Israel Is Making the Same Mistake America Made in Iraq

As the war in Gaza reaches its six-month mark, I’m getting a disturbing sense of déjà vu. Israel is facing many of the same challenges that America faced in Iraq, and it is making many of the same mistakes.

When I read my colleagues Aaron Boxerman and Iyad Abuheweila’s outstanding report last week about Israel’s recent fight to take Al Shifa hospital after raiding it last year, this sentence caught my attention: “But as the war ground on, Israeli forces closed in on the hospital again in mid-March in an attempt to root out what they said was a renewed insurgency by Palestinian armed groups in northern Gaza.”

Think of those words: “renewed insurgency.” That means Israel was doing exactly what we did for much of the Iraq war — fighting again over ground we had presumably already seized. And the sad reality of those terrible battles reminded me of a seemingly counterintuitive truth: In the fight against terrorists, providing humanitarian aid isn’t just a moral imperative; it’s a military necessity.

The terrible civilian toll and looming famine in Gaza are a human tragedy that should grieve us all; they are also directly relevant to the outcome of the war. A modern army like Israel’s can absolutely defeat Hamas in a direct confrontation, regardless of whether it provides aid to civilians. But as we’ve learned in our own wars abroad, it cannot preserve its victory unless it meets Gazans’ most basic needs.

So far most international attention has focused on Israel’s conduct at the tip of the spear. The question that dominates the discourse is whether Israel’s behavior as it battles Hamas complies with the laws of war and Israel’s own moral standards. That is a vital question — one worth answering in full when the fog of war clears — but the war may well be decided after the first phase of combat, when Israel faces a different set of legal and moral obligations, the obligations of an occupying power.

I want to be very precise and clear here. By “occupying power,” I do not mean that Israel should permanently conquer (much less settle) Gazan territory. I’m referring to the technical legal status of an invading army once it attains control of an invaded region. Think of the laws of war as operating in phases, with Phase 1 regulating the actual combat operations of the initial attack and Phase 2 regulating the way in which an attacking force governs the territory it controls — before the transition to permanent civilian control.

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