Israel Palestine Conflict

Why Israel will not let up in its war on Hamas

David Powell
David Powell
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Israel has been under severe external pressure to halt its war against Hamas and not to pursue the leaders of the group into their last stronghold Rafah, in southern Gaza. British Foreign Secretary David Cameron has urged Israel to “stop and think” before battling the remaining Hamas forces in Rafah, where the population has increased to an estimated 1.3 million due to a large number of displaced people having fled to the area from other parts of the Strip. The prime ministers of Canada, Australia and New Zealand have together warned that a ground offensive into Rafah would be “catastrophic,” calling for an immediate ceasefire by both sides. The EU foreign minister, Josep Borrell, even called on allies of Israel to stop sending it weapons as “too many people” in Gaza were being killed, after which a court in The Netherlands ordered a halt to the delivery of parts for F-35 fighter planes to Israel. And South Africa, which brought a case of genocide against Israel the International Court of Justice last December, has now gone back to the court to seek an order to stop Israel from carrying out an attack in Rafah.

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Most seriously for Israel, US President Joe Biden has warned Israel not to enter Rafah without a clear and practical plan to keep civilians out of harm’s way. And Secretary of State Antony Blinken, on his latest visit to the region, made it clear that he thought Israel had no such plan in place when he warned its leaders not to “dehumanize” civilians in Gaza in the way Hamas had dehumanized Israelis in its October 7 atrocity that triggered the war.

The chief of staff of the Israeli Defence Forces (IDF), Herzi Halevi, responded by telling a press conference on February 13 that the achievements of the war were greater than had been expected at this stage but that there was “still a way to go” in defeating Hamas militarily. He said that, while he appreciated advice from Israel’s allies, his forces were capable of isolating their enemy from the civilian population and would work to evacuate civilians before launching an offensive against the remaining Hamas battalions in Rafah.

The IDF is, of course, subject to political control. But there is no sign that the Israeli war cabinet is backing away from the aim of destroying the military threat from Hamas forces, ending its rule in Gaza and freeing the remaining hostages. The war cabinet includes Netanyahu’s chief political rivals. Benny Gantz is currently the pollsters’ favorite to take over as PM if there was an election, and Defence Minister Yoav Gallant, whom Netanyahu tried to fire last year, reportedly loathes Netanyahu for trying to shift all the blame onto the military for the failures that led to the Hamas attack last October. But despite internal political differences, the cabinet appears adamant that the army cannot leave Hamas and its leader Yahya Sinwar intact in Rafah, as to do so would be a strategic defeat for Israel. Hamas would rightly claim victory simply by having survived and, even more threatening for Israel, Hezbollah would be emboldened to step up its attacks across Israel’s northern border.

And despite the US criticism of the Israeli government, the Biden administration is not calling for Israel to declare a permanent ceasefire in the war on Hamas. It remains committed to preventing Hamas from retaining power in Gaza and being in a position to repeat its October 7 atrocity. The administration has indicated that it will not support a resolution in the UN Security Council, drafted by Algeria, calling for such a ceasefire. The US is frustrated with the Netanyahu government, not because of its war aims but its unwillingness to accept a Palestinian state, which the US sees as the key to unlocking wider Arab regional support for the rehabilitation of Gaza and to finding a permanent solution to the conflict.

Israel demonstrations call for prioritizing hostages

But what about internal pressure for a ceasefire? Mass demonstrations have been held in Israel, calling for the government to prioritize the release of the remaining hostages held in Gaza. Protesters stormed parliament last month, demanding lawmakers do more to bring the hostages home. Some see this as an indication that the Israeli public wants the government to end the war and negotiate with Hamas.

However, the latest opinion polls in Israel do not support this analysis. The latest monthly poll by the Jewish People Policy Institute shows that most Israelis would prioritize toppling Hamas over the return of hostages if this were indeed the choice. It also shows a steady decline in popular trust in the Netanyahu government.

What this indicates is that Israelis see ongoing military pressure on Hamas as the only way to force the group to release more hostages without it demanding a price the country cannot pay. Hamas’s latest demand is for the release of all Palestinian prisoners, including their own members, and complete Israeli withdrawal from Gaza – a demand they clearly knew would be rejected. Sinwar, the architect of the October 7 attack, was himself released in a previous prisoner swap. And no Israeli leader would contemplate repeating such a blunder.

The Israeli poll also showed more than half the country wanted an election within the next three months. Widespread anger at Netanyahu, which began over his attempt to weaken the country’s judiciary, has grown in the light of his government’s policy failures that led to October 7. But that does not translate into opposition to the war on Hamas. The trauma of October 7 remains strong in Israel, where most people have personal experience of relatives or acquaintances killed or kidnapped or called up to fight in Gaza. For the outside world, those events have been largely eclipsed by the suffering of Gazan civilians. But, for most Israelis, the war, while not one they sought, needs to be fought to the end so that the existential threat that Hamas poses is finally removed.

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