February 22, 2024

Four months into the Israeli-Hamas war: A preliminary appraisal and a look ahead

By Dr. Robert O. Freedman

On February 7, 2024, the Israeli-Hamas war ended its fourth month. It was precipitated by a Hamas attack on Israel that killed 1,200 Israelis and citizens of other countries, wounded 3,300, raped many Israeli women, and took 240 Israelis back into Gaza as hostages. The attack led to a massive Israeli attack on Gaza that according to the Hamas-run Gaza Health Ministry took more than 27,000 lives while wounding more than 66,000. More than one million Gazans were displaced — forced to move from north to south in Gaza to escape the Israeli invasion. Israel began military operations in north Gaza, then moved into central Gaza and is currently poised to invade the city of Rafah in southern Gaza. Israel believes that is where Hamas leader Yahya Sinwar is hiding, along with the majority of the surviving hostages. According to the Israeli government, at least 10,000 of the 27,000 Gazan dead are Hamas fighters. 

The war was not limited to Gaza. Hezbollah, an Iranian proxy like Hamas, sought to show its solidarity with Hamas by bombarding northern Israel, forcing 90,000 Israelis to flee southward. Hezbollah was careful, however, to limit its involvement lest it become involved in a major war with Israel that could jeopardize its position in Lebanon. Such a war could also deprive Iran of its “second strike” capability against Israel, given Hezbollah’s 100,000 missiles that are positioned to deter an Israeli attack on Iran. Israel responded to the Hezbollah bombardment with attacks of its own on southern Lebanon that forced tens of thousands of Lebanese to flee northward.

A second expansion of the war was in Yemen, where the Houthis, adherents to a branch of Shia Islam and another proxy of Iran, began attacking ships traversing the Red Sea opposite Yemen. The Houthis, who rule most of Yemen, claimed falsely that they were only attacking ships going to Israel, but they in fact hit a variety of ships in the Red Sea, whether they were going to Israel or not. After a number of ships were attacked, the United States and the United Kingdom formed a naval flotilla to protect shipping in the Red Sea. They subsequently began to attack Houthi positions in Yemen with the goal of eroding the Houthi ability to interfere with freedom of navigation in the Red Sea. Two of the countries hurt by the Houthis attacks were Egypt and Israel. Egypt, with a weak economy and a tourism sector that was badly hurt by the war, lost 30% of its trade through the Suez Canal, while Israel also suffered a 30% drop in imports through its Red Sea port of Eilat. Whether the United States and Britain will be able to remove the Houthi threat to Red Sea shipping remains to be seen.

Another escalation occurred in Syria and Iraq when the pro-Iranian Iraqi Popular Mobilization Forces, nominally part of the Iraqi army, intensified their attacks, killing three U.S. soldiers in one incident. These forces had been attacking US bases in Iraq and Syria in an effort to drive U.S. forces out of both countries, prior to October 7th.  This in turn led to a major U.S. attack on the militia bases and the killing of a senior pro-Iranian militia leader, although Washington publicly stated it did not want a war with Iran. Whether this was the correct diplomatic signaling is an open question. If Iran thinks it has immunity from a U.S. attack because President Joe Biden does not want a wider war as the U.S. Presidential election nears, little will prevent Tehran from encouraging the Houthis and pro-Iranian popular mobilization forces from stepping up their attacks. On the other hand, if Iran pushes too hard, it may give increased credence to voices in the United States that the time to strike Iran is now, before it acquires nuclear weapons, in order to punish it for encouraging anti-American forces in the Middle East.    

In the diplomatic arena, countries have aligned themselves either with Israel or the Palestinians. Those aligning with the Palestinians have downplayed the murderous Hamas attack on October 7th and concentrated instead on Palestinian suffering in Gaza. This, despite the fact that the avowed goal of Hamas is to destroy Israel and replace it with an Islamic state “from the river (Jordan) to the (Mediterranean) sea,” a goal which it has repeated during the war.  

Russia, China, and the so-called Global South, with the notable exception of India, have backed the Palestinians while the United States, Canada and most of Europe, with the exception of Ireland and Belgium, have backed Israel. South Africa, a leader of the Global South, brought Israel to the international Court of Justice (ICJ) on charges of genocide and called on the ICJ   to demand Israel agree to a cease-fire. The problem with a charge of genocide is that the nation charged with genocide must meet the standard of “acts committed with the intent to destroy in  whole or in  part  a national, ethnic, racial or religious group.”  The key question here is “intent.” Israel invaded Gaza to root out Hamas, which was embedded in the Gaza population and had built 450 miles of tunnels underneath Gazan houses and hospitals and even UN institutions. 

While the ICJ did not call for a cease-fire, it condemned the taking of hostages and called for their “immediate and unconditional release.” It also required Israel to prevent the Israel Defense Forces from committing any acts of genocide in Gaza and to punish direct and public incitement to commit genocide. Here the ICJ cited some unwise comments of Israeli leaders—even though they were referring to Hamas and not to the entire Palestinian people. Israel also had to provide increased humanitarian assistance to the Palestinians in Gaza. The ICJ also required Israel to issue a monthly report on how it was meeting these demands.

There are multiple ironies in the whole ICJ situation. First, under Israeli rule since the Six Day war in 1967, the Palestinian population of the West Bank quintupled and the population of Gaza increased six-fold—hardly evidence of genocide. Second, South Africa’s leaders, the African National Congress, runs a highly corrupt and incompetent government. There was a lot of speculation that the reason the ANC brought the genocide charges against Israel was to divert attention from its corruption in the run-up to South African elections later in 2024. Third, two countries that actually did commit genocide, Germany with the Holocaust and Belgium with King Leopold’s massacres of natives in the former Belgian Congo, came out on opposite positions on the genocide charges. Germany backed the Israeli position and Belgium supported South Africa’s charges against Israel. In any case, the ICJ has no power to enforce its rulings. It will probably take several years before the ICJ made its final determination on whether or not Israel had indeed committed genocide. If it does, only the UN Security Council can enforce an ICJ decision, but as long as the United States supports Israel, no UN Security Council action against Israel is likely. 

Meanwhile, pressure was building on U.S. President Joe Biden to get Israel to agree to a cease-fire. The pressure came from progressives within the Democratic Party and from Arab-Americans in swing states such as Michigan, who threatened not to vote for Biden in the 2024 U.S. Presidential election. 

Whether they would vote for Donald Trump, the presumptive Republican party candidate whose anti-Moslem and anti-immigrant positions are well known, is an open question.  Pressure on Biden also came from U.S. college campuses and the conglomeration of what might be termed “decolonization ideologues” who see Israel as a “settler colonizing state.” It includes professors of Middle Eastern studies, the majority of whom are anti-Israel and even Jewish students who are on the left of the political spectrum. (Their protests overlook the fact that the same charge could be levied against the United States, Russia, and even the Arabs themselves who colonized the Middle East after the death of Mohammed). 

Biden, so far, has not changed his position that Israel has the right to destroy Hamas and was justified in attacking Gaza. He has continued to supply Israel with arms, and has asked Congress for additional billions of aid for Israel (along with Ukraine and Taiwan). 

He has, however, grown more critical of the impact of the Israeli attacks on Gazan civilians (especially in the southern Gaza city of Rafah). And he has grown increasingly impatient with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s opposition to a Palestinian state, which Biden sees as a solution to Israel’s conflicts with its Arab neighbors. Biden, who is also involved in the negotiations to free the Israeli hostages, has put forth a U.S. plan, negotiated with the help of U.S. allies like Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Egypt to install a “rejuvenated” Palestinian Authority to govern Gaza after the end of the war, as part of a two-state solution to end the Israel-Palestinian conflict. 

Linked to this would be a normalization of relations between Israel and Saudi Arabia (something Biden had been working on before the war began), although it remained to be seen whether Saudi demands for the most modern US arms, a defense agreement with NATO-like guarantees of US support and a nuclear reactor complex that would provide energy to Saudi Arabia in the post-oil era would be supported in the U.S. Senate where memories of the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi by the Saudi government are still strong.

Meanwhile, in Israel, the national unity that had characterized the country after the October 7 attack began to fray. Disputes erupted even within Israel’s war cabinet. The first issue was whether to secure the release of hostages as a priority over defeating Hamas in the war. The second was over how to handle Gaza once the war was over, with Defense Minister Yoav Gallant proposing Palestinian civilian control over Gaza while Netanyahu, under pressure from the Religious Zionist party in his coalition, stated that Israel had to maintain both military and civilian control of the area. 

Such a position put him in direct conflict with President Biden whose plan, as noted above, called for a demilitarized Palestinian state on the West Bank and Gaza living in peace with Israel. Then came a call from the right-wing fringe of Israeli politics for repopulating Gaza with Jewish settlers (the settlers and the Israeli army had left Gaza in 2005) and encouraging the Palestinians there to emigrate. Advocates included representatives in the ruling coalition, the Religious Zionists led by Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich and National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir, who in the past had called for annexing the West Bank, 

When they held a meeting expounding these ideas in a major conference hall in Jerusalem, this was evidently too much for the Biden Administration, which saw such posturing as undermining US diplomacy in the Middle East. The United States then sanctioned four Israeli settlers for their role in harassing Palestinians living on the West Bank, an action the West Bank settler council called “anti-Semitic.” Significantly, the State Department spokesman stated that the United States was not considering sanctioning Israeli government officials “at this time”—a clear reference to Smotrich and Ben-Gvir. For his part Ben-Gvir, in a clear political slap at Biden, stated that “If Trump were in power, U.S. conduct would be completely different.” This drew a retort from war cabinet member Benny Gantz, whose national union party had joined the coalition at the start of the war, who denounced Ben-Gvir as causing “tremendous damage to U.S.-Israeli relations”. 

As these events transpired, Netanyahu, whose popularity rating had fallen to 15% as he was widely blamed for Israel’s lack of preparedness for the October 7th attack, was trying to shore up his coalition government, which was composed of 32 Likud members, 14 members of the Religious Zionist Party and 18 members of the two ultra-Orthodox parties Shas and United Torah Judaism along with 12 members of Gantz’s national union party.  Should Gantz pull his 12 seats out of the government, because of his increasing displeasure with Netanyahu’s policies, the Israeli Prime Minister would be left with the ultra-orthodox and religious Zionist parties as well as with Likud.  To stay in power, he had to satisfy the ultra-orthodox parties’ demands as well as those of the Religious Zionists. 

Consequently, despite Israel’s economic problems because of the war, which required cuts in ministry budgets and led to a downgrading of the Israeli economy by Moody’s rating agency, Netanyahu went ahead with a special multi-million-dollar allocation to the schools of the ultra-orthodox, whose men do not serve in the IDF and whose schools do not teach English and Math. 

This aroused the anger of secular Israelis and added to public protests against Netanyahu calling for his resignation as well as for a stronger focus on recovering the hostages. He also appeared to accede to the demands of the Religious Zionists not to make concessions to Hamas in the hostage negotiations. It remained unclear how the hostages would return alive without at least some Israeli concessions in the absence of an Israeli military victory that would see  Hamas leader Yahya Sinwar either killed or sent into exile as Yasser Arafat was following the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982.   

II             LOOKING AHEAD   

Looking to the future, there are several issues to keep in mind. The first is how will the battle in south Gaza go. Four Hamas battalions are thought to be still intact in the Rafah area of southern Gaza, and Israel feels it must eliminate them in order to weaken the Hamas military presence in Gaza in a significant way.  There may also be some Hamas fighters hiding in tunnels in Gaza which the IDF has yet to clear out. 

Yet the battle in Rafah poses some serious political as well as military problems for Israel. First, there are an estimated one million Gazan refugees temporarily living in the Rafah area after fleeing from north and central Gaza to escape the fighting there. Moving them out safely in order to proceed with its military campaign is a difficult challenge for Israel, especially when some Hamas fighters may pose as civilians in order to reestablish Hamas positions elsewhere in Gaza.

Second, the United States and Israel’s friends in Europe have warned Netanyahu in no uncertain terms that these civilians should not be harmed, with Biden himself warning that Israel had “gone over the top” in causing civilian casualties in its attacks on Hamas. Compounding the problem is the position of Egypt, which is concerned that Gazans may try to move into Egypt from Rafah to escape the fighting or be encouraged by Israeli soldiers to do so. Egypt has warned Israel that the Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty could be in danger if this occurred. Israel, for its part, needs an agreement with Egypt to prevent future arms smuggling from Egypt to Gaza that might enable Hamas to reestablish itself — yet another reason to be very careful as it proceeds with its military campaign in Rafah. Whether it can safeguard Gazan civilians and avoid alienating Egypt and the United States while still destroying the Hamas battalions in Rafah is a major challenge to the IDF. This is especially the case with the Islamic holiday of Ramadan coming up in mid-March, and if fighting in the Rafah area is intense at that time, it may further inflame Islamic forces in the Middle East.

A third issue to look at is whether Israel’s national unity government will survive. It is possible, as noted above, that Benny Gantz, whose national unity party is leading the Israeli political polls, may pull out of the government. The danger in his doing so would be giving more power to the Religious Zionists, and either Smotrich or Ben Gvir may demand to be included in the war cabinet. Should one or the other in fact enter the war cabinet, this would seriously damage U.S.-Israeli relations, and Netanyahu may refrain from doing so for this reason. In any case, U.S.-Israeli relations are already strained over Netanyahu’s refusal to consider even the possibility of a Palestinian state and over IDF operations in Gaza. Netanyahu may hope he can rally Israeli public opinion against Biden the same way he did against former President Barack Obama. But the key difference is that while Obama was very unpopular in Israel, Biden is very popular, and precipitating a crisis with the United States may be just enough to convince some members of Likud to pull out of the government, thus forcing new elections.

A fourth issue to consider is the situation on Israel’s northern border. Currently, the conflict is limited to northern Israel and southern Lebanon. However, Israeli leaders have said they will not tolerate the displacement of 90,000 Israelis from their homes in the north. Under these circumstances, unless the United States can work out a deal between Israel and Lebanon that Hezbollah would agree to, Israel may launch a war against Hezbollah to force it north of the Litani River where it was required to move by UN Security Council Resolution 1701 which ended the 2006 Israel-Hezbollah war.  But this is unlikely to occur before Israel has secured Gaza, and that is admittedly still a way off.

Finally, of course, there is the hostage issue. Unless Israel can free the remaining approximately 100 live hostages by force—as it did in Rafah on February 11 rescuing two hostages in a raid—it will have to bargain with Hamas. Yet Hamas’s demands are too high for any Israeli leader to accept. They include the release of the 8,500 Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails along with the estimated 1,000 captured Hamas terrorists who were allegedly involved in the murder and rape of Israelis on October 7th. Other Hamas demands include the withdrawal of all Israeli forces from Gaza and a permanent cease-fire, which would enable Hamas to rebuild itself in Gaza and prepare for another October 7-like attack.

The United States, which has been heavily involved in the hostage crisis, has argued that this is just an initial Hamas bargaining position. However, Washington sees a cease-fire as a means of defusing the multiple conflicts in the Middle East and has put a high priority on the hostage issue (ironically higher than the Netanyahu government). Its view of potential progress on the hostage issue may be overly optimistic. 

In any case, Israel faces a dilemma. So far even the Red Cross has not gotten a list  of the hostages (Israel has complained that the Red Cross has not tried hard enough to get such a list), and Israel cannot be sure how many are still alive. To be sure, Netanyahu is himself to blame for such lopsided hostage exchange demands, having freed 1,027 Hamas prisoners including Yahya Sinwar, in return for one kidnapped Israeli soldier in 2011. Still, unless the United States and its Arab allies can convince Hamas to reduce its demands, it is likely that the war will continue for many more months.       

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