Oct 23, 2023 - Politics & Policy

Obama: Israeli operation in Gaza may "backfire" if civilians aren't protected

 Former President Obama speaking in New York City in 2022.

Former President Obama speaking in New York City in November 2022. Photo: Spencer Platt/Getty Images

Former President Obama warned Monday that a possible Israeli ground operation in the Gaza Strip in response to Hamas' surprise attack could "backfire" if Palestinian civilians aren't protected.

Why it matters: Israel has said it intends to eliminate Hamas' military capabilities in a future operation, but depending on the military tactics employed, doing so in a dense urban environment like Gaza could endanger thousands of people.

  • Gaza is one of the most densely populated places on Earth, and Hamas has built military facilities, including a labyrinthian network of tunnels, near civilian infrastructure.
  • An overwhelming military campaign would also threaten to escalate the fighting into a regional war with Iran, which has indicated it would intervene if the Israeli operation in Gaza continues.
  • Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu previously told President Biden that Israel has no choice but to unleash a ground operation in Gaza and that he anticipates a "long and difficult war."

Catch up quickly: While the ground operation has yet to begin, Israel has called up 300,000 reservists — the largest number called to duty in decades.

  • Over 5,000 Palestinians have been killed since the war began, according to the Gaza Ministry of Health of the Hamas-run government. About 1.4 million Palestinians are displaced inside Gaza.
  • Israel has reported over 1,400 deaths.

What they're saying: In the post, Obama said Israel has a right to defend itself, but cautioned that an unbridled military campaign in Gaza could have lasting repercussions that could jeopardize Israel's security in the future.

  • He said a devastating operation "could further harden Palestinian attitudes for generations, erode global support for Israel, play into the hands of Israel's enemies, and undermine long term efforts to achieve peace and stability in the region."
  • Obama cited the U.S.' military response against al-Qaeda after 9/11 as an example, saying it had "at times fallen short of our higher values when engaged in war" and didn't effectively heed advice from allies.
  • Obama criticized Israel's decision to cut electricity and block the entry of food, fuel, water and other supplies to the Gaza Strip, saying it only threatens to worsen the growing humanitarian crisis there.
  • However, he said Israel recently allowing relief trucks to enter was "an encouraging step."

The big picture: Obama called on people around the world "to put our best values, rather than our worst fears, on display" by rejecting antisemitism and anti-Muslim, anti-Arab or anti-Palestinian sentiment in all forms.

  • He said it was also necessary to reject "the morally-bankrupt suggestion that any cause can somehow justify the deliberate slaughter of innocent people" and not to minimize Hamas' attack on Israeli civilians or Palestinians' suffering.
  • "[I]t is possible for people of good will to champion Palestinian rights and oppose certain Israeli government policies in the West Bank and Gaza without being anti-semitic," the former president said.

Go deeper: Where countries stand on the Israel-Hamas war

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