Is it possible that Israel could win a military victory in Gaza and still lose the war?
I understand the reason for Israel’s invasion of Gaza to destroy Hamas, which carried out a hideous terrorist attack murdering more than 1,000 civilians in one day. Any government would have done the same, especially since Hamas, which favors the destruction of Israel and all the Jews within, has publicly called for more such attacks.
Yet even if Israel achieves military success — meaning the destruction of Hamas infrastructure and leadership and release of hostages — what comes afterward will define whether Israel has strengthened its security, or paved the way for the next version of Hamas.
The definition of victory in Gaza cannot be measured just in military terms.
Why so? I agree with Ami Ayalon, who headed Shin Bet, Israel’s domestic intelligence service, from 1995-2000. “Hamas is not just a military capability; it is an ideology,” he told me via phone from Israel. “Now, we are trying to defeat a military leadership of 15-20 people, but that would only be a military success, not a victory.”
Ayalon, who has studied Hamas for many years, believes that its ideology — calling for the destruction of Israel — has won popular appeal in Gaza because “it is the only organization that fights for Palestinian freedom and the end of occupation.”
In contrast, the Palestinian Authority, which controls the West Bank, and has recognized Israel, was unable to achieve a Palestinian state via negotiations. (Too little space here to detail who is to blame for the failure of the Oslo peace process that began in 1993.) And ministers in the current Israeli government, which rejects two states, talk about annexing the West Bank. So, having given up on two states, young people in Gaza have turned to the group that calls for only one state in Palestine.
“How can we defeat an ideology?” Ayalon asked. “The only way to win is to present another ideology.”
Israel will not win, he said, unless it creates a political horizon for Palestinians that can compete with Hamas’ calls for the destruction of Israel. For Ayalon, that means reestablishing the real prospect of two states — one Jewish, and one Palestinian — living side by side.
That vision may look like a fantasy at the moment (although the White House supports it verbally). And to be honest, I am still thinking through whether I believe it could still be possible.
But where I believe Ayalon to be absolutely correct is that, until Palestinians are offered a clear political future, the fighting won’t end. He recalled how Palestinian public opinion shifted when they foresaw the prospect of statehood after the Oslo agreements. True, that did not halt Hamas terrorism at the time — which helped derail peace negotiations — but Palestinian public opinion strongly opposed Hamas’ methods at the time.
In the early 1990s, I sat in as the only journalist on private meetings of Fatah Hawks in Gaza. The hawks were a military arm of the Palestine Liberation Organization, who had spent years in Israeli jails and railed at PLO chief Yasser Arafat for not suppressing Hamas once and for all in Gaza. They spoke of finally wanting to settle down in peace.
That was then. However, I believe the lack of a serious Israeli political horizon for the Palestinians after the fighting ends practically guarantees the failure of Israel’s war with Hamas.
As Israel levels Gaza City and other smaller cities, in its search for Hamas tunnels, the Israeli government refuses to make plans for what will follow, despite U.S. urging.
The White House has called for strengthening the weak Palestinian Authority in the West Bank, in hopes it will ultimately replace Hamas as the governing body in Gaza. Instead, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu continues to undermine the Palestinian Authority, as he has done for years. This, even though the Palestinian Authority police force helps Israel put down Hamas operatives in the West Bank.
Israeli critics claim this is mainly because the Palestinian Authority still calls for a two-state solution, which Netanyahu rejects.
Moreover, the only plans Netanyahu appears to have for postwar Gaza are to keep Israeli troops there “indefinitely.” He seems to have forgotten how Israel got trapped in Lebanon for 18 years after invading, and ultimately withdrew with Hezbollah still in power in southern Lebanon.
As for who will govern Gaza after the war — when Gaza City is now an uninhabitable ruin, and other towns have been bombed to the ground — that question seems of little interest to Netanyahu’s government.
With more than a million internal refugees from northern Gaza crammed into southern towns. Israel has been bombing these supposedly safe zones where refugees are taking shelter, and appears ready to attack the south with ground forces. This, when all Gaza civilians are lacking food, fuel, water, and medical supplies; Israel is barely letting such vital necessities trickle in from Egypt.
It’s way past time for several-day humanitarian pauses to let in more aid, as demanded by the U.N. Security Council and backed by the White House.
Perhaps Netanyahu’s lack of concern for Gaza’s future reflects the urging of members of his party to “transfer” much Gaza’s population to other countries. That is a war crime — forcing civilians, who had no desire to leave their homes before the war began, out of their land.
This would be in sync with messianic members of Netanyahu’s cabinet who are using the opportunity presented by the war in Gaza to embolden radical Jewish settlers to drive West Bank Palestinian villagers off their land.
Let me repeat that Israel has a right to self-defense, and a right to destroy a terrorist group that committed unspeakable crimes against civilians. Unfortunately, the heroes of Israel’s political opposition, who mobilized half the country against Netanyahu’s domestic assault on democracy, are not in power now. If they were, this tragic war would have a far better chance at a positive political result.
However, the lack of vision of the Netanyahu government is deeply worrying to Arab leaders who have established peace with Israel, or want to in the future, like Saudi Arabia. Their publics are restless. The deaths of thousands of Palestinians civilians, and attacks on Gaza hospitals are upsetting even Israel’s loyal European allies.
Without a political future for Palestinians, a new ideological movement aimed at the destruction of Israel is bound to rise from Gaza’s ruins, and spread through the region. Down that road lies Hamas 2.0.
©2023 The Philadelphia Inquirer, LLC. Visit at inquirer.com. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.