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Israel’s Impossible Dilemma

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To no one’s surprise, Israel and Hamas have resumed fighting in Gaza after almost a week of temporary truces and prisoner exchanges. Despite American and other entreaties to limit civilian casualties, Israel appears determined to push into the south of Gaza, but its strategic thinking seems to end there, and to hold no plausible endgame in sight. As a consequence, the next phase of this vicious conflict will almost certainly lead Israel to an unenviable dilemma: whether to grant Hamas a small and ultimately hollow victory or a much larger and all-too-real one.

The next stages of the fighting seem clear. Israel will likely seize all of the significant aboveground urban areas in Gaza’s south, just as it did in the north. After that will come a major battle for control of Hamas’s extensive underground tunnel network, where most of the group’s fighters, leaders, equipment, and remaining hostages are presumed to be located. Ultimately, Israel may seek to destroy the tunnels themselves, perhaps by flooding them with seawater. In doing so, Israel will expect to have inflicted irreparable harm on Hamas, rendering it unable to govern Gaza or pose a threat to southern Israel for the foreseeable future.

All of those goals are plausibly achievable. But Israel’s larger stated aim—of utterly eradicating Hamas—is impossible. Hamas is a brand name, not a list of individuals and objects. Israel could destroy its leaders and all of its equipment, declare victory, and leave Gaza to its fate. Hamas, in some form, would still crawl out of the rubble and declare a “divine victory” of its own.

Not only that: Hamas has cadres all over the Middle East, including the group’s de facto diplomatic branch in Qatar, as well as significant pockets of fighters in the West Bank, Lebanon, and elsewhere. Israel could assassinate them all—and still, at the end of this round of fighting, somebody, in the name of Hamas, will declare victory over Israel, even if only by pointing to October 7 and claiming to have destroyed Israel’s veneer of invincibility, sense of impunity, and insufferable arrogance, while reviving the Palestinian issue on the international stage.

For Israel, leaving Gaza comes with this risk, no matter how severe the physical devastation. Not only could Hamas declare victory, but it could resurrect its governing structures in Gaza if Israel leaves. Israel would then continue its de facto siege and fortify its buffer zone, while Hamas would declare that Israel had retreated in humiliation and defeat.

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But a deeper truth will be unmistakable to everyone, everywhere, in this scenario: that Gaza lies in ruins because of a cataclysmic confrontation Hamas deliberately engineered for its own political purposes. What has happened to the people of Gaza because of Hamas’s actions will, for many, begin to speak for itself.

A pyrrhic “divine victory” over Israel can, when the dust settles, become a political debacle for Hamas, whose purpose has been to establish its primacy over its Palestinian rivals. The sequence has happened before: During its last war with Israel, in 2006, Hezbollah received enormous support from Lebanese society, including many communities that normally took a very dim view of it. The rally-around-the-flag effect was powerful during the fighting, especially because Hezbollah performed far better than expected, and because Israel took care to ensure that almost every part of the Lebanese social mosaic felt its wrath.

But after the fighting stopped, the Lebanese were left to survey the wreckage and came to the conclusion that Hezbollah had heedlessly dragged the country into a costly and unnecessary conflict. The Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah had to go on television and apologize, ludicrously claiming that he’d had no idea Israel would react so violently to an attack on its soldiers in the border area and that, if he had, he never would have authorized the operation. Everyone in Lebanon had known for decades, intimately and personally, about Israel’s commitment to disproportionality as a cornerstone of deterrence. In effect, Nasrallah was pleading pathetic incompetence to deflect the charge of cavalier recklessness. A politician has to be in very serious trouble to do such a thing.

The extent of Hamas’s responsibility for what’s happening in Gaza is vital for Palestinians to debate, but they can’t be expected to do so while Israel dominates their individual and collective amygdalae as the focus of anger, resentment, and raw terror. If Israel leaves Gaza, Hamas will declare victory, which will be galling. But getting out—especially if it does so while taking the initiative to prop up the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank and revive serious peace negotiations—could be the best way for Israel to turn that victory into a political fiasco for Hamas.

The alternatives are worse. Israeli fantasies about United Nations peacekeepers, Arab expeditionary or police forces, or an ad hoc multinational stabilization brigade stepping in to govern or even police Gaza are all chimeras. No one is going to rescue Israel from the disaster in Gaza. Therefore, the only other option is for Israel to stay in Gaza, something Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has several times indicated that he favors doing, in hopes of ensuring that Hamas cannot declare victory or reestablish control.

Hamas favors this outcome too. The October 7 attack was supposed to produce a state of “perpetual war” with Israel by provoking an Israeli invasion that Hamas would meet with a sustained insurgency. Such an effort would not be hard to mount: Effective insurgencies can be developed quickly, on a shoestring, and under onerous conditions. Anyone who is willing to die, as many Hamas fighters are, can use simple means to kill patrolling troops, especially in urban settings where insurgents enjoy widespread public support.

An insurgent Hamas could then declare itself the leader of the Palestinian national movement—the lone force fighting occupation soldiers on a daily basis. It would accuse the Palestinian Authority, by contrast, of acting as the gendarmerie of the occupation in the West Bank, and the Palestine Liberation Organization of sitting at an empty negotiating table where talks rarely happen and achieve nothing when they do.

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Ever since its founding by the Muslim Brotherhood, in Gaza in 1987, Hamas has sought to marginalize the secular nationalists of Fatah and take over the Palestinian national movement, making it an Islamist cause dominated by Hamas. The ultimate prize is control of the PLO’s global diplomatic presence, which constitutes one of the few major achievements of the national movement since it was reconstituted in the late 1960s. Bringing Israel into a perpetual war in Gaza serves this purpose. But the biggest weakness of Hamas’s strategy is that it relies on Israel to take the bait. If instead Israel rapidly withdraws, leaving behind total desolation and allowing Hamas to declare its “divine victory,” Hamas will accept that outcome and trumpet its supposed success day and night. But the danger of a massive backlash will be obvious.

Israel and the international community can do much to determine whether Hamas really will enjoy a sustained October 7 political jackpot, largely based on how they treat the organization’s rivals in the West Bank. But if the Israelis stay in Gaza out of determination to deny Hamas a hollow win, they will instead ensure that Hamas gets a political victory that is actually worth something—one that will play out over months and years of further warfare.

Source: The Atlantic

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