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Five Harvard Experts Weigh in on War in Israel and Gaza

Five Harvard faculty and affiliates, including three from the Harvard Kennedy School, discussed the ongoing war in Israel and Gaza following the deadly invasion by Hamas on Saturday.
Five Harvard faculty and affiliates, including three from the Harvard Kennedy School, discussed the ongoing war in Israel and Gaza following the deadly invasion by Hamas on Saturday. By Karina G. Gonzalez-Espinoza

As the war in Israel and Gaza continues, five Harvard faculty and affiliates with expertise in the region spoke with The Crimson about their views on the future of the conflict.

Early Saturday morning, members of the militant group Hamas — which the United States has designated a terrorist organization — attacked Israel, killing and kidnapping civilians en masse. In response, the Israeli government declared war. By Monday, Israeli missiles had hit more than 1,000 targets in Gaza while Hamas fired back toward Jerusalem and Tel Aviv.

As of Thursday afternoon, 1,300 Israelis and 1,500 Palestinians had been killed in the conflict, according to Israeli and Palestinian officials. The U.S. State Department verified 22 Americans had also been killed.

The Crimson spoke to five scholars who offered their analyses of the past week’s events: Stephen M. Walt, a Harvard Kennedy School professor of international affairs; Edward P. Djerejian, a former U.S. ambassador to Israel and an HKS fellow; Kenneth Roth, an HKS fellow and the former executive director of Human Rights Watch; Harvard Law School professor Noah R. Feldman ’92; and History professor Derek J. Penslar.

They said several factors contributed to what has been widely described as an Israeli intelligence failure to anticipate Hamas’ attack: internal political strife in Israel, a focus on establishing settlements in the West Bank, and a lack of personnel on the Gaza-Israel border.

“In a sense, Israel’s attention was elsewhere, away from the Gaza front,” Walt said. “In fact, military units had been moved away from Gaza.”

Hamas had, Walt also noted, “given no indications” that an attack was on the horizon.

Djerejian, who was the founding director of the Baker Institute for Public Policy, said it was a failure not just of Israeli intelligence, but American intelligence as well.

The attack was “not an operation that was put together in a matter of 48 hours,” Djerejian said. “This has been long in the making, with a considerable buildup of Hamas’ internal military capabilities.”

There has been widespread condemnation of Hamas’ attack as constituting war crimes. Walt said Israel may also be violating international law in its assault on Gaza.

“I think what Hamas did is clearly a war crime, and an atrocity, and deserves universal condemnation,” Walt said. “At the same time, what Israel is now doing appears to be a form of collective punishment, which is also illegal in international law.”

Walt added that Israel is likely attacking “targets that cannot be plausibly defended as places where they knew Hamas might be hiding,” which would also constitute “a violation of the laws of war.”

Roth, the former executive director of Human Rights Watch, said there were “early indications” that Israel was looking for “vengeance.” In January, Roth made national headlines when HKS Dean Douglas W. Elmendorf initially blocked his fellowship, allegedly over Roth’s criticism of Israel’s treatment of Palestinians, before reversing course and offering Roth the fellowship.

“The Israeli government has also imposed a siege, which itself is a violation of international humanitarian law because warring parties are not allowed to block the delivery of humanitarian aid,” Roth said, adding that Gaza “already was suffering under a lengthy, lengthy blockade” that has been in place since 2007.

Israel, Roth added, “is not taking appropriate care to avoid civilian harm,” adding that “the point seems to be just to inflict harm to increase the suffering.”

On Thursday morning, Netanyahu and his chief political opponent, Benny Gantz, formed an emergency unity government to steer the war effort. The next question, the experts said, would be the scale and nature of the Israeli offensive against Gaza, home to approximately 2 million people.

“Are they going to focus on destroying the military wing of Hamas, the Al Qassam brigades?” Djerejian, the former ambassador, said. “Or are they going to go into a more major invasion of Gaza?”

“The strategic considerations that they have to put into place are really, really significant,” he added.

In 2005, Israel withdrew military forces and dismantled settlements within Gaza. Walt and Djerejian both said Israel was probably reluctant to fully occupy Gaza again — but Walt added that it may be the only way for Israel to fully “eliminate Hamas.”

Penslar, the History professor, wrote in an email that he believes the Israeli government is preparing for a ground invasion, a move that would result in the deaths of “far more Palestinian civilians, as well as many Israeli soldiers.”

Still, Penslar wrote that the aim of a potential ground invasion is “murky,” writing that while Israel has pledged to destroy Hamas, “it’s not clear how they can do that without re-establishing full control over Gaza and carrying on a long-term war against a highly motivated insurgency.”

The attack comes at a time when the U.S. had been pushing a normalization deal between Israel and Saudi Arabia, the region’s biggest economy, similar to prior deals the U.S. had facilitated between Israel and other Arab countries like the United Arab Emirates.

But the experts said that the Saudi deal is likely paused now, given Hamas’ attack.

“In the short term, it’s certainly derailed,” said Feldman, the law professor. “In the very long term, it’s not precluded. The hard question is the medium term.”

“A protracted Israeli engagement in Gaza, with many, many casualties on the Palestinian side, could have the effect of making it more difficult for Saudi Arabia to make a deal with Israel,” Feldman said, noting that the Saudis have long called for “buy-in” from the Palestinian Authority.

“That buy-in will be much more difficult to obtain in the aftermath, and the immediate aftermath of a very protracted and violent war within the Gaza Strip,” he said.

Regardless of the specifics of Israel’s response, the escalation represents an immense step away from any resolution to the conflict.

The effort needed to reach any sort of “genuine peace” will be “enormous,” Walt said, adding that Hamas’ attack “has probably set back the Palestinian cause, not advanced it.”

Penslar, the History professor, wrote that peace would be impossible without both Israelis and Palestinians making “essential compromises.”

From the Israelis, he wrote, that would mean ending the Gaza blockade, withdrawing from the West Bank, and establishing a Palestinian or “binational or confederated Jewish-Palestinian state.”

“At this moment neither of those scenarios appears remotely possible,” Penslar wrote.

And from the Palestinians, a compromise would entail recognizing Israel as a “permanent” part of the Middle East, which he said was also unlikely.

Djerejian recalled an exchange he had as ambassador with former Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in 1994 — a year prior to Rabin’s assassination — where Rabin “made it clear” that “there is no military solution to our conflict with the Palestinians. There is only a political solution. And we must strive for that.”

“He paid for that with his life,” Djerejian added.

—Staff writer Rahem D. Hamid can be reached at

—Staff writer Elias J. Schisgall can be reached at Follow him on X @eschisgall.

Editor’s Note: Readers should note that premoderation has been turned on for online commenting on this article out of concerns for student safety.

—Cara J. Chang, President

—Brandon L. Kingdollar, Managing Editor

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