Israel’s assault on Gaza is beginning to appear unsustainable, and there is little doubt that it is doing more damage to Israel’s international standing than anything Hamas could have hoped to have accomplished on its own. Which raises two questions: How long can Israel continue fighting, and what happens when it stops?
Israel’s determination to eliminate Hamas once and for all was always a risky gamble. For every member of Hamas who dies in the fighting, Israelis have killed scores of innocent civilians. And both Egypt and Jordan have delivered strong warnings to US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, stressing that they will accept nothing less than an Israeli cease-fire.
Israel’s strategy seems to be to surround Gaza City and cut northern Gaza off from the south. It can then attempt to drive Hamas out of its maze of up to 300 miles of tunnels buried beneath the city. Israel’s refusal to allow fuel deliveries into Gaza was at least partly intended to deprive Hamas of the power it needs to run pumps piping air into the underground complex.
The problem is that while Hamas may or may not be affected by the siege, thousands of Gaza’s terrified inhabitants, who have nothing to do with Hamas, are being killed by a relentless Israeli bombardment in numbers that far exceed the Israeli casualties from the October 7 Hamas attack. The civilian death toll in Gaza already exceeds 10,000. How long can the slaughter go on before the entire world says, No more!
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According to its own account, Hamas has only around 40,000 fighters, most of whom can easily vanish among Gaza’s 2 million inhabitants. And that is not taking into account that no one except Hamas knows where the estimated 200 to 300 miles of heavily fortified tunnels actually lead.
For ordinary civilians, the only escape route to the Egyptian border has been so badly damaged that it is only intermittently passable for motor vehicles; and, in any case, the Israeli cordon has now cut off access to the south, although Israelis say they will still let civilians pass through at their own risk.
The invasion of Gaza is fast turning into a battle that Israel can only lose, even if it succeeds in tracking down some of the Hamas members responsible for unleashing the current chaos. The paramount question, however, is what will Israel do once the fighting stops?
Hatred for Israel because of the random bombing and wide scale destruction is so intense in the region and around the world that it is hard to see how Israel could ever administer Gaza again even though Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has said that he expects Israel to have an overall security role for the foreseeable future. Mahmoud Abbas, the 87-year-old leader of the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank, has said that he would be willing to take over in Gaza, but can he muster enough support to supplant Hamas?
While it is difficult for Israel to change its leadership as long as the country remains under threat and the fighting continues, it is becoming increasingly clear to just about everyone that Israel’s embattled prime minister is a major part of the problem. Netanyahu, who is under indictment on corruption charges, has nothing to lose by continuing the incursion into Gaza, but as a country, Israel has everything to lose.
Netanyahu was barely able to form a government after the last election. Desperate to hold on to power, he patched together a ruling coalition by agreeing to include widely unpopular ultra-nationalists in his administration.
The one power that might be capable of calming the situation is the United States, but American credibility in the region was squandered in Iraq and Afghanistan, and Joe Biden’s political future has been put in serious doubt by his heartfelt expression of unqualified support for Israel.
That Netanyahu is widely blamed for having encouraged Hamas’s control in Gaza has not helped his case. The Israeli newspaper Haaretz regularly denounces Netanyahu’s role in shoring up Hamas’s position in Gaza. In November 2018, the newspaper reported that Netanyahu had allowed $15 million to be turned over to Hamas in Gaza from funds in Qatar. Critics charge that Netanyahu’s reasoning was that, by building up Hamas as a credible rival to the Palestinian Authority, he could claim that neither entity truly represented Palestinian interests, which would make it easier to avoid making concessions to either group.
It’s also becoming clear that serious intelligence mistakes under Netanyahu’s administration made the October 7 massacre possible. Shin Bet, Israel’s domestic intelligence agency, had stopped monitoring Hamas radio transmissions, reasoning that there was no longer any need to keep an eye on Hamas, whose operatives appeared to have gone quiet. Intelligence sources now know that Hamas took nearly a year to prepare its October 7 attack, which explains why it had dropped out of sight.
Intelligence chiefs also made a significant miscalculation in deciding that their major security focus should be on the increased number of Israeli settler communities under threat in the occupied territories rather than on Israeli communities near the border with Gaza.
Finally, Israel’s defense force, the IDF, placed too high a reliance on automatic sensing equipment and cameras on the frontier with Gaza, and it counted on a physical barrier, known as the “Iron Wall,” to keep potential attackers out. The automated equipment was easily knocked out by drones dropping explosives, and the wall is pretty much in ruins, having been penetrated at 29 locations by Hamas and then further destroyed so that Israeli armor could move towards Gaza.
Netanyahu’s greatest mistake, however, has to be that he let the occupied territories and Gaza turn into pressure cookers that sooner or later were bound to explode. Netanyahu may now hope that by securing a significant victory in Gaza, he can restore his credibility, but that is not likely to happen. Even if Israel could eliminate Hamas completely, the population of Gaza is now so enraged by Israeli airstrikes and random destruction that the enclave will very likely continue to boil over for some time to come.
In a sense, both Netanyahu and Hamas’s military commander Mohammed Deif, who is believed to have organized the October 7 attack, were shaped by developments in the region while they were growing up. The 58-year-old Deif, born Mohammad Masri in a Gaza refugee camp, spent his entire life experiencing what he saw as a mixture of Palestinian hopelessness confronting Israeli injustice and the theft of an ancestral homeland by foreign interlopers.
Israel might have taken a different path and tried to develop Gaza into a viable economic entity with satisfied citizens. But it chose a different path. If Deif needed more reason to hate Israel’s existence, it was provided when his wife, newborn baby, and three-year-old daughter were killed in an Israeli airstrike in 2014. No doubt the pilot who dropped the bomb had no intention of killing women or children, but it happened, and its influence on the future of Israel and Gaza was just as consequential as if the tragic killing of innocents had been intentional.
Netanyahu, who was born in Tel Aviv in 1949 (a year after Israel declared independence), saw the fledgling nation continually struggling for survival in a merciless world that gave lip service to the Geneva Conventions and international law, but nevertheless had allowed the Holocaust to take place.
Netanyahu knows how to speak the language of international diplomacy and has shown himself to be a master of realpolitik strategy. But underneath it all he seems to operate on the conviction that when all is said and done, the only thing that can be depended on is the use of force: Indeed, force must always be met with even greater force. If this means resorting to acts that can technically be defined as crimes against humanity, so be it.
A quick glance at the map of Palestine makes it obvious that the occupied territories of the West Bank constitute a major Israeli vulnerability in case of military attack. Under Palestinian control, the occupied territories cut into Israel leaving only a relatively thin sliver of land linking Haifa and the north to Tel Aviv and Jerusalem in the south. Netanyahu, who tends to see Israel’s future in terms of semi-perpetual military confrontation, has always been understandably reluctant to lose control over the West Bank.
The problem is that the world is a considerably different place from what it was 75 years ago when Israel declared independence. Back then, the influx of hundreds of thousands of Jewish refugees from war-torn Europe set the entire Arab world against Israel’s existence. Palestinians forced out of Israel nearly overran nearby Jordan. They were, in turn, pushed out of Jordan and into Lebanon, in the confrontation that became known as Black September. The disruption in Lebanon contributed to a brutal civil war that lasted decades and fostered one wave after another of international terrorism.
That was the past. Until October 7 of this year, most of the Arab world seemed to have accepted, however reluctantly, Israel’s presence as a fact of life. Egypt long ago abandoned any notion of going to war with Israel. Jordan had until recently turned into an almost friendly neighbor. Syria is in no condition to attack anyone these days. Even the Gulf emirates have been establishing business relationships with Israel under the guise of the Abraham Accords, and Saudi Arabia was also at the point of declaring itself open for business with the Jewish state. Israel had not had a serious military confrontation since its incursion into Lebanon in 2006.
The October 7 attack by Hamas changed all that, but it did not really have to. The attack was inhumane and terrible, but it could only achieve its real purpose if it succeeded in getting Israel to retaliate out of blind rage. Hamas sensed that if it could get Israel to react to its brutal provocation with even more extreme violence, it would achieve a great victory: Get Israel to blindly bomb women and children in Gaza, and the world would forget Hamas’s barbaric assault and focus blame on Israel’s disproportionate response. Far from being ignored and forgotten, Hamas would end up with more global sympathy and new allies.
The Israeli campaign in Gaza will very likely wind down without achieving its purpose — at least from Israel’s point of view. The chances of killing or capturing the people responsible for the October 7 attack are slim at best. So what does Israel do next? Administering Gaza as captured territory will be difficult. The Palestinian Authority is probably too weak to wrest what remains from Hamas. Neighboring Egypt could take over the administration but has no appetite to do so. An international peacekeeping force might be an alternative, but who would run it and serve in it? The one power that might be capable of calming the situation is the United States, but American credibility in the region was squandered in Iraq and Afghanistan, and President Joe Biden’s political future has been put in serious doubt by his heartfelt expression of unqualified support for Israel.
What should be clear by now is that once the fighting stops, if Gaza and the occupied territories go back to facing a hopeless future mired in grinding poverty and repression, they will become incubators of future terrorists, who will aspire to exact even more terrible retribution on their perceived oppressors than Hamas and Deif have. If anyone has a plan that would provide a way out of this tragic bind, they have not yet come forward. But first, clearly, the killing must stop.
Foreign correspondent and author William Dowell is Global Insights Magazine’s America’s editor based in Philadelphia. He is also a contributing editor to Who,What,Why. Tom’s Paine is his regular column. He has also worked for ABC News and other news organizations, including TIME Magazine in Hong Kong, Cairo, and Paris. He has reported from five continents–most notably the War in Vietnam, The Revolution in Iran, the Civil War in Beirut, Operation Desert Storm, and Afghanistan. He also taught a seminar on the Literature of Journalism at New York University.