A popular criticism of Israel’s response in Gaza goes like this: “What Hamas did on Oct. 7 was horrific, and Israel has every right to defend itself and respond, but Hamas’s atrocities don’t justify this level of destruction in Gaza.”

This is disingenuous in a very important way: Israel’s war in Gaza isn’t about revenge. Deterrence? Yes, to some degree. But everyone lecturing Israel about acting on rage and revenge—whether they’re the archbishop of Canterbury or a “yes, but” supporter of South Africa’s moral atrocity at the UN court, or Andrew Sullivan, or Fareed Zakaria—should put a falafel in it.

The physical level of destruction in Gaza has occurred because 1) Hamas built an underground city that provides it with the capability to invade Israel and take and hold captives, and 2) that infrastructure has to be destroyed or neutralized.

The human toll is tragic and hopefully Hamas will be defeated and the people of Gaza won’t be used as human shields by a death cult, preventing this from happening again.

Preventing it is Israel’s obligation, and that obligation is not merely consistent with the demands of a just prosecution of this war; it is a core concept behind the development of the just-war tradition.

One of the original thinkers behind what would eventually come to be known as just-war theory, Cicero, laid this out in 66 BCE. After a series of temporary victories over Pontus king Mithridates, Roman tribunes proposed giving the formidable Pompey military command against Rome’s durable nemesis.

Cicero gave his first major speech supporting the proposal. The fact that their enemy kept suffering non-total defeat, Cicero said, left a “stain arising from the fact that he, who in one day marked down by one order, and one single letter, all the Roman citizens in all Asia, scattered as they were over so many cities, for slaughter and butchery, has not only never yet suffered any punishment worthy of his crimes, but now, twenty-three years after that time, is still a king, and a king in such a way that he is not content to hide himself in Pontus, or in the recesses of Cappadocia, but he seeks to emerge from his hereditary kingdom, and to range … in the broad light of Asia.”

Two “valiant” commanders had triumphed over Mithridates, Cicero said, and they have earned the respect and appreciation they are due from the people of Rome. But each time Mithridates suffered a setback, he recuperated and planned the next war while building foreign alliances. (Sound familiar?)

This pattern was itself an injustice to the people of Rome and especially to Mithridates’ victims, Cicero said. Leaving an immediate and pronounced threat in place would “allow the freedom of Roman citizens to be diminished.”

All of which left Rome little choice in the matter. Said Cicero: “It is a kind of war so necessary, that it must absolutely be waged, and yet not one of such magnitude as to be formidable.”

Necessary and winnable. True victory, then, is obligatory. To refuse to do so would be to knowingly subject your fellow citizens to wanton violence. It would diminish the freedom of the people whose freedom you have no right to diminish, and whose freedom you vowed to protect and defend.

Crucially, Cicero pointed out that to leave such an enemy intact is to increase its power. A wounded king receives pity from some and admiration from others; both provide help. And in each round, the act of rousting support for his stand against the stronger power makes the next fight more of a cause than the last, eventually including populations that otherwise have no vested interest in the war:

“And so Mithradates, after his defeat, was able to accomplish what, when he was in the full enjoyment of his powers, he never dared even to wish for.”

And so Hamas.

Every temporary defeat has left Hamas able to come back, rally a lifeline of support from countries like Iran and Qatar and Turkey, and construct a permanent base of war. And this time, after its greatest achievement was the carrying out of unimaginably barbaric atrocities, it has garnered its loftiest status as a heroic force, attested to by the throngs of marchers all over the world who were enthralled by what Hamas was willing to do to innocent Jews. Everything the world has done since Oct. 7 has incentivized Hamas—and, it should be said, other daring terrorist armies—to make Oct. 7 seem like a trial run for its next attack.

Yes, Israel has an obligation to achieve permanent victory over Hamas. Anything less would be unjust.

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