Last Thursday, the Center for Study of American Democracy hosted a live videocast of a panel of experts from the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) to discuss the ongoing conflict between Israel and Hamas. The public forum focused on what to expect from both Israel and Hamas in the coming weeks, as well as the conflict’s regional and global impact.
Mike Froman, the president of the Council, moderated the discussion, introducing the CFR as an institution that aims to provide unbiased and fact-oriented information regarding the developing situation. The three other panelists were Steven Cook, Ray Takeyh and Farah Pandith, all members of the CFR and experts in Middle Eastern politics.
The council began by discussing Israel’s potential response to the recent attacks from Hamas, and its strategic and military objectives for Gaza. “The war cabinet — the Israeli war cabinet, which now includes the opposition party led by Benny Gantz, has given the IDF the instructions to destroy Hamas, to make it so that Hamas cannot threaten Israel,” Cook said. He added that, although Israel is currently focusing on airstrikes, its preparation of soldiers, equipment and artillery shows that it may proceed to move ground forces into the Gaza Strip. Israel may move into a full-scale occupation of Gaza, which Cook stated may be a victory for Hamas, as an occupation could weaken the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF).
To completely eliminate a group like Hamas, Pandith said that world leaders need to take a new approach by thinking differently about how to attack groups with terrorist ideologies. She believes that leaders must prevent the indoctrination of vulnerable youths from terrorist groups, which have a specific ability to appeal to the emotions of their recruits. For example, Pandith said Hamas is “manipulating the religion of Islam to bring people into the fold,” just as groups like Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) have done in the past. When asked if it is realistic to eliminate Hamas, Pandith replied, “I think it is possible globally for many countries to build a coalition that works on eradicating ‘us versus them’ ideologies.” She emphasized that eliminating ideologies and groups such as Hamas will be a prolonged process. “It is not something that happens in the course of a presidential cycle. It’s something that happens over generations,” Pandith said.
Takeyh evaluated Iran’s role in the conflict as a supporter of Hamas. The extent of Iran’s direct involvement is debatable, but Takeyh believes Iran is somewhat directing Hamas behind the scenes. “What we can say is Iran certainly enabled Hamas to do what it did.” Takeyh noted that Iran is careful not to get too involved, which may allow it to influence the conflict with its personal interests in mind while maintaining a form of immunity. “[Iran] will always give [itself] some measure of distance from the actual operational decision to execute,” he said. Takeyh also discussed the role of Hezbollah, a Lebanese Shia Islamist political party and militant group that is also backed by Iran. Although Lebanon borders the north of Israel and has the potential to get involved, Takeyh expressed that this would expose Iran as being directly involved in the conflict, stripping it of that immunity. However, Takeyh added that the conflict is unpredictable. “Nobody’s acting reasonable,” said Takeyh. Therefore, he believes anything is possible in regard to whether Hezbollah attacks or not.
Egypt has also played a role recently, as it has formed a blockade preventing Palestinians seeking refuge from entering the country. Cook explained that Egypt is already a poor country itself and does not have the facilities to take on refugees and provide them with food, shelter and other necessities that are not being provided in Gaza. In addition, Egypt is already experiencing a refugee crisis from the ongoing civil war in Sudan.
Regarding the role of the United States and other major countries, Cook acknowledged the U.S. aircraft carrier that was moved to the Eastern Mediterranean in support of Israel. He noted that the U.S. wants to prevent the conflict from spreading, and it may increase involvement if the conflict spreads farther throughout the region. Cook also discussed Israel’s unwillingness to involve perspectives from Israel’s allies in military decisions. He believes there will be encouragement from Israel’s supporters to show restraint against Palestine, but that Israel is unlikely to be moved by these pleas for moderation. “Israelis are bloodied. They’re angry, [and] they’re vengeful,” Cook said.
Pandith expressed her concern about the media’s influence on American perceptions of both Israelis and Palestinians. She reiterated that while Hamas has the microphone and is getting the attention, Americans cannot ignore the existence of other Palestinian groups. “It’s important that we remember that the brutality and terrorist tactics that Hamas deployed doesn’t mean that every Palestinian believes that was the right thing to do,” she said. “It’s not fair to think otherwise.” Pandith also emphasized the importance of recognizing past misconceptions about Islam and terrorism that spread throughout America. “Please don’t make the same mistakes we did after 9/11, which is to put everybody into these gigantic buckets,” she said.
At the end of the lecture, Cook concluded that Israel and Hamas likely have no interest in a peaceful conclusion to the conflict. “The prospects for a peace process, as we have come to know in recent decades, are near zero,” Cook said. He added that one can only hope that the conflict can somehow open new pathways and possibilities to a lasting resolution.
Pandith added that the audience can make a difference in their daily lives, as ordinary citizens. She stressed the importance of acknowledging the dangers of antisemitism and Islamophobia, and reminded people to be careful with their language when discussing the conflict. “We have to be alert, and we have to do more,” said Pandith. “Words carry power.”