One month into the horrifying Israel-Gaza war and there are ample indications that it may be just starting. Another familiar scenario, however, suggests that it could end much sooner than many anticipate. Much depends on the US, the only power that Israel is currently inclined to listen to, but whose influence following the Hamas-led killing spree on October 7 is untested.
This latest Grand Guignol horror-show between Israelis and Palestinians has a familiar look: a provocation by a Palestinian or Lebanese militia, followed by demands for their total elimination and the "restoration of deterrence" by Israel, growing international condemnation and some visible American discomfort with Israeli war crimes and Arab suffering that ultimately brings fighting to an end.
This time, however, Israel was at least initially serious in vowing that Hamas as a viable organisation must be destroyed. Such practically unachievable war aims write the other side's victory speech for them. Israel has apparently walked into a gigantic trap, but one that will unfold gradually and over time.
It is not that Hamas has unexpected weapons and tactics for killing or capturing Israeli reservists, although they may well. Rather, Hamas is clearly hoping Israel will allow itself to be drawn into a long-term ground presence in Gaza, so that Hamas can eventually organise a potent guerrilla insurgency against occupation forces. This will probably begin slowly, as hidden pockets of Hamas operatives either regroup in Gaza or return to it from neighbouring areas, or the insurgency has to be built almost from scratch.
Either way, if Israel is bogged down in a ground presence that it cannot fob off on anyone else – and who else would want to inherit a devastated and decimated Gaza Strip, along with the inevitable insurgency that would be visited on whoever appears to be acting on behalf of the occupation – such an insurgency is virtually inevitable.
Insurgencies build momentum over time, and Hamas plans to argue that, as it picks off Israeli soldiers individually or in small groups on a weekly basis, it alone is battling occupation forces over control of Palestinian land. They will draw the contrast with the Palestinian Authority and its security co-operation with Israel in the occupied West Bank, and the Palestine Liberation Organisation sitting, alone, at the negotiating table, waiting for non-existent talks.
Hamas was founded by the Muslim Brotherhood during the First Intifada in 1987 to eventually take over the Palestinian national movement from the secularists in Fatah, the PLO and the PA. In one of its most reckless and self-destructive policies, the Israeli right consistently bolstered and protected Hamas, while also periodically and literally cutting it down to size and keeping it contained by Gaza wars cynically described as "mowing the grass". The parallel policy was to ensure that the PA remained in power in the West Bank, but terribly weak both politically and institutionally, and making absolutely no progress towards liberation or statehood.
In March 2019 Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu patiently explained to a meeting of Likud party Knesset members that, “Anyone who wants to thwart the establishment of a Palestinian state has to support bolstering Hamas and transferring money to Hamas.” In case anyone didn't fully understand, he continued, "This is part of our strategy – to isolate the Palestinians in Gaza from the Palestinians in the West Bank.” But obviously it was this "clever" policy of divide-and-rule that predictably culminated in the October 7 attacks. If Israelis are serious about their security, they will hold the authors of this policy to serious account.
Israel is on a quixotic mission to "destroy Hamas," which cannot be done, and to "restore deterrence," which also cannot be meaningfully accomplished except by ending, or at least moving towards ending, the occupation that began in 1967. Without substantive hope for eventual liberation, future October 7s are virtually guaranteed. But, instead, Mr Netanyahu and his Jewish supremacist cabinet colleagues – many of whom are presently trying to outdo each other in genocidal threats against the Palestinian people in Gaza and beyond – are moving inexorably towards large-scale annexation and, probably, mass expulsions.
Until the past few days, the Biden administration's main goal was to stop major fighting from spreading, particularly to include Hezbollah. But over the past month of mayhem this hasn't happened, and it probably won't unless there is a dramatic new development, especially fighting at holy places in occupied East Jerusalem, and above all, the Al Aqsa Mosque compound.
One of the few things all four key actors in this equation – the US, Iran, Hezbollah and Israel – strongly agreed about since October 7 is the imperative of preventing the war from spreading. That's primarily why it hasn't and probably won't.
In recent days, though, Washington has turned its attention to the need for a halt to fighting – marketed as a "humanitarian pause" to aid civilians – and implying that Israel needs to be careful not to go too far. This reminds everyone, especially Israel, that Washington has a limit to how much Arab suffering it can tolerate in its own interests, despite its practical and rhetorical embrace of Israel and refusal thus far to openly call for a ceasefire or say anything that would appear to draw a redline for Mr Netanyahu.
As usual, the ball is in Israel's court now. If it wants to pursue the folly of trying to practically destroy Hamas, it will be forced to initiate a prolonged ground presence in Gaza's urban streets. Israeli fantasies notwithstanding, no one else – not UN peacekeepers, an Arab expeditionary or police force, the PA security services, local Gaza residents, or anyone at all – is going to swoop in and rescue Israel from the disaster it has created over more than 60 years of occupation (since 2007 from the outside, by controlling the coastline, airspace, electromagnetic spectrum, and all but one crossing) not just for the Palestinians, but for itself, in Gaza.
The Israelis may eventually realise that the wisest course is to batter Hamas quickly and relatively cleanly, with as few civilian casualties as possible, and get out immediately, even if remnants of Hamas crawl out of the rubble and declare a resoundingly and obviously pyrrhic victory. All other plausible scenarios provide Hamas some version of what it was hoping to achieve before dawn on October 7. Such a victory would be all too real.
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