Saturday night’s press conference by the three war cabinet ministers underlined the degree to which the fate of the hostages has come to dominate tactics, and perhaps even strategy, in Israel’s war on Hamas.
Earlier in the evening, Gadi Eisenkot, a former IDF chief of staff who is an observer in the war cabinet, told representatives of the families that “the return of the hostages is the supreme priority [of the war], ahead of the destruction of Hamas.”
None of the leadership trio went that far, but, in answer to a question, Eisenkot’s party leader, Benny Gantz, came close. Israel has “decades if needed to destroy this thing,” said Gantz in reference to Hamas. “We don’t have decades to bring the people home.”
Reports about a possible deal for the release of some of the 240 hostages have been swirling for weeks now, and Israel’s official stance is plainly shifting.
The imperative to bring them home was not even an original stated aim of the war. Now, to judge by the comments of the leadership trio, partial deals have been under serious consideration. “We’re doing the utmost to bring back the most [hostages] possible, including in stages, and we are united on this,” said Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in an answer to a question.
While National Security Adviser Tzachi Hanegbi said Friday that it would take a “massive” release of hostages to give Hamas the limited ceasefire it seeks in order to regroup, it is far from clear what “massive” actually means.
To judge from Saturday night’s unusually lengthy presser, at which Netanyahu took far more questions than usual, the Israeli position is that all mothers and children would have to be freed. Still, the prime minister was adamant in denying reports that he turned down a Hamas offer on Tuesday that would have seen all the 40 children and most but not all mothers released.
An extraordinary story published in Haaretz (Hebrew) over the weekend quoted some of the IDF’s Gaza border surveillance soldiers, who warned for weeks and months of unusual Hamas activity at the border ahead of October 7, asserting that sexism was a factor in their warnings being ignored.
Survivors of those units have previously highlighted more senior officers’ patronizing dismissal of their warnings. But for all that the IDF has increasingly opened key roles, including in combat, to women over the years, the belittling of the banot (girls) at the border was unarguably a major contributory factor to the catastrophe of October 7.
That many of the surveillance soldiers were among the 1,200 slaughtered in southern Israel that day, at their posts, only adds to the horror, the heartbreak, and the unbearable saga of failure.
The political leadership and the military insist day after day that the ground offensive is progressing as well as was expected, if not better, while acknowledging the mounting losses in the IDF.
In a US television interview last week, Netanyahu also acknowledged mounting deaths among Gaza civilians; Hamas, as he has said repeatedly, is committing the double war crime of massacring Israeli civilians and placing Gaza’s noncombatants in harm’s way as it seeks to evade the consequences. (Watch the latest “Eretz Nehederet” BBC spoof for the most effective piece of Israeli public diplomacy in this regard.)
In northern Gaza, Hamas strongholds are being targeted — in the heart of Gaza City, including at Shifa Hospital, and in other Hamas strongholds such as Zeitoun and Jabaliya. Tunnels are being tackled, weapons stores have been destroyed, several senior commanders have been eliminated, and several thousand Hamas gunmen have been killed.
The political and military leadership say the offensive will expand into southern Gaza, including Khan Younis, another Hamas stronghold where rumor has it that some of the most senior terror chiefs are hiding out.
At the same time, while arguing that Hamas has been hurt, Israel’s leadership does not claim that it has been broken. There have been no mass surrenders. The rockets are still flying. And if, according to some military sources, 4,000 gunmen have been killed, that leaves 20,000 or more who have not. IDF sources admit that Hamas and other terrorists have slipped out of northern Gaza to the south, including by utilizing humanitarian corridors.
The IDF was being damned by those in the international community who lapped up false Hamas claims that it was bombing Shifa. And it is now being damned and doubted — after delaying its raid on that hospital in order to avoid harm to staff, patients and displaced Gazans there — for not having caught Hamas cells red-handed in the basements and tunnels below.
Rooting out the vast majority of the gunmen will take a very long time. And as more and more Gazans are urged by the IDF to evacuate widening areas of conflict, the challenge of targeting Hamas’s terrorist government as it hides among the Gaza citizenry will only get more complex.
For now, the IDF’s much-heralded substantive expansion into southern Gaza is curiously delayed, while the ground forces remain focused on the north. “The wisdom in war is not to fight everywhere,” said the former IDF operations chief Giora Eiland on Sunday. “Quite the reverse. If an area has been penetrated, move on… Create far greater pressure in the south, which we’ve not begun to do; it’s not looking good.”
Nobody senior had talked about “decades” to eliminate Hamas until Gantz on Saturday night. Army chiefs had suggested a war lasting months, possibly a year. This, after Foreign Minister Eli Cohen last week spoke of a “two- or three-week… diplomatic window” before international pressure for a halt becomes significant.
The contrast between the time some in Israel are suggesting the IDF will need to achieve the goal of defanging Hamas as a military threat, and Israel’s own assessment of the current and potential international pressure for a halt, is growing increasingly acute.
Netanyahu on Saturday night insisted at one point that Israel was enjoying strong support from the US and others, and hailed his own role in ensuring that the IDF has the room for maneuver it needs to see the war through to victory. In almost the next breath, however, he acknowledged “growing pressure” on Israel for a ceasefire, including from within the US, and other international initiatives against Israel that would endanger the continuation of the fighting.
If much of Hamas’s terrorist army is melting away, the IDF is going to have to stay in Gaza for a long time to make sure it doesn’t simply return and reassert itself. Nobody else is going to do that job.
It won’t be easy. Practically, economically, and psychologically, Israel won’t be able to keep hundreds of thousands of reservists in uniform.
Netanyahu and the generals speak of absolute, crushing victory over Hamas. What that could mean is that at some point, amid escalating international pressure, the IDF and the government are going to determine that enough of Hamas’s military capabilities have been destroyed, and enough of its gunmen killed, for the ground offensive in its current form to be recalibrated. It began deliberately vaguely, initial incursions superseded by wider actions, and may shift with similar vagueness.
The leadership is also now talking about tracking down Hamas’s commanders outside Gaza if necessary — calling to mind the Mossad operation to kill all who orchestrated the 1972 Munich Olympic massacre of Israeli athletes.
For now, a group of families of the dead and the missing have filed a “crimes against humanity” case against Hamas at the International Criminal Court in The Hague. Eyal Waldman, whose daughter and her boyfriend were murdered on October 7, said Friday on leaving the court that one important aspect of the complaint was the request that the ICC issue arrest warrants against Hamas chiefs, as it did in March against Russian President Vladimir Putin for war crimes in Ukraine, to prevent them from traveling freely. Let’s not hold our breath on that.
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