Palestinian militant organization Hamas’s massacres on October 7 have provoked shock and horror around the world. But revulsion at the group’s atrocities should not lead America into a historic disaster.

The Biden administration’s almost unfettered support for Israeli retaliation in Gaza will not just implicate the United States in grave violations against Gaza’s civilians. It is also likely to embroil the United States in a broader regional war that will cost more American lives.

The administration must try to restrain Israel’s military campaign in Gaza, both for the sake of Palestinians in the crossfire and so that American forces are not caught in a deadly regional escalation.

The administration has deployed U.S. forces to the region to deter Iran and allied groups from attacking Israel. But if Israel goes all-in in Gaza, as Israeli officials have promised to do, America’s military presence is unlikely to prevent Iran-led “Axis of Resistance” factions from attacking. The United States will then be on the hook to intervene in support of Israel. That will, in turn, trigger attacks on U.S. targets across the Middle East.

There is still time for an alternative: the United States can press Israel to abandon its most maximalist retaliatory aims and help calibrate a response to Hamas’s attack that does not ignite a catastrophic regional war.

There is still time for an alternative: the United States can press Israel to abandon its most maximalist retaliatory aims and help calibrate a response to Hamas’s attack that does not ignite a catastrophic regional war. The United States needs to come to its senses, and push Israel to do the same. It’s not too late, even now—but soon it will be.

Rapid Escalation

On the morning of October 7, Hamas breached Israeli fortifications surrounding the Gaza Strip and attacked nearby Israeli security posts and civilian communities. In a day-long rampage, Hamas and other militants killed more than 1,300 Israelis, many of them civilians. Militants also seized more than 150 captives, whom they took back into the Gaza Strip. It took hours for Israel to mobilize forces to aid area residents, and days before they eliminated remaining militants still outside the Gaza perimeter. The Hamas operation was the single deadliest attack in Israel’s history.

Now, Israel has launched a massive retaliatory attack on Gaza. Already, Israel has imposed a total siege on Gaza and unleashed an unprecedented campaign of aerial bombing. Next, Israel is apparently preparing a ground invasion. The precise aims of this ground offensive are still unclear, but the Israeli defense minister has said that Israel “will wipe this thing called Hamas . . . off the face of the earth.”

Late on October 12, the Israeli military told local UN officials that the civilian population of the northern Gaza Strip—an estimated 1.1 million people, out of a total population of 2.3 million in the territory—had 24 hours to relocate to southern Gaza. International officials have warned this ultimatum will have “catastrophic humanitarian consequences,” and that it “defies the rules of war and basic humanity.” Even before Israel’s dictate, the UN estimated that 400,000 people had been displaced inside Gaza. According to local authorities, as of Monday at least 2,750 people have been killed in Gaza, and 9,700 wounded.

Fuller Israeli intervention in Gaza risks an escalation by Hamas’s allies in the so-called Axis of Resistance, an Iran-led regional alliance that also includes Lebanon’s Hezbollah, various Iraqi paramilitary factions, and the Houthi movement in Yemen.

Hezbollah signaled early on that it would not sit idly by as Israel retaliated against Hamas. After first hailing the Hamas operation and saying it was in contact with Palestinian militant leadership, the Lebanese group then bombed Israeli military positions in Israeli-occupied territory claimed by Lebanon. The choice of target was evidently meant to send a message to the Israelis while also, for now, limiting escalation. Hezbollah said it attacked “on the road to liberating what remains of occupied Lebanese territory and in solidarity with the triumphant Palestinian resistance and the righteous, steadfast Palestinian people.” Hezbollah’s subsequent involvement has been very deliberate, limited to tit-for-tat, reciprocal attacks with Israeli forces. The group has also apparently allowed Palestinian factions to launch attacks on Israeli forces from southern Lebanon.

Yet Hezbollah has indicated that it will intervene more actively if Israel goes too far in Gaza. Party officials have told foreign interlocutors that they will not allow Israel to wipe out Hamas. Iran’s foreign minister, during a visit to Lebanon on Thursday that itself emphasized the coordination among Iran’s network of regional partners, said that the broader Axis of Resistance was likewise prepared to act. “The continuation of war crimes against Palestine and Gaza will receive a response from the rest of the Axis,” he said. He reportedly conveyed a similar warning in private.

There is so far little concrete evidence that Iran and other Axis members helped plan Hamas’s attack, even as they have supported and capacitated Hamas more generally. But even if these “Resistance” factions were not directly involved in the Hamas operation, that does not mean they will not intervene if they believe Hamas is existentially threatened.

Threats by Hezbollah and other Axis of Resistance actors seem credible. Some assume that Hezbollah will not become involved because of its stake in Lebanese domestic politics and a desire to avoid overwhelming retaliation. But this analysis suffers from the same mistake that Israeli officials made about Hamas before October 7, when they wrongly assumed that Hamas had abandoned armed struggle in favor of local governance.

Hezbollah presumably recognizes the dangers of open war with Israel. Yet Hezbollah’s attack on Israeli positions on October 8 indicates that the group is prepared to chance a fuller confrontation with Israel. In these circumstances, analysts’ prior assumptions about Hezbollah’s appetite for risk likely do not hold.

Hezbollah is more than just a paramilitary organization. It is a political party, a network of linked civil organizations, and a social movement. But “resistance” is the party’s raison d’etre. Hezbollah has spent its entire history preparing for a battle like this one.

Deterrence Isn’t Working

The Biden administration has attempted to deter Hezbollah and Iran from joining the conflict and attacking Israel. Judging by the rhetoric and conduct of Hezbollah and its allies, the American administration’s deterrent message seems unlikely to work.

In addition to directly providing military assistance to Israel, the Biden administration has also deployed two U.S. carrier groups and additional aircraft to the region in an explicit deterrent signal to Iran and its allies. “We have moved a U.S. carrier fleet to the Eastern Mediterranean, and we’re sending more fighter jets there into that region and made it clear—made it clear to the Iranians, ‘Be careful,’” Biden said Wednesday. Other U.S. officials have likewise stressed that this military deployment is meant to discourage Iran and its allies from entering the conflict. These officials’ warnings imply a threat to militarily strike Hezbollah and allied factions if they attack Israel.

In parallel, U.S. and other Western diplomats have reportedly told Lebanese leaders that Hezbollah should not become involved. On Wednesday, Secretary of State Antony Blinken embarked on a regional tour meant in part to “engage regional partners on efforts to help prevent the conflict from spreading.”

Yet the Biden administration’s deterrent message is unlikely to work. Hezbollah appears unfazed, and continues to warn that it may enter the war. The group has said that the U.S. carrier deployment “will not frighten the peoples of our [Islamic] nation, nor the Resistance factions ready for confrontation.” “Hezbollah knows its responsibilities perfectly well,” Hezbollah’s deputy leader told a rally in Beirut Friday. “We are present and entirely ready, and we are following along moment to moment. These calls from international parties that have taken place behind the scenes to guarantee that we don’t intervene in this battle won’t have any effect.”

The Biden administration’s deterrent threat seems like a step down a disastrous path: an attempt at deterrence that likely won’t work and that, when it fails, commits the United States to intervene militarily on Israel’s behalf.

Americans are rightly disgusted at Hamas’s actions. In their desire to support Israel’s response, they may be tempted to view America’s promise to intervene as a necessary gamble. Yet it’s worth thinking through consequences if Hezbollah and its allies act anyway—as seems likely—and the Biden administration has to follow through on its threat.

The Biden administration’s deterrent threat seems like a step down a disastrous path: an attempt at deterrence that likely won’t work and that, when it fails, commits the United States to intervene militarily on Israel’s behalf.

If the United States directly intervened by, for example, bombing Hezbollah in Lebanon, that would likely trigger retaliatory attacks against U.S. targets across the region. Members of the Axis of Resistance in Iraq and Yemen have threatened to act if the United States enters the war. “If they intervene, we will intervene,” the head of Iraq’s Badr Organization told an audience Tuesday. “If America enters this battle directly, we’ll consider all American targets legitimate, and we won’t hesitate to target them.” Other Iraqi militant leaders have made similar threats. For his part, the leader of Yemen’s Houthi movement said, “If the Americans intervene directly, militarily . . . we are ready to participate, including with missile fire, drones, and whatever military options are available to us.”

What comes next could be deadly and impossible to control. Even as Hezbollah attacks both Israel and U.S. targets from Lebanon, Iraqi groups could attack U.S. forces in both Iraq and Syria. The Houthis may attack U.S. interests in Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, or just attack those U.S. partners directly. The escalating violence could even spiral into direct conflict with Iran.

Some constituencies in Washington have been spoiling for a war with Iran and its closest militia partners. They might welcome the opportunity to, finally, attack Iran and its allies head-on. The results, though, will be disastrous—chaos, destruction, and more dead Americans.

Another Way

At this point, it’s difficult to identify an off-ramp for this escalating conflict. If Israel invades Gaza and Hezbollah attacks, the Biden administration seemingly faces the choice of either intervening and igniting an open-ended, region-wide battle with Hezbollah and its Axis of Resistance allies; or choosing not to act, and rendering its deterrent threat hollow.

The Biden administration should do everything it can to avoid that no-win situation. It should not allow the situation in Gaza and the region to reach that crisis point.

President Biden and other administration officials have said they urged Israel to follow the laws of war and have discussed how to minimize civilian harm with Israeli counterparts. The administration’s overarching message, however, has been that it unconditionally backs Israeli action against Hamas. The State Department has reportedly directed U.S. diplomats to avoid using terms including “de-escalation” or “ceasefire.”

Whatever gentle, sotto voce encouragement the Biden administration is now giving the Israelis to act responsibly is not enough. The United States can declare solidarity with Israel and provide Israel with material support, as it has in past conflicts. But it can and should push for de-escalation—the State Department is wrong to advise against that term. And as Israel targets Hamas, the United States should press Israel to exercise restraint. It should do everything possible to avoid getting directly involved in Israel’s Gaza operation.

The United States should couple any support for Israel with an insistence that Israel identify its medium- and long-term war aims in Gaza, and not just pursue short-term revenge. Crucially, the United States should take a firm stand, in public and in private, on the necessity of adhering to the law of war and international law broadly. That means opposing Israel’s illegal mandate that more than a million Gazans evacuate northern Gaza. It also means insisting that all sides respect principles such as distinction and proportionality, and not suggesting that Israel is somehow exempt from international humanitarian law.

Revenge Makes for Poor Policy

Israel and the United States share an especially close relationship. That does not mean, however, that America should license Israel to commit war crimes in Gaza. Of course, the United States wants to help Israel respond to the massacre of Israeli citizens on October 7 and liberate hostages now in Hamas captivity. At least twenty-seven Americans were killed in Hamas’ attack, and more remain unaccounted for. Yet there are also hundreds of Palestinian-Americans in Gaza who are now in the line of fire. As of this writing, efforts to negotiate their safe passage to Egypt have been unsuccessful. The United States should lend any support within the bounds of international law, with an eye toward political next steps that can realize genuine, durable security for Israelis and Palestinians alike. And it should steer clear of a regional war that will kill many more people, including Americans.

Some of the leading progressives in Congress have called for the United States to minimize harm to innocent civilians as it assists Israel in pursuing Hamas. “The defense of innocent civilians on all sides is not an obstructive legal doctrine or battlefield annoyance but the entire purpose of a just war against an enemy that has set itself against humanity,” Rep. Jamie Raskin, a Maryland Democrat, said in a statement. “Contempt for civilian life is the hallmark of terrorist regimes and actors, not liberal democracies.”

The Biden administration ought to listen.

In Gaza, as elsewhere, there are no neat military solutions to intractable political problems. Many have compared Hamas’s October 7 attack to the September 11 attacks on the United States. There is indeed a lesson in this comparison, though perhaps not the one most commentators intend: The United States ought to have learned from its own military misadventures following 9/11 about the dangers of rash, ill-considered military interventions, and the limits of force in achieving political outcomes. The U.S. invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq did not end well for the United States, to say nothing of their horrendous toll on the Afghan and Iraqi peoples. The Biden administration should not enable Israel to make similar mistakes, for which civilians will pay the price, Palestinian and Israeli alike. And it should not allow the United States to be implicated in a deadly regional war.

This is a time for sound policy judgment and restraint—not revenge. As the U.S. supports Israel in pursuing Hamas, it needs to do so without abetting atrocities against Palestinian civilians, and without unleashing a broader war that will be a disaster for the United States and the Middle East.