The Hamas terror-state is causing violence on many fronts, fueling internal Israeli hatreds, harming us globally. The IDF response, however effective, is no substitute for strategy.
During the just-ended battle with Gaza, Israel’s subterranean barrier against Hamas’ cross-border “terror tunnels” proved effective.
The IDF, as well, thwarted Hamas attempts to attack from the sea.
It intercepted unmanned explosive-carrying drones.
It repeatedly bombarded Hamas’ network of tunnels within Gaza — the so-called “Metro” — through which Hamas moves its forces and weaponry, and from where it intended to emerge and kill and kidnap Israeli soldiers in any IDF ground offensive.
Several key Hamas commanders were killed; others were on the run; innumerable rocket launchers and weapons stores were destroyed.
In short, Hamas “received blows it didn’t expect” and been set back “years,” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu asserted.
Which may well be true. But the IDF’s tactical successes are no substitute for a strategy. And as this latest, terrible conflict underlines, Israel has no strategy for dealing with the Hamas terror-state. By contrast, Hamas knows exactly where it is heading strategically and made deeply worrying progress over the first days of the conflict.
It opened the conflict on May 10, by launching a barrage of rockets at Jerusalem — staking a claim among the Palestinians as the ostensible defender of the contested city and marginalizing the West Bank leadership of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.
Its rocket fire forced the evacuation of the Knesset plenum. It played havoc with Israel’s Jerusalem Day celebrations. It delayed a court decision on evictions in Jerusalem’s Sheikh Jarrah district and forced the extension of a ban on Jews visiting the Temple Mount. Its incessant rocket fire subsequently necessitated the intermittent closure of Israel’s main international airport and the cancellation of most foreign airline flights to and from Israel. It closed schools, stopped some of our trains. It rained rockets and mortar shells upon a widening swath of southern Israel, and sent longer-range, more potent rockets deeper into the center of the country than ever before.
Perhaps most significantly, and worryingly, it has helped escalate tensions within Israel — between Israel’s own Arab and Jewish citizens — to murderous heights, with mob violence raging for days in several Arab-Jewish cities and beyond.
As the very wise Arab affairs analyst Shimrit Meir noted in a television interview on May 18, when Israel’s Arab sector held a general strike and thousands rallied and rioted across the West Bank in a so-called “day of rage,” Hamas saw itself “as the trigger that has unified the ‘Palestinians of 1948’ — Palestinian citizens of Israel — together with Gaza, the West Bank and Jerusalem, into a single entity, protesting as one, acting as one.”
Also, the complexities of attempting to thwart a terror state’s rocket fire, cynically launched from the midst of a civilian population, have undermined Israel’s international standing, with numerous world leaders and opinion-shapers maliciously or lazily comparing death tolls and concluding that because Israel’s is lower, it must be the aggressor.
The likes of HBO talk show host John Oliver, whose views influence millions, seem to be blaming Israel for devoting resources to the protection of its citizens, while Hamas subverts Gaza’s resources for war and, with heartbreaking consequences, uses Gazans as the human shields for its indiscriminate rocket fire. How dare Israel have an Iron Dome rocket defense system, these critics object, implying that if only Israel were suffering more fatalities, this might be a fairer fight and Israel might merit less castigation.
Doubtless to Hamas’ further delight, Israel’s public diplomacy efforts remain as lamentable as they have been for decades, if not more so. Today, we lack so much as a polished English-speaker as our ambassador to the U.S., and the prime minister has no coherent frontline English-language spokesman.
Also, the IDF has learned little about the need for rapid explanation and response. If there is a military imperative to demolish a Gaza tower where several leading foreign media outlets have their offices, it is not sufficient to warn and give them time to leave. It is also necessary to immediately provide credible evidence that the building is indeed a Hamas military asset.
Also, to Hamas’ delight, the tide of hostility to Israel, which even the best public diplomacy could only partially alleviate, is playing out in displays of antisemitism, deeply troubling and discomfiting diaspora Jewry.
While much of the world clamored for Israel to accept a ceasefire, the United States, under the Biden administration, gave Israel a few more days to continue to weaken Hamas militarily — the better to try to deter it from the next round of hostilities. But Biden fought off a rising tide of Israel criticism within the Democratic Party. Five, 10 or 15 years from now, it is far from fanciful to worry that a Democratic presidency would be less dependable.
IDF Chief of Staff Aviv Kohavi has spoken in the past of the unique challenges the Israeli army faces with so many active and potentially active fronts. And that reality goes to the heart of the dangers facing an Israel that lacks a strategy for Hamas and Gaza.
This round of conflict has apparently concluded. As deeply problematic, though, it has proven for Israel, it could have been considerably worse. The internal Israeli protests have subsided though the scars will take a long, long time to heal, and the root causes extend far deeper than this conflict. West Bank violence and terrorism have not reached First or Second Intifada dimensions, but that threat remains. Crucially, Iran chose not to unleash Hezbollah, whose missile capabilities dwarf even Hamas’ upgraded arsenal.
Does Israel need to reconquer Gaza, oust Hamas, at a likely terrible cost, and remain there?
Should it initiate a negotiating process with the Palestinian Authority, boosting the deeply problematic Mahmoud Abbas and seeking to vindicate Palestinian diplomacy over Palestinian terrorism?
Would it be wise to encourage the internationally funded development of Gaza, with significant infrastructure projects to rehabilitate the Strip, giving Gazans more to lose and thus potentially complicating further Hamas assaults on Israel?
None of these strategic options is good. But the current absence of a strategy is worse. From round to round of conflict, Hamas has grown from a dangerous terrorist organization to the ruler of a terrorist state with what amounts to an army — funded in part by the money that Israel has allowed Hamas’ Qatari patrons to deliver. It is increasingly dominating the Palestinian cause, harming Israel’s international standing and demonstrating the capacity to stoke violence against Israel on multiple fronts.
It is indeed possible that the IDF, as Netanyahu said, has set back Hamas militarily for years. But intermittent hostilities, launched at the enemy’s convenience, battering the Israeli home front, with pauses in which the enemy develops a capacity to wreak still greater havoc, add up to an untenable reality. And when that enemy, determined to destroy this country, proves capable of galvanizing a widening array of hostile forces, it becomes a strategic, not just a military, threat.
The people of Israel are indeed strong and courageous, and disciplined and resilient under relentless fire. But our enemies in Gaza have not yet concluded that they’re wasting their time.
They must be disabused. What’s required is a sea change in which, rather than allowing Hamas to cast us into rounds of chaos at moments of its choosing, with ever-widening repercussions, Israel determines its long-term goals, sets about achieving them, and reasserts control of its own reality and destiny.