Hawaii’s senior senator said Israel and its allies need to take a measured approach to responding to the Oct. 7 attacks by Hamas that killed nearly 1,400 people.

WASHINGTON — As the war between Israel and Hamas rages on, Civil Beat reached out to U.S. Sen. Brian Schatz to hear his perspectives on the conflict.

Schatz is a member of the Senate Foreign Affairs Committee and at times has been an outspoken critic of Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on issues such as the expansion of Jewish settlements in Palestinian territories. 

Schatz himself is Jewish, but did not want to discuss his faith. Instead, he wanted to focus on the atrocities playing out in Israel and Gaza where thousands are dead and many more are being asked to evacuate their homes. 

U.S. Sen. Brian Schatz said all people need to condemn the attacks of Hamas on Israel. (David Croxford/Civil Beat/2023)

He said that Israel needs to take a measured response to the Oct. 7 attacks by Hamas that killed nearly 1,400 people and resulted in the taking of at least 200 hostages. 

Schatz described the moment as the equivalent of 9/11 for Americans and said that he hopes Netanyahu and others respond in a way that doesn’t further destabilize the region and result in new generational conflict. 

“I think it is very important to be thoughtful and planful,” Schatz said. “While we’re all animated by the feeling of outrage because innocents are dying, we have to make sure not to fall into any traps.” 

Civil Beat’s interview with Schatz took place on Thursday as President Joe Biden was preparing a request to Congress for a $100 million aid package to bolster Israeli defenses and provide humanitarian aid to Palestinians. The interview has been edited for length and clarity. 

During a Foreign Affairs Committee hearing Wednesday you asked Jacob Lew, President Joe Biden’s nominee for ambassador to Israel, a pretty straightforward question. What does Israel mean to you? I want to ask you that same question. What does Israel mean to you?

Israel is our strongest ally in the Middle East. It is the home of the Jewish people. Our partnership spans decades and the relationship between Israel and the U.S. is a deep and abiding friendship and partnership. 

That doesn’t mean that we always agree with the actions of the Israeli government and under Prime Minister Netanyahu I’ve been among those who have regularly challenged the Netanyahu government on the visa waivers, settlements and settler violence, human rights and so-called judicial reforms. 

But none of those disagreements should be misinterpreted as being equivocal on the most basic question of them all, which is are there any circumstances under which the slaughter of innocents is morally permissible? And the answer is no.

That scale of violence, the cruelty of it, the lack of a military objective, the lack of a political objective, that murderous rampage has to be squarely condemned by everybody in the American political system left, right and center. 

Now we can have a robust discussion about Israel’s policy and about America’s relationship with Israel, but what happened was inexcusable outside of the bounds of that conversation.

You released a statement with Sens. Chris Van Hollen and Peter Welch in which you condemned the Oct. 7 attack by Hamas, said that you supported Israel’s efforts to defend itself and said that every effort must be made to ensure civilians trapped in Gaza are protected from the violence. Why did you decide to issue this particular statement with these two senators?

Peter and Chris and I have been working on Israel policy over the last year. We’ve been among the Democrats pushing to recalibrate and to understand that these judicial reforms are anti-democratic, that the settlements are illegal and make peace less likely, that settler violence is inexcusable and inconsistent with the articulated values of Israel.

We’ve worked together, but we’ve also shared the outrage of what Hamas did. We wanted to express two thoughts that are not at all in competition.

One is that Hamas is an evil, belligerent, dangerous organization that is very similar in its philosophy and its tactics to ISIS. 

And the second thought — and, again, these are consistent with each other — is that no innocent person should be harmed in this conflict. 

To the extent that Israel is prosecuting a war against Hamas, they have to abide by international rules of conflict and the laws of war. That means being as precise as they can and holding non-combatants and innocent civilians harmless.

What do you think of Israel’s response to the Hamas attacks so far? Has it been appropriate?

We don’t know yet. One of the things that President Biden said that I found to be powerful is that this is like 9/11 for Israel and the U.S. made serious blunders that cost American and other lives and trillions of dollars and destabilized the region for a generation. 

So it is absolutely appropriate to feel rage at what happened. It is not wise to act when you are in a fit of rage. Whatever Israel does next has to have a strategy that includes stabilizing Israel and Gaza and the West Bank and reduces the risk of escalation. I don’t think they’ve really decided what to do next. They have not initiated a ground invasion and I don’t think they’ve decided whether they want to occupy Gaza. 

I think it is very important to be thoughtful and planful. While we’re all animated by the feeling of outrage, because innocents are dying, we have to make sure not to fall into any traps. It is my judgment that Hamas is baiting the Western world into a trap, which would derail the Saudi, Israel, U.S. normalization efforts and throw the region into further chaos. They want us to do stupid things next, and we have to be better than that morally and smarter than that strategically.  

What sort of aid should the U.S. be providing to Israel in its war with Hamas?

One is an aid package for Gaza. Most of the people who live in Gaza are innocent. They are non-combatants and I suspect they don’t like Hamas anymore than the rest of us. They should not be punished. After the military objectives are met — and even during this operation — we have to make sure we minimize suffering.

Number two is Iron Dome replenishment. It’s a very effective missile defense system that is mostly prophylactic. Right now it’s doing its job, but were this conflict to metastasize into a regional conflict involving Hezbollah or Iran or anyone else, Iron Dome would need reinforcements. 

Is there a point where you might say Israel has gone too far in its response? And what might that look like? 

I don’t want to engage in hypotheticals. But this is a war and innocent people are going to die. That is the nature of a war. But a just war has to be conducted in a way that minimizes civilian casualties and suffering and so that’s my bright line. The IDF has to not do it unlawfully.

Support Civil Beat during the season of giving.

As a small nonprofit newsroom, our mission is powered by readers like you. But did you know that less than 1% of readers donate to Civil Beat?

Give today and support local journalism that helps to inform, empower and connect.

About the Author