On Friday the Israeli government gave civilians in the northern Gaza Strip 24 hours to evacuate to the southern part of the territory, in anticipation of a major military offensive. Hamas, for its part, “told Gaza residents to stay put, despite Israel’s deadline,” Reuters reported the same day.
Reasonable people can criticize Israel for not allowing enough time for civilians to get out of harm’s way: There are, especially, elderly, disabled and sick Gazans — and those who help them — who may be effectively homebound.
Reasonable people can also oppose other measures that Israelis have taken in response to the deadliest massacre of Jews since the Holocaust. It seems neither right nor smart for Israel to cut off water and electricity to Gaza until Hamas’s hostages are returned — not because Israel shouldn’t do whatever it takes to obtain their release but because the people who suffer most from the action are the ones who have the least say over the fate of the hostages. Hamas’s leaders, I’m sure, have amply supplied themselves and their forces with fuel, generators, potable water and other essentials.
But what reasonable people cannot debate is the cynicism with which Hamas is conducting its side of the war. It’s a cynicism the wider world should not reward with our credulity, lest we once again turn ourselves into Hamas’s useful idiots.
Consider: Hamas launched an attack with a wantonness like what the Nazis showed at Babyn Yar or ISIS at Sinjar. It did so knowing that it would provoke the most furious Israeli response possible. Why put millions of Palestinians at risk? Because Hamas has learned that it profits at least as much from Palestinian deaths as it does from Israeli ones — the more of each, the better.
Murdering Jews is an end in its own right for Hamas, because it believes it fulfills a theological aim. The original Hamas covenant invokes this injunction: “The Day of Judgment will not come about until Muslims fight Jews and kill them. Then, the Jews will hide behind rocks and trees, and the rocks and trees will cry out: ‘O Muslim, there is a Jew hiding behind me, come and kill him.’” Hamas later softened the language from “Jews” to “Zionists” and “kill” to “resisting the occupation with all means and methods,” but the meaning is the same.
Hamas also achieves practical and propagandistic goals by putting Palestinians in harm’s way. More civilians in combat zones mean more human shields for its forces. More dead and wounded Palestinians mean more sympathy for its side and more condemnation of Israel.
That’s why Hamas turned Gaza’s central hospital into its headquarters during the 2014 conflict. It’s why it stored rockets in schools. It’s why it has used mosques to store guns. It’s why it fires rockets from Gaza’s densely populated areas. It does all this knowing that Israel, which has agreed to abide by the laws of war, tries to avoid hitting those targets — and, when it does hit them, that it will result in accusations of war crimes and diplomatic demands for restraint. Either way, Hamas gains an edge.
The cynicism doesn’t stop there. During a previous round of fighting, Hamas’s political leader, Khaled Meshaal, denounced Israel for committing a “Holocaust” against Palestinians. That, from the head of a terrorist group that has denied the Holocaust. Hamas also pleads for international sympathy on account of what it says is Gaza’s unfathomable poverty. In fact, Gaza’s per capita gross domestic product, at $5,600 in 2021 in terms of purchasing power, is not much lower than India’s.
But Hamas spends fortunes building a war machine whose only purpose is to strike Israel. In 2014, The Wall Street Journal reported that with the money Hamas could have spent to build a single tunnel to infiltrate into Israel, it could have purchased construction supplies “enough to build 86 homes, seven mosques, six schools or 19 medical clinics.” At the time, Israel had identified at least 32 such tunnels.
A Hamas that wanted a more prosperous Gaza — one that did not make its neighbors put up fences around it and towers to guard them — could have it, simply by desisting from its ideological aims. If Gaza is the open-air prison that so many of Israel’s critics allege, it’s not because Israelis are capriciously cruel but because too many of its residents pose a mortal risk. For proof, just look at the Oct. 7 pogrom.
As I write, Israeli forces appear to be on the cusp of launching their ground assault into Gaza. With that invasion, the balance of global sympathy, along with the weight of diplomatic pressure, will undoubtedly turn against Israel. That has always been part of Hamas’s strategy: Like the boy who murders his parents and then, through his lawyers, pleads for the court’s mercy because he’s an orphan.
Hamas wants the benefits of being a perpetrator and the sympathy of being a victim at the same time. Whether it gets away with it will depend, in part, on the international community — which, in this case, includes you, the reader.
We ought to be able to get this right. The central cause of Gaza’s misery is Hamas. It alone bears the blame for the suffering it has inflicted on Israel and knowingly invited against Palestinians. The best way to end the misery is to remove the cause, not stay the hand of the remover.
The Times is committed to publishing a diversity of letters to the editor. We’d like to hear what you think about this or any of our articles. Here are some tips. And here’s our email: [email protected].
Follow The New York Times Opinion section on Facebook, Twitter (@NYTopinion) and Instagram.