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13 February 2024

Time is running out in Gaza

Israel’s war is coming to a crunch point.

By Lawrence Freedman

Nothing calms the Middle East down. Israel threatens a final push into the border town of Rafah, insisting that this has to be done to finish off the last four Hamas battalions as well as its military leader, Yahya Sinwar, believed to be hiding there. Israel has already launched airstrikes on the city, with a ground offensive thought to be imminent. This will require the million and a half people who have crammed into the area to evacuate but there is nowhere obvious for them to go – certainly not into Egypt which will prevent them entering.

On Israel’s northern border there was a missile barrage on 9 February from Lebanon, after an Israeli drone strike on a Hezbollah commander, Abbas Al-Debes, with close ties to Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). In Iraq Wissam al-Saadi, the commander of the Iran-backed militia Kataib Hezbollah and his two bodyguards, was killed by a US drone strike on a Baghdad street on 7 February. Retaliation was promised. Meanwhile merchant ships continue to avoid the Red Sea route because of fears of being struck by missiles fired by the Yemen-based Houthis.

Attempts to agree cease-fires have been frustrated, although intermediaries have not stopped working on possible agreements. As a crunch point approaches in the Gaza War, neither Hamas nor Israel can agree to end the fighting except on terms that they could describe as victory. Although both the US and Iran play down the idea that they could be headed for a direct confrontation, this still leaves the US engaging with Iran’s proxies with tit-for-tat exchanges that may continue because nobody can work out how to bring them to a close.

These conflicts are complex and have many angles but I have been struck by one persistent theme, which is a belief in both Israel and the US that they can weaken their adversaries, perhaps terminally, by finding and taking out their leaders. As we shall see it is not the whole story, but it is a sufficiently important part to warrant close attention. Successful ‘decapitation’ of radical and insurgent groups that have been around for many years is rare. They have sufficient popular support and organisational structures that will continue even as individual leaders come and go. If one is killed a replacement will be found, and their replacements may be more capable and dangerous.

One of the reasons why targeted killing has become more frequent is that it has become much easier to achieve. The drone that killed al-Saabi was extraordinarily precise, hitting his car and apparently causing no collateral damage. It was a remarkable demonstration of what can be done when modern weapons with pinpoint accuracy are combined with reliable intelligence. Those operating the drone were far from the scene, at no personal risk. But the ease with which a strike can be executed does not necessarily mean that it has great strategic value.

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The expansion of targeted killings

After the 1972 massacre of Israeli athletes at the Munich Olympics those responsible were tracked down and killed by Israeli commandos. Steven Spielberg made a film about it. The justification was that there was no other way of bringing these men to justice. There were no extradition treaties between Arab countries and Israel. Then in the 1980s, as Hezbollah emerged as a major threat, Israel began to target its leadership, including in 1992, its secretary general, Sheik Abbas Musawi. When Hamas engaged in terrorist attacks in the 1990s, in part to disrupt the peace process, the ‘targeted killings’ continued, including one of Hamas’s leading bomb makers, known as ‘the Engineer.’  This had catastrophic consequences, as it led to four suicide attacks that killed 48 Israeli civilians. Binyamin Netanyahu was able to use these attacks to become prime minister for the first time, arguing that by sticking with the peace process the Labour government had left Israel less secure.

With the upsurge in violence in 2001, following the final collapse of the peace process, assassinations became one of the main Israeli tactics. By 2005, the deaths of 203 Palestinian fighters had been recorded, with an additional 114 people killed in the attacks. One of those killed was the ailing Hamas leader, Sheik Ahmed Yassin in 2004.

By this time the Americans, following the al Qaeda attacks on the World Trade Centre and the Pentagon of 11 September 2001, had adopted the same tactic. Predator drones armed with Hellfire missiles offered a convenient way to take out wanted individuals hiding in places that were hard to reach by other means. In October 2001 a senior al Qaeda commander was killed in Afghanistan and then the next month one of the group’s leaders in Yemen was taken out the same way.

The individuals piloting the drones could take a good look at their targets before striking, checking to see that no innocents were likely to be inadvertently hit. Anybody apparently up to no good could be eliminated in this way. American policy-makers saw this as an ideal way to take on terrorist groups wherever they were operating and so the potential target list was expanded. But the more opportunistic the strikes the greater the potential for error and civilian casualties. A lot depended on good intelligence and the sources were not always reliable.

President Obama took to drone warfare at first as a largely risk-free way of fighting, but with the benefits hard to confirm, and profound ethical and legal issues coming to the fore as individuals were executed without trial, he decided to cut back on their use and develop better guidelines on targeting. He worried later that “There’s a remoteness to it that makes it tempting to think that somehow we can, without any mess on our hands, solve vexing security problems”. But while Obama became wary of using these methods to kill individuals who might be engaged in terrorist acts he still was ready to take out leaders. He celebrated the Navy SEAL operation that led to Osama bin Laden’s death in 2011 as “the most significant achievement to date in our nation’s effort to defeat al Qaeda”. He did go on to add that al Qaeda would “continue to pursue attacks against us.  We must — and we will — remain vigilant at home and abroad.”

In October 2019, President Donald Trump rejoiced even more exuberantly when Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the leader of ISIS, an offshoot of al Qaeda, was killed. After reporting that “the United States brought the world’s No. 1 terrorist leader to justice” he added, on what basis who knows, that al-Baghdadi “died like a dog. He died like a coward”, spending “his last moments in utter fear, in total panic and dread, terrified of the American forces bearing down on him.”

The death of Qasem Soleimani

Very soon he had an even more important figure to boast about. On 27 December 2019 a rocket attack on a US military base launched by Kataib Hizbullah killed a US contractor in Iraq. This was their tenth attack in two months. Two days later the Americans responded, with an attack on the militia that killed 25 and wounded 50. This was followed by a Kataib Hizbullah inspired mob attacking the US embassy in Baghdad. Nobody was hurt but Trump wanted a response and he chose the most extreme option presented to him. General Qasem Soleimani was head of the Quds force of the IRGC, and a key member of Iraq’s ruling elite, supporting and encouraging the various Iranian-backed groups in the region. He arrived in Baghdad on a flight from Syria on 3 January 2020, and got in a car with Kataib Hizbullah’s leader, Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis. The car was soon hit by a drone and both men were killed. There was an uproar in Iran. Vast crowds attended Soleimani’s funeral.

The Iranian military response came on 7 January when a dozen ballistic missiles were fired at two Iraqi bases hosting US troops. As a political message the attack was significant: Iran acknowledged direct responsibility. Iranian sources claimed that scores of Americans had been killed or wounded. The Americans said that damage was minimal and there had been no casualties. Although it later transpired that over 100 American troops had been treated for concussion, none were killed. The base commanders had warning and troops had taken shelter. With the same attack being presented as deadly by the perpetrators and of little significance by the targets, honour could be satisfied while a line was drawn without further escalation. There was still a tragic addendum to the episode. Early in the morning of 8 January, a jumpy Iranian air defence crew shot down a Ukrainian Airlines passenger jet, killing 176 passengers and crew in the belief that it was an American warplane. After this the mood of confrontation abated.

Iran holds back

It is self-evident that whatever the expectations surrounding the effect of killing Soleimani and al-Muhandis, these figures were replaced and both Iran and its proxies are still as busy as ever, stirring things up in the region.

Iran has shown caution. It has made it known that, at least for now, it wants to avoid a wider war. One reason is that their nuclear programme is not too far from developing a weapons capability but is not quite there yet. This is another legacy of Trump’s foreign policy as he pulled out of a deal that had been negotiated under the Obama Administration that held back Iran’s uranium enrichment. Trump promised that he had better ways to deal with the threat, which unsurprisingly he didn’t. Part of Iran’s response to Soleimani’s assassination was to announce that it would no longer restrict its uranium enrichment. The Biden administration was trying to revive the deal, but this needed Russian cooperation and it all fell away in the aftermath of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine.

Iran announced late last year that it would be expanding its output of 60 per cent enriched uranium, which gets it closer to the levels needed for it to be weapons grade. In a recent analysis, the American physicist and weapons expert David Albright suggests it would take only a week for it to produce enough for its first nuclear weapon, and about a month for six weapons. It also already has plenty of delivery systems. What it has yet to do is to construct an actual weapon, especially one that could fit on a missile. It knows what to do but there are still many challenges ahead, including the response of the international community once it discovers what Iran is up to.

Albright reckons a simple weapon could be produced in about six months, although it would take longer for one that could sit atop a missile. Iran might also hope that western intelligence would miss the signs that it had started on weaponisation. (He notes that given all that is going on at the moment western and Israeli intelligence are stretched to the limit.) It is not that the Iranian regime cannot imagine a major confrontation with the US. It is just not quite ready.

Another distraction for Iran is that the current Supreme leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, may not have long to live, and issues of succession are starting to preoccupy an elite that remains divided. It is probably safest to assume that after any changes at the top Iran will be as ruthless as before, ready to suppress any signs of popular discontent and that the IGRC will continue to play a prominent role in policy-making, but these things are never wholly predictable.

The proxies

Iran’s main response to the war in Gaza has therefore been left to its proxies. Although Tehran has some control over these groups and may not want them to push too hard, its influence is far from complete. Talk of proxies implies that the various groups aided and abetted by Iran also exist solely to do its bidding, but they all have their own agendas and distinctive qualities. With heightened tensions resulting from Gaza, these groups are less inclined to hold back and have indicated that they are disappointed that they have not had more backing from Tehran.

This explains the inconclusive character of so much of the US’s skirmishing with these groups. It is all about signalling, containing, deterring, and degrading, but not defeating. The fighting has been far from painless but thus far contained and limited. That is why they take a tit-for-tat form, each responding to the other’s last attack. The difficulty lies in knowing when to stop because the instinct is not to allow any strike to pass without a response. In this respect the limited aftermath of the Soleimani assassination may not be a good guide.

The situation with the Houthis in Yemen is slightly different because the costs of their regular attacks on shipping are high for the international economy. At some point the Houthis may decide the costs of the occasional US/UK strikes are not worth their limited successes in actually hitting and disabling ships (it is the deterrent effect that does the damage), and their attempts to do so seem to have become more sporadic, but this is a game they have played before and to which they could return in the future.

Kataib Hezbollah has unleashed more than 165 attacks since the Israel-Hamas War began, mostly ineffectual, except for the one that killed three US troops on 28 January. In response to this the US launched 85 strikes in the Iraq-Syria border area on 2 February as its first response to these attacks, followed by the assassination of al-Saadi four days later. Another group, Harakat al Nujaba lost one of its own commanders to a targeted American strike, also in Baghdad, on 4 January. Its retaliation was an attack on a US base in Syria that did not kill any Americans but did kill six Kurdish militiamen. The Kurds are now threatening their own retaliation.

It would take intense operations over an extended period to deal with Kataib Hezbollah in Iraq or the Houthis in Yemen. And the Gulf states, having had their chance against the Houthis in Yemen and failed to dislodge them, have no desire to return to the fray. If anything the main questions raised by the recent episodes are about what the US is doing with military bases in Iraq and Syria, containing respectively some 2,500 and 900 troops. Their purpose was to support the fight against ISIS. The Iraqi government, which welcomed the American help in defeating ISIS, now warns that they might ask the Americans to leave if it keeps on assassinating people on Baghdad streets. The Economist has noted that these bases now reflect the “deeper contradictions in its Middle East policy, namely its desire to pivot away from the region while simultaneously keeping troops in it, leaving a military presence big enough to present a menu of targets but too small actually to constrain Iran”.

Israel, Hamas and Hezbollah

The situation on Israel’s northern and southern borders is altogether different because here the fighting is more intense and the stakes are higher. The exchanges between Israel and Hezbollah, while not as deadly, are far from winding down and are sufficient to have led around 80,000 people on both sides of the border to move to a safer place. The US, which is struggling to impose any sorts of limits on Israeli actions, has kept up the pressure to prevent Israel moving much harder into Lebanese territory. Proposals for a cease-fire would involve Hezbollah moving its forces away from the front lines.

These exchanges have more of a tit-for-tat quality than the fighting in Gaza where Israel insists it needs to finish off its enemies. The Israelis consider the battle for Khan Yunis to be close to concluding, with three quarters of the Hamas battalions (18 out of 24) now destroyed and half of the Hamas fighters killed or wounded. They talk as if they will only know they have done enough when they have killed or captured Sinwar, which is one of the reasons that a battle for Rafah is looming. There are suggestions that Sinwar is getting fed up trying to keep his head down as the IDF gets closer, to the point where he may be more interested in a cease-fire than the political leadership who continue to live in comfort in Qatar. There are even reports that Sinwar might be persuaded to join them in exile.

Secretary of State Anthony Blinken keeps working hard with Egypt and Qatar for a cease-fire only to be rebuffed by Netanyahu who has no particular interest in stopping the war, especially as once it is over he will have to face his critics, and possibly an election. If the war ends before Sinwar is either taken or killed the extreme right-wing members of his government will leave the coalition. “Every terrorist hiding in Rafah should know, they will end like those in Khan Yunis, Gaza or any other place in the Gaza Strip,’ warns Defence minister Yoav Gallant. “Surrender or death — there isn’t a third option.” As for Sinwar he described him as “moving from one hideout to another hideout. He has been unable to communicate with his surroundings”.

Sinwar has much to answer for. He plotted the 7 October attacks and set this whole ghastly business in motion. But the existence of Hamas does not depend on him. (Academic research suggests that decapitation only really makes a difference with immature organisations and not those well established). He can and be replaced by another leader who might even be more dangerous. Whatever happens to Sinwar, and even if Hamas continues to be taken apart as a military organisation, it is hard to believe that Gazans will declare themselves content with their lot, confined in whatever conditions Israel considers is compatible with its security.

The network of tunnels, arms stores and command centres that the Israelis have uncovered and destroyed might be hard to replace, at least quickly, and once this is over Gazans will want time to recover. The events of the last few months will have left their mark and may well have aggravated the attitudes and behaviour that gave Hamas its support in the first place. Killing individuals might disrupt the organizations they lead but they are not going to kill off the movements they represent. Despite many past assassinations, Hamas and Hezbollah have not gone away. Even if it was possible that the current leaders might be replaced with more moderate types there would not be much gained unless Israel was prepared to deal with them. Any chance to forge a new relationship with the Palestinians will be lost without a credible plan for Gaza’s future.

We are coming to a crunch point. Rafah is Hamas’s last important holdout. The Israeli government acknowledges that civilians in the firing line must be evacuated and has asked the IDF for plans on how to do this as well as conduct the operation to clear it of Hamas. None of the ideas mentioned, including getting people to return to the parts of Gaza which they had been urged to leave before, looks easy or quick to implement. If things stay much as they are, every western ally of Israel has warned that it must hold back. Egypt has threatened the end of the 1979 peace treaty. Time is running out – for the Gazans desperate for relief and for the surviving hostages. Ramadan starts on 10 March and that is also seen as some sort of deadline. Israel has to work out whether whatever marginal further gains it may make against Hamas are worth its almost complete international isolation, and how it can improve its security without addressing the demands of Gaza’s reconstruction and governance.

Lawrence Freedman is a regular contributor to The New Statesman. This piece originally ran on his Substack “Comment is Freed”. 

[See also: The Iran problem]

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