Day 17 of the war against Hamas finds Israel in a strange, disquieting, if potentially significant holding pattern.
Utterly surprised and near-overwhelmed in the Yom Kippur War in October 1973, the Israel Defense Forces had blocked Egypt’s offensive and forced invading Syrian troops back to the pre-war lines after three days, and was shelling Damascus by the end of the first week of fighting.
Today, after the biggest call-up in history, the IDF is indicating that it is increasingly ready to move into Gaza once the political green light is given, but also that it is utilizing the interim period to ensure that when it goes in, it will do so in optimal circumstances. It will need to tackle Hamas in a vast underground of hundreds of kilometers of tunnels, some vast and as much as 70 meters deep, with control rooms, sophisticated communications systems, even recreation areas. “Not much” of that infrastructure has been destroyed in more than two weeks of IAF bombings, but the IDF has the tools to deal with them, ex-military officials assess.
“We are increasing the attacks in the Gaza Strip in order to reduce the threats to our forces in preparation for the next phase of the war,” the IDF Spokesman Daniel Hagari said on Sunday night. “We will go to the next stage under the best conditions for the IDF and in accordance with the decision of the political echelon.”
It is widely assessed that the IDF has presented its operational plans for ground action to the highest levels of Benjamin Netanyahu’s emergency government.
“We will enter the Gaza Strip,” IDF Chief of Staff Herzi Halevi told Golani infantry commanders, also Sunday. “We will begin an operational and professional mission to destroy the Hamas operatives, the Hamas infrastructure, and we will also keep in our minds the images, the scenes and the fallen from Shabbat two weeks ago.” He added: “Gaza is complex, Gaza is dense, the enemy is preparing a lot of things there, but we are preparing things for them as well.”
Lives that could be salvaged, or jeopardized
After Hamas’s unbearable mass slaughter of 1,400 people in southern Israel, with the executions, the burnings, the rapes of civilians in their homes and communities, it is imperative that Hamas can never again threaten Israel. If it is not defanged, it will prepare to repeat and worsen its barbarism against Israelis. If Israel cannot or does not destroy it, all our enemies will be emboldened. And Israel’s political and military leadership will be telling the Israeli public that they cannot be guaranteed the basic right to live in safety in our land. Such a reality would be untenable for Israel.
Needless to say, the situation is complex.
Hamas and Islamic Jihad are holding over 200 people hostage — including citizens of some 30 countries.
Unlike those 1,400 victims, these are lives not lost — lives that could yet be saved, lives that could be salvaged, or jeopardized, in the course of a ground operation.
US President Joe Biden, who has declared his support of Israel’s stated goal of “eliminating” Hamas, has nonetheless said, “I have no higher priority than the safety of Americans held hostage around the world.” After Hamas freed a US-Israeli mother and daughter on Friday, the increasingly widely reported word — first highlighted by ToI’s Jacob Magid on Saturday — is that the US is “advising” Israel to delay a ground operation to give more time for the possible release of further hostages.
A major ground operation will further strain relations with Israel’s already wobbling border allies Jordan and Egypt, which have not condemned Hamas for its monstrous assault inside Israel and whose leaderships are threatened by Islamic extremists within.
It could prompt Hezbollah to enter the war, rather than to continue what it has been doing since October 7 — seeking to distract the IDF from its priority in Gaza with relentless relatively small-scale confrontations at the northern border. (The US is deployed to deter Lebanon’s terrorist army, and has directly warned Iran not to dare get involved.)
It could weaken the faltering support and empathy for Israel elsewhere around the world, including in swaths of Western public opinion where the October 7 origin of this crisis, the terrorist invasion that necessitates Israel’s survival campaign to destroy Hamas, is already fading into obscurity. Indeed, Hamas is being treated in some circles, including parts of the media, as some kind of credible entity, its claims of an Israeli airstrike on a Gaza hospital given protracted credibility in the absence of any evidence, its Gaza death toll figures solemnly reported with no questioning of whether these include Hamas’s own terrorists or, indeed, whether they have any foundation in fact whatsoever.
And, of course, it will cost Israel more lives — of our soldiers walking open-eyed into Hamas death traps. Hence Hagari’s reference to increased air attacks on Hamas targets in Gaza “in order to reduce the threats to our forces in preparation for the next phase of the war.” Whatever can be done to weaken Hamas from the air must be done, and hopefully is being done, in these days before the presumed ground offensive.
A clear and viable strategy?
Nobody wants avoidable deaths. But Israel cannot allow emboldened enemies on its borders, and it cannot leave the perpetrators of the worst crimes perpetrated against Jews since the Holocaust — perpetrated inside the state established to protect us — still standing and capable.
Some 200,000 Israelis are internally displaced — from the Gaza-adjacent area and, increasingly, from the north. With the government still largely dysfunctional, an astounding volunteer army is trying to help minimize the trauma and practical nightmare of being compelled to leave their homes. Hotels in Eilat and central Israel are full; now tent villages are starting to spring up. In case anyone had forgotten, Hamas is still firing rockets into Israel.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said on Sunday that Israel must have a strategy for who will rule Gaza after it completes its stated mission of eliminating the Strip’s terrorist leadership. “It’s something that needs to be worked out even as Israel is dealing with the current threat,” Blinken said. One hopes that kind of remark can be read as indicating that the secretary, who along with Biden has sat in on the deliberations of Israel’s war cabinet, believes Israel has a clear and viable strategy — not for the day after Hamas, but for destroying Hamas.
“This needs to be the last [ground] maneuver in Gaza, for the simple reason that after it there will be no Hamas,” Defense Minister Yoav Gallant said Sunday, speaking at the Israeli Air Force’s command center in Tel Aviv. “It will take a month, two months, three, but in the end, there will be no Hamas.”
So it must be.
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