Fred Shahrabani

A Poker Perspective on a Gaza Ground Invasion

It is Wednesday evening, October 11. We are 10 Iraqi Jews who’ve been playing poker together for nearly 15 years, and tonight we need distraction and companionship.  The carnage and barbarity of Hamas has broken something in all of us. We begin our game silent and depressed.  It doesn’t take long before one takes the lead, either by bluffing or by the strength of their hand, and we are suddenly more animated, more engaged. However, our movements and conversations are stilted as we constantly check our phones, scanning the same headlines that haven’t changed from a minute ago. We read that Israel is amassing its forces at the border with Gaza, preparing for an imminent invasion.  We scoff at David Harden’s article in the New York Times titled “Israel Could Be Walking Into a Trap in Gaza.”  In this neighbourhood if you cannot project strength, you are DONE FOR. If your neighbours smell your weakness, your allies draw away while your enemies draw closer. Knives are drawn, the region can sense blood before it even spills.

There is no doubt in our minds that there has to be an overwhelming Israeli response to the savagery, a response, to quote Israeli politicians, that “they will never forget,” one that will “change the neighbourhood forever.”

Our discussions lead us to analyze the situation as if it were a poker hand.  We realize that regurgitating the old tropes, such as “WE WILL TEACH THEM A LESSON THEY WILL NEVER FORGET,” “GOD IS ON OUR SIDE,”  “WE CAN NEVER SHOW WEAKNESS,”  “WE CANNOT LET THEM GET AWAY WITH IT,” are exactly states of mind and “conceptia” that can very swiftly lead to losing one’s stack (the entire amount of chips a player has on the table), and getting tossed out of the tournament.

Israel has been humiliated, and the loss of life is unbearable. The suffering of the victims, the pure evil of their adversaries, the beautiful children tortured and burnt, the kidnapping of innocent people into the tunnels of Gaza, weighs heavily on us. We are stunned. How could this have happened?

In poker, one must keep their cool and think rationally.  Similarly, in war, there is NO road to victory and justice that is not based on clear thinking.  We feel at this moment that it’s like the end of the world, that evil is triumphant. Yet, if we study the situation through a poker prism, what do we see?

Israel’s stack–its people, assets, culture, technological advances, humanity, level of civilization– accumulated over the past 75 years in the land of its forefathers is mindboggling. Israel is one of the wealthiest and strongest nations in the region.  Its economic, military, technological prowess, together with its standard of living, are enviable.  Perhaps so enviable, so powerful, that we begin to lose sight of the life-and-death game playing behind the veil of our success.

We have begun to take the work of the generations before us for granted.  We are so wealthy we become dissolute, each part seeking something from the nation rather than the other way around.  Threats seem so remote that, why not, everything is up for grabs.

Gaza on the other hand has a very small stack. It has no economy, no democracy, no rule of law to speak of. It is controlled by Hamas, a messianic group that prioritizes its own agenda over the welfare of its people. The only way Hamas increases its stack is by hurting Israel.  That is its only focus, its one aim, its sole raison d’etre.

Hamas observes the division and distraction of the past 9 months, the disunity and hatred that has taken hold in Israel. It sees an opening to hurt Israel, hurt being the only currency it trades in. Hamas is smart enough to know its options, and it has two very tempting ones.

OPTION ONE for Hamas is to DO NOTHING and allow Israel to continue down its path of division and dissolution. It sees what Israel has done to itself, damage that no enemy has ever been able to inflict upon Israel.   It observes the protests, the clashes, the normalization of obscenities thrown at one another, IAF pilots who will not fight for what they consider to be a creeping dictatorship, a government that is too tone deaf to hear the great sound of Jewish civilization splintering in two, as one side screams for GOD, and the other screams that GOD is not a cover for GODLESSNESS.

And then there is OPTION TWO for Hamas: breach Israel’s defenses, and prove to it that it is nothing but a “spider web.”  Demonstrate to the world the Jewish state’s vulnerabilities. Create mayhem: kill, rape, maim, burn, decapitate, kidnap, shoot, strangle women, children, men, soldiers and the elderly, and then upload snuff videos to social media sites together with an appropriate Hamasian sound track to glorify its deeds.

What are the pros and cons of the two Options for Hamas?

OPTION ONE does not lead to glory for Hamas. OPTION TWO, if successful, surely does.

OPTION ONE appears to be a bottomless sinkhole for Israel, while OPTION TWO might unite the country and halt the downward slide.

OPTION ONE will allow for the continuation of the rapproachment of Israel and the Arab world, while ignoring Hamas altogether. OPTION TWO could return Hamas and its Iranian patrons to center stage, and for added benefits, catapult both Iran and Hamas to the position of leaders and heroes of the Islamic world.

Hamas chose OPTION TWO, and on Saturday, October 7, 2023, Hamas initiated its barbaric attack.  It humiliated Israel and tore into Israel’s greatest fears, murdered and mutilated its children, kidnapped as many as 150 of its citizens. It threw Israel into a position of fear and despair for its losses and for its women and children who are being held by terrorist butchers.

So, it appears, Hamas WON! Right?

Ah, NO, sober thinking tells us that is not so.

The game is still in contention.  Where do things stand today, five days after the massacre?

As an offensive force, Hamas’ capabilities at this point are almost completely spent. Its rockets are being depleted at a fast clip, creating hardly any damage to Israel, while its people must now bear the cost of its savagery.  The Arab and Islamic worlds have hardly rallied around it as the world expresses its deep disgust. Western liberal and democratic nations, Israel’s true allies, have risen to Israel’s defense. The White House, the Eiffel Tower, London Parliament, and structures in many other cities across the world are all lit up in Israel’s blue and white colors.  A large crowd of Japanese citizens, waving Israel’s flag, sing Hatikva at Shibuya Crossing in Tokyo.  Biden has sent America’s greatest warship, the Gerald Ford, towards the eastern Mediterranean as a show of force and support.

Hamas now recognizes two additional factors.  The hostages it kidnapped are not turning out to be the Aces that it thought they were.  Israel has wisely not bowed to Hamas’ usual forms of blackmail.  If played correctly by Israel, the hostages will become a terrible liability for Hamas.  The only way Hamas can exploit the hostages is by threatening execution and then publicizing another snuff video of that execution.  That would be a catastrophic mistake for Hamas as Israel’s reaction will not be capitulation, but one of greater fury, and the world’s response will be one of deafening condemnation, disgust, and the further cutting off of financial aid.

NGOs and universities that misguidedly support Hamas’ actions are facing severe criticism and backlash from the general public.    Organizations that cannot disassociate advocating for Palestinian rights and freedoms from raping and beheading women and children are stained, possible irredeemably.

To win in any meaningful way, Hamas NEEDS Israel to proceed with a ground offensive in Gaza. If Israel attacks, Hamas’ image,  now irrevocably associated with rape, murder, torture, child sacrifice, ISIS, can with each passing day return to heroic underdog, freedom loving resistance, a liberation movement, and all the while possibly inflicting terrible casualties on the IDF.

So, where does Israel stand today?

We must take a step back and consider little bits of history in our poker stack.

It took this type of savagery to unite Israel and to return it to sanity.  Israel’s populace must recognize that unity requires a broad consensus when advancing radical legislation, and that  dividing the population is suicidal.  As such, the euphemistically titled judicial reforms that do not have broad consensus are a SPENT force. They will not occupy the Knesset’s debates for a very long time to come. Enshrining the shirking of army service into law is a SPENT force. A law stating that praying is equivalent in protection and pay to service in the army, comes across as obscene these days. Complaining about the so-called “elite,” some of whose sons and daughters were killed over Simchat Torah, or who are returning to Israel in droves from their work and studies, or who are answering the call of general mobilization, is a SPENT force.  Israel is completely united. The false divisions of liberal versus religious, ashkenazi versus mizrahi, elite versus the rest have been swept away.  The IAF is punishing Hamas in Israel’s time of grief.  Together with other units from the paratroopers, Golani and Givati, Sayeret Matkal members who were labelled as “traitors” by so many mere weeks ago, sustained heavy losses on Saturday while trying to subdue Hamas infiltrators.  Who does not grieve for them now?

The false idols of disunity and division have shattered.

The true Israeli spirit of sacrifice and unity is ascendent.

One cannot understate the huge loss to Hamas and all of Israel’s enemies that the rapid return to unity signifies.

Let’s delve a little further into Israel’s poker stack.  What particular assets does it have that are proving invaluable to it now as it hits Hamas in a manner and intensity as never before?

In 2017, Elor Azaria, a sergeant in the IDF, shot in the head and killed a terrorist who had already been subdued and was lying immobile on the ground. Azaria was immediately arrested by the Military Police. Israel’s Chief of Staff, Gadi Eisenkot, condemned the action in no uncertain terms, stating that it had no place in a moral army and a nation of laws.  The Supreme Court of Israel played a significant role in the legal proceedings, upholding Azaira’s conviction in military court despite grave accusations and public anger.  The court’s decision was seen as a reaffirmation of the rule of law and the military’s commitment to upholding the IDF’s ethical code.

Gadi Eisenkot’s actions, and the actions of the Supreme Court did not go unnoticed by the world. It adds huge sums to the moral credibility Israel will require now and in the difficult months ahead.

Let’s return to the present. Over the past nine months top military figures, as well as, Shin Bet and Mossad leaders, have repeatedly stated that Israel requires a strong judiciary, committed to the supreme rule of law, in order to prevent those very soldiers and pilots engaged in the fighting from being persecuted and arrested as war criminals when they travel abroad in the future.  Their concerns were scoffed at.  Now those concerns appear increasingly relevant.

That rule of law that gives Israel the moral authority to maintain its campaign rests on the world’s recognition of the quality and ethics of Israel’s Supreme Court and Army.  And unlike those with short memory, the world remembers the noble actions of Israel’s Chief of Staff six years ago, and  so when IDF spokesman Jonathan Conricus stated yesterday that Israel, despite its ferocious attack on Hamas, will abide by the rule of law, the world largely believed him.

As Biden stated in his address yesterday, Israel has America’s unequivocal support due to the fact that in contrast to the butchers from Gaza, Israel abides by the Rules of Law and military engagement.

Nevertheless, detractors of the argument for ethics in battle will state:  To hell with the world, see what Hamas has done to us, we will now do what needs to be done.

Disregarding Israel’s allies over this issue is not only ethically questionable, but seriously misguided.    Israel needs advanced ammunition NOW. It needs to refill its bank of Iron Dome interceptors NOW. It needs America’s support NOW. The warship in the Mediterranean that casts a long shadow on Iran’s proxy, Hezbollah, is there because Biden stands by Israel and the shared values (please see earlier article on shared values) of democracy, freedom, and human rights that have been the basis of their relationship for the past 75 years.

Back to our poker hand. We have analyzed our stack.  It is rich and varied, beautiful and powerful. Israel must use it wisely in order to achieve victory.

What are Israel’s options?

Option 1:  Ground invasion of Gaza

Pros:  a) restoration of Israeli pride and deterrence if it goes well; b) Destruction of Hamas, its military infrastructure, its human assets; c) replacement with an authority more benign to Israel.

Cons: a) Unknown traps that Hamas has set for Israel’s army; b) the inability to complete the mission in a manner that is not a pyrrhic victory for Israel; c)  inability to create a better governing body in Gaza; d)   increasing military casualties; e) increasing innocent Palestinian casualties;  f) rehabilitating Hamas’ image of heroic resistance. (We recall that if Hamas spent one year preparing the Simchat Torah raid, it has been preparing for an invasion of Gaza for 20 years.)

Option 2:  Continuing to conduct an aerial war against Hamas

Pros:  a) no significant military casualties; b) erosion of Hamas rule and infrastructure; c) catastrophic diminishment of its military capabilities; d) the option to begin a ground assault later in the war with  more relevant information and intelligence on Hamas’ defenses.

Cons:  a) warfare conducted by an aerial assault alone has proven indecisive in previous conflicts; b) Israel’s image of deterrence is tarnished; c) Hamas remains in power; d) Israel has mobilized its forces at great economic cost and maintaining that mobilization indefinitely is detrimental to morale.

Further analysis of the cons of Option 2, may reveal that each one of its points can be turned into a significant asset.

a) The inconclusive nature of warfare by air: In the past when Israel has fought Hamas, it has eventually reached some form of entente and a return to an unsatisfactory status quo. This time the situation is has been drastically altered. Israel has declared war on Hamas. The war will continue with no respite. Israel no longer seeks entente, and Israel will remain at war with Hamas indefinitely. Each time one of Hamas’ leaders is identified, he will be targeted for assassination. Israel must work closely with its allies, who must acknowledge that the campaign has no end date, and that this sort of targeting will unfortunately cause collateral civilian damage, though that would be far less costly in terms of civilian casualties than a ground invasion.

b) Israeli deterrence: The bloody aftermath of the weekend has not weakened the resolve of Israel’s citizens but in fact strengthened it.  As the country’s unity is recognized, as the scoundrels in the cabinet are set aside for the serious military leaders who have just entered the cabinet, as it is clear that Israel controls its fate and will not be swayed by Hamas’ tactics, its image of power and deterrence will be swiftly rehabilitated.  If Hezbollah joins the fray, Israel, not bogged down by a ground invasion of Gaza requiring constant aerial support, would be free to use its Air Force more effectively against Hezbollah. On the other hand, with each passing week, the Islamic Republic of Iran will recognize that one of its major and most costly assets-Hamas- is being systematically destroyed.  This will of course serve to weaken Iran, and strengthen the Arab nations’ resolve to limit its influence.

c) Hamas remaining in power: As a spent force against Israel, Hamas becomes a far greater liability to Gaza’s inhabitants than to Israel.

d) The cost of maintaining mobilization for the foreseeable future: This is an economic cost that Israel must absorb.  The military should use the time to train its soldiers to a far higher level of readiness than they are at presently.

It behooves us finally to consider Netanyahu’s poker stack, and Israel’s options in relation to Netanyahu.

Netanyahu is a SPENT force. And yet, not completely. He has the power to move with him a sizable portion of the population, and moving them in the direction of unity and respect for the rule of law is critical at this juncture.  He will only put that asset on the table if he is assured that he will not go to jail.  The prosecution and Netanyahu must reach a plea deal IMMEDIATELY.   This will remove Netanyahu from the shackles of the far right. In return, by creating a coalition with the center left and center right, including not only Gantz’s National Unity Party, but Yair Lapid’s, Yesh Gvul, and possibly Avigdor Lieberman and Yisrael Beitanu, Netanyahu’s interests and those of State will finally come into alignment.  Israel will be able to wage war effectively, it will grow closer to its allies, and it will consolidate its image of powerful deterrence. These are the waning days of Netanyahu’s rule, and surrounded by level-headed coalition allies, and together with his plea deal, there is hope that any more damage to the state will be prevented. Thus, for now, a boxed in Netanyahu might be the best option Israel has.

We have buried our dead. May their memory be a blessing. And now, the fate of the children, women, and men who have been kidnapped, are uppermost in our hearts and minds.

The danger of torturing and/or murdering the hostages does not increase or decrease by either a continued aerial assault or a ground invasion. The greatest danger to the hostages is not even revenge against Israel’s bombardement.  The danger lies in the concessions that Hamas hopes to achieve by  not releasing the hostages. Therefore, Israel must ensure that Hamas will only inflict great harm to itself by holding the hostages.

There are ways to continually ratchet up the cost to Hamas and its patron saint, The Islamic Republic of Iran.

The government of Iran, which so ruthlessly murders it own citizens, has greater sway on Hamas than any other organization or nation, and the world must announce IMMEDIATELY that the fate of the hostages is in Iran’s hands, and not only will Hamas pay a heavy price for hurting them, so will the Islamic Republic of Iran. Israel’s expanded government should ask the USA to take the lead on this matter.

For its part, Israel must immediately publish a list of Hamas’ 100 top officials, naming them, their addresses, and all relevant information.   Israel must confirm that it holds each and everyone of them accountable for the safety of its citizens. As in the case of Israel’s revenge against the organizers and perpetrators of the 1972 Munich Olympic Games massacre of Israel’s athletes, Israel can publicly vow that if the hostages are hurt, it will capture each and everyone of the officials on the list, even if it takes decades to fulfill.  As the Islamic Republic of Iran’s complicity comes to light, the names of the Iranian organizers will be added to the list.  Israel’s allies must lend their support to this proposed course of action.

Israel must work with Egypt and its Arab allies to provide a corridor for humanitarian supplies to Gaza’s residents. This will be contingent on Red Cross personnel visiting each and every single hostage, as well as, the freeing of children and women before any non-critical supplies are allowed to  reach Gaza.

To conclude: Hamas will never release the hostages until it realizes that the cost of holding them is too high for it.  From Israel’s point of view, a diminished, spent, demoralized, morally bankrupt Hamas, constantly at war with Israel, can remain garrisoned in Gaza if all the hostages are freed. Unfortunately, the Palestinian people will pay the price of Hamas rule.

Meanwhile, Hamas must be so defeated that at some point mere survival will feel like the greatest gift it ever received.  That is a far cry from what it had hoped originally to achieve.

If Israel acts wisely, the nightmare for Iran and Hamas will have just begun.

About the Author
Fred was raised and educated in Tehran. He hails from a family of Iraqi Jews who fled Iraq, and subsequently, in the wake of the the 1979 Islamic Revolution, fled Iran. His parents spent formative years in Israel. As Arab Jews and Zionists who experienced the generosity of Moslem culture, and in particular the high spirit, hospitality, and graciousness afforded them in Iran, his perspective is formed by many of the historic events that engulfed the region.
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