Wednesday, December 20, 2023

What is Israel's endgame?

 As the death toll in Gaza rises and even the IDF acknowledges more than 15,000 Palestinians killed since the war started on October 7, international pressure is mounting on Israel to wrap up its attacks on Hamas or at least reduce the level of violence to protect innocent civilians. That pressure includes the Biden Administration, which is urging Israel to be more careful to avoid collateral damage.

“I want them to be focused on how to save civilian lives. Not stop going after Hamas, but be more careful,” President Biden told reporters last week.

Two tanks roll on dirt, surrounded by a massive amount of destruction. There is rubble on the ground, and buildings that have been exploded
IDF tanks on operations in the Gaza Strip on 31 October. By IDF Spokesperson's Unit, CC BY-SA 3.0,

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Criticism of Israel will only increase after the revelation over the weekend that three hostages were killed by Israeli soldiers as they approached under a white flag. The Wall Street Journal reports that the shooting violated the rules of engagement but that a soldier opened fire because he “felt threatened,” a familiar rationale to those who follow American police shootings. Two hostages were killed immediately while the third was killed by a soldier who kept shooting after a ceasefire was ordered. The incident seems to confirm Steve Berman’s notion that Israel is not doing everything it can to avoid civilian casualties and raises the question of how many Gazans have been gunned down in similar circumstances.

[As an aside, the story reminds me of a disturbing scene from Saving Private Ryan in which two surrendering German soldiers are shot by Americans. I didn’t learn until recently that the men were speaking Czech and represented Czechoslovakian men conscripted into service by the Wehrmacht. I’m no veteran, combat or otherwise, but I’ve read plenty of accounts that acknowledge that sometimes enemy soldiers would not be “allowed to surrender,” particularly after vicious combat.]

The war in Gaza is what can be termed an asymmetric conflict. Israel has a modern military including an air force that can drop bombs with impunity and armored vehicles that can roll over Hamas’s irregular militia infantry. Although armored vehicles can be vulnerable to improvised explosive devices (IEDs) and other anti-tank weapons, I haven’t seen any evidence of effective anti-aircraft fire in Gaza.

Some recent statistics show that Israel has dropped about 29,000 air-to-ground munitions (bombs and air-launched missiles and rockets) since the Gaza war started. CNN reports that bout 45 percent of those have been unguided “dumb” bombs while the remainder have been precision-guided weapons. Reuters estimates that about 40,000 buildings in Gaza have been destroyed or damaged. That’s about 18 percent of the prewar total. The Palestinians claim that their death toll exceeds 18,000, which as Steve's piece pointed out recently, closely matches IDF estimates. No matter how you slice it, the Gaza war is a humanitarian disaster.

An Israeli officer explained to the Times of Israel what the IDF has encountered in Gaza, saying, “They [Hamas} don’t really try to face us, but to sting here and there. Their method of operating is fleeing in civilian clothes, leaving behind their uniform, their guns, anti-tank missiles, explosives, and they just run. After we leave the area, they return and attack the next forces.”

“There isn’t a single house here without weapons, there isn’t a house without [tunnel] infrastructure,” he continued. “It’s unbelievable. In dozens of yards of homes we found dozens of rocket launchers. We found Kalashnikovs under mattresses, inside clothes closets. It wasn’t thrown there suddenly, they were hidden in the homes.”

The Hamas strategy of hiding fighters and weapons in and near civilian targets was designed to, as the officer put it, “take advantage of the sensitivity we once had.” This is also what has caused much of the civilian loss of life.

“Schools, a cemetery near us, in a clinic… these are the places where they concentrated most of their tunnel shafts. They thought we wouldn’t strike there, and that’s where we found the enemy’s significant infrastructure,” he said.

As a result, “The enemy has nothing to return to. It has no infrastructure here to return to, it has no weapons in the homes to return to and use against us.”

What has Israel got for the destruction it has wrought in retaliation for the Hamas attacks and massacres on October 7? Israel estimates that at least 7,000 of the Palestinian dead were Hamas fighters. That is a lot but not nearly all of the estimated 40,000 Hamas fighters.

Hamas is also still firing rockets at Israel, although the numbers have declined sharply. The Times of Israel reports that about 3,000 rockets were fired in the opening hours of the war and about 7,000 since then. In the first week of the war, there were 3,523 alerts issued and most were due to rockets. That number had trended down to 455 by mid-November.

Israel’s stated goal for the war was to destroy Hamas. More than two months into the fighting, Hamas has been severely damaged but is still a long way from being eliminated. With world opinion turning hostile, where does the Israeli government go from here?

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It’s important to realize that the total destruction of Hamas was probably never in the cards. If you’re familiar with the history of the Arab-Israeli wars, you probably remember that a great many of the previous Arab-Israeli conflicts have ended when the international community and the United Nations pressured the warring parties to agree to ceasefires. In the 1967 war, this famously took only six days. The odds are good that the current fighting will end in a similar fashion.

The only way to wipe out Hamas is to wipe out Gaza. There are many reasons that such a strategy is unworkable starting with the immorality of a scorched-earth, take-no-prisoners policy and continuing to international opinion and the effect that carrying out such a policy would have on Israeli soldiers. There is also the practical consideration that young Palestinian children who watch their friends and parents die are more likely to grow up to become Hamas fighters themselves. If they grow up.

Or maybe that’s not a good assumption. Sometimes a defeat that is painful to the civilian population to prevent future wars. The Union stranglehold on the Confederacy and Sherman’s march to the sea helped to dissuade Confederates from making a second attempt. Germany’s surrender in 1918 left the homeland untouched but paved the way for a second world war 20 years later. After the destruction that Germany experienced in the 1940s, the country has not been aggressive for the past 75 years. Maybe the horror being inflicted on Gaza will help to break the cycle of young Palestinians being recruited into jihad. We won’t know for 100 years or so.

You might think that Israel holds the cards on the ceasefire negotiations since they have the dominant military in the region, but that isn’t a good assumption either. A truce in November provided a “humanitarian pause” in the bombing as Hamas returned more than 100 hostages kidnapped on October 7, but it was Hamas that broke that truce. In fact, the IDF reported that Hamas fighters had attacked only 15 minutes after the truce began.

Israel might well be open to a ceasefire as it gains control of more territory in Gaza, but it takes two to make a ceasefire and Hamas has shown no willingness to stop fighting in order to spare the lives of innocent Arab civilians. The situation is similar to that of Ukraine where Republicans are pushing for a ceasefire despite the fact that Vladimir Putin, the continuing aggressor, shows no interest in halting the fighting.

There is an old saw that says if the Arabs stop fighting and put down their weapons, there would be peace, but if the Israelis stop fighting and put down their weapons, there would be a massacre. That dynamic applies in Ukraine as well where the Russians continue to push and kidnap and kill Ukrainian civilians.

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There will be no peace in the Middle East, but what Israel can hope for is an uneasy truce based by keeping Hamas unable to mount attacks. This may require a reoccupation of Gaza. From the Six-Day War of 1967 until Israel’s unilateral withdrawal from Gaza in 2005, the IDF occupied the disputed strip of land on the Mediterranean Sea. The occupation was costly and unpopular but was arguably less costly both in terms of money and lives (including Palestinian lives) than allowing Hamas free rein.

Occupation wouldn’t be without problems for Israel, and those problems would go beyond unfriendly world opinion. Max Boot’s excellent book, “The Savage Wars of Peace,” details America’s experience with occupation and pacification. The learning process resulted in a Marine Corps “small wars” manual, but many of those lessons seem to have been forgotten. These are lessons that Israel may have to learn as well.

Israel is a small nation, and I’m not sure that they have the manpower to sustain a full occupation of Gaza over the long term, especially considering their need to maintain strong defenses on their other borders. The occupation might be limited to a buffer zone along the border, but that just shifts the area of exposure rather than eliminating the threat.

An alternative Israeli strategy would be to return to prewar borders and focus on using intelligence and airpower to keep Hamas impotent. The problem with this strategy is that Hamas has become very adept at camouflage and trickery. When intelligence fails, October 7 is the result.

Nevertheless, the world is sympathetic to victims, but has limited patience for retribution and preventive war. Pressure is going to mount for a ceasefire, which the United Nations has already called for, or more restrictive rules of engagement as requested by President Biden.

Biden’s motives are not purely altruistic. The Democratic Party has a schism on Middle East policy just as the Republican Party does on Ukraine. Biden is attempting to bridge the gap between the Democratic friends of Israel and the Democratic Arab sympathizers, a faction that includes many young voters. Biden needs to keep the Democratic coalition together to defeat Trump, the presumptive Republican nominee, next year.

There will almost certainly be a ceasefire in Gaza. Both international politics and American domestic politics will add pressure on the Israeli government to slow or stop its offensive operations. As the Israeli death toll mounts in Gaza due to vicious, close-quarter, urban combat, public opinion in Israel may also favor ending the war.

The question is how far the Israelis will go before Hamas agrees to stop fighting. Temporarily. The one sure thing is that no matter how much Hamas complains about Arab casualties at the hands of the IDF, it won’t stop them from launching another war that will also inflict a horrible price on their own people. That may well mean that Israel maintains a long term occupation of at least part of Gaza after the war ends.

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JANUARY 6 CASES HEAD TO SUPREME COURT: In case you haven’t heard, the Supreme Court has agreed to hear a case on the question of whether a law against obstructing federal proceedings can be used to prosecute January 6 defendants. Many of the J6 convictions have been based on this law and one count of Donald Trump’s indictment also relates to it.

There is also a strong possibility that the Court could hear a case on whether Donald Trump has immunity from prosecution. The Former Guy has claimed that he cannot be prosecuted for actions that he undertook as president. That case is currently at the US Court of Appeals, which is expediting the process to avoid delaying Trump’s trial, scheduled for March of next year. Special Counsel Jack Smith has requested that the Supreme Court rule on the immunity claim.

I think that the odds are good that the Court rules against MAGA in both cases. So far, the Court has shown little patience for Trump’s shenanigan, especially when it comes to stealing elections. Having said that, the obstruction case may be on firmer ground than Trump’s claim that presidents are above the law. An appeals court has already upheld the obstruction charges, however.

MULTIMILLION DOLLAR GIULIANI VERDICT: A federal jury ordered Rudy Giuliani to pay two Georgia election workers $148 million for defaming them with claims that they were involved in rigging the 2020 election. The election was not stolen, but the claims led Trump supporters to harass and threaten the women.

From the Racket News

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