When Israel found a terror tunnel crossing the border into its territory on Oct. 30, it did what every country would do: It destroyed it. The tunnel was not there for peaceful purposes, and Israel did not use peaceful means to destroy it. It bombed it. And as the tunnel crumbled, Islamic Jihad operatives were killed — no great loss for those wanting peace and security for Israelis and Palestinians.
Those killed were not the target of the operation; they were collateral damage. But being who they were, you would not expect Israel to feel overcome with sorrow over their unplanned deaths. Still, when Israel Defense Forces (IDF) officers were speaking about the incident, they sounded almost apologetic about the killing. Boastful remarks were rare — the military was proud of the new technologies that enabled the operational achievement, yet refrained from counting the killing of terrorists as part of that achievement. Politicians were asked by the prime minister to keep their thoughts to themselves — and did.
Left-wingers more easily accept Israel’s decision in this case.
Israel is a pragmatic country with pragmatic policies — and this is no less true when it has a right-wing government headed by a hawkish prime minister. It does not need an eruption of violence in Gaza. It does not seek confrontation with Hamas. It does not want to give the impression that its goal is to disrupt the process of Hamas-Fatah reconciliation. Of course, this does not mean that it will turn a blind eye when a terror tunnel is discovered. But it does mean that a small price, such as faking an apologetic response about killing very bad people, is not out of the question.
Or is it?
Some Israelis on the right, most notably Education Minister Naftali Bennett, did not easily accept these rules of overly restrained Israeli response. “We should not apologize for succeeding in eliminating terrorists,” Bennett said. Politicians in Israel — much like in the United States — see apologies as unfashionable and unnecessary. President Donald Trump does not apologize, but Bennett can take credit for having had a no-apology policy even before Trump. Maybe that’s the reason for his gut reaction to the IDF’s half-hearted celebration of victory.
It is easy to identify with Bennett’s reluctance to accept these rules of restraint. After all, these terrorists were coming to kill us, and we killed them right back! It is also easy to understand why the IDF is being so cautious. After all, the military would be the one having to deal with any eruption of violence. And if such violence can be avoided by having a low-profile celebration of this small victory, why not try this approach?
Politics, as always, stands in the way.
Right-wingers are lukewarm about playing down their response and wonder whether the IDF’s action indicates it is guilty of a defeatist apprehension of Hamas. The Israeli right-wing has developed a bad habit of constantly looking for signs of weakness in others, always suspecting that Israelis other than right-wingers do not have the stomach to do what it takes to keep this country safe.
Left-wingers more easily accept Israel’s decision in this case. Their instinctive preference is for Israel to always be restrained and always be considerate of the sensitivities of the Palestinians. But as they praise Israel for this measured, calculated response, they fail to notice other aspects of this exact same realism. Taking things as they are and not as you’d want them to be, accepting small humiliations so as not to complicate an already complicated situation — these explain both Israel’s limited celebration this week and Israel’s averse response to peace processing.
Sober realism, pragmatic attitude, a results-driven approach — all these have benefits and a price that cut both ways. They can make us curb our enthusiasm when terrorists — our most-detested, most-radical enemies — are killed. They also can make us curb our enthusiasm when a pipe dream of peace is offered.