Netanyahu abandons hostages and Hamas could try to extend the war – 8.7.24 / Bitacora online


By Meron Rapoport

Since late November, when fighting resumed in Gaza following a week-long ceasefire, Hamas has demanded a complete cessation of the war and a complete Israeli withdrawal from the Strip.

As unequivocal conditions for the release of more Israeli hostages. Nearly seven months later, Hamas still publicly insists on these conditions, but it is highly doubtful that the group really believes that the hostages provide the leverage needed to pressure Israel to end its attack.

Since then, Israel has freed a total of six hostages through two military operations, which together killed some 350 Palestinians. IDF spokesman Daniel Hagari admitted after the recent operation in Nuseirat that “we will not be able to recover all the hostages through rescue operations.” However, rather than agree to a deal that would free the remaining hostages, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu continues to insist on continuing the war until the “elimination of Hamas” – something Hagari again admitted last week is an impossible goal.

Even after Israeli negotiators sent ceasefire mediators a document in recent weeks (revealed in full by Channel 12) stating that Israel was willing to declare “the establishment of a sustainable calm (the permanent cessation of military operations)” at the beginning of the second stage of the deal to release the hostages, the chances of the current Israeli government approving such a deal are slim to none. Immediately after President Joe Biden presented what he described as an “Israeli proposal” on May 31 (the main points of which were identical to the document published on Channel 12), far-right Israeli ministers Itamar Ben Gvir and Bezalel Smotrich sent a clear message: If Netanyahu agrees to a deal that includes ending the war and fully withdrawing from the Gaza Strip, they will sink the government.

“Senior officials” in Israel (in fact, there is only one senior official in Israel, who has been providing the media with information that he would not want to say publicly) have confirmed that Biden’s scheme is acceptable, but the words “cessation” and “hostilities” have never explicitly come out of Netanyahu’s mouth. Last week, the Israeli prime minister made it clear that he was not prepared to “commit to ending the war without achieving our goals: the elimination of Hamas.” Since Netanyahu knows that Hamas will not agree to be eliminated, this means that he rejects any ceasefire agreement.

Meanwhile, a Hamas official admitted last week that “no one has any idea” how many Israeli hostages are still alive in Gaza. The latest reports suggest the number could be as few as 50 out of 120. If the war continues for much longer, one can imagine a situation in which none of them survive, as predicted by Yaakov Amidror, former head of Israel’s National Security Council, a close ally of Netanyahu.

The hostages’ families have helped legitimize the call for a ceasefire, and tens of thousands of Israelis have taken to the streets across the country in recent weeks to demand such a deal. Still, they have not convinced their government that the lives of their loved ones are worth more than the long-awaited “total victory.” On the contrary, Smotrich continues to describe a hypothetical ceasefire as a threat to national security.

Meanwhile, the Americans continue to pressure Hamas to accept Biden’s plan. US Secretary of State Antony Blinken even claimed earlier this month, contradicting all available evidence, that Israel would commit to the deal while Hamas would not – a claim that Blinken himself knows to be false. What Hamas is seeking is a clear guarantee that Israel will uphold the deal and not renew the war as soon as it sees fit – a guarantee that Washington is not prepared to give.

There is no doubt that Hamas wants a permanent ceasefire, a full Israeli withdrawal, the return of displaced residents to what remains of their homes, and the beginning of rebuilding Gaza. The unbearable suffering of the population demands this, and Hamas has suffered significant military setbacks. This is probably compounded by the growing voices of opposition to Hamas inside and outside Gaza.

But Hamas may now believe that its best leverage for achieving this goal is not the hostages, but rather the continuation of fighting in Gaza, which may ultimately threaten Israel more than Hamas.

A strategic break

In recent days, the military has been trying to sell the Israeli public the idea that with the elimination of the last of Hamas’ battalions in Rafah, “Hamas’ military arm has been defeated.” Amidst the clouds of propaganda from both sides, it is difficult to know what Hamas’s true situation is currently, but it is clear that it still acts as a military force. In the past two weeks, 18 Israeli soldiers have been killed in five different incidents in the Gaza Strip: three in Rafah and two in the north.

Hamas released a seven-minute video this week documenting the deaths of two Israeli soldiers by an improvised explosive device that hit a tank near Nabulsi Square in southern Gaza City, close to the sea, an area that has been under full Israeli control for months. In the video, Hamas appears less like an organization on the verge of collapse than a guerrilla force whose capabilities are gradually improving. The continuation of the war may even help Hamas, just as Hezbollah was eventually strengthened by the Israeli occupation of southern Lebanon.

Hamas may also see a strategic opening in the growing rift between the Israeli military and the government. As the army mulls ending its operations in Rafah in the coming weeks and returning to a model of spot raids into the Strip, Netanyahu stresses that he wants a continuous war. At a cabinet meeting last week, Netanyahu said Israel is “a state with an army, not an army with a state.” And his close aide, Yaakov Bardugo, accused IDF Chief of Staff Herzi Halevy of trying to “maintain Hamas rule in Gaza.”

This gap became even more apparent when Hagari, the army spokesman, said last week that “the idea that it is possible to destroy Hamas, to make Hamas disappear, is throwing sand in the eyes of the public,” in clear reference to Netanyahu’s strategy of “total victory.” Netanyahu’s office quickly responded by saying that the security cabinet “has defined the destruction of Hamas’s military and governance capabilities” as one of the goals of its war in Gaza, and “the IDF, of course, is committed to them.”

Hamas most likely believes that this rift is the result of its ongoing military operations against the Israeli army in Gaza, which only provides one more reason to continue fighting. Hamas spokesmen repeatedly speak of the “disintegration” of Israeli society as one of the great successes of the October 7 attacks, and the growing divide between the Israeli government and military leadership is clear proof of this.

At the same time, Israel appears to have lost its ability to deter Hamas because of the massive and indiscriminate force it has used in Gaza. Israel can no longer threaten mass killings, because it has already killed some 40,000 people. It can no longer threaten to destroy infrastructure, because most of the Gaza Strip is already destroyed and nearly 2 million people have been displaced. It can no longer threaten to topple the governing institutions in Gaza, because they no longer function. It can no longer threaten to occupy Rafah, because it has already done so.

From Gaza to Lebanon?

Israel can still continue to starve the Palestinian population in Gaza, but Hamas probably understands that American and global pressure, and the proceedings in the two international courts in The Hague, dilute the power of this threat in the long term. The risk of mass expulsion, which hung in the air during the first weeks of the war, seems to be dissipating, and Israel seems to have accepted that even if a few tens of thousands leave, more than 2 million Palestinians will still be in Gaza.

Moreover, Hamas leader Yahya Sinwar appears willing to tolerate mass Palestinian civilian casualties if it means Israel gets caught in a war of attrition in Gaza. Sinwar draws inspiration from the liberation wars of Vietnam and Algeria; the tens of thousands of people killed in Gaza, he wrote in correspondence obtained by the Wall Street Journal, were “necessary sacrifices” whose deaths would “breathe life into the veins of this nation, propelling it to rise to its glory and honor.”

But it is reasonable to assume that Hamas sees the potential for an all-out conflict between Israel and Hezbollah as the main reason for continuing the war in Gaza. If we remember that on October 6 Hamas was not a large military organization and was besieged by Israel from all sides while Arab-Israeli normalization was proceeding at full speed, then the prospect of a regional war “for the sake of the Palestinian cause” is a huge step forward for them.

This prospect has become much more likely in recent weeks. And given the damage Hezbollah has proven capable of inflicting on Israel over the past eight and a half months, the consequences of a full-scale war in Lebanon could be devastating for Israel.

“The Israeli public should know that by all estimates, an all-out war against Hezbollah (which Iran and its allies will likely join),” wrote Gen. Itzhak Brik in Haaretz, “means at least 5,000-10,000 Israelis dead; some 4,000 missiles, rockets and drones a day; Tel Aviv and Haifa completely destroyed; power plants, water desalination plants and national infrastructure destroyed; total destruction of the country; economic collapse; and the escape of anyone who can afford it from the valley of death known as Israel.”

The risk of all-out war is increasing despite clear opposition from the Israeli public. According to a recent poll by the Hebrew University’s aChord Institute, 65 percent of Israelis prefer a deal to end the war in Gaza and return the hostages, compared with 35 percent who prefer a continued military presence there and the reestablishment of settlements. Meanwhile, the right-wing government still enjoys a majority in the Knesset and is determined to continue the war, whether for political reasons (the fear of losing power in a post-ceasefire election) or because it believes the war presents a unique opportunity to eliminate the prospect of an independent Palestinian state.

The military may be more willing to end the war under certain conditions, but it is also constrained by a trap of its own making: the blind belief that Israeli “deterrence” is achieved only through the use of force, and if the other side is not sufficiently deterred, even more force will have to be applied. Meanwhile, controversial bills in the Knesset threaten to collapse the fragile ruling coalition, and rising anti-government demonstrations and increasing police repression in Israel are signs of instability.

Hamas and Hezbollah have undoubtedly succeeded in exhausting Israel and pushing the public to accept an end to the war. But until the US administration decides to use its power to enforce a ceasefire, it is difficult to see how the fighting will end. In the meantime, Israel continues to move forward blindly.

Meron Rapoport. Peace activist and editor of the Israeli Hebrew-language magazine “Local Call.”

Fuente: Enrique Garcia

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