Capstones: A Road to Catastrophe

It’s difficult to make sense of the senseless. On October 7, in an unspeakable frenzy of mass-murder, torture, butchery, rape and kidnapping—punctuated by 7,000 rocket attacks[i]—Hamas erased 1,200 people and perpetrated the largest-scale massacre of Jews since the Holocaust.

Some say the origins of Hamas’s beastly terror and Israel’s brutal counterterror war date to the 2006 Palestinian elections; some to Israel’s policies; others to the collapse of the Ottoman Empire or the post-World War I administration of the region; still others to biblical times. For Americans, perhaps it’s best to begin the discussion at that moment in history when this problem—and seemingly all the world’s problems—fell on America’s shoulders.

As World War II came to an end, the world came to grips with Hitler’s Holocaust: 6 million Jews systematically erased. After seeing the death camps, Gen. Dwight Eisenhower took a gathering of troops, lawmakers and journalists to Buchenwald—and urged them to begin “informing the people at home of things like these atrocities…I want you to see for yourself and be spokesmen for the United States.”[ii]

Returning GIs—sons, husbands, dads, brothers—described what they saw to America. Moved by those firsthand accounts—and with Britain stepping away from administering the region—Americans led an international effort to forge a “national home” and a safe refuge for the nearly-exterminated Jewish people. By early 1945, polls showed strong public support in America for a Jewish state,[iii] which President Harry Truman endorsed in 1946.[iv]

A special UN commission was then tasked with carving a pathway to that goal. Jews and Arabs alike had roots in this tiny swath of earth. Lacking the wisdom of Solomon, the UN in 1947 offered the best answer it could: a 50,000-word blueprint for a two-state solution. The plan outlined free elections, borders, trade connections between the new Arab and Jewish states, and UN administration of Jerusalem as an international trusteeship.[v]

With U.S. and Soviet backing, the UN adopted the plan. Jewish leaders accepted it. Arab leaders rejected it, thus sentencing Palestinian Arabs to a stateless future.

After Israel declared independence in May 1948, Israel’s Arab neighbors declared war. With Western military backing, Israel won its war for independence. Egypt held Gaza. Jordan controlled the West Bank. But 700,000 Palestinians became refugees as a result of the war.[vi]

In 1967, as its Arab neighbors prepared to finish what they started in 1948, Israel struck preemptively. In a stunning rout, Israel took the West Bank from Jordan, the Golan Heights from Syria, and the Sinai and Gaza from Egypt—all in six days. Thus began Israel’s occupation of Arab-populated territories. Construction of Israeli settlements in postwar occupied territories would inflame and complicate the situation for decades.

During the 1972 Munich Olympic Games, Palestinian terrorists took hostage the Israeli team, hoping to gain release of 234 Palestinians held by Israel. But when rescue operations devolved into a shootout, 11 Israeli athletes were murdered. In response, Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir authorized Operation Wrath of God—a global assassination campaign lasting decades.[vii]

In 1973, a surprise Egyptian-Syrian invasion sent Israel reeling. With Israel’s defenses crumbling, the Soviets airlifting supplies into Egypt and Syria, and Israel’s war cabinet contemplating[viii] the nuclear option, America offered a helping hand. Israel needed tanks, warplanes and ammunition. President Richard Nixon’s response: “Send everything that can fly.”[ix]

“For generations,” Meir declared, “all will be told of the miracle of the immense planes from the United States bringing in the material that meant life to our people.”

After the 1973 war, the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) attacked Israel from Lebanon and tried to assassinate Israel’s ambassador to Britain—prompting IDF operations into Lebanon in 1982. IDF troops reached Beirut and forced the PLO to relocate to Tunisia.[x]

In 1987, Palestinians launched an intifada—or uprising—against Israel’s occupation. Hamas was born at this time. In 1988, Jordan ceded its West Bank claims, clearing the way for a future Palestinian state.[xi]

The intifada, which claimed 1,300 Palestinians and 200 Israelis[xii], ended in 1993, after the Clinton administration brokered an agreement that saw Israel recognize the PLO as the representative of all Palestinians. The PLO recognized Israel’s right to exist. And Israel ceded parts of the West Bank.[xiii] Grinding negotiations then yielded the framework of a peace plan. Israel agreed to: surrender 92 percent of the West Bank and all of Gaza, a Palestinian capital in East Jerusalem, and Palestinian authority over half of Jerusalem. But PLO leader Yasser Arafat rejected the deal—dismissing, according to U.S. negotiator Dennis Ross, the recommendation of “the whole Palestinian delegation.”[xiv] President Bill Clinton’s prescient response: “You are leading your people and the region to a catastrophe.”[xv]

President George W. Bush pledged that if Palestinians build a “democracy based on tolerance and liberty,” America “will support the creation of a Palestinian state.”[xvi] But the fractured Palestinian leadership was unable to follow the roadmap laid out by Washington, just as their fathers were unable to follow the peace plan offered by the UN.

A second intifada flared. It ended in 2005-06, as Israel withdrew from Gaza. The ensuing elections yielded Hamas control of the Palestinian Legislative Council. A civil war between Hamas and Palestinian moderates followed, with Hamas expelling the moderates from Gaza.[xvii] Given Hamas’s terrorist roots, Egypt and Israel severely restricted movement in and out of Gaza.

A low-grade war—punctuated by Hamas rocket and terror attacks into Israel, with IDF counterstrikes into Gaza—followed, killing 6,400 Palestinians and 300 Israelis.[xviii] Each IDF response triggered international outrage, just as Hamas, with its blanket of human shields, calculated. “Hamas is really smart,” Clinton observed in 2016. “They insinuate themselves in the hospitals, in the schools” and “put the Israelis in a position of either not defending themselves or killing innocents.” [xix]

On October 7, a thousand Hamas terrorists blasted into Israel, unleashed a day of atrocities and radically changed the nature of the conflict. The Jewish state was supposed to be a refuge and safeguard against genocidal enemies. It wasn’t on October 7. What Israel had viewed as a manageable security issue was thus transformed into an existential crisis.

This article was published in the January 2024 issue of The American Legion Magazine.

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