Israel’s Strategy For The Future: The Necessity Of Destroying Hamas

May 4th, 2024 | By | Category: Featured Issues, Politics & Current Events

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There seems to be a broad consensus within the United States about the war in Gaza, structured around two propositions. First, after the attacks of Oct. 7, Israel has the right to defend itself and defeat Hamas.  Second, the way Israel is doing this is “over the top,” in President Biden’s words. The vast numbers of dead and starving children are gut wrenching, the devastation is overwhelming, and it’s hard not to see it all as indiscriminate.  Which leads to an obvious question: If the current Israeli military approach is inhumane, what’s the alternative? Is there a better military strategy Israel can use to defeat Hamas without a civilian blood bath?  As we approach answering these questions, I want to place these wrenching questions into an important context.

First, a word about Hezbollah and its actions in northern Israel.  Eliot Kaufman of the Wall Street Journal makes this observation:  “Anyone focused only on Gaza, to Israel’s southwest, is missing half the story.  Hezbollah has fired more than 3,500 rockets, missiles and mortars at northern Israel since Oct. 7.  It fired 4,500 in the entire 2006 war with Israel, yet the world calls this a ‘low intensity conflict.’  At least 60,000 northern civilians have been evacuated from their homes for five months, at an unbearable cost in national morale.  How can it be, Israelis ask, that Hezbollah has moved the hard-won buffer zone to the Israeli side of the border?  Israel is getting the better of the military exchange, killing more than 300 Hezbollah operatives and systemically destroying the group’s southern positions.  Hezbollah has killed 27 Israelis, but this achievement is far greater.  It depopulated an entire region of Israel, and for months it has been getting away with it.”

Second, a word about Russia.  Before the Ukrainian war, Russia had a healthy relationship with Israel.  Putin and Netanyahu visited with one another regularly.  Netanyahu visited Moscow more times than any other Israeli leader in history.  But, Putin’s war in Ukraine and the Hamas genocidal attack on 7 October have changed everything.  Steven Erlanger and Adam Sella of the New York Times summarize the changes:

  • After the 7 October attack, Putin said noting for 3 days.  Then, without expressing condolences for Israel or the victims, he criticized the US, calling 7 October “a clear example of the failure of United States policy in the Middle East.”
  • Russia has consistently condemned Israel’s war against Hamas.
  • At the United Nations, Russia has questioned Israel’s right to self-defense and repeatedly called for a humanitarian cease-fire to halt Israel’s military campaign.
  • Russia has also amplified pro-Hamas views online.
  • Russian officials have expressed sympathy or support for South Africa’s charge at the International Court of Justice that Israel is committing genocide.
  • In October, Russia hosted a Hamas delegation in Moscow.  In late February, Russia hosted another Hamas delegation for a meeting of Palestinians in Moscow.
  • There is a depending connection between Russia and Iran.  Tehran has provided drones, missiles and other weaponry to Russia for its war with Ukraine.

Third, we cannot forget the barbarity of the Hamas attack on 7 October.  One of the most underreported aspects of this gruesome attack was the rape of Israeli women as a calculated part of the attack.  The Sunday Times of London reported on “multiple signs of sexual assault, including broken pelvises, bruises, cuts and tears, and that the victims ranged from children and teenagers to pensioners.”  Video testimony shown to journalists by Israeli police “detailed gang rape, mutilation and execution of one victim.”  The BBC saw videos of “naked and bloodied women filmed by Hamas on the day of the attack.”  As Peggy Noonan observed, “The gallant gents of Hamas were filming their own war crimes.”  There are countless other details validating the truth of horrific sexual crimes against women as a decisive part of the Hamas strategy.  This must factor into an understanding of why Israel must destroy Hamas.

David Brooks has written a most helpful analysis of Israel’s war against Hamas.  I want to summarize several of his salient points:

  • “The thorniest reality that comes up is that this war is like few others because the crucial theater is underground. Before the war, Israelis estimated Hamas had dug around 100 miles of tunnels. Hamas leaders claimed they had a much more expansive network, and it turns out they were telling the truth. The current Israeli estimates range from 350 to about 500 miles of tunnels. The tunnel network, according to Israel, is where Hamas lives, holds hostages, stores weapons, builds missiles and moves from place to place. By some Israeli estimates, building these tunnels cost the Gazan people about a billion dollars, which could have gone to building schools and starting companies.  Hamas built many of its most important military and strategic facilities under hospitals, schools and so on. Its server farm, for example, was built under the offices of the U.N. relief agency in Gaza City, according to the Israeli military . . . In other words, in this war, Hamas is often underground, the Israelis are often aboveground, and Hamas seeks to position civilians directly between them. As Barry Posen, a professor at the security studies program at M.I.T., has written, Hamas’s strategy could be “described as ‘human camouflage’ and more ruthlessly as ‘human ammunition.’” Hamas’s goal is to maximize the number of Palestinians who die and in that way build international pressure until Israel is forced to end the war before Hamas is wiped out. Hamas’s survival depends on support in the court of international opinion and on making this war as bloody as possible for civilians, until Israel relents.  The Israelis have not found an easy way to clear and destroy the tunnels. Currently, Israel Defense Forces units clear the ground around a tunnel entrance and then, Richemond-Barak writes, they send in robots, drones and dogs to detect explosives and enemy combatants. Then units trained in underground warfare pour in.”
  • “John Spencer is the chair of urban warfare studies at the Modern War Institute at West Point, served two tours in Iraq and has made two visits to Gaza during the current war to observe operations there. He told me that Israel has done far more to protect civilians than the United States did in Afghanistan and Iraq. Spencer reports that Israel has warned civilians when and where it is about to begin operations and published an online map showing which areas to leave. It has sent out millions of pamphlets, texts and recorded calls warning civilians of coming operations. It has conducted four-hour daily pauses to allow civilians to leave combat areas. It has dropped speakers that blast out instructions about when to leave and where to go. These measures, Spencer told me, have telegraphed where the I.D.F. is going to move next and ‘have prolonged the war, to be honest.’”
  • “So to step back: What do we make of the current Israeli strategy? Judged purely on a tactical level, there’s a strong argument that the I.D.F. has been remarkably effective against Hamas forces. I’ve learned to be suspicious of precise numbers tossed about in this war, but the I.D.F. claims to have killed over 13,000 of the roughly 30,000 Hamas troops. It has disrupted three-quarters of Hamas’s battalions so that they are no longer effective fighting units. It has also killed two of five brigade commanders and 19 of 24 battalion commanders. As of January, U.S. officials estimated that Israel had damaged or made inoperable 20 to 40 percent of the tunnels. Many Israelis believe the aggressive onslaught has begun to restore Israel’s deterrent power.  But on a larger political and strategic level, you’d have to conclude that the Israeli strategy has real problems. Global public opinion is moving decisively against Israel. The key shift is in Washington. Historically pro-Israeli Democrats like Biden and Senator Chuck Schumer are now pounding the current Israeli government with criticism. Biden wants Israel to call off its invasion of the final Hamas strongholds in the south. Israel is now risking a rupture with its closest ally and its only reliable friend on the U.N. Security Council. If Israel is going to defend itself from Iran, it needs strong alliances, and Israel is steadily losing those friends. Furthermore, Israeli tactics may be reducing Gaza to an ungovernable hellscape that will require further Israeli occupation and produce more terrorist groups for years.”
  • “. . . Hamas’s fighters are hard to find, even the most notorious leaders. It took a decade for the United States to find Osama bin Laden, and Israel hasn’t had great success with eliminating key Hamas figures. In recent years, Israel tried to kill Mohammed Deif, the commander of Hamas’s military wing, seven times, without success.  The political costs of this kind of strategy might be even worse than the political costs of the current effort. Turkey, a Hamas supporter, has made it especially clear that Israel would pay a very heavy price if it went after Hamas leaders there.”

Brooks poignantly suggests the disastrous consequences if Hamas survives this war.  He writes:

  • “If this war ends with a large chunk of Hamas in place, it would be a long-term disaster for the region. Victorious, Hamas would dominate whatever government was formed to govern Gaza. Hamas would rebuild its military to continue its efforts to exterminate the Jewish state, delivering on its promise to launch more and more attacks like that of Oct. 7. Israel would have to impose an even more severe blockade than the one that it imposed before, this time to keep out the steel, concrete and other materials that Hamas uses to build tunnels and munitions, but that Gazans would need to rebuild their homes.”
  • “If Hamas survives this war intact, it would be harder for the global community to invest in rebuilding Gaza. It would be impossible to begin a peace process. As the veteran Middle East observers Robert Satloff and Dennis Ross wrote in American Purpose, “Any talk of a postwar political process is meaningless without Israel battlefield success: There can be no serious discussion of a two-state solution or any other political objective with Hamas either still governing Gaza or commanding a coherent military force.”

Therefore, Israel must ultimately confront Hamas leaders and forces in Rafah rather than leave it as a Hamas beachhead. As Brooks concludes, “Today, an emotionally shattered Israeli people see through the prism of Oct. 7. They feel existentially insecure, facing enemies on seven fronts — Gaza, West Bank, Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Yemen and Iran. As Ross has noted, many often don’t see a distinction between Hamas and the Palestinians. Over 80 percent of West Bank Palestinians told pollsters they supported the Oct. 7 attack . . . Israel and the Palestinians have both just suffered shattering defeats. Maybe in the next few years they will do some difficult rethinking, and a new vision of the future will come into view. But that can happen only after Hamas is fully defeated as a military and governing force.”

See David Brooks, “What Would You Have Israel Do to Defend Itself?” in the New York Times (24 March 2024); Eliot Kaufmann in the Wall Street Journal (22 March 2024); Steven Erlanger and Adam Sella in the New York Times (20 March 2024); Peggy Noonan in the Wall Street Journal (9-10 December 2023).

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