OpinionIsrael at War

Israel must act wisely as key moment arrives in Gaza war

Enemies, friends and neutrals are keeping a watchful eye: The Jewish state has no alternative but to pursue its goals until they are fully met.

IDF soldiers in the Gaza Strip, March 3, 2024. Credit: IDF.
IDF soldiers in the Gaza Strip, March 3, 2024. Credit: IDF.
Meir Ben Shabbat
Meir Ben Shabbat
Meir Ben Shabbat is head of the Misgav Institute for Zionist Strategy & National Security, in Jerusalem. He served as Israel’s national security advisor and head of the National Security Council between 2017 and 2021. Prior to that, for 25 years he held senior positions in the Israel Security Agency (Shabak).

Even as the fighting in the Gaza Strip continues, Israel faces challenges and threats from another six fronts: Judea and Samaria, Lebanon, Syria, Yemen, Iran and the diplomatic-legal international system.

Israel must act wisely in juggling security and diplomatic efforts, but that is not enough. Recognizing we are in an existential struggle and being confident of our cause, resolve and solidarity are key to success on all fronts.

Just the attack near Ma’ale Adumim on Feb. 22 and the previous week’s attack near Kiryat Malachi, the attack in Eli on Thursday should not come as a surprise. The “inspiration” supplied by the war in Gaza, the calls from terrorist group leaders on Judea and Samaria Arabs to join the struggle and open an active front against Israel, and Al Jazeera’s ongoing fanning of the flames of revenge have created an atmosphere conducive to carrying out such attacks.

The availability of arms and the friction with IDF soldiers and Israeli civilians complete the three conditions required for this: motive, means and targets. Intensive efforts by security forces have prevented mass attacks through arrests, demolitions of terrorist residences and operations—including pinpointed raids and steps against terrorist networks.

It is possible the shock from the Oct. 7 attack and fear among terrorist groups in Judea and Samaria that they are the main target of the Israeli rage that followed could also explain the Israeli counterterrorism successes of late. But if that is the case, we will likely see additional attempts to carry out attacks as this effect wears off.

To rise to this challenge, Israeli security forces should lower the suspicion threshold for preventative steps. This could be done in part by adopting some elements of the policy practiced in Jenin and northern Samaria to other areas, fast-tracking the decisions to carry out home demolitions, and increasing efforts to thwart weapons production or smuggling.

The high presence of security personnel and armed civilians increases the likelihood of quick and effective responses. The IDF and police would be wise to invest in public advocacy to explain to the public how to act when they are caught in a terrorist attack, to minimize the risk of friendly fire.

We cannot compromise in Gaza

In its Gaza war, Israel needs a decisive, unambiguous and indisputable victory. Deterrence will not be restored if the narrative emerges that Israel had not achieved its goals despite being subjected to the atrocities of Oct. 7 and after so many troops were deployed for this operation. If that narrative were to emerge, Israel would face an existential threat, its enemies would feel even more inclined to attack, and its diplomatic stature would suffer a lethal blow.

Regional and international players—enemies, friends and neutral actors—are keeping a watchful eye on developments. Their stance and conduct towards Israel will be affected by the outcome in Gaza. This makes it all the more evident Israel has no alternative but to pursue the war’s goals until they are fully met.

The IDF’s achievements so far are impressive. They have, in themselves, the ability to demonstrate—at least to Hezbollah in Lebanon—Israel’s military prowess and its civilian strength.

But much work remains: Hamas’s Rafah Brigade—with its four battalions—has yet to be dismantled. The combatworthiness of Hamas’s top leadership and rank and file are intact. The scale of damage to the tunneling infrastructure and weapons is hard to assess, but it is premature to declare them destroyed.

Under such conditions, Hamas’s recovery could be swift, especially with the capabilities and mechanisms of many undamaged government institutions at its disposal. Therefore, Israel must not fall for offers that would bring an end to the war, even if the wording is tailored so that it is easier to sell to the public.

On this matter, one cannot compromise, not even in the face of political pressures or attempts to exploit the captive issue to halt the IDF. Hamas will likely not agree to a “grand bargain” without guarantees to end fighting and security/civilian arrangements ensuring its continued rule of the Strip. Israel of course cannot agree to such a deal.

Thus, the practical path forward, as seen by mediators, is a phased deal. If so, we should strive to free as many captives as possible at the lowest possible price, and in any event, without preventing Israel from resuming combat operations.

Negotiations over the captives should continue while increasing pressure on Hamas, including by targeting its overseas leaders and demanding Washington use its significant leverage on Qatar.

An inevitable stop on the way

Even before the facts came out, Arab countries and the world quickly pinned the blame on Israel for the incident that saw some 100 Palestinians trampled to death when running towards aid trucks brought into northern Gaza.

There is no reason to doubt the IDF spokesperson’s version and the initial military probe’s findings, but one must assume these will mainly convince those already convinced. Hamas leaders gleefully rubbing their hands at Israeli “entanglement” see the civilians’ deaths as reasonable payment for added political pressure on Israel, especially ahead of the IDF’s planned Rafah operation.

In the conditions created in Gaza, there is no practical, safe way to enable civilian aid to the population without it being seized by Hamas, unless the IDF distributes it. As we learned with UNRWA, one cannot rely on the “neutrality” of international bodies, or expect them to withstand Hamas pressure. The same holds for foreign states, regionally and beyond. The notion that the Palestinian Authority could do this without being at the mercy of Hamas ignores the intra-Strip power dynamic.

To meet this challenge, again consider establishing “de-escalation zones” with no Hamas access, where humanitarian aid would be provided solely to the population. This removes Hamas aid control, preventing both the equipping of its people and the strengthening of its standing and governance.

One way or another, the incident must not cause retreat or backing off by Israel in its efforts to dismantle Hamas’s rule. As the Meir Amit Intelligence and Terrorism Information Center said in a new report, many Hamas governmental and public institutions continue to function either fully or in some partial capacity, including the government spokesperson’s office and ministries responsible for operating security agencies and the Hamas home front. It makes no sense to let such institutions and apparatuses continue to operate, as they are designed to help Hamas cement its control.

Despite the short-term costs this process may incur, halting their activity is a necessary step in the path towards replacing Hamas. 

Meir Ben Shabbat is head of the Misgav Institute for National Security & Zionist Strategy, in Jerusalem. He served as Israel’s national security adviser and head of the National Security Council between 2017 and 2021, and before that for 30 years in the Israel Security Agency (Shin Bet).

Originally published by Israel Hayom.

The opinions and facts presented in this article are those of the author, and neither JNS nor its partners assume any responsibility for them.
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