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Newsletter: It’s OK to not immediately have an opinion on the Israel-Hamas war

Vehicles destroyed in an explosion at the Ahli Arab hospital in Gaza City.
Vehicles destroyed in an explosion at the Ahli Arab hospital in Gaza City are seen Wednesday.
(Mahmud Hams / AFP via Getty Images)
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Good morning. I’m Paul Thornton, and it is Saturday, Oct. 21, 2023. Let’s look back at the week in Opinion.

The subject line on an email from the New York Times on Tuesday morning was shocking: “Breaking news: Israeli strike on hospital kills hundreds, Palestinian officials say.”

Horrified as I was at the thought of 500 Palestinians killed while seeking care and refuge inside a Gaza Strip hospital, I was also skeptical. The source of the Israeli air strike claim was Hamas, which controls the Gaza Strip. President Biden was also set to leave for Israel when news of the explosion broke, and it would have been brazenly inhumane and diplomatically foolish for the Israeli government to kill 500 noncombatants just before Air Force One was to take off from the U.S.

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A few hours later, a follow-up alert hit my inbox: “Breaking news: Israel and Palestinians blame each other for Gaza hospital blast.” Similar qualifications crept into headlines that had initially blared the claim that Israel had struck the hospital — for example, the L.A. Times’ first headline, “At least 500 killed in Israeli airstrike on Gaza City hospital, Gaza Health Ministry says,” changed later that day to, “Blast kills hundreds at Gaza hospital; Hamas blames Israel, which blames Islamic Jihad.”

The New York Times’ most recent headline, two days after tragedy, is far less declarative than almost anything I read in the immediate aftermath: “What We Know About the Explosion at the Hospital in Gaza.

I’ll reserve judgment as to whether news organizations messed up on this. Reporters and editors covering this war operate under immense pressure, and this week should remind us to be more circumspect about passing off any government’s statements as fact.

What I won’t reserve judgment on is the immediate digging in by commentators, politicians and others who made up their minds on the righteousness or depravity of either side the moment this conflict started. We saw this play out most glaringly on X (formerly known as Twitter), where facts that trickled in after the initial reports appeared to sway only a precious few from their initial blurts. Yes, Israel has despicably lied about past atrocities, but that’s no reason to dismiss credible evidence that it might not have murdered hundreds of civilians this time, especially when something so incendiary can lead to antisemitic violence elsewhere.

This doesn’t just apply to the hospital explosion. Recall the dispute over reports that Israeli babies were beheaded by terrorists during Hamas’ Oct. 7 massacre. The attack, in which hundreds of innocents were murdered in the worst act of violence against Jews since the Holocaust, is horrifying enough, but the barbarism of beheading infants elicits a whole different kind of response. It’s the sort of grisly detail that has the power to incite violence and cries out for verification. Yet calls to do so were held up for ridicule, despite the fact that the Israeli military still hasn’t confirmed those reports. Even Biden, who oversees the largest intelligence apparatus in the world and should know better than to casually make incendiary claims, said he saw photos of beheaded infants only for the White House to embarrassingly retract his statement.

This doesn’t diminish anyone’s suffering. The plain facts of Hamas’ massacre on Oct. 7 and the Israeli military’s vengeful siege and bombing of Gaza in response are dismaying enough. What I’d caution anyone against, however, is clinging to your immediate and strong reactions, especially when a bunch of people on X and elsewhere are telling you to have those opinions. This may sound strange coming from someone who works as an opinion editor, but with the stakes as high as they are, it’s worth reminding everyone that the best opinions are based on facts — and it’s OK to wait to form an opinion.

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The gag order on Trump isn’t an overreach. There’s a real threat of intimidation. The Times’ editorial board says U.S. District Judge Tanya S. Chutkan’s limited order preventing the former president from attacking prosecutors, witnesses and court officials involved in his case addresses a valid concern: “Chutkan wouldn’t have had to balance Trump’s free-speech rights and the integrity of the judicial system if Trump had kept a civil tongue in his head and refrained from making outrageous accusations.”

A federal judge’s gag order against Trump may be satisfying. But it isn’t constitutional. UC Berkeley School of Law Dean Erwin Chemerinsky takes a different view: “The judge imposed a gag order on Trump because his speech is often unpleasant and offensive. But that is simply not a basis for restricting speech under the 1st Amendment. We may loathe what Trump says, but we must defend his right to say it.”

She’s a former U.S. diplomat who was stationed in Israel; this is what she feels now. Jessica Kuntz, who was posted in Israel when the U.S. moved its embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, describes her anguish as war rages: “Both Israelis and Palestinians have alternately been victim and aggressor in this conflict. It’s easy to pass judgment from the outside, to use words like ‘apartheid’ with a sense of self-righteousness. But from the inside? I feel only empathy and pain, so much pain. For the children who didn’t get to grow up. For the people who want peace but don’t know how to reach it.”

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How Israel can break the futile cycle of its failed ‘mowing the grass’ strategy in Gaza. Defense researcher Raphael S. Cohen encourages Israel to reverse course on Gaza: “Once all the killing is done, Israel will have to do something even harder if it’s to have any hope of preventing the next war and the one after that: It will need to rebuild Gaza into something better than it was. That means ensuring Gaza’s inhabitants have a chance at economic prosperity, potentially even at the risk of loosening the blockade.”

9/11 offers awful lessons for what could happen with a Gaza ground invasion. Military historian Peter Mansoor notes comparisons by Israeli officials to the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks in the U.S., and he says our response to those attacks serves as a cautionary tale for Israel now: “Wars that are based on revenge can be effective in punishing an enemy, but they can also create a power vacuum that sparks a long, deadly conflict that fails to deliver sustainable stability. That’s what happened in Afghanistan, and that is what could happen in Gaza.”

More from this week in opinion

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As always, you can share your feedback by emailing me at paul.thornton@latimes.com.

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