Israel gears up for the long war
It would be ironic if the brutal attack by Hamas led to the longed-for Israel-Palestine peace.
Hamas choosing October 7 as the date to unleash its long-planned attack on Israel was no accident. Exactly 50 years earlier, the Egyptian army’s audacious crossing of the Suez Canal had shocked Israel out of its post-1967 sense of impregnability in the face of any Arab military threat.
Hamas succeeded in producing an even more cataclysmic shock on Israel than Egypt did in 1973. However, while it took Israel only 19 days to turn the tide of the October 1973 war against the Egyptian and Syrian armies, the current Israeli-Hamas conflict has already lasted four weeks, and Israeli leaders are talking of a campaign that could stretch over many months.
The Hamas attack, in which its fighters burst through Israeli border defenses to torture and kill 1,400 mainly civilians, kidnapping more than 200 others, and occupying areas of southern Israel for days on end, was the most devastating and traumatic in Israel’s history. It was clearly designed to make an Israeli military response inevitable. And Hamas was well prepared. Even today, after weeks of devastating Israeli air strikes on Gaza, military analysts estimate that 80 percent of the Hamas underground tunnel network remains intact. Far from showing signs of collapse, Hamas continues to fire its rockets deep into Israel and its fighters emerge from underground to harass Israeli ground troops as they slowly push forward into Gaza.
Risks of urban warfare
In previous battles with Hamas, Israel has relied on short-lived air campaigns and avoided sending ground forces into Gaza, knowing the risks of urban warfare against an enemy entrenched in miles of underground bunkers. But given the unprecedented brutality of the October 7 attack, Israel has set its main war aim as nothing less than the destruction of Hamas. Despite their misgivings over a protracted war, Israeli leaders fear anything less than an all-out victory would embolden Hamas to attack again and could encourage Hezbollah in Lebanon to rain its much more sophisticated missiles on Israeli cities.
On October 27, as Israel began its ground assault in Gaza, Defense Minister Yoav Gallant spelled out more details of the new, long-term Israeli strategy. After the air strikes and ground campaign had destroyed Hamas infrastructure, including hundreds of miles of tunnels and bunkers under Gaza, the military would continue for months rooting out “pockets of resistance” while beginning to “seek out new leadership” for a post-Hamas Gaza.
Israel had no desire to re-occupy Gaza, but only once a new “security reality” was established would it “disconnect,” he said.
Israel has three major challenges in pursuing such a policy: The difficulty of uprooting Hamas from territory it has controlled for the last 16 years and where it has long prepared for such a conflict; increasing international pressure for a ceasefire, even from its allies, as the number of Gazan civilian casualties mounts; and – perhaps the most difficult of all – resolving the conundrum of who would be willing and able to run a devastated Gaza once Hamas is defeated.
PA and political responsibility in Gaza
On his latest trip to the region, US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken publicly called on Israel to do more to minimize casualties and ensure that aid reached trapped civilians. However, he also raised with Israel the broader aims of the war and its eventual political outcome. He said the goal must be not only to defeat Hamas, but also its “perverted idea,” by creating “a brighter future that includes the two-state solution.” He assured Israel that there was strong regional support for this.
When he met Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, Blinken reportedly proposed that the Palestinian Authority (PA) ultimately take over the running of Gaza. This was an idea Blinken had first raised publicly at a Congressional hearing last month, saying an “effective and revitalized” PA should ultimately assume security and political responsibility in Gaza.
Abbas responded to Blinken’s proposal by making clear that the PA would only consider such a move if there were a “comprehensive political solution” that ended the occupation of the West Bank and recognized East Jerusalem as the Palestinian capital.
Both Abbas and Blinken knew that a PA authority installed in Gaza on the back of Israeli tanks would lack all legitimacy in Palestinian eyes and that its return to Gaza could only come in the context of a broader political settlement that held out the hope of an end to the conflict and a peaceful future for Palestinians in both Gaza and the West Bank. Blinken also acknowledged that the wider Arab region has a key role to play in making such an outcome a reality.
Need to end the cycle of violence
Days before the Hamas attack, Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan emphasized the need to return to the two-state solution. He was speaking during an Arab ministerial meeting, marking 20 years since the launch of the Arab Peace Initiative – the Saudi peace plan based on a complete Israeli withdrawal from the Arab lands occupied in 1967. When Prince Faisal met Blinken last month, with the Gaza war raging, he stressed the need to work together to end the cycle of violence, mirroring his US counterpart’s call for renewed emphasis on a two-state solution.
The US administration is hoping to convince the Netanyahu government that it will only resolve its Gaza problem if it reverses its current opposition to a Palestinian state and accepts Arab and international calls for a two-state solution. Were this to come to pass, it would be ironic if the brutal attack by Hamas, the implacable enemies of the notion of co-existence, led ultimately to the longed-for peace between Israelis and Palestinians.
David Powell worked for 20 years as a journalist in pan-Arab television news, including BBC Arabic and MBC. He is now an analyst of Middle East affairs specializing in media and Islamist movements.