies “martyrs” who die while killing Israelis. It is sadly common to talk to children in Gaza whose dream isn’t to become firefighters or doctors, but suicide bombers.
This is one reason the sympathy for Hamas in some leftist quarters is so wrongheaded. Hamas militants are not freedom fighters; they are misogynist oppressors of their own people who commit atrocities against Israelis that lead to counterstrikes that kill civilians. Instead of helping Palestinians advance, Hamas enormously magnifies their suffering.
Yet this too must be said: Another reason for the hatred is the endless degradation in Gaza that results from Israel’s periodic bombings and from its economic blockade.
One of the tragedies of Palestinians is that they have had consistently weak and myopic leadership, and Hamas is an example of that. The colonial oppression of India produced Gandhi, the turmoil of South Africa produced Mandela, and the upheavals of Palestinians produced Hamas.
Yet perhaps one reason for that pathetic leadership is the suffering and humiliation that can lead desperate, angry people to turn to demagogues.
Gazans voted in Hamas in 2006 but have a mixed view of it, with a majority expressing some support but 70 percent saying in a July poll that they would like Hamas to hand over administration of the territory and its armed units to the much more moderate Palestinian Authority. Even a low-level Hamas official took me aside in 2015 and told me how much he hated the group because of its economic incompetence, and 62 percent of people in Gaza said this summer they wanted to continue the cease-fire with Israel.
So why did Hamas break that cease-fire so spectacularly? Perhaps because it knew that Israel would then respond by inflicting even more suffering on Gazans in ways that would make Hamas more popular. After clashes in 2021 that led to bombings by Israel, polls found Hamas surging in popularity among Palestinians — because when people see friends dying, their fury sometimes drives them to cheer anyone who appears to be fighting for them. In my interviews in Gaza, I have found that older people are exhausted by war and sometimes blame Hamas for provoking the bombings, but many who are young seem to relish the sight of someone fighting back.
Israel appears to believe that with a ground invasion, it can wipe out Hamas. I’m skeptical, and I suspect that even if Hamas as an organization were eliminated, extremism would intensify and new radical groups would arise. Nurtured by misery, Hamas is a Hydra: When one head is cut off, two more grow.
The natural constituency for moderation in Gaza is the business community, but Israel’s blockade since 2007 has devastated that sector and collapsed its influence. Partly because of the blockade and partly because of Hamas’s recalcitrance and incompetence, Gaza has a per capita income of only about $1,250, making it poorer than Haiti — and over the last week about 6,000 bombs have rained down from the sky and added to the agony. The United Nations says that more people have now died in Gaza than from the terror attacks in Israel, and I fear the killing in Gaza is just getting started.
The jingoism of some Americans isn’t helping. “Level the place,” advised Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina. That “place” has more than two million inhabitants, including about one million children, and I shouldn’t have to remind a senator that when you care about some humans but not others, you’ve lost your humanity.
“If you fire missiles at densely populated areas, you will kill children, and that is what the Israeli military has been doing,” Sari Bashi of Human Rights Watch told me. War crimes shouldn’t be avenged by more war crimes.
Many Israelis aren’t in the mood to hear this. They have suffered a shattering blow, among the worst massacres of Jews since the Holocaust. The refrain from Israel is an anguished: But what do you expect us to do?
Fair enough. Everyone expects Israel to hit back. The practical question is how far to go: In the bluntest terms, for Israel, how many dead Gazan children are too many?
Before you wrestle with that impossible question, I want to make sure that I don’t leave the impression that all people in Gaza are like those teenage boys with poisoned hearts. Another person in Gaza who left a deep impression on me was a woman named Sumud Abu-Ajwa, whose home had been damaged by bombing in 2014 and whose husband had been injured and whose children were hungry.
“Do you want Israeli mothers to suffer like you?” I asked.
“Of course not,” she answered. “I hope God won’t let anyone taste our suffering.”
Abu-Ajwa and her children are probably out there somewhere in the living hell that is Gaza today. I pray that she and her children will be spared and remain advocates for peace. But I have my doubts.