The war continues for the fourth week since Hamas surprise terrorist attack on 7 October with massive Israeli air strikes against Hamas targets and troops operating in the north of the Gaza strip amid growing concerns about the humanitarian situation and talks about a hostage-prisoner exchange.
In a joint press conference on Saturday evening with the defense minister and one of the opposition leaders who had joined the Israeli war cabinet, Prime Minister Netanyahu said the war would be long and difficult. He did not admit his responsibility for the Israeli debacle and did not commit to an independent state investigation once the war is over.
While agreeing to reply to questions after the war, he tried to dilute his own responsibility by saying that others would also have to reply to questions. In a message on X after midnight, he even blamed the surprise attack on the intelligence agencies in Israel that he claimed had not warned him that it could happen. The tweet was quickly deleted the following morning but disclosed his line of defense.
Two main goals
Israel has defined the goal of the ground invasion which already has started as destroying Hamas military capacity and infrastructure so that it never again will pose a security threat. The goal is also linked to eliminating its governmental infrastructure and put and to its rule in Gaza. The other overriding goal is ensuring the safe release of the hostages taken by Hamas.
At the start of the war the second goal was considered as a “minor concern” but has now become a priority under the pressure of the families of the hostages and the recognition that Israel – after it failed to protect the south border to the Gaza Strip – has a moral responsibility to rescue them. A female solider was rescued yesterday during the ground operation.
A large-scale ground offensive might endanger the lives of the hostages. The ground operation aims also at putting pressure on Hamas to agree to release all hostages. This might be done in exchange for the thousands of Palestinians security prisoners kept by Israel. It would require a ‘humanitarian pause’ in the war but Hamas seems now more worried about its own survival and is keen on a cease-fire.
If the EU in the beginning of the war was not clear about its end-goal, this has changed since the European Council meeting last week. For the first time, EU stated in the Council conclusions last week that “the use of civilians as human shields by Hamas is a particularly deplorable atrocity”. It is a clear war crime but it does not absolve Israel from its obligation to comply with international law.
Furthermore, European Commission President von der Leyen said at the press conference that Hamas must be defeated. Council President Michel said that there is no role for Hamas after the war. EU’s foreign policy chief, High Representative Josep Borrell, has not been that clear in his statements and might have been sidelined after the Council meeting.
Some of his statements were disturbing as he doubted the worst atrocities committed by Hamas and first did not know if he should distrust Hamas allegations about the explosion at a hospital in Gaza. I tried to reach out to him for a clarification but he was unavailable.
Despite the common EU position, EU member states to continue to vote differently in the United Nations General Assembly last Friday, with Belgium and some other member states voting in favor of a non-binding resolution on a humanitarian ceasefire and other countries abstaining or voting against it because of the omission of Hamas terrorist attack.
Duration of war
There is still much uncertainty about the duration of the war and the political aftermath after the war. Some military experts have said that the ground offensive should not take more than two weeks, even if Israel’s goals would not be completely met, not to risk an escalation to a multi-front war and a humanitarian disaster in Gaza. It is obvious that there are time constraints.
Asked about the minimum time required to dismantle Hamas, Amos Yadlin, a former Israeli air force general and head of the military intelligence, replied that this was Israel’s central dilemma. “We don’t have the five years it took the US and the international coalition to defeat ISIS (Islamic State),” he replied.
“If we have 5 months, I think that most of the objectives can be achieved. IDF is much stronger than the force that fought against ISIS in Iraq (Mosul) and in Syria (Raqqa). “If we’ll have only 5 weeks, the objectives won’t be completely achieved.”
Anyway, the day after end of the war has to be different to what happened after previous rounds of hostilities, he underlined, because Hamas might remain in Gaza even if most of its military infrastructure has been destroyed. “We aren’t going back to the same paradigm as before with Israel providing Gaza it with basic supplies.”
That paradigm also refers to Israel’s policy of buying calm at the border by allowing cash transfers to Hamas in the mistaken belief that they were necessary for paying the salaries of civil servants in the Gaza Strip and isolating the Strip from the West Bank for political reasons.
“On the contrary, this time Israel will disconnect totally from Gaza and continue to operate against Hamas if it tries to rebuild its military there. It will become a low-intensive war with the same defense doctrine that is applied in the West Bank against terrorist networks. If Gaza continues to be ruled by Hamas, the mission won’t be completed.”
He sees Hamas as the biggest obstacle to any restart of the peace process which both the EU and the US want to see and are pressing Israel to agree to. It was Hamas which destroyed the Oslo Peace Accords in the 90 with its suicide bombings and made the second intifada so dreadful with bombings in busses and restaurants, he says.
Asked about the political aftermath once the war is over, Yadlin expressed cautious optimism. “If Hamas is defeated, I hope that the peace process can go forward. For the two state-solution to move forward, Hamas must be removed from any leadership role in the Palestinian Authority. In Israel, there should be a different government. Maybe this is the light in the very dark tunnel we are in now.”
Israel says that it does not attack civilians and civilian infrastructure but has stopped issuing warnings when attacking buildings where Hamas terrorists are living. Hamas is embedded in residential areas, close to or under schools and hospitals where civilians have taken refuge. The result is an increasing death toll on the Palestinian side – more than 8,000 people according to the Hamas-run health ministry.
The figures cannot be independently verified but there is hardly any doubt that the majority of them are civilians, including many children and women.
“As we speak, people in Gaza are dying. They are dying only from bombs and strikes. Soon, many more will die from the consequences of siege imposed on the Gaza Strip,” said UNRWA’s Commissioner Philippe Lazzarini, at a press conference in Jerusalem last Friday. Some of the killed are UNRWA employees.
“My colleagues in Gaza report that the last remaining public services are collapsing, our aid operation is crumbling and for the first time ever, they report that people are now hungry. Civil order is collapsing, and anger starts to be channeled towards my colleagues. How long can we last? No more than a few days.”
“The siege means that food, water and fuel – basic commodities – are being used to collectively punish more than 2 million people, among them, a majority of children and women,” he claimed and added that UNRWA has a solid vetting mechanism for preventing aid diversion to Hamas, without mention it by name.
Since the outbreak of the war, around 130 aid trucks with food, water and medical supplies have been allowed to enter the Gaza Strip via the Rafah crossing with Egypt. That is far from enough if reportedly 100 trucks entered Gaza on a daily basis before the war. The two border crossings with Israel were reportedly damaged by Hamas at the attack. Israel says it has started to allow the entry of fuel on the condition that it will not be diverted to Hamas.
UNRWA has a complicated relation to Hamas which is ruling the Gaza Strip and can hardly condemn its terrorist attack against Israel or openly protest against its use of civilians as human shields. Lazzarini declined to respond to a request for comment on the situation. The tunnel network under UNRWA premises were known already in 2017 and condemned by a UNRWA Director.