The Israel-Hamas War Is a Reminder Toxic Masculinity Can’t Keep us Safe

Sustaining peace in a region like the Middle East demands leadership driven by responsibility, empathy and wisdom.

Yahya Sinwar, chief of the Hamas movement in Gaza, arrives at a rally on April 14, 2023. (Ahmed Zakot / SOPA Images / LightRocket via Getty Images)

“A man’s got to do what a man’s got to do. And a country’s got to do what a country’s got to do.” 

—Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, July 21, 2014, interview on NBC News.

“We will come to you with endless rockets, we will come to you in a limitless flood of soldiers, we will come to you with millions of our people, like the repeating tide.”

—Yahya Sinwar, leader of Hamas, December 2022 

Mistaking toxic masculinity for skillful leadership has led to one disaster after another—from pointless wars, to preventable terrorist attacks, to the spiraling climate change crisis. 

Right now, a few grey-haired men are slugging it out in the Middle East, with devastating consequences for innocent civilians—mostly women, children and babies. The months of horror and unconscionable suffering in Gaza following the horrific Hamas attack on Israeli citizens is a painful testament to the dangers of glorifying and empowering men who hide incompetence with belligerence. 

Tough-talking displays of toxic masculinity—from Hamas leader Yahya Sinwar, 61, to his network of allies led by Iran’s Ayatollah Khamenei, 84, and Hezbollah’s Hassan Nasrallah, 63, to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, 74— are influencing thousands of young men on all sides. Meanwhile, a growing chorus around the world is crying out in anguish, “STOP! NOW!” trying to drown out the bluster and stop the brawling as Gaza burns.

In Israel, even before the Hamas assault in October, Netanyahu had become a destructive force, and his return to power, despite standing trial in three corruption cases, has been disastrous. A man prone to grandiloquence and whose vision for Israel has become clouded by self-interest, he joined forces with ultranationalists to secure an unprecedented sixth term as prime minister in December 2022, taking the helm of the most right-wing and religiously conservative government in the country’s 75-year history. He then pursued judicial reforms that threatened to undermine democratic values, triggering Israel’s worst-ever domestic crisis. 

In Gaza, Yahya Sinwar’s rise within Hamas has relied on cultivating a reputation for ruthlessness and violence. During his time running Hamas’ feared internal security apparatus, charged with purging suspected collaborators, he earned the nickname “the butcher of Khan Younis.” In a Financial Times article from November 2023, an off-the-record source described Sinwar as a “sociopath,” saying he “has an enormous ego and sees himself as if on some sort of mission in this world … a man who would think nothing of sacrificing tens of thousands of lives to achieve his goals.” 

While both Netanyahu and Sinwar’s toxic masculinity have pushed the nation to the brink, the global attitude that justifies war, starvation and genocide as a tool for retaliation have led to failure on both sides.  

Toxic Masculinity Can’t Keep Us Safe

In recent years, we’ve seen larger-than-life examples of the “win or die” ethos in which leaders—from Trump to Putin to Bolsonaro—try to maintain their own status at all costs. One of the most frustrating traits of toxic masculinity is that it dupes people into confusing big talk for real action and equating ‘militarized masculinity’ with safety. 

“What’s alarming is that sexism tricks large swaths of the public into voting for them, supporting them or otherwise putting their trust in men who brag loudly but fail to show any real competence,” noted journalist Amanda Marcotte in a recent Salon article.

As a result, we now find ourselves witnessing the painful results of leadership falling short. 

Leadership Is About the Heart Count, Not The Head Count

I do not know whether we would have more wars or less wars if we had more female leaders, but what we do know is that without women at the peace-making tables, we have less chance of a sustainable peace. 

Palestinian women sit around the remains of a destroyed house after an Israeli air strike in Rafah on March 27, 2024. (Abed Rahim Khatib / Getty Images)

President John F. Kennedy said in his remarkable commencement address at the American University in Washington on June 10, 1963, that “peace is a process, a way of solving problems.” Peace is a constructive engagement with the other side; it’s diplomacy at its finest. And frankly, Netanyahu and Sinwar are not the leaders we need to lead the region to peace. 

Peace leadership is a tapestry woven with threads of responsibility, empathy, wisdom and a vision of hope. It’s not just about holding positions of authority; it’s about carrying the weight of your decisions that can either create lasting peace or plunge the world or a community into chaos; it’s about understanding the wonders of dialogue, communication and diplomacy.

It’s long past time our societies leveled up to reject the cult of toxic masculinity, thinking that’s a good trait in our leaders. It’s time we started valuing respect, kindness and calm over the aggressive theatrics of overcompensating jerks.

As we enter the seventh month of attacks on Gaza, I can’t help but ask myself: What if we had female leaders in Israel and Gaza?

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Roxana Mohammadian-Molina is an investor and deputy chair of the Saudi British Joint Business Council.