Op-ed: Day 124 of the warParalyzing disunity at Israel's top only serves Hamas

With IDF hamstrung and Hamas scenting a way out, Netanyahu dodges strategic decisions

PM’s talk of ‘absolute victory’ is meaningless without him taking the political steps and providing the army with the ‘endgame’ vision to attain it * Safe in the south? * Press leaks

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).

Families of Israelis who were murdered by Hamas terrorists at the Nova festival place pictures of their loved ones outside the Knesset in Jerusalem on February 7, 2024. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Families of Israelis who were murdered by Hamas terrorists at the Nova festival place pictures of their loved ones outside the Knesset in Jerusalem on February 7, 2024. (Yonatan Sindel/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.

As far as we know, Hamas has responded to an Israeli-backed proposal for a truce-for-hostages deal with a near-maximalist demand for a four-month halt in fighting leading to a permanent end to the war. It is further reportedly demanding the release of large numbers of Palestinian security prisoners, including hundreds of the most dangerous murderous inmates, in exchange for the phased release of the hostages it retains since their abduction on October 7.

In short, as grimly expected, the Gaza-ruling terror group aims to leverage the Israeli hostages it holds in order to survive the war, reassert its control of Gaza, extricate the most brutal of its killers from Israeli custody, and begin preparing for its declared goal of carrying out further October 7 mass slaughters until Israel is destroyed.

On the one hand, then, we have Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu repeatedly insisting that the war will not end without “absolute victory” over Hamas and the return of all the hostages. And on the other, we have Hamas conditioning the return of the hostages on an end to the war in which it is anything but defeated.

At the same time, we have a US administration wary of publicly demanding a permanent ceasefire, but despairing in the face of Netanyahu’s refusal to set out a vision for a postwar Gaza, publicly critical of the death and devastation in Gaza, seeking to turn the crisis into an opportunity to advance a two-state solution and wider regional reconciliation, and deeply invested in efforts to get the hostages out.

The complexity of the current situation is exacerbated by the IDF’s beyond-urgent need for political assistance as it is forced to repeatedly delay targeting the last major Hamas strongholds in Gaza, at Rafah and along the Gaza-Egypt border, in the absence of politically engineered coordination between Jerusalem and Cairo.

The IDF cannot effectively tackle Hamas’s battalions in Rafah so long as much, if not most, of Gaza’s populace is now crammed into the area. It cannot temporarily move Gazans into Egypt in the face of Cairo’s opposition. And it cannot encourage Gazans displaced from the north of the Strip to move home without enabling Hamas to move back with them.

Were the IDF making progress in Rafah, as it reasonably intended to be doing by now, the expectation would have been for Hamas, feeling the tunnel walls closing in, to be seeking a hostage deal to stave off defeat, not believing itself progressing nicely toward survival. As things stand, Yahya Sinwar may be on the run, as Defense Minister Yoav Gallant said Monday, but he’s not out of escape routes.

IDF troops are seen operating in the Gaza Strip in this handout photo cleared for publication on February 6, 2024. (IDF)

The Israeli government is facing near-impossible, near-contradictory imperatives: It needs to defeat an enemy that has perpetrated the most monstrous attack on Israelis in our history — in order to ensure that October 7 cannot happen again, deter our other enemies, and restore our citizens’ security. And it needs to secure the release of civilian hostages who were failed by the state and whose fate is being cynically leveraged by the enemy that abducted them to try to secure survival.

Nobody envies the government the challenges it now faces. But it risks failing its people again the longer it refuses to so much as debate, much less decide on, its strategic vision for Gaza; the longer it denies the IDF the room for maneuver it needs to complete the dismantling of Hamas’s army; the longer it enables Hamas to remain the only political address in Gaza, increasingly commandeering the humanitarian aid entering the Strip; and the longer it exudes an intolerable political disunity and practical dysfunction utterly at odds with the cohesive fighting forces putting their lives on the line in Israel’s defense.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Minister of Defense Yoav Gallant, and Minister Benny Gantz attend a press conference at the Ministry of Defense in Tel Aviv, December 16, 2023. (Noam Revkin Fenton/Flash90)

It is way past time for the prime minister to tell his far-right partners that, no, Israel is not going to permanently reoccupy Gaza; that it is not an Israeli interest to retake civil and financial responsibility for 2.3 million hostile Gazans; that Israel must urgently work with the relevant parts of the international community to create a mechanism for non-Israeli civil governance in Gaza, and that if this is not to their taste, they are welcome to leave the government.

Endless bluster about “absolute victory” is meaningless without the practical political and military tools to attain it. And the only beneficiary of such paralyzing disunity at the top of Israeli governance is Hamas.

According to foreign reports

The New York Times on Tuesday publicized one of Israel’s worst-kept secrets — the fear that many more hostages are dead than the IDF has publicly confirmed.

There are all manner of reasons why reports to this effect had been censored in Israel — including the fact that vouchsafing certain details regarding the hostages would involve revealing information of which the enemy might not have been aware.

If Israeli officialdom determined that this was no longer the case — and that it was indeed safe to reveal further information — it seems curious (being polite here) that it would leak material to a foreign news organization, rather than directly telling Israelis.

Is it safe?

Several mayors from areas close to Gaza spent Monday-Tuesday overnight camped out, or rather camped in, at the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem, having tried in vain to secure a meeting with Prime Minister Netanyahu and Defense Minister Gallant.

What they were seeking, amid ongoing negotiations about the procedures, finances and timing for the residents of their communities to return home, was a public statement from the political stewards of Israel’s war against Hamas that it was now safe to do so.

No meeting was arranged and, as of this writing, no public statement from Netanyahu and Gallant has been forthcoming.

Sderot Mayor Ilan Davidi asleep on a couch in the Prime Minister’s Office, February 5, 2024. (Used in accordance with Clause 27a of the Copyright Law)

I spent Tuesday in the Gaza-adjacent Western Negev along with Times of Israel reporter Canaan Lidor, stopping off at several kibbutzim and moshavim, and it is clear that only a small minority of residents and essential workers — including members of civil defense squads, farmers, and key factory workers — have returned to communities immediately adjacent to Gaza, and that the situation is not much different at those communities slightly further away.

At Zimrat, a mainly Orthodox moshav some five kilometers from Gaza, we ran into two young dads out walking with their small children, who told us confidently that while they were in the small minority who have moved back, larger numbers of residents will return next week from the Eilat hotels to which they have been evacuated — because nurseries and schools will be reopening then. But a soldier deployed to the moshav told us that this same promise — that nurseries and schools would be reopening “next week” — has already been circulating for several weeks.

At Kibbutz Sa’ad, some three kilometers from Gaza, we found some elderly residents have returned, and ran into a charming Asian gentleman who cares for one of them, but no families with children.

We spoke at length with Adiel Ginzberg, a father of four young children who serves in the kibbutz civil defense squad and was involved in the fight against Hamas terrorists on October 7. At first hesitant to talk, he wound up describing the massive rocket fire that began that day, the civil defense squad organizing, the arrival of 150 people fleeing the nearby Supernova music festival, battles against Hamas at the entrance gates to the kibbutz. He showed us where a rocket hit the home immediately next to his, smashing all his windows and damaging some of his walls.

Our conversation was punctuated by intermittent booms and thuds from Gaza. Everyone he knew from the kibbutz intends to come back, he said, but no responsible parent could bring their families back home with the fighting continuing so audibly so close by. “My kids would be terrified,” he said.

And if this war turns out, in fact, to be merely another round in the series of battles against Hamas, with Gaza’s terrorist-government surviving Israel’s campaign to destroy it after October 7, then young families like his, he said, would certainly rethink whether they could raise their children in the kibbutz.

Freshly picked avocados in the fields of Kibbutz Be’eri, near Gaza, February 6, 2024 (DH/Times of Israel)

Finally, at Kibbutz Zikim, barely three kilometers north of Gaza, Uzi Dori, a veteran local municipal leader and former IDF officer whose home overlooks the  golden beach where Hamas massacred Israelis four months ago, confirmed that here, too, only the essential residents have returned — to keep the kibbutz safe, look after the avocado groves, work at the mattress factory.

Almost everybody we spoke to had an opinion on how the war should be more effectively prosecuted — advocating everything from the resettlement and permanent Israeli control of Gaza to the urgent fashioning of a mechanism for non-Israeli civil governance. Almost everybody expressed concern that the IDF’s successes in dismantling Hamas’s battalions in north, central and parts of southern Gaza were being frittered away in the absence of a strategic decision on Gaza’s future.

And while the mayors sleeping at the Prime Minister’s office were vainly demanding assurances from Netanyahu and Gallant that it is safe to move back home, nobody we spoke to would have believed any such assurances anyway.

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