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Hamas Has Laid a Trap Called “Revenge” - Will Israel Take the Bait?

Henry Choisser

 After the world woke up to news of the atrocities committed by Hamas on the morning of October 7th, Israel had a virtual monopoly on sympathy. More than 1,400 deaths marked the single largest loss of Jewish life in a single day since the Holocaust. It naturally ignited existential fears within the Israeli population and given its completely unprecedented nature in Israeli history, it would receive an unparalleled response.

However, as the nature of that response has taken shape over the recent weeks, Israel has endangered not only its moral high ground but its maximalist goal of eradicating Hamas. While Israel may not require international support or approval to flatten the Gaza Strip, doing so threatens to increase regional support for Hamas and makes international support for Israel untenable. This regional and international unease will in turn undermine the Israeli objective of eliminating the current rulers of Gaza and preventing this from ever happening again.

The immediate response to Hamas’ assault has been a total siege of the 141 square mile enclave and an incessant bombing campaign throughout the Gaza Strip. Weeks of bombardment have leveled entire neighborhoods and resulted in an excess of 8,000 Palestinian deaths according to the Hamas-run Health Ministry of Gaza (though independent verification of these figures is non-existent). The intensity of the bombing, the mounting civilian death toll, and defeats in the information space - such as the initial misattribution of the Al-Alhi hospital blast to Israeli air strikes - endanger the completion of Israel’s primary objective. Unless the Israeli Defense Force (IDF) intends to collapse the entire tunnel network throughout Gaza and bury its entrances, a strategic bombing campaign like the one we see now will not make a ground operation any less bloody. Rubble is surprisingly easy to defend and dramatically slows the advance of mechanized forces, yet the entire armored corps of Israel has been mobilized in preparation for the assault on Gaza.

As the IDF has laid the foundations for a ground invasion of Gaza, Iranian proxies have begun positioning their own forces and skirmishing on multiple other fronts. From Hezbollah’s daily clashes with Israel on the border with Lebanon, to the incitement of Palestinians in the West Bank, and even Iraqi militia strikes on American facilities throughout the greater Middle East, this escalatory behavior is deterrent in nature. By pressuring the Israelis and their American partners on multiple fronts, the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRCG) puppet-masters are seeking to make the IDF question its prospects for success by showing their commitment to a wider regional conflict and drawing as many Israeli forces away from the main spearhead near Gaza as possible.

As noted by the Institute for the Study of War, “It is in Iran’s interest to end the war in its current state because Hamas has inflicted losses on the IDF, the Israeli government, and Israeli society. Israel, on the other hand, is preparing a ground operation into the Gaza Strip to destroy Hamas.” Although there has been some speculation about the start of the ground operation, on October 26th the Wall Street Journal reported that Israel had delayed its ground operation into Gaza for at least another two days. According to the WSJ, that delay would allow the United States to finish deploying air defense systems to U.S. forces stationed in the Middle East. If true, this decision signals both a willingness and expectation on the Israeli side to encounter larger regional disturbances after the initiation of their ground invasion.

For its part, the U.S. has sent two aircraft carrier strike groups to the region in an attempt to deter Iran from mobilizing an all-out assault by their so-called “Axis of Resistance”. This term refers to the many proxies the regime has in Lebanon, Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Gaza, and the West Bank, which have thus far all participated in the conflict to some extent or another. Although the United States has increased its force posture vis-a-vis Iran, it is still quite probable that the regime will activate its proxy network in a coordinated and explosive strike after the onset of the Israeli ground operation. The two-prong goal of these attacks would be to force a withdrawal of certain elements of the Israeli army from its mission in Gaza as well as to undermine support for a prolonged war among the Israeli populace. However, the second part of this strategy is likely to backfire, as a nation’s own civilian casualties have a tendency to drive up public support for a more aggressive response and harden the populace to a sustained conflict.

25th anniversary of Hamas celebrated in Gaza| Hadi Mohammad/Fars Media Corporation| CC BY 4.0

25th anniversary of Hamas celebrated in Gaza| Photo taken by Hadi Mohammad/Fars Media Corporation| Licensed under CCA 4.0

After the unprecedented and horrifying attack on Oct. 7th, Israel has Jus Ad Bello (legal cause for war) to extract an unprecedented cost from Hamas. However, Israel’s right to self-defense does not confer a right to do whatever they want in order to eliminate Hamas. To be clear, this critique comes from a purely pragmatic position: the very goal of “eliminating Hamas'' necessitates a prolonged campaign, great loss of life on both sides, many billions of dollars, and a post-Hamas solution. Unfortunately, MoD Minister Yoav Gallant’s comments to the Knesset provide very limited perspective on how he sees the new “security regime in Gaza” taking shape - especially since he signaled that an occupation would be impermanent. 

 Multiple Israeli campaigns against Palestinian militants have been cut short by the loss of either domestic or international support. If this war is to have any better outcome than the 1982-2000 occupation of Lebanon or the 2008-09 “Gaza War” (Operation Cast Lead), then Israel requires a sustained occupation to capture and prosecute Hamas leadership and perpetrators of terrorism as well as a post-Hamas solution that does not engender future violence. If that solution cannot account for the future welfare of the citizens of Gaza then the Netanyahu government will merely be doubling the problem and giving it to the next administration.

To achieve its maximalist goals of eradicating Hamas, Israel is faced with two problematic options: attempting to solve the Palestinian question now by forcibly displacing and depopulating Gaza or accepting that this is still a war of hearts and minds that has to be won on a generational timescale. Palestinians will always be the neighbors of Israel, regardless of the number of states in the solution, the location of their diaspora, or the governance of their people. So it will always remain in Israel’s best interest to invest in a positive relationship with Palestinians. Unfortunately, throughout history, rival cultural groups have resorted to the simple and barbaric solution of ethnic cleansing in an attempt to rid themselves of the tensions created by chafing populations. The outcomes for these pathological campaigns can almost all be lumped into two categories: successful but reviled or ineffective and exacerbating.

IDF soldiers preparing for ground activity in Gaza| Photo taken by IDF Spokesperson Unit| Licensed under CCA 3.0

The vengeful path would be a stain of villainy on Israel’s history and still carries no promise of resolving the issue in the long term given the Palestinian diaspora in other neighboring countries and widespread sympathy for the Palestinian “Right of Return” around the rest of the Arab world. As Egyptian President Sissi said at last week’s peace conference, “the liquidation of the Palestinian cause without a just solution” would “never happen at the expense of Egypt.” Additionally, he advised the residents of Gaza that "it is important that the (Palestinian) people remain steadfast and present on their land." Arab leaders worry that any mass exodus from parts of Gaza could allow the further permanent displacement of Palestinians from territory that they envision as part of a future Palestinian state.

This perspective has informed the Egyptian government's decision to keep the Rafah crossing from Gaza to Egypt shut during this and most prior Israeli assaults on the enclave. In simple terms, the idea is to keep the cork on the bottle so that Israel cannot dump the Palestinian population out of the territory and make room for their own. Recently, however, Egypt has had an even greater incentive to prevent an influx of Palestinian refugees into the Sinai Peninsula. First of all, there is an ongoing Islamic State affiliated insurgency in the Sinai that the Egyptians fear could be swelled by the 2.3 million Palestinians who live in Gaza.

Secondly, militant Palestinian refugees have a history of using their asylum in another state to deploy attacks against Israel and even their host government (this is why the Palestinian Liberation Organization was militarily exiled from Jordan to Lebanon in 1970 during the events of Black September). Moreover, presidential elections in Egypt are scheduled for December of this year, and Sissi is already under fire for economic mismanagement, thus leaving little room for the president to eschew popular pro-Palestinian sentiments among his people. In the worst-case scenario this pressure could reverse decades of diplomatic relations between Israel and Egypt and thrust these nations into a situation similar to the uproarious prelude to the Six-Day War in 1967.

Indeed, one of the main reasons that Hamas launched the masacre to begin with was to derail the Saudi-Israeli peace process. It was most likely the wild success of the initial strikes by Hamas that has buoyed other elements of the Axis of Resistance to take up arms. Even though they are currently coordinating to deter Israeli escalation (in the form of a ground invasion), it is unlikely that they have a cohesive invasion plan to the scale of Oct. 7th. A multi-front assault from Iranian proxies would be intended to force Israel out of its offensive posture without triggering significant U.S. intervention. One possible conclusion to this horrendous chain of events that could leave Israel with a sense of justice, without taking reprisals that cause undue harm on the Palestinian civilian population, would be the capture and prosecution of high profile Hamas leadership. In particular, the capture, trial (and probable execution) of the alleged mastermind behind the Oct. 7th massacre, Yahya Sinwar, would serve a uniquely cathartic purpose for the Israeli public.

Apart from if it survives, Hamas will also be victorious if in its destruction by Israel, the group reanimates popular animus (and subsequent government support) for the Palestinian cause throughout the Arab World. Doing so would dismantle the decades of detente and diplomatic relationships Israel has formed with its neighbors. Relative restraint and adherence to international laws in armed conflict, along with the avoidance of collective punishment, will be crucial to denying a Hamas victory through martyrdom.

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