Israel’s war aims elusive but unchanged despite steep price | THE HILL

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Avi Melamed quoted in this article by Brad Dress “Israel’s war aims elusive but unchanged despite steep price” | as Originally published in The Hill |January 25, 2024.

Estimated reading time: 8 minutes

Israel’s campaign to defeat Palestinian militant group Hamas is coming under enormous strain more than 100 days into its devastating war in Gaza. 

International pressure to end the war is mounting, domestic fissures over the war are expanding, families of hostages are demanding a deal to secure their release, and Hamas fighters regularly ambush Israeli soldiers, showing the group is far from defeated.  

Yet Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has repeatedly doubled down on a military strategy with unclear goals that is expected to last beyond 2024. 

Defeating Hamas is a two-pronged strategy, according to Israel: demilitarizing the militant group and deradicalizing Palestinians so they no longer choose violence. 

Both objectives are proving elusive.

Chip Usher, former senior CIA officer and senior director for intelligence at the Special Competitive Studies Project, said Israel has not come close to fully destroying Hamas, and the campaign to quash Hamas ideology is having the opposite effect.

“They have gone to ground; their influence has been weakened, but it’s not eliminated,” Usher said of Hamas, predicting a “slog” for Israel if the war lasts through the year. 

“How long can they sustain that before it has a real grinding effect on the Israeli economy and on Israeli politics in the morale of the population?” he added. “I think that’s the real X factor.” 

The ground operation has become more costly. Israel lost 21 soldiers Monday in the deadliest single day for its military in more than 100 days of war. 

Since late October, when the ground invasion started, 188 soldiers have died, with 425 currently hospitalized and 41 in severe condition, according to a Jan. 14 update before the Monday attack. Israeli military spokesperson Rear Adm. Daniel Hagari admitted Tuesday that the war “has a very painful and heavy price.” 

The Israeli military scaled back operations in northern Gaza at the beginning of this month but is now focused on the southern half of the strip, including the territory’s second largest city, Khan Younis.  

More than 25,000 Palestinians have died since the war began, according to the Health Ministry in Gaza, which does not differentiate between civilians and fighters but claims most of the dead are women and children. 

Israel claims thousands of militants have died, but Hamas has kept up attacks on Israeli soldiers in Gaza, defying the military pressure.  

To defeat Hamas, senior leaders must be taken out. The most senior Hamas official to be killed in the war thus far was killed by an Israeli strike in Lebanon earlier this month, but most top officials, including Gaza leader Yahya Sinwar, remain untouched.

The long war strategy showed its first signs of breaking Israel’s political establishment last week. Gadi Eisenkot, an Israeli War Cabinet minister who recently lost a son in Gaza, told Israel’s Channel 12 that the “absolute defeat“ of Hamas was a “tall tale.” 

Avi Melamed, a former Israeli intelligence official, said the mission is not to completely demilitarize Hamas but to chop it down enough to create a new political “ecosystem” in which the militant group’s power is diluted. 

“The objective here, at the end of the day, is not to eliminate Hamas or to hunt Hamas to the last person … [or] the last rocket, but the idea is actually to make Hamas much more restrained,” he said.

“In the sense that Hamas is now restrained, it’s losing its capacity to continue to play a role as a regional player. It’s losing its capacity to be the sole one that dictates whatever it wants to dictate.” 

The Israeli war in Gaza has another goal: to free the roughly 130 hostages still in Hamas’s hands. That objective, too, is faltering, with another deal failing to materialize after a November truce saw the release of more than 100 hostages.

Domestic and internal Israeli tensions on the hostage issue erupted this week. 

Some families of the hostages stormed an Israeli parliament council session and demanded Netanyahu push for a deal to release their relatives and loved ones. 

But negotiations have hit a wall. Israel wants the release of all hostages, and Hamas demands a cease-fire for their return, a non-starter for Netanyahu. 

John Hannah, a senior fellow with the Jewish Institute for National Security of America (JINSA), said there is “clearly some tension in those two primary war goals” of securing hostages and defeating Hamas.

“Some people believe the more intense the military campaign, the more military pressure that’s put on Hamas, the more likely it will be to offer concessions when it comes to the hostages,” he said. “Other people obviously have a different view, and they think these two goals are in very serious tension.” 

The international community is largely critical of the Israeli war in Gaza, and the concerns were on full display this month when South Africa brought a genocide case to the International Court of Justice (ICJ). 

South Africa is asking for an immediate injunction that would force a cease-fire in Gaza, stop the displacement of Palestinians and facilitate more humanitarian aid into the besieged strip.  

The ICJ genocide case itself will likely take years to reach a ruling, but a preliminary injunction against Israel and in support of South Africa would deliver a major blow to the standing of the U.S. coalition supporting the war against Hamas, said Imad Harb, the director of research and analysis at the Arab Center. 

“The United States is talking about human rights for people everywhere, democracy for people everywhere, safety for people everywhere,” he said. “And how can you go against the judgments of the international court, the highest court in the world? I think there will be repercussions for America’s reputation [and] image in the world.” 

While most Western nations back the U.S. and Israel, the European Union’s top diplomat, Josep Borrell, has questioned Israel’s strategy in Gaza and called for a diplomatic solution. 

“More death, more destruction, more hardship for the Gaza people, for the Palestinian people, will not help to defeat Hamas,” Borrell said at a Monday press conference. “It will not bring more security to Israel or the country.”

Israel also faces growing diplomatic pressure from the U.S. and Arab nations for a post-war scenario that includes a Palestinian state.

The Biden administration wants Israel to back the formation of a Palestinian state, while Arab nations are negotiating a three-phase plan that includes a cease-fire, a Palestinian state and Saudi Arabia normalizing ties with Israel, according to the Wall Street Journal, which reported that the U.S. backs the ongoing discussions. 

About 51 percent of the Israeli public backs a post-war plan that includes the return of hostages, an eventual demilitarized Palestinian state and normalization with Saudi Arabia, according to a new poll.

But Netanyahu firmly rejected the idea of a Palestinian state this week, after repeatedly promising an extended military presence in Gaza to retain security control.

“Gaza must be demilitarized, under Israel’s full security control,” Netanyahu said. “Only total victory will ensure the elimination of Hamas and the return of all our hostages.” 

That raises the possibility of an open-ended conflict in Gaza.

“It’s going to be a messy, messy situation, which is why the Israelis are saying that they’re not going away,” said JINSA’s Hannah. “Somehow you’ve got to figure out a way forward politically, economically, socially in Gaza. That happens in the context in which the Israeli military is still going to be the only force in town prepared to keep Hamas down.” 

The U.S. believes there is an opportunity to create real peace. Washington is insistent on Israel lining up behind the formation of a Palestinian state, arguing it is the only path with regional support and for long-term peace.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken, speaking at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, last week, said Israel is at an “inflection point” and could forge a new reality if it is willing to make hard decisions. 

“If you pursue integration with security, with a Palestinian state,” he said, “all of a sudden you have a region that’s come together in ways that answer the most profound questions that Israel has tried to answer for years.”

Avi Melamed is a former Israeli intelligence official who went on to serve as deputy and then as senior Arab affairs adviser to Jerusalem Mayors Teddy Kollek and Ehud Olmert, operating as a negotiator during the first and second intifadas. He is the author of “Inside The Middle East — Entering A New Era,” and his latest docuseries, “The Seam Line,” available on the Izzy streaming platform, focuses on Jerusalem’s flashpoints and his work during the intifadas.

Avi Melamed quoted in this article by Brad Dress “Israel’s war aims elusive but unchanged despite steep price” | as Originally published in The Hill |January 25, 2024.

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Avi Melamed
Avi Melamed
Avi Melamed is an expert on current affairs in the Arab & Muslim World and their impact on Israel & the Middle East. A former Israeli Intelligence Official & Senior Official on Arab Affairs, Fluent in Arabic, English, and Hebrew, he has held high-risk Government, Senior Advisory, Intelligence & Counter-Terrorist intelligence positions in Arab cities & communities - often in very sensitive times - on behalf of Israeli Government agencies. He is the Founder & CEO of Inside the Middle East | Intelligence Perspectives - an apolitical non-partisan curriculum using intelligence methodology to examine the Middle East. As an Author, Educator, Expert, and Strategic Intelligence Analyst, Avi provides Intelligence Analysis, Briefings, and Geopolitical Tours to diplomats, Israeli and foreign policymakers, global media outlets, and a wide variety of international businesses, organizations, and private clients on a range of Israel and Middle East Affairs.

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