Swords of Iron

Amid the shock and horror, the nation stands together with moral clarity and resolve

Historical analogies are always tricky, but it’s hard to avoid the thought that Saturday was Israel’s 9/11. At least 600 are dead, hundreds wounded, and possibly dozens kidnapped in a country the size of New Jersey.

Death, destruction and mayhem rained down on the Jewish state. But so did a moral clarity and resolve that characterizes democracies under attack—and that terrorists always underestimate.

It shouldn’t be necessary to say, but the vicious, wide-scale attack Hamas launched against Israelis sleeping at home, waiting in bus stops, walking the streets, going to synagogue, living in nursing homes, is reprehensible and inexcusable. The videos Palestinians have proudly posted—of terrorists going house-to-house, an Israeli man in shorts handcuffed, a woman screaming on a motorcycle, being taken to Gaza as hostages—are chilling. The story of Yoni Asher, 37—whose wife, 5- and 3-year-old daughters and mother-in-law were apparently abducted to Gaza—is heartbreaking. Videos of an Israeli woman’s corpse being spit on by terrorists are barbaric.

One wonders if any of those left-wingers who have spent years justifying and thus encouraging Palestinian terrorism will re-evaluate their narrative, of poor defenseless Palestinians victimized by Israeli bullies.

The 9/11 analogy goes deeper than the sheer evil terrorists perpetrated and the delight their enablers took in the massive loss of life. America on Sept. 10, 2001, was complacent. The 9/11 Commission reported not only that “the nation was unprepared” for the attack, but that President Bill Clinton had passed over opportunities to kill Osama bin Laden. It turned out that hours before the attack, Mr. Clinton said of Bin Laden that “I nearly got him” but he feared the collateral damage. Israel has been too divided over domestic politics, ignoring that the true dangers lurked outside the country.

Both Sept. 11 and Oct. 7 demonstrate the perils of being too sentimental about your enemies. Since 2005, when Israel withdrew from all of Gaza for the sake of peace, it has repeatedly struggled with Mr. Clinton’s dilemma: What do you do when your enemy hides behind civilians? A functional nation is most responsible for protecting its own citizens, especially when threatened by adversaries who respect no rules of war or simple decency.

Israel needs to fight this latest battle with a clarity that its many previous conflicts with Gaza lacked. We all need to remember the assurances in 2005, that Gaza would flourish once the Israeli “occupiers” left. We need to recall how Hamas brutally seized power in June 2007, slaughtering rivals and throwing Mohammed Sweirki, an officer in the Palestinian Presidential Guard, off the top of a 15-story apartment building.

And Israel needs to do what it takes to protect its citizens. As President Biden tweeted on Saturday: “Israel has a right to defend itself—full stop.” Hamas doesn’t care about Israeli life—or Palestinian life for that matter. Palestinian culture, however, worships land. This round of fighting mustn’t end until Israel has created an extended buffer zone protecting every Israeli, even if it requires bulldozing houses and evacuating Gazans.

They will call it “ethnic cleansing,” but it is wholly justified self-defense. Going forward, any violence of any kind from the Gaza Strip should be met by an expansion of the buffer zone, 10 yards at a time.

This Saturday morning, my family and I awoke to sirens in Jerusalem at 8:20 a.m.—approximately two hours after Hamas terrorists started swarming Israel’s border less than 50 miles from our home. Despite three sirens over the next 40 minutes, we kept to our routine, and I went to pray with friends in our regular outdoor minyan, an informal prayer group we started during Covid. We celebrated this special Sabbath, which coincided with Simchat Torah, the Jewish holiday rejoicing in the teaching and values of the five Books of Moses. We ended by spontaneously singing “Ani Ma’amin,” the Holocaust martyr’s ballad of eternal faith, and “Hatikvah,” Israel’s national anthem.

Amid the chaos—and seven more sirens—I stood outside the front yard where we pray. Guarding 40 of your friends, unarmed, with terrorists all over your country rampaging, simplifies things in a profound way. When you know what you are willing to die for, you also know what you are willing to live for. That sense of purpose is why Israel will prevail. It makes clear what seems from afar the great anomaly of Israel, which every Israeli understands up close. Israel may have brutal enemies and continuing political challenges. But Israelis rank as among the world’s happiest people, because they share a sense of common destiny, a sense of community, and a sense of purpose that gives their lives meaning amid the danger.

Prof. Troy is a distinguished scholar of North American history at McGill University and editor of “Theodor Herzl: Zionist Writings.”

Published by the WSJ