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12 April 2024

Netanyahu has launched a war Israel can never win

Six months into the war in Gaza, internal and external pressure is mounting on the prime minister.

By Lawrence Freedman

On 7 April the Israel Defense Forces (IDF), marking six months since the start of the war, announced that the 98th Commando Division had been withdrawn from southern Gaza after a battle in the city of Khan Yunis had been “concluded”. The division will now “recuperate and prepare for future operations”. The most likely future operation is for this division to move into Rafah, Hamas’s final redoubt in Gaza. For now there are no Israeli troops in southern Gaza and a single brigade (there were once 50) is preventing movement from north to south. Gaza is effectively split. In the south and in Khan Yunis, Palestinians can now move relatively freely but they cannot get to the north.

Israel is allowing more aid into Gaza, although how much is disputed. The aid agencies say that Israeli inspections still hold up trucks; the Israelis say that the UN is inefficient in its distribution and Hamas often steals what gets through. The first relief convoys are now starting to reach the beleaguered population of up to 300,000 left in the north. A new crossing point will be opened soon – not the Erez point, destroyed on 7 October, where right-wing groups can block trucks. The nearby port of Ashdod can be used to bring aid in. The aim is to get to at least 500 trucks a day – the pre-war level – though then Gaza produced much of its own food. For now the territory is still on the edge of famine.

Also on 7 April the prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu repeated his government’s war aims, declaring: “Citizens of Israel, there is no war more just than this one, and we are determined to achieve total victory, to return all of our hostages, to complete the elimination of Hamas in the entire Gaza Strip including Rafah and to ensure that Gaza never again constitutes a threat to Israel.”

Meanwhile Hamas still holds on to the hostages taken on 7 October, of which around 100 are believed still to be alive. (It has also been reported that Hamas is unable to locate about 40 of these hostages.) These may not have given Hamas as much leverage as it hoped over Israeli strategy, but at least requires Israel to accept the group as a negotiating partner, albeit working through intermediaries. In the current round of talks, Hamas is apparently being the most stubborn. The region also remains on edge with Iran still smarting from an Israeli strike in Damascus on 1 April that took out three senior figures and four officers involved in Iran’s Middle Eastern operations, and which it has vowed to revenge. The latest warning from President Joe Biden suggests that the US has some intelligence that Iranian reprisals are imminent.

The war is still being discussed in the same terms that it was six months ago: Israel is still trying to destroy Hamas and retrieve its hostages; Hamas is still seeking to demonstrate that it cannot be eliminated and will remain a force to be reckoned with in Gaza; Hezbollah, backed by Iran, is still keeping Israel occupied on its southern border while, so far, avoiding this spilling over into an all-out war.

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This does not mean that nothing has changed: Hamas has been severely depleted, the humanitarian situation in Gaza has got progressively worse, and Israel’s main international supporters, especially the US, have become increasingly impatient with Netanyahu. The big questions are whether there will be a pause to allow for the return of hostages and, if these negotiations fail as they have often failed before, whether Israel will move against Rafah, and how, if at all, it will move the people packed into the area to safety.

As pressing, however, is the issue of whether, after all the pain and suffering, Israel has the means to prevent Hamas regaining its position in Gaza. From the start the lack of a credible political dimension to Israel’s strategy has been its most evident flaw. This has been reflected in the inability to appreciate the impact of heavy civilian casualties on its international standing, but also in the lack of a plan for the Strip’s government and the management of the relief and reconstruction effort, which is essential if Hamas is not to return to its former position.

Impossible victory

I have often noted with Russia and Ukraine that not winning is not the same as losing. The challenge for any government that has not quite got enough out of a war is to decide whether they have sufficient reason to agree to a ceasefire. If the Israeli government had framed this war in less absolutist terms it could have made a plausible case that it had done enough. While Hamas has not been completely neutralised it is unable to mount an attack comparable to 7 October and, while occasional rockets are still launched from Gaza against Israel, these are now relatively rare and nothing like the barrages with which the war started. On 10 April the Israeli defence minister Yoav Gallant in part made that case: “Today Hamas is no longer functioning as a military organisation across the Strip – we have destroyed four out of five regional brigades. The remaining brigade is in the south and across the Strip we are fighting terror hotspots.”

Considering the other challenges thrown up by the war, from addressing the humanitarian situation to a bigger fight with Iran, this might be seen as “enough”, given that preventing Hamas returning as an effective military organisation requires more than depletion of its numbers but also a non-Hamas government in Gaza.

Netanyahu’s absolutist framing, however, in which the last brigade must be knocked out, and the depletion must be total, turns this into a war that Israel can never win. Even if the IDF moves into Rafah that will not stop Hamas fighters appearing elsewhere, possibly having already moved out of Rafah, mingling with those returning to what is left of their homes in the south and then the north, and so reappearing in places from which they have been supposedly cleared.

The key to rendering Gaza safe for Israelis, and for that matter for Gazans, lies in what follows the fighting. If Gaza is not going to be a secure military base for Hamas, what is it going to be? How is it to be governed in a way that works for both the Palestinians and the Israelis? On this matter the government has been divided and so tentative in its proposals, uncertain about how to talk about the role of the Palestinian Authority in running Gaza and fearful that it is on a slippery path to a Palestinian state. Best strategic practice would have been to define a desirable end state in positive terms and not just as the complete absence of Hamas, for only with a credible government taking responsibility for the Strip’s reconstruction and security can there be any confidence that the threat will not return at some point.

Instead the war’s objectives have been defined only in stark military terms, as if there was no point talking about governance until Hamas was eliminated. The war has not been fought with a view to the peace that might follow, as if the shattered pieces of Gaza will pick themselves up and put themselves together without a large international effort.

It was always going to be the case that taking on Hamas in Gaza was going to lead to substantial civilian casualties. Hamas was everywhere – underground and overground, in mosques, schools and hospitals – and able to move around to avoid capture, ambush IDF units and launch its rockets. When Israel sought to move civilians out of the way so that they would be less likely to be caught in the line of fire, this caused chaos and progressive humanitarian distress, as the conditions of life deteriorated and aid agencies were unable to cope.

The issue of proportionality was therefore built into the conflict from the start and soon came to the fore. The Israelis assumed they had the moral high ground because they were the victims of 7 October and had the right of self-defence. But as the death toll within Gaza began to rise, including aid workers and journalists, Israel’s apparent indifference cost it politically. The international community first became exasperated and then just angry. Eventually the anger reached a point where the government could not ignore it. The moment came when Israeli strikes killed seven aid workers on 1 April, despite having been provided with all the relevant information about their movements. This was but one tragedy in a sea of tragedies, but the subsequent outrage, and talk in the US and the UK of possibly suspending arms sales, seems to have forced Israel to appreciate the fragility of its international support. 

Rules of engagement

The IDF’s account of this attack has not satisfied those who believe that it must have been deliberate or at least distrust any “isolated incident” narrative. Concerns that some vital truth is being hidden will remain until some independent body produces its own report. Yet the Israel account is hardly exculpatory. It not only showed that the mistakes made were of sufficient gravity to require senior officers to be dismissed and reprimanded, but also showed the problems inherent in conducting military operations in a chaotic urban setting.

The World Central Kitchen (WCK) team was moving a shipment from northern Gaza to a warehouse in the south. There does appear to have been a gunman riding on the roof of a large aid lorry being escorted by the team, and the drone operator could not see the WCK logo on the top of their cars. The convoy was tracked to the warehouse, from which one car emerged which did contain gunmen. Three other cars headed south. The crucial error in deciding that these cars also contained at least one gunman was an individual believed to be carrying a rifle. This turned out to be a bag. On this basis authorisation was sought to fire which led to all three cars being targeted, one after the other. All of this could have been avoided if the coordination plan agreed between the WCK and IDF had been distributed to the field commanders, and the impact would have been less if only the first car had been targeted.

The basic problem was the misidentification of one individual as a gunman because he was carrying something suspicious. How many times in how many different settings have we heard “it looked like a gun” when innocents have been shot by troops or the police? The plea moves the act from unprovoked murder to self-defence, asking us to understand how those dealing with fraught situations can become jumpy when dealing with someone who looks threatening and might be dangerous. The Israeli newspaper Haaretz has reported a presumption among units operating inside the Strip that anyone coming close is likely to be a terrorist and so can be shot, even if they are scavenging for food or are unaware of the presence of the IDF. The actual rules of engagement are much more restrictive, but this practice has been common, especially among less experienced soldiers who tend to be more anxious, and, to be frank, less bothered about killing the “wrong” Palestinians. The killing of three escaped hostages in December may be the result of this tendency.

Of course in the WCK case the drone operator was not in danger. This is not the traditional fog of war. It is a modern version, but also one familiar to anyone who has followed the increasing use of drone imagery for targeted killings over the past couple of decades. To make this sort of mistake you need highly sophisticated capabilities: drones able to watch out for trouble, communication systems that enable them to report trouble to commanders who can order accurate fire against the perpetrators, and clear definitions of what trouble looks like.

Remarkable accuracy is useless without remarkable intelligence. When you have clear lines separating the warring parties from each other and civilians, as with the front lines in Ukraine, then there can be reasonable confidence about the identity of any individuals being tracked and what they are up to. There is little ambiguity. Once the fighting is taking place in urban areas, however, with fighters deliberately losing themselves among the general population, spotting the actual enemy becomes a challenge. Unable to be absolutely sure whether they are watching a legitimate target, the operators ask instead, “Is this probably a legitimate target?” And once an individual or group of individuals looks like they might be enemy fighters there is a tendency to find confirmation in any detail that seems to support this suspicion. Couple that with rules of engagement in which reducing risk to the IDF has a higher priority than reducing risk to innocent parties, and with time pressing, and a determination to take out the target while the option remains, then the potential for such “grave mistakes”, to use the IDF’s own language, can be seen.

These are not problems unique to the IDF. They appear whenever a regular force is trying to act against a nimble and well-prepared enemy in populated and built-up areas, in which it is difficult to distinguish between the innocent and the hostile. When we look back at other incidents in recent counter-insurgency campaigns, with some similar features to Gaza, we can see the same tendencies at work. In the battles against Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, for example, US rules of engagement demanded full consideration of whether the target had been properly identified and the risks to civilians. There was, however, no expectation that civilian casualties could be avoided. The requirement was only that they had to be proportional to the “expected military advantage gained”. Applying the rules was not straightforward. The drone operators were viewing behaviour they could not fully understand.

As I noted in my book Command: “If people could be seen moving towards a fresh bomb site, they were assumed to be fighters and not civilian rescuers. If surveillance did not pick up people moving as normal in and out of their houses, it did not occur to the analysts that during the fast of Ramadan they were sleeping during the day.”

A further problem was that while “self-defence” might have been grounds for quick action, without reference back to senior commanders, when facing direct enemy fire or about to, this could also be invoked because of an apparently “hostile intent”, which might be inferred from anything out of the ordinary.

One example of a similar incident to the attack on the WCK convoy, also covered in my book, was a notorious one that happened during the chaotic withdrawal from Kabul in August 2021. After an Islamic State (IS) suicide bomb had killed more than 170 Afghan civilians and 13 US troops, American commanders feared another attack so they delegated targeting authority to allow suspicious activity to be addressed quickly. Drone operators spotted an individual who they thought worked for IS, loading, with others, what appeared to be explosives into his white Toyota Corolla. After the car was struck with a Hellfire missile, the secondary explosions appeared to confirm that explosives had indeed been carried. It was according to the Pentagon, a “righteous strike”, yet it soon transpired that the man, his car, and the site he had visited had nothing to do with IS. He was employed by an NGO to do errands. The explosions had been caused by water canisters. Also not only three adults were killed but also seven children. The next day another white Toyota, driving through the same neighbourhood, launched rockets at the airport.

Critics of Biden’s condemnation of Israel’s strike against the WCK convoy, such as in the Wall Street Journal, have used this example, which happened under his watch, to accuse him of double standards. Yet nobody suggested that tragedy invalidated the whole Afghan rescue operation. Biden’s annoyance with Israel was not just about this incident, but a reflection of months of pleading with the Israelis to take the humanitarian situation in Gaza more seriously.

What next?

The pressures on Netanyahu are intense. Western political leaders no longer bother to hide their irritation, demanding greater urgency on getting supplies to the Gazan population and greater care in distinguishing between fighters and civilians in its operations. The right-wing members of his coalition, upon whom he depends to stay in power, demand greater urgency in the military operations and no concessions to international pressures. Religious parties demand that their youngsters be spared conscription; secular parties find this exemption unacceptable at a time of war. Families of the hostages demand that more be done to extract their loved ones from captivity. Most of the population want him out of office. Opposition leader Benny Gantz, brought into the war cabinet to give it credibility, has called for elections in September, although they are not due until 2026. If there is an attack by Iran or one of its proxies on Israeli targets then that will require yet more attention.

Netanyahu’s inclination is to deal with such situations through procrastination, but some decisions are hard to delay. The first concerns the hostage negotiations. If these are successful it would result in some 40 hostages released in phases in return for hundreds of Palestinian prisoners, as well as a six-week ceasefire and opportunities for some 60,000 Gazans, and possibly more, stuck in the south to return to their homes in the north. It is not clear that Netanyahu could get a deal through his cabinet. He may be let off the hook by Hamas continuing to make demands, including for a permanent ceasefire, to which he could not be expected to agree.

If these negotiations fail then Netanyahu has described an assault of Hamas positions in Rafah as the essential next step. He has even said that a date has been set, although Gallant is reported to have told the US defence secretary Lloyd Austin that “there is no specific day for the operation in Rafah”. Rather than trying to veto the operation directly, the US administration has been demanding a convincing plan that would explain how this can be achieved without yet more civilian casualties and further aggravation of the security situation in the rest of the Strip.

Biden’s national security adviser Jake Sullivan has been quoted as saying that the US “still hasn’t seen a credible and executable plan to account for Rafah evacuation and civilian care”. Israel has suggested that those who crowded into Rafah to escape from the fighting enveloping Gaza can now be moved away as the fighting subsides elsewhere. Israel says that this can be achieved in a matter of weeks. The American suspect it could take months.

Another debate between the US and the Israelis concerns whether an assault on Rafah makes the most operational sense in current conditions. The American policy argues that there is little point in clearing areas of militants if insufficient troops are left to prevent their return. There have already been a number of IDF raids in parts of northern Gaza from which Hamas had been supposedly expelled. The fighting at the Al-Shifa Hospital in Gaza City in March illustrates the point.

This was first raided last November, with the IDF claiming, with some evidence, that Hamas had built one of its tunnels under the hospital grounds as a command centre and for weapons storage. Israeli troops left with the earlier ceasefire that allowed for some hostage releases. But then Hamas returned, leading to another bout of vicious and destructive fighting, after which Israel claimed to have killed about 170 Palestinian militants and arrested many more. It would not be a surprise if Hamas fighters mingled with civilians being evacuated from Rafah and moved back to areas of Gaza from which they had previously been driven; they could possibly still make use of the network of underground tunnels that has only been partially damaged by Israeli action.

This is not to minimise Hamas’s losses. Thousands of their fighters have been killed and wounded. The IDF has stated that it has killed about 13,000 Hamas fighters since the start of the war – a number that, for reasons mentioned above, should be treated sceptically – including well over 100 named commanders. In the process, 260 of its own soldiers have been killed. Yet the leader of the military wing, Yahya Sinwar, has not been found. His war aims were set by Israel’s. If Israel vowed to eliminate Hamas then survival would be a form of victory. While it will take many months, even years, for it to rebuild its military capability, and the organisation will not be able on its own to make life tolerable for the Gazan people, it may be able to regain some of its lost positions – which is more likely if there are no serious efforts to bring in a new civilian administration for Gaza. The lack of attention to the political future of Gaza will make it even harder to control its military future.

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

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