columnIsrael at War

It ain’t over ’til it’s over

Contrary to panicked assessments, the exit of troops from Khan Yunis doesn’t signal the end of Israel’s war against Hamas in Gaza.

Israeli troops operating in the Gaza Strip, March 23, 2024. Credit: IDF.
Israeli troops operating in the Gaza Strip, March 23, 2024. Credit: IDF.
Ruthie Blum. Credit: Courtesy.
Ruthie Blum
Ruthie Blum, an author and award-winning columnist, is a former adviser at the office of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Marking on Sunday six months since the Oct. 7 massacre, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu opened his weekly Cabinet meeting by listing what he called the “considerable achievements” of the war in Gaza.

“We have eliminated 19 of Hamas’s 24 battalions, including senior commanders,” he said. “We have killed, wounded or captured a large number of Hamas terrorists. We have cleared out Shifa [Hospital in Gaza City] and other terrorist command centers.”

He went on, “We have destroyed rocket factories, command centers and weapons caches. And we are continuing to systematically destroy underground installations.”

Netanyahu punctuated the impressive inventory by stating, “We are a step away from victory.”

Encouraging words, to be sure. Yet, to everyone’s surprise, they were followed by a withdrawal of most of the Israel Defense Forces ground troops from southern Gaza, after four months of fighting in Khan Yunis.

As soon as the IDF announced the pullback, I began receiving frantic calls from abroad and WhatsApp messages at home requesting my take on the move.

“Does it mean that the war is over?” some asked. “Has Israel capitulated to pressure from the White House for a ceasefire with nothing in return?”

Others wanted to know whether Netanyahu and his War Cabinet—despite their repeated assertions—had decided against entering Rafah, where four of the six remaining Hamas battalions are located, along with many of the 133 hostages.

The following evening, Netanyahu addressed that very question. The Rafah operation, he assured the public via video, “will happen; there is a date.”

Rather than putting puzzlement to rest, however, his statement served simultaneously to raise and furrow a lot of brows—even more so a few hours later, when Defense Minister Yoav Gallant denied this was the case.

In a phone call with U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, Gallant reportedly told his counterpart that no time frame had been set for an IDF invasion of Rafah, since plans for the evacuation of the civilian population there were still in the works.

To make matters even more complicated, the Israeli hostage-release negotiating team, led by Mossad chief David Barnea, returned on Monday from Cairo amid “conflicting reports” of progress in the talks.

Translated from Middle Eastern into plain English: No matter how many concessions Israel is willing to make to the Qatari, Egyptian and American mediators—for the freedom of the men, women and children being starved, brutalized and raped in Hamas/Islamic Jihad captivity—the terrorists are continuing to call the shots.

This brings us back to the confusion surrounding the partial curbing of combat, which has had one amusing effect on Netanyahu’s detractors. Those who’ve been accusing him of prolonging the war in order to “hold on to his seat” are now attacking him for prematurely exiting the battlefield.

The trouble is that his supporters are also anxious about the direction he’s taking, particularly with Washington’s hostility growing more blatant with each passing hour. So much so, in fact, that the atrocities of Oct. 7 are barely mentioned anymore.

In their place are admonitions about Israel’s duty to prioritize the needs of Gazans over those of the hostages. Yet, hundreds of humanitarian-aid trucks are transferred to the Strip every day.

In addition, U.S. officials told CNN on Tuesday that President Joe Biden pooh-poohed Netanyahu’s claim about a “date” for the Rafah operation, calling it “bluster” and “bravado.” On the same day, Secretary of State Antony Blinken took the opportunity of the end of Ramadan to compare the “plight of Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank” to “civilians in Syria, women suffering under the Taliban in Afghanistan, Uyghurs in the People’s Republic of China [and] Rohingya in Burma and Bangladesh.”

No wonder certain Israelis believe—or at least fear—that Netanyahu was bullied by the Biden administration into halting the war. Some of us still have faith that it’s far from over.

My own uncharacteristic optimism comes from an analysis by war correspondent and Israel Prize laureate Ron Ben-Yishai. In an article in Ynet, Ben-Yishai (who, it should be noted, is no friend of Netanyahu) spelled out the strategy behind the troop withdrawal.

“[T]he 98th Division’s exit from Khan Yunis is designed, in part, to open up opportunities for unexpected, intelligence-guided strikes that will catch Hamas terrorists off guard,” he wrote. “This tactic was recently successful at a Gaza City hospital, capturing terrorists who believed IDF activities there had ceased.”

Ben-Yishai stressed that this ploy “puts [the troops] less than an hour from any target location, including Rafah,” adding that “all intelligence, air and ground fire resources currently active in Khan Yunis will remain in place, allowing uninterrupted intelligence and operational activities.”

He went on to note that this shift to a new strategy also reduces the soldiers’ vulnerability to terrorist attacks by avoiding static positions; paves the way for the next phase of combat; and generates incentives for Hamas chief Yahya Sinwar to negotiate a hostage deal.

“Understanding that the IDF can swiftly penetrate any location,” he explained, “Hamas is constrained in its movements and in reestablishing its military and civil authority in the region without assuming risks.”

Finally, Ben-Yishai emphasized, the troop exit was planned weeks ago, without any connection to the U.S.-Israel relationship crisis.

You don’t need to be a military expert to see that this makes total sense.

It’s also safe to assume at this juncture that Netanyahu would not be reiterating, ad nauseam, the imperative of tackling Rafah if he were on the verge of back-tracking. Even his detractors should realize that doing so would guarantee, not postpone, his downfall.

So, everybody needs to calm down and remember that the war “ain’t over ’til it’s over.”

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