Op-ed: Day 117 of the war

Is there a way to bring the hostages home without derailing the war against Hamas?

Hamas’s demands appear to present a near-impossible dilemma, especially for a riven government. But the IDF believes there is a path forward * Water and Iron * Divisive Netanyahu

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).

Joseph Avi Yair Engel, right, whose parents were Holocaust survivors and whose grandson was released from captivity in Gaza, speaks at rally calling for the release of the remaining hostages, in Hostages Square in Tel Aviv on January 27, 2024. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)
Joseph Avi Yair Engel, right, whose parents were Holocaust survivors and whose grandson was released from captivity in Gaza, speaks at rally calling for the release of the remaining hostages, in Hostages Square in Tel Aviv on January 27, 2024. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)

A shorter version of 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.

The 2011 deal to free abducted soldier Gilad Shalit from five years of Hamas captivity in Gaza was impossible to justify at the time — because releasing 1,027 Palestinian security prisoners, many of them serving multiple life terms for murdering Israelis, was always certain to lead to the loss of many innocent lives. The fact that Yahya Sinwar, architect of the barbaric October 7 massacres in southern Israel, was among those set free underlines, to the most horrific extent, the scale of that catastrophic strategic miscalculation.

Today, however, Israel’s government, under the same prime minister, faces a far more complex dilemma.

As we knew it would, Hamas is using the remaining 132 hostages it has held since October 7 as leverage to try to survive Israel’s campaign to destroy its military capabilities, to maintain its hold on Gaza, and to secure the release of all Palestinian security prisoners today in Israeli jails — some 8,600 in all, including about 1,000 who either participated in the October 7 slaughter or have been captured in the course of the ongoing war since.

The weeklong truce at the end of November saw the release of 104 hostages, Israelis and others, at the relatively minor cost of 240 female and underage Palestinian prisoners freed. The reported Hamas demands this time are of a whole different order, including the requirement that Israel end its campaign and withdraw its troops, and acceding to them in full would have immense strategic implications. So would rejecting them.

The state and its defense establishment failed the people of Israel on October 7. The failure remains unconscionable and unfathomable. The nation has yet to fully come to terms with the lives lost that day. But the lives of the hostages — or at least some 100 of them — can still be saved. (Twenty-nine have been officially declared dead.)

Most of those who have to date suffered an unthinkable 117 days in the hands of Gaza’s savage terrorist government were civilians kidnapped from their homes and communities and the Supernova music festival, as others were being burned alive and executed and raped all around them. Israel has rightly made their release one of the two prime requirements of the war, along with dismantling Hamas. It simply cannot and must not fail them again — for their sakes, for the sakes of their loved ones, and for the sake of an Israel that needs to know that its defense establishment has regained its capacity to safeguard its people.

Israeli border police stand guard as protesters, including relatives of hostages held in Gaza since the October 7 attacks by Hamas, take part in a demonstration aimed at blocking aid trucks from entering the Palestinian territory, on the Israeli side of the Kerem Shalom border crossing with the southern Gaza Strip on January 29, 2024. (Menahem Kahana / AFP)

But conceding in full or large part to Hamas’s demands would have the opposite effect. It would relegate the vital national interest in destroying Hamas — the cause for which the IDF has been fighting these past 117 days, with soldiers risking their lives and, in over 220 cases thus far, losing their lives. It could enable Hamas to survive, rearm, and repeat October 7. It could further embolden Israel’s other, more powerful enemies. It could leave the tens of thousands of Israelis forced from their homes in the Western Negev, and tens of thousands more near the northern border, unable to return. It could render Israelis everywhere in the country perpetually fearful for their basic security. It would discredit and marginalize non-extreme Muslim individuals, groups and governments.

The IDF’s war against Hamas has been going “better than expected,” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said earlier this week. Indeed, the IDF has overall control in northern Gaza, has withdrawn most of its forces from the heart of that area, and is now engaged in the anticipated lower-intensity mop-up operations and targeted raids against what are assessed to be some 2,000 Hamas gunmen out of an original 14,000 there — the rest being dead, injured, fled or captured. A similar process is underway in central Gaza. And in the south, Khan Younis — where the IDF has largely destroyed two of the four Hamas battalions, and is now tackling the other two — is not far behind.

An Israeli soldier takes up position on the border with the Gaza Strip in southern Israel, Monday, Jan. 29, 2024. (AP Photo/Tsafrir Abayov)

But Hamas has not been confronted in Rafah — where it may well be that Sinwar and his fellow chiefs are hiding out, with hostages for protection — in part because operating in that town on the Gaza-Egypt border requires coordination with Egypt, which the political echelon has thus far been unwilling or unable to attain. If Hamas is allowed to remain potent in Rafah, then it would certainly exploit any pause in the fighting as part of a hostage deal to reorganize and rearm its forces elsewhere in the Strip.

For now, as the former IDF operations chief Yisrael Ziv summarized in an Army Radio interview on Wednesday morning, Hamas has switched to guerrilla warfare in those parts of Gaza where its battalions are no longer functional. It has commandeered the trucks of humanitarian aid flowing into the Strip — and is profiting financially from the distribution, as well as underlining its continuing governance capabilities. Because of the Israeli government’s refusal to substantively debate, much less begin to organize, alternative internal civil governance in Gaza, Hamas — assisted by UNRWA — appallingly remains the only governance game in town.

It’s in this context that Sinwar, though certainly aware that his battalions have proved no match for the IDF, rather than broadcasting desperation is making demands that Israel dare not meet for the hostages that Israel must not abandon.

Riven at the top

Thirteen years after Netanyahu made the wrong decision with the Shalit deal, the dilemma facing the prime minister and his colleagues this time is acute and unenviable. It also appears to be politically almost impossible.

War cabinet minister Benny Gantz and war cabinet observer Gadi Eisenkot argue that the hostages must take priority right now, and that Israel, in Gantz’s words, may be fighting Hamas for “an entire generation.” On the far-right of the coalition, however, Bezalel Smotrich and Itamar Ben Gvir are dead set against the release of Palestinian security prisoners, and Ben Gvir on Tuesday threatened to bring down the government if a “reckless” deal were struck.

Netanyahu, choosing his words carefully, vowed, in response, that Israel will not release “thousands of terrorists” or withdraw the IDF from Gaza as part of a deal, and that the war will not end without “total victory.”

Defense Minister Yoav Gallant (left) and war cabinet Minister Benny Gantz in northern Gaza’s Beit Hanoun, December 23, 2023. (Elad Malka/Defense Ministry)

Is there a middle ground through all of this that can enable Israel to achieve those two essential goals — dismantling Hamas and returning the hostages?

It is hard to imagine Hamas significantly moderating its demands unless or until Sinwar feels the terror group’s survivability prospects are far dimmer than he thinks they are today. He may have believed Israel would find it hard to resume the war when he was negotiating the November truce on relatively mild terms, and will not easily make that mistake again.

And yet, with the US election campaign heating up, mounting impatience, anger and opposition to Israel in the international community — bolstered by a ruling of the International Court of Justice that stained Israel with a genocide allegation, even as its practical orders made plain that it does not believe the claim — perhaps the key question at this fateful moment is whether Israel would indeed be able to restart its campaign in Gaza after the six- to eight-week pause that is reportedly at the heart of the current hostage deal framework.

The IDF, military sources indicate, feels that it would indeed be capable of resuming the war even after a protracted halt to enable the freeing of the hostages. It assumes Hamas would have partially regrouped, that there would be heavier fighting in areas where it had previously established primacy, that it would not be picking up where it left off — but that it would again be able to reassert control.

But what of the international community, and especially the United States, without whose diplomatic and, especially, practical support Israel simply cannot fight for long?

Water and Iron

The IDF confirmed on Tuesday that it has been using seawater to flood Hamas tunnels in Gaza.

This fact was an open secret for weeks, widely discussed and reported, though within the limits of military censorship.

Military sources acknowledge, however, that the tactic is no magic formula, and has been used to only limited effect, and mainly in smaller tunnels, relatively close to the sea.

A pipe pumping water into a Hamas tunnel is seen near Palestine Square in Gaza City’s Rimal neighborhood, December 19, 2023. (Emanuel Fabian/Times of Israel)

Iron Dome, by contrast, has proved astonishingly effective in this war. An estimated 9,000 rockets have crossed the border from Gaza. The success rate of Iron Dome — which is fired when rockets are deemed to be heading toward populated areas — is at well over 90 percent. It is not a panacea; shrapnel from interceptions can be deadly. And Hamas still has several thousand rockets, by most estimates.

But it has thus far largely marginalized what would otherwise be a devastating Hamas weapon — and thus, ironically, has been a factor in turning the Hamas-Israel war into the Israel-Gaza war in the eyes of the many who don’t bother to look too hard at what’s going on here.

Northern exposure

It remains impossible to see how the wider conflict sparked by October 7 can end without Hezbollah moving or being moved back from the northern border.

Presumably, were Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah seeking a war with Israel, he would have launched it long ago. But his forces remain close to the border, clashes are relentless, and the potential for escalation is high.

The IDF has now had months to prepare for war in the north, and Defense Minister Yoav Gallant repeatedly indicates that if diplomacy won’t shift Hezbollah back to beyond the Litani River, then military action will have to.

Illustrative: Israeli artillery unit firing shells toward Lebanon near the Israeli border with Lebanon, January 15, 2024. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

If matters deteriorate further, Gallant warned on Tuesday, “the situation in Haifa will not be good, but in Beirut, the situation will be devastating.”

The situation in Haifa would indeed not be good, given that Hezbollah has a vast rocket arsenal capable of hitting the north. But it would not be good for deeper inside Israel, either, since Nasrallah is believed to have several thousand precision-guided missiles that can reach anywhere in the country.

The IDF may be ready for an offensive, in other words, but the home front manifestly is not.

Prime divider

Fighting for his political life since October 7, Netanyahu is doing everything he can to deflect personal blame for the disaster, finesse the history that preceded it, stave off the inevitable state commission of inquiry, hold his coalition together and avoid elections.

To that end, he has consistently refused to acknowledge the simple, undeniable fact that, as prime minister, uniquely privy to all military, intelligence, diplomatic, and other information, ultimately, the buck stops with him.

Over the weeks and months since October 7, he has tried to cite the Oslo Accords as the original sin, highlighted his resignation ahead of the 2005 disengagement from Gaza, and, in an interview this week, attempted to assert that he never bought into the conception that Hamas could be paid off.

Whatever the merits of these claims — and the last one is beyond disingenuous — the fact is that Netanyahu has been in power for over 13 of the 16 and a half years that Hamas has ruled Gaza. Nobody, but nobody, comes close to Netanyahu when it comes to directing the policy that governed Israel’s interaction with the Strip’s terrorist rulers.

The prime minister has also become more combative as the weeks and months have passed. No longer giving joint press conferences with Gantz and Gallant — a dismal reflection of the toxic animus at the very top of government — Netanyahu nowadays gives solo performances that are increasingly divisive.

In recent weeks, he has tried to make the argument that Hamas wants to see Israel plunged into elections mid-war, and to see him gone, with the implicit message that to oppose his ongoing premiership is to oppose the war effort, and by extension unpatriotic.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks during a press conference at the Defense Ministry in Tel Aviv on January 27, 2024. (Tomer Appelbaum/POOL)

At his most recent appearance, on Saturday night, he urged the families of hostages to stop protesting on behalf of their loved ones, arguing that they were merely driving up the Hamas bargaining price, and intimated that they were being manipulated by those who are organizing their activities.

He also stepped up still further his open hostility and contempt for Israeli media. He has repeatedly expressed the mantra, when faced with one of the many hostile questions put to him, that “I fight Hamas, and you [journalists] fight me. That’s the division of labor.”

On Saturday, Yuval Sade, a reporter from the economics outlet Calcalist, asked him how people sending their loved ones to the IDF should feel about his government funding organizations that help some Israelis avoid army service — a reference to certain Haredi organizations. Sade preceded the question by noting that he had just returned from over 100 days of reserve service as a combat soldier.

Netanyahu was unimpressed. Rejecting the question as “biased, unfounded, inaccurate,” he accused Sade of trying to spread division in Israel. And he then invoked that mantra: “Again, I’ll deal with destroying Hamas, and you run the war against me.” This, to a reporter who had just told him he was newly returned from combat.

A prisoner of his far-right partners throughout the 13 months since his coalition came to power, Netanyahu watched 11 ministers and 15 MKs — a substantial chunk of the coalition — participate in a conference attended by thousands in Jerusalem on Sunday dedicated to the revival of Jewish settlements in the Gaza Strip. At the Saturday presser, he opined that his colleagues have the right to speak their minds and noted his opposition to reviving the Gaza settlement enterprise. At the event itself, which included spectacularly insensitive dancing and cheering at the height of a war, and the display in the audience of a placard urging the “transfer” of Palestinians from Gaza, his own Likud ministerial colleague Shlomo Karhi indicated that Gazans should be coerced into leaving.

Government ministers and coalition MKs dance during a conference promoting the revival of Jewish settlements in Gaza, at the International Convention Center in Jerusalem, January 28, 2024. National Security Minister itamar Ben Gvir is at front, center. (Chaim Goldberg/Flash90)

The idea of resettling Gaza appears to be gaining ground. A snap opinion poll on Channel 12 Tuesday night found 38% backing the idea, as compared to 51% who oppose it.

Smotrich and Ben Gvir, who both spoke at the event, are plainly seeking a “day after” in Gaza where Israel maintains not only overall security control but full governance, and a rebuilt Jewish civilian presence. Quite apart from the devastating consequence for Israel — demographically, Jewishly, and internationally — of reasserting responsibility for 2.3 million Palestinians in the postwar ruins of Gaza, the security implications alone should be enough to give potential supporters pause.

The IDF, calamitously dysfunctional ahead of October 7, perpetually fully stretched and currently fighting or bracing on multiple fronts, would be incapable of taking on the additional burden of securing the intended revived Gaza Jewish citizenry. But Netanyahu dares not make any of this clear since, as in so many divisive spheres, he fears alienating the Ben Gvirs and Smotriches. And thus another area of national friction opens up under his leadership.

The war in Gaza is far from won. The government faces a near-impossible dilemma about a potential hostage deal. We need to plan today for a “day after” in Gaza. We have emphatically not yet reached the “day after” in Israel.

But that day must come — because Israel must emerge successfully from this war. And then an essential process of national healing will begin in earnest. He quite obviously refuses to accept this, but it is impossible to see how the obsessively, instinctively divisive Netanyahu can be part of that process.

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