Even before the dust settled over the ruins of communities in southern Israel that were devastated by the Hamas Oct. 7 atrocities, the usual chorus of Middle East “experts” was sounding notes of caution about any effort to respond to the popular Palestinian group responsible for those crimes. Israeli forces were still mopping up the Palestinian terrorists who had crossed the border that Shabbat morning on the holiday of Simchat Torah, when they raped, mutilated, tortured and murdered more than 1,200 persons, including entire families. But the main concern of the American foreign-policy establishment, as well as the international community, was centered not on the victims or the hostages dragged back into Gaza but on their growing realization that Israelis were going to draw some harsh conclusions from the worst mass slaughter of Jews since the Holocaust.
When Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu first said that the objective of his nation’s response to the war that the terrorists began on Oct. 7 was to eliminate Hamas, his comments were put down as rhetoric intended for a traumatized Israeli public and not a serious policy. Richard Haas, the president emeritus of the Council on Foreign Relations, spoke for his fellow members of the foreign-policy establishment on Oct. 10—weeks before Israel’s ground offensive into Gaza began—when he warned that there was no defeating Hamas.
Haas said that while Israel might be allowed to strike back at Hamas, it should put any notion that the Islamist group that has governed Gaza as an independent state in all but name since 2007 could be eliminated. It was, he said, “an ideology as much as an organization,” and ideas can’t be killed. No matter how wrong Hamas had been to breach the border and commit mass murder, any response on Israel’s part was doomed to failure because of the military problems involved in a campaign that would involve urban warfare and smoking terrorists out of a tunnel network that was more extensive than the New York City subway system. Sounding a familiar cliché of critiques of most post-World War Two counterinsurgency campaigns, every blow struck at Hamas and the civilians it hid behind would “create more terrorists.”
A three-part plan
Two months after Israel’s ground campaign against Hamas began, Netanyahu laid out his war aims in an article published in The Wall Street Journal. According to him, there are three “prerequisites for peace:” the destruction of Hamas, the demilitarization of Gaza and the de-radicalization of the Palestinian people. But neither the foreign-policy establishment nor their favorite publication is buying any of that.
Three days after that piece was published, a front-page New York Times article labeled “analysis” made it clear that the “experts” are still convinced that the Israeli war against Hamas is unwinnable. While most attacks on Israel’s war effort have focused on the question of Palestinian civilian casualties, this was treated as a side issue. Instead, the piece contained the usual litany of arguments about the difficulties Israeli troops face, the strength of Hamas, its ability to fade into the Palestinian population, and the talk about the campaign “radicalizing” another generation of Arab youth.
Hamas was, the Times article asserted, similar to the Taliban in Afghanistan in that it could withstand military setbacks and still bounce back. Some have compared Israel’s goals to the successful campaign conducted by the United States and its allies to defeat ISIS in Iraq. However, the article declared that Hamas was stronger than their fellow Islamists and is “organic” to the Palestinian population because of the popularity of its commitment to continuing the war against Israeli “occupation,” rather than accepting some kind of accommodation with the continued existence of the Jewish state.
Probing deeper into the Israel Defense Forces’ problem, the lineup of experts quoted also claimed that despite the obvious progress it had made in two months of fighting, Hamas was far from defeated. And that it would take far more time, treasure and blood than the Jewish state could possibly expend to root the terrorists out from every inch of Gaza.
The conclusion to be drawn from this dismal evaluation was that the Israelis had to concede defeat and, as the Times’ chief Netanyahu-basher—columnist Thomas L. Friedman—wrote last week, the Israelis need to realize that his three objectives are unrealistic. They must, he crowed, pack up their troops, leave Gaza and “go home.” And if the Israelis don’t do so soon, then President Joe Biden should apply some “tough love” and make them. He suggested that America, as Friedman has been urging his entire career, use all its leverage to force Israel to accept defeat and a new peace process that will bring into existence a Palestinian state that will end the problem once and for all.
The skeptics are right that the IDF is still a long way from complete victory in Gaza. Hamas likely has considerable forces still able to fight in the parts of the tunnel network that have not yet been destroyed by the Israelis. No one in the Israeli military was under any illusions that the problem of eliminating an enemy dug in so deep and which had been preparing for years for just such a confrontation would be solved quickly. In addition—and despite the constant carping from the international community and the Biden administration—the care that the IDF takes in trying to avoid civilian casualties as much as possible has slowed the campaign and exposed Israeli troops to danger, which is why the toll of casualties has been so high in recent weeks.
Overestimating and misunderstanding Hamas
Still, the notion that the Gaza tunnel complex is an impregnable fortress that cannot be destroyed or that Hamas gunmen are so skillful, daring and clever that they cannot be killed or captured in the small geographic area (which is getting smaller with every week) in which they are holed up is nonsense. More than that, those making such arguments are not, as they claim, simply speaking with wisdom gleaned from decades of failed counterinsurgency campaigns by Western armies against popular local groups.
To the contrary, they are confusing the Palestinians’ war to destroy Israel with a conventional insurgency against a foreign occupier even though that is the way this struggle has been framed by the Western corporate press for decades.
Their motives in making such arguments are also disingenuous. They’ve argued for a generation that the only solution to the conflict is territorial compromise and the creation of a Palestinian state. They are just as clueless about the meaning of Hamas’s Oct. 7 assault as they were about the terrorist offensives launched by PLO chief Yasser Arafat in response to the Oslo Accords and joint U.S.-Israel offer of statehood and peace to the Palestinians in 2000. They refuse to accept that an Israeli military victory is not only possible but desirable because to do so would be to admit that people like Haas and Friedman have been wrong all along. The same is true for the diplomats and politicians, like Biden, who have spent their entire careers claiming that the formula for peace is pressure on Israel to make concessions to the Palestinians.
The aftermath of Oct. 7 should have been a moment when the establishment needed to stop and admit that they had been wrong.
The Palestinians have rejected every compromise peace offer that would have given them statehood for the last 75 years. And that’s not because, in Israeli statesman Abba Eban’s memorable phrase, they “never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity.” It’s because they don’t see a peace that would give them a state as an “opportunity” if it means accepting the legitimacy or even the existence of a Jewish state, no matter where Israel’s borders are drawn. Oct. 7 was—like the suicide bombings and other examples of Palestinian terrorism that were launched in the fall of 2000—an indication of Palestinian intentions, not frustration with negotiations that hadn’t succeeded.
Nor can Israel simply pack up and leave as the Americans did in Afghanistan, Iraq and nearly 50 years ago in Vietnam. Gaza isn’t halfway around the world from Israel. It’s next door, and a policy of allowing Hamas to maintain its military capability—a matter of consensus among Israel’s military and intelligence establishment, and supported by the leaders of the opposition as well as Netanyahu—was a fatal error. Hamas was never going to be satisfied with merely being the lords of an Islamist tyranny in the Gaza Strip or even seeking to extend its hegemony someday to Judea and Samaria.
The current war wasn’t caused by the Israeli “occupation” of Gaza simply because it wasn’t occupied on Oct. 6. The Israelis withdrew every settlement, settler and soldier from Gaza in the summer of 2005 in the vain hope that doing so would, if not give the Palestinians a chance to build their own state in peace, at least contain the conflict. Hamas’s objective on Oct. 7 was not advancing the two-state solution that its supposedly more moderate Fatah rivals have repeatedly rejected. It was in continuing and winning the Arabs’ century-old war on Zionism in which they hoped to roll back the clock, eliminate Israel and slaughter its population. And committing mass slaughter of the Jewish people remains popular among Palestinians, as their own polls show even after Oct. 7 and the subsequent consequences for the people of Gaza.
That’s why Netanyahu is right to speak of not just demilitarizing Gaza—something that will, whether Israelis like it or not, require the continued presence of the IDF there for the foreseeable future—but de-radicalizing the Palestinians. The experts worry about future radicalization of Palestinians caused by the current war. But they fail to explain how much more radicalized the Palestinians can become if the current generation is capable of not just carrying out the unspeakable atrocities of Oct. 7, but cheering them and holding them up as a “proud victory” for Palestinian nationalism.
Not a conventional insurgency
The IDF would be on a fool’s errand if the objective were, as it was in counterinsurgencies elsewhere, to win the “hearts and minds” of the Palestinians. But to frame the war in this context is a mistake. As much as Hamas will try to survive, and ultimately win, by guerilla warfare, the situation in Gaza is much more like that of Berlin in 1945 than it was to conflicts in Iraq or Afghanistan. As the Palestinians have made clear, the war is not one of occupiers and the occupied, but an existential one between two nations. Hamas is no more or less an idea than the National Socialist Party of Adolf Hitler. And it can only be destroyed in the same manner that the Nazis were wiped off the map: by their complete military defeat and the realization on the part of the Palestinians that, like the Germans, they needed to abandon the delusions and the genocidal ideology of their leaders if they hope to have any semblance of a normal life. Palestinians must give up a conception of their national identity that is inextricably linked to hatred of Jews and denying them a state in their ancient homeland.
The realists who are claiming that Israel can’t win this war aren’t just pointing out the acknowledged difficulty of Israel’s military problem. They are really arguing that Israel shouldn’t be allowed to win because doing so will prove their formulations about imposing a two-state solution on the region was a disastrous and costly mistake.
At this point in the campaign, Israel remains a long way from victory, and even after it is achieved, Netanyahu’s goals of de-radicalization will take far longer than that. Should Biden succumb to the pressure from the antisemitic intersectional wing of his Democratic Party, and cut off the flow of arms and join the international community in condemning the war—steps that, thankfully, he has not taken, even as he speaks out of both sides of his mouth on the subject—then an Israeli victory will likely be impossible. But anyone who genuinely desires peace should be dismissing the tired repetition of failed policies by the likes of Haas and Friedman, and rooting for the Israeli prime minister’s objectives to be achieved. The only path to peace is to be found in a decisive end to the war in which the Palestinians will be forced to rethink their objectives. Anything else merely condemns both Jews and Arabs to another generation of bloody and futile conflict.
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor-in-chief of JNS (Jewish News Syndicate). Follow him: @jonathans_tobin.