David Hearst – War on Gaza: Why Israel will never ‘finish the job’

Israel has only two alternatives: to follow Ben Gvir and Smotrich in their quest to turn a war over land into a religious war, or discuss with the Palestinians how they can share the land as equals.

David Hearst is co-founder and editor-in-chief of Middle East Eye. He is a commentator and speaker on the region and analyst on Saudi Arabia. He was the Guardian’s foreign leader writer, and was correspondent in Russia, Europe, and Belfast. He joined the Guardian from The Scotsman, where he was education correspondent.

Cross-posted from Middle East Eye

Picture by U.S. Embassy Jerusalem

The widely trumpeted determination of the Israeli war cabinet to occupy Rafah, where 1.4 million Palestinians forcibly ejected from the north and centre of Gaza are sheltering, masks growing doubts about what they will achieve when they get there.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is not alone in insisting: “We’re going to do it. We’re going to get the remaining Hamas terrorist battalions in Rafah.” Opposition leader Benny Gantz is also pushing for it: “To those who say the price is too high, I say clearly: Hamas has a choice. They can surrender, release the hostages, and the residents of Gaza can celebrate Ramadan.”

This braggadocio is for domestic consumption.

It has taken the Israeli army four months to fight their way down a piece of land 41-km long and up to 12-km wide. In contrast, it took just over five weeks for the US-led coalition to capture Baghdad in 2003. Israel has used as much munition in four months as the US did in seven years in Iraq

Obviously, something has gone badly wrong. 

Either Israeli soldiers are not the stormtroopers they thought they were, or the resistance of Hamas and other fighters has been unexpectedly stiff. One thing is for sure: Israel’s forces have not been fighting with one hand tied behind their back. 

Summing up the mood of the country, Likud MK Nissim Vaturi said in the Knesset last week, “whoever received a bullet probably deserves it.” And the army has been trying to deliver just that. 

Mass exodus conditions

The bombing, artillery and drone strikes have been tailor-made to terrorise civilians and to create the conditions for a mass exodus. Mass casualties and attacks on critical infrastructure are war aims, they are not collateral damage. The International Court of Justice clearly recognised this in imposing an order on Israel to comply with the Genocide Convention. 

Beneath the bluster, there are glimpses of a darker reality to the ground campaign.

Israel’s military intelligence, for one, believes that Hamas will survive as a militant group capable of mounting operations against them. It says that “authentic support” for Hamas remains high among the Palestinians in Gaza.

Israeli journalist Ilana Dayan of Channel 12 reported that these conclusions were presented to political leaders a week ago by senior army officers, Shin Bet officials, and members of the National Security Council. “In this regard, at least,” she suggested, “there won’t be absolute victory.”

Many outside Israel reached that conclusion four months ago.

Other questions are just as pressing for the Israeli high command: do they have the troops to mount a major operation in Rafah and reoccupy the Philadelphi Corridor, without having to call up more reservists? A certain amount of war fatigue must be setting in.

A second set of issues is the situation with neighbouring Egypt. Thus far President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi has been playing ball with Israel over the Rafah border. Sisi is allowing Israel to dictate the flow of aid into Gaza and is preparing for an influx of refugees. The Sinai Foundation for Human Rights said Egyptian authorities are preparing a 10km buffer zone to receive displaced Palestinians. 

But the reoccupation of the Philadelphi Corridor, a 14-km long buffer zone along the border, would be a breach of the peace treaty Egypt signed with Israel in 1979, although not enough to make Egypt tear it up. 

The biggest fear of Egyptian military intelligence is the infiltration of militants into Sinai, which already has an insurgency firmly embedded there. 

Waves of resistance

A third factor affecting an imminent ground invasion of Rafah is Washington. 

Like Ukraine, Israel has realised that its firepower vastly exceeds its own stocks of munitions. This has to be constantly replenished from the US. It is in President Joe Biden’s hands to stop or restrict this flow of weapons, especially as he seems to have drawn a red line over the need to evacuate Rafah’s refugees.

There is no sign Biden has pulled this lever so far. Quite to the contrary. But that does not mean, as the US presidential election approaches, he won’t threaten to.

It’s therefore just as possible that the loud threats to mount a bloody ground offensive on Rafah are, for now at least, part of the continuing on-off negotiations with Hamasover a ceasefire and exchange of Israeli hostages and Palestinian prisoners.

But let’s put all the above to one side.

Let’s assume that the time will come when Israel controls the whole of the Gaza Strip. What will it have achieved, other than well over 30,000 deaths?

The first mistake Netanyahu is making is in thinking that if he wipes out what he assumes to be the last four battalions of Hamas in Rafah, it will be game over.

Hamas is not an army with a finite number of fighters. It’s an insurgency, an idea, that can be transferred from one family to another, one generation to another, or indeed one movement to another. The PLO under Arafat were secular. Hamas is Islamist.

It makes little difference which side carried the torch, but the torch itself continues to burn. Hamas is under no illusions that it can win militarily against a much larger conventional force.

But neither did the Algerians, nor the African National Congress (ANC), nor the Irish Republican Army (IRA) win on the battlefield. All fought their way to the negotiating table. So even if Israel forced Hamas out of Gaza, and I don’t believe it can, will it have won?

Israel has declared victory a number of times in this 75-year conflict. It declared victory in 1948 by expelling 700,000 Palestinians from their cities and villages.

Israel thought it had dashed three Arab forces in 1967. Ariel Sharon declared victory 15 years later when he forced Yasser Arafat and the PLO out of Beirut. Five years after that, the First Intifada erupted.

When peace negotiations collapsed, the Second Intifada broke out. Israel again thought it could crush the Palestinian national cause by surrounding Yasser Arafat in his headquarters in Ramallah, and poisoning him. Was that a victory?

Today, Israel thinks it can crush Hamas in Gaza by killing four men among whom Yehia Sinwar and Mohammed Deif occupy a special place.

The list of Palestinian leaders killed in this conflict is already long. Izz ad-Din al-Qassam, a Muslim preacher and a leader in the Arab nationalist struggle, was killed by the British in 1935.

Kamal Udwan, one of the top leaders in Fatah and the PLO, was killed during an Israeli raid in Lebanon in 1973; Khalil al-Wazir, a top Arafat aide, assassinated at his home in Tunis by Israeli commandos; Ahmed Yassin, Hamas’ spiritual leader, was killed when an Israeli helicopter fired a missile at him as he was being wheeled from dawn prayer in Gaza City.

Also, Abdel Aziz al-Rantisi, co-founder of Hamas, was killed by missiles fired from an Apache helicopter; Fathi Shaqaqi, founder and secretary-general of the Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ) who was shot five times in Malta by two Mossad agents; and Abu Ali Mustafa, the general secretary of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP).

But what have these killings achieved, except to bring on another, and stronger wave of resistance, to usher in another generation of fighters hardened by history at the hands of their occupiers?

The memory of massacres

History is fuelled by collective memory. The memory of massacres of the war in 1948, like Tantura or Sabra and Shatila in 1982 were passed on by word of mouth. There was no internet at the time, and little to no video footage. Words were powerful enough to inspire future generations to resist.

Israel has made much use of a video compilation of the killings carried out by Hamas and other fighters from Gaza on the kibbutzniks on 7 October.

If that video rightly horrifies its viewers, just imagine what effect four months of social media clips of the massacres that Israeli forces have carried out in Gaza will have on future generations of Palestinians. 

The Nakba or Catastrophe that Israel has conducted in Gaza in the last four months is incomparably better documented than the Nakba of 1948. Those images will stay on the internet forever. Why should Israel think that this Nakba will evaporate in popular consciousness when it’s done with fighting? 

The population of Jordan is 11.15 million, just over half of whom are Palestinians descended from the refugees expelled from the West Bank, East Jerusalem and Gaza. 

Even if you discount the East Bank Jordanian tribes – and they have been as vocal about Gaza as the Palestinians have been – that means there are three times as many Palestinians in Jordan as there are in Gaza. They are angry, relatively well off, and have access to a burgeoning arms market. Furthermore Jordan has porous borders with Syria and Iraq where Iran-backed groups are itching to become involved. 

This makes Jordan the ideal recruiting ground for the next wave of Palestinian fighters. 

Now who, in their right minds, would seek to pacify their southern border from enemy attack, at the cost of re-energising the much longer eastern border? Who would exchange 60km of insecure border for 482km?

A blind sense of victimhood

Israel and its supporters only see its own history and listen to their own voice. It cannot see what it’s like to be on the receiving end of their ever-expanding state. 

It cannot see that the Palestinians in Rafah who have been displaced multiple times in their exodus south, are themselves the descendants of refugees from the towns and cities that today form part of Israel – Beersheva, Yaffa, the Naqab.

It cannot see the powerful symbolism of what it is doing. In trying to crush Gaza, it is trying to crush the Palestinian nation as a whole. If Israel succeeds in Gaza, there is not a Palestinian in Israel, Occupied East Jerusalem, or the West Bank that does not think they will be next.

Israel’s sense of victimhood and historical destiny blinds it to the suffering it causes. In its eyes, there can only be one victim of history – a Jewish one.

There is no room for anyone else in this worldview. Palestinians are not just invisible, they don’t exist. But the Palestinian national cause surely does. 

Last year, Netanyahu all but declared the end of the conflict with the impending signature of Saudi Arabia on the Abraham Accords. Barely weeks later Israel was embroiled in the longest war it has fought since 1947. Today this war has propelled the Palestinian cause right to the top of the world’s human rights agenda.

And yet like a gambler rolling the dice for ever higher stakes, Netanyahu’s army has gone from one hospital to another, failing to find Hamas’ lair, but destroying Gaza’s health system just as surely. It has gone from north to south declaring victory is imminent.

Benny Morris, the former left-wing revisionist historian turned hawk, told the Frankfurter Algemeiner that he disliked Netanyahu intensely: “He’s a crook. But he’s right that the war should continue until Hamas is crushed, if only because around the region, we will be seen as losers if we don’t complete the job.”

I have news for Morris, the historian. Israel will never “finish the job”.

It has only two alternatives – to follow Itamar Ben Gvir and Bezalel Smotrich in their quest to turn a war over land into a religious war, or to sit down with a leadership Palestinians are free to choose to discuss how they can share the land as equals.

I know which choice I would make.

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