21 November 2023

Defining victory will determine the Gaza war’s future


In January 2009, toward the end of Operation Cast Lead in the Gaza Strip, the commander of the IDF’s Southern Command, Yoav Gallant, met with a group of reporters at his base in Beersheba.

The IDF was in the middle of the largest-scale operation on the ground inside Gaza since the Israeli unilateral withdrawal three-and-a-half years earlier. Gun battles were taking place daily inside Gaza, and while the military was meeting some of its objectives, the cabinet was meeting almost daily to decide what to do – suffice with the success it had already had or approve stage two of the operation and push deeper into Gaza City.

The direction was clear. Ehud Olmert, the prime minister at the time, was nearing the end of his term, and Israel was less than a month away from the elections that would bring Benjamin Netanyahu back to power. What was happening in the US was possibly even more important. George W. Bush was days away from leaving the Oval Office to be replaced by Barack Obama. The Americans made clear that they wanted the operation wrapped up before Inauguration Day on January 20.

Despite knowing all of this, Gallant wanted to continue. “If I have more time,” he told the reporters, “we can take down Hamas.” He also said, “If I have approval, I can get to [Hamas commander] Mohammed Deif and bring him out to the main square in Gaza City.”

It was a moment of frustration for Gallant who failed, at the time, to convince the political echelon to give him the time he needed. Israel had other considerations, so it decided, after three weeks of fighting, that it was time to leave the Gaza Strip.

Israeli minister of Defense Yoav Gallant visits Israelis injured in last night's terror attack, at Belinson Hospital, on March 26, 2023. 

Almost 15 years later, Gallant – today Israel’s defense minister – now has the chance to finish what he wanted to do back in 2009: bring down the Hamas regime in Gaza and create a new security reality for Israel’s south.

If up until 2009, Hamas had fired around 4,000 rockets into Israel, in the almost 15 years since Cast Lead, it has fired almost 25,000 rockets. The fact that it has taken Israel so long as well as the October 7 attacks to realize that this reality needs to change is itself an issue that will need to be dealt with. Israel fell in love with high fences and the belief that Hamas makes for good neighbors. Israel built safe rooms, invented the Iron Dome, and constructed entire schools and playgrounds in bomb shelters at astronomical costs. It now knows that it made a mistake.

The question for Israel now is how to define success in this war, and whether a victory is even possible, especially when the opening was so tragic – more than 1,400 people killed, 240 kidnapped and over 100,000 more Israelis displaced from their homes in the greatest refugee crisis the country has known since 1948.

When the war first erupted, Israeli politicians declared that they were going to “destroy” or “eliminate” Hamas. As the fighting has progressed, the goals have changed. They now home in on bringing down Hamas’s regime, and preventing it from governing Gaza, rearming, or threatening Israel again someday.

“Destroy” and “eliminate” were never realistic notions. They were declared in the heat of the moment, as Israelis’ blood boiled over the disaster that struck the country on that black Saturday. But even with this more detailed objective, at what point will Israel know that it has met its goals? When will it be able to say the war is over?

Let’s say, for example, that Israel manages to kill some of the top Hamas leaders in Gaza, but fails to secure the release of the hostages. Is that a victory? And let’s say the opposite happens – Israel secures the release of most or even all of the hostages who are alive, but fails to kill Deif, Yahya Sinwar, or other top Hamas terrorists hiding in tunnels somewhere in Gaza. Is that a victory?

When considering toppling the Hamas government, the operation in northern Gaza is not going to suffice. While the IDF seems to be doing an effective job there – killing Hamas terrorists and destroying Hamas infrastructure – it has only done so north of Wadi Gaza. In the southern part of the strip there are still three Hamas brigades, thousands of fighters, significant infrastructure, and known Hamas hotbeds like Khan Younis and Rafah.

Israel will face three main challenges in southern Gaza. First, there is the fact that Hamas has had time to bolster its defenses there and prepare for the IDF ground forces. If Israel agrees to a days-long pause in fighting as part of a deal to release some of the hostages, we should expect even more fortification and surprises. Hamas watched what Israel did in northern Gaza and knows that it will need to change some of its tactics.

The second challenge is the presence of so many displaced Palestinians in southern Gaza. Israel, in conjunction with Egypt, the US, and the UN has been trying to get as many displaced Palestinians to move to an area in southwest Gaza called Al-Mawasi, near where the Gush Katif settlements used to stand. Defense officials think that there is enough room there for all of the displaced Palestinians, but there is a need to get them there. That will take time, a commodity of which Israel is running out.

The third challenge is the tragedy unfolding in Gaza. While Israeli TV stations prefer not to broadcast the images from there, we cannot ignore what is happening on the ground to more than 2 million people. Israel has every right to operate in Gaza and to target infrastructure that might look civilian but is actually military. But, with the north of Gaza already destroyed and the same fate awaiting large swaths of the south, it will be harder to ignore what is happening. This will create even more international pressure on Israel to wrap up the operation and allow for Gaza’s reconstruction.

Then, there are the hostages who remain in captivity. The government is under tremendous pressure to agree to a deal even if it means stopping its military for several days. But, what happens if only some hostages come back and the others remain in Hamas captivity even once Israel declares the war is over? How will the public accept that?

The conditions for a decisive victory are not what we currently have in mind. Hamas will not simply surrender, and it will not be possible to destroy every last rocket launcher, every last tunnel, and kill or capture every last terrorist. It also might not be possible to bring back every last hostage.

Israel’s leadership needs to look the country in the eye and tell people what to expect. After the trauma of October 7, people deserve to know where the country is headed and how long this will take. It is the minimum that a political leadership which failed a country can do.

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