ISRAEL AT WAR - DAY 149

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Op-ed: Day 66 of the war

When Hamas is dismantled, a second war looms

Gaza’s terrorist rulers predictably leverage the hostages to try to deepen division inside Israel * IDF makes vital progress at mounting cost * Hanegbi spells out the Hezbollah threat

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).

Fighters from the Lebanese terror group Hezbollah carry out a training exercise in Aaramta village in the Jezzine District, southern Lebanon, May 21, 2023. (AP Photo/Hassan Ammar)
Fighters from the Lebanese terror group Hezbollah carry out a training exercise in Aaramta village in the Jezzine District, southern Lebanon, May 21, 2023. (AP Photo/Hassan Ammar)

Hamas on Sunday revived its threat that none of the hostages it is holding will leave Gaza alive unless and until all of its demands are met.

Those demands include an end to the war, an Israeli withdrawal from Gaza, and the release of all Palestinian security prisoners, including those captured on and since October 7. Put another way, the price of the hostages’ freedom is for Hamas to live to carry out more and worse October 7 massacres — as it has said it fully intends to do — with the additional involvement of all of its currently jailed murderers.

This intolerable price runs up against the intolerable situation of the hostages, some of whom are known to be in immediate life-threatening peril, and whose families are understandably demanding that the government prioritize freeing the hostages over the other declared goal of the war, destroying Hamas. This is the internal Israel breach that Hamas, well aware of widespread Israeli lack of faith in the political leadership, is predictably and nauseatingly seeking to widen.

Set against that is the seemingly inexorable progress of the IDF’s ground offensive, gradually taking control of Hamas strongholds in northern Gaza and deepening its operations in Hamas’s southern stronghold, Khan Younis.

The ground operation is taking an unbearable toll of soldiers’ lives, and soldiers’ lives are being put on the line, too, in relentless, high-risk efforts to secure the release of the hostages, as National Security Adviser Tzachi Hanegbi indicated in a Channel 12 TV interview on Saturday night.

But there is no quick fix for either of the war’s key declared aims — bringing home all the hostages and taking apart Hamas. The terrorist-government spent 16 years subverting all available resources to build an army capable of invading Israel and perpetrating the horrors of October 7, and capable of exacting a terrible toll in any Israeli attempt to tackle it inside Gaza.

Protesters gather with signs showing portraits of Israeli hostages held in Gaza since the October 7 Hamas massacres, during a demonstration calling for their release outside the Tel Aviv Museum of Art, now informally called the “Hostages Square” in Tel Aviv on December 9, 2023. (AHMAD GHARABLI / AFP)

Hamas’s Gaza chief Yahya Sinwar, who spoke to some now-released hostages and may well be keeping others in close proximity for his own protection, is said in some unverifiable reports to have fled Gaza City southward to Khan Younis in a humanitarian convoy. In Hanegbi’s assessment, Sinwar will want to fight to the end. If he can be killed, “and that is the plan,” said Hanegbi, his successors may be inclined to avoid the same fate, advancing both the end of the war and the return of the hostages.

The IDF credibly insists that it has “the upper hand” in the war overall, and in most every direct battle, but it also stresses the pernicious sophistication of the Hamas war machine, the devilish complexity of Hamas’s underground spiderweb, and the difficulty of fighting gunmen who melt away among Gaza’s civilians. Some senior military officials speak of needing close to two more months of intensive fighting at minimum to dismantle Hamas; others think it will take considerably longer.

Israeli security and rescue forces at the scene where a rocket fired from the Gaza Strip by Palestinian terrorists hit and caused damage in Holon, December 11, 2023. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken reiterated on Sunday that it is for Israel, and nobody else, to determine when the threat posed by Hamas is removed, and the US stood crucially with Israel on Friday night in vetoing the UN Security Council’s bid to meet Hamas’s demand for an immediate end to the war. At the same time, Blinken and the Biden administration believe Hamas can be defanged with less death and devastation for Gazans. The longer the fighting, the greater the inevitable friction between Israel and its vital ally.

The military now estimates that some 7,000 Hamas gunmen have been killed. The IDF toll on Monday topped 100 and is rising. There is no relevance in attempting to make comparisons between such statistics of war, to calculate what constitutes victory or defeat on their basis. For on the one side is a nation fighting for its life, and on the other a rapacious Islamist death cult that has lost all humanity and incites its followers to exult in killing and barbarism.

**

The candid Hanegbi also indicated on Saturday night that war would not end with the destruction of Hamas. Israel, he said, would then have to tackle Hezbollah, across the northern border in Lebanon, where a deadly mini-war has been raging for the past two months.

As Israel’s political and military leadership has acknowledged, the bereaved communities of the western Negev cannot possibly return to try to rebuild their lives until the threat of more October 7s is definitively defused. And the tens of thousands of Israelis evacuated from northern border towns and communities cannot possibly return, either, until the danger of Hezbollah crossing the border to carry out mass slaughter has also been eliminated.

While Hamas duped a willfully blind Israeli security and political establishment into thinking its heart was not implacably set on Jew-killing, Hezbollah has made no secret in recent years of its plans to breach the northern border and take control of the Galilee.

Yet just as Israel allowed Hamas to drill in plain sight and even plant explosives at the border in the lead-up to October 7, Israel has allowed Hezbollah to make a mockery of UN Security Council Resolution 1701. That resolution, which ended the 2006 war sparked by a deadly Hezbollah cross-border attack, barred Hassan Nasrallah’s terrorist army from any military presence south of the Litani River, some 30 kilometers (18 miles) north of the border. Instead, Hezbollah has been encamped right up against the border, with its Radwan commando forces poised, as Hamas’s Nukhba terrorists were, to breach Israel’s defenses.

Israel’s current war to eliminate Hamas has come “17 years too late,” said Hanegbi on Saturday night, reconfirming that he, too, was among the herd who insistently ignored the blood-red capital letters on the wall. “Today, Israel realizes that it has to be done, even at a heavy price, because the alternative will be far more costly,” he said.

And so, too, he continued, as regards Hezbollah: “We can no longer accept that [Hezbollah’s] Radwan force sits on the border… We can no longer accept that Resolution 1701 is not implemented… If Hezbollah agrees to change things via diplomacy, very good. But I don’t assess it will.”

And therefore, said Hanegbi, once Hamas was dealt with, Israel would have to act to ensure that residents of the north are no longer “displaced in their land, and to guarantee for them that the situation in the north has changed.”

A Hezbollah supporter holds up an Arabic placard that reads: ‘It will definitely fall,’ during an anti-Israel protest in the southern suburb of Beirut, Lebanon, Oct. 13, 2023 (AP Photo/Hussein Malla)

So potent is the belatedly recognized threat posed by Hezbollah, that Defense Minister Yoav Gallant wanted to fight in the north before tackling Hamas after October 7; he considered it such a priority, in other words, that he was prepared to put aside for the moment the vital task of eliminating the Gaza terror-government that had massacred 1,200 people in southern Israel that day, amid the most unbearable atrocities, inflicting the most murderous assault on Jews since the Holocaust.

Hanegbi, in his interview, made plain that the looming war with Hezbollah was not a case of belatedly realizing an imperative to defang Hezbollah’s missile threat, which dwarfs Hamas’s capabilities and which could spell colossal damage throughout Israel in the event of war. Several countries have missiles pointed at Israel, including Iran, Syria and Iraq, he noted dryly, “and Israel doesn’t invade Iran, Syria and Iraq.”

The fear regarding Hezbollah’s Radwan force is that “within minutes” it could cross the border and begin a rampage of murderous slaughter in northern communities, like Hamas did in the south on October 7.

After October 7, he said, “Israel cannot tolerate this threat any longer.”

After October 7, indeed, everything has changed for Israel — within, without, and on every front.

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