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Netanyahu wants to 'deradicalize' Gaza through war. Is that even possible?


If you ask Israel's leaders, they'll tell you the country has two goals in its war with Hamas in Gaza. Here's how Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu put it in a recent interview on NPR's Morning Edition.

PRIME MINISTER BENJAMIN NETANYAHU: We need to demilitarize Gaza. And the second thing we have to do is deradicalize Gaza.

SHAPIRO: Let's zero in on that second objective. Is it possible to deradicalize Gaza or any place through war? Natan Sachs directs the Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution. Thanks for talking this through with us.

NATAN SACHS: My pleasure. Thanks for having me.

SHAPIRO: Well, in that interview, Netanyahu compared Israel's bombing of Gaza to the Allies' conduct in World War II. Here's more of what he said.

NETANYAHU: It's like, what do you do when you beat the Nazi regime? Well, you make sure that Germany is - doesn't arm itself again. And you also make sure that Nazism is removed.

SHAPIRO: So when we look at this central question of whether war can be a tool of deradicalization, do you think World War II proves that deradicalization through war is, in fact, possible?

SACHS: Well, it doesn't prove it one way or the other, but it does show that as part of a decisive victory, one might also achieve deradicalization. But war is certainly not enough. And there are many differences between the two cases.

SHAPIRO: What else is required?

SACHS: Well, first, you would think - if you think of that example or the example of Japan, then you would take a decisive victory, one that disproves the whole premise of the ideology behind that regime in the eyes of its own population, partly through the destruction of war but partly through the decisive victory over that regime. And the second is an obvious promise of peace, of something that actually could emerge if deradicalization happens. So what the Allies and particularly the United States offered Japan and the Allies' offer in Germany, both West and East Germany, is a path forward, something - a choice that they can make. So the question when you turn to Gaza is, first, will this victory truly be decisive, not only in Gaza but overall over Hamas and over the ideology for which it stands? And second, is another avenue clearly open to Palestinians? Is there something that they can choose that is not this?

SHAPIRO: And is there a risk that a high civilian death toll will actually make people more radicalized? I mean, the Palestinian Health Ministry says more than 12,000 people have been killed in Gaza, nearly 5,000 of them children. Could that work against Israel's stated goal?

SACHS: The death toll and the destruction in Gaza is enormous. And without a question, it will also lead to radicalization. So the question is, what kind of mixed bag will there be? There will be now probably generations of Palestinians growing up with this as a defining memory, perhaps, of their life, some of them, many of them wanting revenge and therefore fertile ground for radicalization in the future. But there will also be, perhaps, if Israel is successful - and we don't know that yet - if Israel's successful, there will also be the lack of the physical and organizational infrastructure in the Gaza Strip that would offer radicals the opportunity. So the radicalization that will surely follow from this massive destruction in the Gaza Strip and the staggering death toll will also be coupled, perhaps, by a lack of opportunity, given the degradation of Hamas itself. Of course, depending on what emerges in its wake, there could be other organizations, more radical organizations, different ones or Hamas itself in a more underground form.

SHAPIRO: How does one even measure if an effort at deradicalization is successful? It seems like you would be trying to measure people's opinions, people's points of view, people's beliefs. How can you tell whether a population has been, quote-unquote, "deradicalized"?

SACHS: Well, in part, it's just that. In part, it is people's opinions. But it's not so much just polling. It is more also their willingness to support radical organizations. Radical organizations need the support of the population. It's not just the operatives themselves. It's their ability to operate within a population, to find refuge and hideout but also to recruit future activists. All this depends on the societal attitudes. And yes, that is partly a matter of opinion. When we think about deradicalization through these means, of course, it's very easy to see all the pitfalls. And these Israeli operations, especially given the staggering death toll in the Gaza Strip, is bound to also radicalize the population and make it hard.

But when we're thinking of policy, we also have to think of the alternative. If Hamas stays in power, the prospect of deradicalization or of a better future for Gazans and for Israelis is minimal. We could expect almost guaranteed another round of violence, another war in the near future. So while a lot of criticism is due certainly for the way Israel is conducting this war, there's a very important policy question, which is, what precisely is the alternative? And if the alternative includes Hamas staying in power in the Gaza Strip, that's not much of an alternative at all.

SHAPIRO: Natan Sachs is the director of the Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution. Thanks a lot.

SACHS: My pleasure. Thank you very much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Justine Kenin
Justine Kenin is an editor on All Things Considered. She joined NPR in 1999 as an intern. Nothing makes her happier than getting a book in the right reader's hands – most especially her own.
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