Op-ed: Day 103 of the war

Irresponsibility compounds catastrophe: Why the IDF’s war against Hamas has lost momentum

Dismantling Hamas in southern Gaza was always going to be tougher than in the north. But the challenge is being exacerbated by insistent ambivalence from the political leadership

David Horovitz

David Horovitz is the founding editor of The Times of Israel. He is the author of "Still Life with Bombers" (2004) and "A Little Too Close to God" (2000), and co-author of "Shalom Friend: The Life and Legacy of Yitzhak Rabin" (1996). He previously edited The Jerusalem Post (2004-2011) and The Jerusalem Report (1998-2004).

IDF Chief of Staff Herzi Halevi gives a statement to the media at an army base in southern Israel, December 26, 2023. (Flash90)
IDF Chief of Staff Herzi Halevi gives a statement to the media at an army base in southern Israel, December 26, 2023. (Flash90)

This Editor’s Note was sent out earlier Wednesday in ToI’s weekly update email to members of the Times of Israel Community. To receive these Editor’s Notes as they’re released, join the ToI Community here.

More than 100 days after October 7, Israel’s vital military effort to destroy Hamas — to prevent it carrying out more massacres, to deter our other enemies, and to enable Israelis to safely return to border areas and sleep soundly in our beds everywhere — has lost momentum. It has not stalled, but it certainly has slowed.

In part, this is because of the particular nature and demands of the campaign in southern Gaza. In large part, too, however, it is because of an absence of clear political direction, with the catastrophe engineered by Hamas now at risk of being compounded by domestic political irresponsibility in overseeing the fightback.

The military challenge in the south of the Strip is far more complex than it was in the north. But willful ambivalence and foot-dragging by the political leadership mean IDF chiefs do not yet know precisely what medium- or long-term goal they are supposed to be seeking, especially regarding the Gaza-Egypt border.

Residents of western Negev communities 4-7 kilometers from Gaza were being encouraged in recent days by the Defense Ministry to go back home. Hamas’s ongoing capacity to fire rockets at them means that most of them do not want to do so, local council heads told Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Tuesday. And he reportedly assented to their demand to rethink the timetable and provide state funding for them to stay in temporary accommodation elsewhere through the summer.

Fighting with determination, resilience and what has become termed “high intensity,” with the Air Force targeting Hamas infrastructure ahead of the ground forces, the IDF has attained widespread though not absolute control in northern Gaza, and moved on to tackle Hamas battalions in the center of the Strip. The tactics caused devastation in northern Gaza, where Hamas had booby-trapped “every other house,” in the words of IDF officials. Despite the IDF’s efforts and its repeated pleas to noncombatants to leave, the bombardment led to high numbers of civilian casualties from within whose ranks Hamas gunmen fight in civilian clothes. Less reliance on the IAF would have meant far more dead IDF soldiers.

As the army has turned its attention southward, however — to Khan Younis, where it believes much of the Hamas leadership may be hiding, presumably with hostages as shields — a switch away from high-intensity warfare to more surgical operations has become a necessity; areas of southern Gaza that are ordinarily densely populated are even more so, with almost the entire displaced population of northern Gaza now there too.

Israeli soldiers take up positions next to a destroyed building during a ground operation in Khan Younis, Gaza Strip on January 10, 2024. (AP Photo/Ohad Zwigenberg)

Hamas will not be quickly defanged in Khan Younis. And Hamas’s key leaders, none of whom has yet been eliminated, believe that they will be able to wait this out. They see much of the international community not only blithely ignoring the October 7  massacres in southern Israel that necessitated Israel’s campaign, but demonstrating with increasing fervor and mustering lawfare initiatives — such as the genocide allegation at The Hague — to try to force an immediate ceasefire that would leave Hamas capable of rising to slaughter Israelis again.

Deep in the underworld it built at the expense of Gaza’s civilians, a network far more extensive and sophisticated than the IDF knew going in, Hamas’s avowedly genocidal leaders must delight in the libel that has placed Israel in the dock.

Related op-ed: The war against Hamas may be almost half-done. The second half will be harder

Beyond the operational complexities posed in Khan Younis, moreover, Israel’s political leadership steadfastly refuses to provide its military commanders with the strategic vision to enable it to tackle the challenge at the foot of the Gaza Strip — in Rafah and all along the 14-kilometer Gaza-Egypt border, the “Philadelphi Corridor.”

Decision-making now

As the weeks and months have passed, the clamor has grown, from within the IDF and the Benny Gantz-led National Unity component of the emergency war coalition, for cabinet debate and decision on what Israel seeks for Gaza’s postwar governance. That clamor has now reached a fever pitch, with IDF Chief Herzi Halevi reportedly warning that the gains made in more than three months of fighting risk erosion “because no strategy has been put together for the day after,” and Gantz penning a letter to Netanyahu demanding decision-making now.

The need to move beyond Netanyahu’s repeated brushstroke talk about fighting until victory and ensuring that Gaza can never again constitute a threat to Israel, and instead to formulate specific frameworks for security around Gaza and governance within it, is urgent. And Rafah is one prime reason why that is so.

As has been the case since it withdrew unilaterally from Gaza in 2005, Israel has no control over the Gaza-Egypt border. And since Hamas ousted the Palestinian Authority two years later, the Philadelphi Corridor is essentially Egypt’s sole responsibility. Some very senior IDF officials say Egypt has largely failed to prevent Hamas bringing whatever it has wanted for its war machine across that border; others tell a different story, of Egyptian efforts to prevent such imports.

But the fact is that Israel, as far as is known, has not been engaged in substantive contacts with the Egyptians about how to seal that border. Netanyahu said two weeks ago that the Philadelphi Corridor “has to be in our hands.” On Saturday night, he amended that definitive stance, terming the idea of Israeli control “one possibility for what I call a southern barrier.”

As the IDF tries to formulate how to tackle Hamas in Rafah — where the population density is even higher — the town’s 400,000-strong populace now widely reported to have swollen to some 1.2 million — it is the height of irresponsibility for its political masters not to have told the military whether it is being asked to retake the border area, be it temporarily or permanently.

Palestinians displaced by the Israeli bombardment of the Gaza Strip walk next to the border with Egypt, in Rafah, southern Gaza, Sunday, January 14, 2024. (AP Photo/Fatima Shbair)

Netanyahu’s insistent refusal to hold substantive discussions on “the day after” for Gaza makes perfect political sense for him personally. The far-right allies on which his premiership depends seek permanent Israeli rule over Gaza and the revival of Jewish settlement there. Netanyahu may not want Israel to retake full responsibility for the governance of 2.3 million Hamas-indoctrinated Gazans. But — as has been the case since his hardline coalition took power a little over a year ago — he dares not risk falling from power by defying Bezalel Smotrich and Itamar Ben Gvir.

Thus the vital “day after” debate and decision-making process has not been seriously addressed in the security cabinet; one effort dissolved into a political ambush of the IDF chief of staff. And the IDF is fighting a highly complex campaign in southern Gaza without actually knowing what it is expected to attain and protect.

In that context, it is entirely unsurprising that the families of many of the hostages still held in Gaza are urging a deal with Hamas even at the price of a protracted ceasefire; Gantz and his main National Unity party colleague Gadi Eisenkot are widely reported to support them.

Changed goals

The Biden administration — without whose military supplies Israel quite simply could not continue to fight, and whose representatives regularly participate in Israeli war cabinet discussions — is watching all this play out with mounting dismay.

With US President Joe Biden under growing pressure in an election year over his support for Israel and opposition to a permanent ceasefire, the unloved Netanyahu’s concerns about his domestic political difficulties do not resonate particularly deeply with the administration.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, right, meets US Secretary of State Antony Blinken at the Kirya military headquarters in Tel Aviv, January 9, 2024. (Kobi Gideon/GPO)

On his most recent visit, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, openly worried about potential escalation on other fronts, eschewed talk of destroying or dismantling Hamas and instead repeatedly backed what he apparently unilaterally decided is now the Israeli goal of “ensuring that October 7 can never happen again.”

If that is the formulation now guiding Washington — rather than the “legitimate objective” to “eliminate Hamas” that the president hitherto championed — then the US, watching Israel’s government failing to responsibly direct an immensely difficult military campaign — seems certain to keep increasing the pressure for the fighting to wind down.

The scene of a rocket impact in the southern city of Netivot, following a barrage fired from the Gaza Strip, January 16, 2024. (Flash90)

The IDF is still talking of war continuing through 2024. And it is doubtless working on tactics to somehow maintain crushing pressure on Hamas even without high-intensity fighting and with a much-reduced troop deployment.

What it needs is clear-cut political direction. Otherwise, Israel faces the danger of Hamas’s leadership and fighting force surviving, partially intact, of our other enemies delighted, and of Israelis in the south, the north, and everywhere in between, remaining bereft of security. And that is both unconscionable and untenable.

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