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Israel’s Muddled Strategy in Gaza

Time to Make Hard Choices

If devastation is the goal, Israel’s military campaign in the Gaza Strip has been a resounding success. More than two months after Hamas killed over 1,100 people on October 7, Israeli air and ground operations have killed some 20,000 Palestinians, many of them children, according to Gaza’s Hamas-run Health Ministry. Much of Gaza lies in ruins, with the United Nations estimating that almost 20 percent of the territory’s prewar structures have been destroyed. More than half of Gazans are experiencing severe hunger, unemployment has risen to 85 percent, and disease is spreading.

But the statements of a few extremist ministers notwithstanding, Israel’s goals in Gaza are broader and more strategic than inflicting pain on the Palestinians. On December 12, I landed in Israel for a weeklong research trip, joined by colleagues from the Center for Strategic and International Studies and several other experts. In an effort to understand Israel’s goals and strategy, we spoke with current and former Israeli military leaders, senior security officials, diplomats, and politicians, as well as ordinary citizens. The interviewees related their perspectives on October 7, the state of the war today, and the future of their country.

Israel’s war in Gaza differs from many other conflicts in that there is not a single finite objective. There is no invading force to be expelled, no territory to be conquered, no dictator to be toppled. Nonetheless, two months on, a more or less clear list of goals is emerging. Israel seeks to destroy Hamas, capturing or killing its leaders, shattering its military capacity, and ending its power in Gaza. It seeks the release of the hostages who were kidnapped on October 7 and remain alive, as well as the bodies of those who have been killed. It wants to prevent another attack, particularly by Hezbollah, Iran’s proxy in Lebanon. It wants to maintain international support, especially from the United States, and safeguard the diplomatic gains it has made with Arab countries in recent years. And it seeks to rebuild the trust in security institutions that the public lost after the attacks.

Israel’s response can seem confusing to outsiders, but it makes more sense when these competing goals are considered. Each has its own metrics and complications, and some are in direct conflict with one another. So far, the results of Israel’s campaign have been mixed: Israel has hit Hamas hard, but it is falling short in many areas, inflicting a devastating toll on civilians in Gaza and paying a heavy price in terms of international support. Israel’s leaders are often trying to have it all. Instead, they need to make hard choices about which goals to prioritize and which to downplay.

Because maintaining U.S support is vital, Israel should focus on targeting Hamas’s leaders more than destroying the group’s broader military forces and infrastructure. It should make more of an effort to reduce civilian casualties. It should seek to deter, rather than destroy, Hezbollah, maintaining larger numbers of forces near Gaza and Lebanon even after active hostilities end to reassure the Israeli people. And it should focus more on who will replace Hamas in Gaza, which requires bolstering the Palestinian Authority and Palestinian technocrats. If Israel instead tries to have it all, it risks having nothing.

Appetite for Destruction

No visitor to Israel can miss the sense of pain, fury, and mistrust that pervades every conversation. The term “earthquake” came up again and again when I asked about October 7. One Israeli security official declared that “something fundamental broke” in the country that day. (To encourage candor, we agreed to not to identify our interview subjects.) Israelis believe that they cannot go back to a pre–October 7 world, with a hostile and intact Hamas across the border in Gaza. In their eyes, the brutality of the attacks showed Hamas to be beyond redemption, unable to be deterred or contained.

The problem goes beyond Gaza, however. With justification, many Israelis blame Iran for Hamas’s impressive arsenal and the innovative methods of its fighters. They fear that Iran’s proxy in Lebanon, Hezbollah, will also attack Israel, using its exponentially larger rocket arsenal and far more skilled fighters to launch a much more devastating attack on Israel’s north. Since October 7, over 200,000 Israelis have fled areas near Gaza and Lebanon.

At the same time, Israelis no longer trust their own security institutions. As one Israeli security official explained, “Before October 7, intelligence told the country, ‘We know Hamas,’ while the military said, ‘We can handle Hamas.’” Both, he added, were wrong. It is now hard for Israeli leaders to reassure the public that next time, the military and intelligence services will keep them safe.

To rebuild public confidence, Israeli leaders have vowed to utterly destroy Hamas. Days after the attack, Defense Minister Yoav Gallant issued one such pledge. “We will wipe this thing called Hamas, ISIS-Gaza, off the face of the earth,” he said. “It will cease to exist.” But destroying Hamas can mean many different things in practice.

Israelis no longer trust their own security institutions.

The focus of Israel’s current military campaign is to destroy Hamas’s military wing, which boasted around 25,000 to 30,000 members before October 7. At the time of my interviews, most Israeli officials estimated that 7,000 of those fighters had been killed in the war. That figure is hard to verify, however, and it may include Palestinians who fought back against invading forces yet were not formally part of Hamas’s military wing. The number of fighters appears to be dwindling further: some Israeli officials told me that more and more are fleeing or surrendering.

Although the Israel Defense Forces are inflicting a steep toll on Hamas, the group’s large numbers and ability to blend in with the population make it difficult to eradicate, especially without killing a huge number of Palestinian civilians. Urban warfare is a nightmare for even the best militaries, and the IDF has already lost more than 100 soldiers in its current campaign. Adding to the difficulty, Hamas has located many of its military assets near or in civilian facilities such as mosques and schools. In addition, Gaza has a vast tunnel network, more extensive than Israeli intelligence had originally thought, where fighters can move undetected and leaders can hide. Hamas also has deep roots in Gaza, with decades-old ties to mosques, hospitals, schools, and charities, and since 2007, it has been the government there. The group permeates everyday life in Gaza: the doctor, the police officer, the garbage collector, and the teacher may all have links to Hamas, making it difficult to eradicate the group beyond its military wing.

Israel, of course, will not be able to kill every single Hamas fighter. But it may be able to kill enough members, especially leaders and veteran forces, to shatter the group’s military capacity. In this vision of victory, Hamas’s units would no longer be able to fight effectively and launch operations against Israel. And if there were a new government in Gaza, the remnants of Hamas would be more easily suppressed because that administration’s security forces would have a decent chance of finding and suppressing isolated cells of fighters.

Hamas also has a vast military infrastructure. This includes not only its tunnel network but also its rockets, missiles, launch pads, and ammunition depots. The assets are everywhere: Hamas has been preparing for an Israeli invasion for more than a decade. Part of the purpose of Israel’s invasion is to destroy this infrastructure, which in turn requires bombing or occupying much of Gaza. There isn’t much publicly available data for quantifying this progress, but it can be measured by the frequency and size of Hamas’s rocket and missile attacks, the quantity of ammunition Hamas fighters have, and the territory that Hamas controls—all of which, according to the officials I interviewed, are steadily shrinking. Some of these observations are visible to outsiders, whereas others require detailed intelligence to judge.

Hide and Seek

Another metric of success is whether Hamas’s leadership has been destroyed. Israel has a long history of killing terrorist leaders, and Israeli officials have announced plans to assassinate Hamas’s leaders after the war ends. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has called Hamas’s top official, Yahya Sinwar, a “dead man walking,” and even before October 7, Israeli forces had repeatedly tried to kill Hamas’s military leader, Mohammed Deif, as well as his second-in-command, Marwan Issa. The Israeli government reports that it has already killed many Hamas leaders in the current military campaign, with Netanyahu claiming that half of Hamas’s battalion commanders are now dead.

Yet like destroying Hamas’s military infrastructure, eliminating its leadership is difficult. Deif, Issa, and Sinwar are believed to be hiding underground. More junior leaders are clearly being killed, but at least some of them will be replaced by other competent leaders. Because of the difficulty of destroying infrastructure and killing Hamas members and leaders, most of the Israeli security officials I spoke with estimated that another six to nine months of high-intensity military operations are necessary.

Even if the current cohort of leaders is killed, however, Hamas has a deep bench of replacements. Ever since Hamas’s founding in 1987, Israel has routinely killed or jailed its high-level leaders, yet the organization has endured. It has ample lower-level leaders and large support networks to draw on. That said, killing Sinwar and Deif, in particular, would have political value for Israel, even if Hamas replaced them with equally competent and hostile leaders. Both have become symbols of October 7, and an Israeli government could more credibly claim victory if they were killed, even if many of their fellow leaders survived.

Beyond any individual leader, Hamas embodies an ideology that will be even harder to eliminate. The idea behind muqawama, or resistance, is that the way to defeat Israel (and, for that matter, the United States) is through persistent military force, a credo also embraced by Hezbollah and Iran. Should Israel devastate Hamas but a strong new organization with the same mindset take its place, Israel will only have replaced one foe with another. In the past, Israel has nearly eliminated individual Palestinian terrorist groups, such as Al Saiqa, a once-strong Baathist group backed by Syria in the 1960s and 1970s whose leader, Zuheir Mohsen, was gunned down by Israeli agents in 1979. Israel has greatly diminished others, such as the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, a leftist group famed for its airplane hijackings in the 1960s and 1970s and a hang-glider attack on Israel in 1987. But would-be terrorists simply joined other groups, including Hamas.

Ronen Zvulun / Reuters

The ideology of resistance is popular among Palestinians, and October 7 has made it even more so. Hamas deeply hurt Israel, which many Palestinians, humiliated by decades of occupation, regard with glee. Israel’s destructive military campaign, with its large civilian death toll, has further angered Palestinians, and Hamas’s seizure of hostages has forced Israel to release some detained Palestinians, a goal that past negotiations by moderate Palestinians were unable to achieve. A poll conducted in late November and early December by the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research found that 82 percent of Palestinians in the West Bank support the attack. Eventually, Palestinians may look at the destruction in Gaza and conclude that violent resistance makes their lives worse, and polls show that there is less support for October 7 in Gaza, which is paying the price of Hamas’s brutality. But so far, support for Hamas has grown.

A very different aspect of destroying Hamas involves its long-term replacement as the government of Gaza. Someone must govern the strip and prevent Hamas from returning to power, and Israel has no interest in being a long-term occupier. On this question, however, there is little progress, and if anything, the situation for Israel is worse than on October 7. No outside power wants to act as Israel’s police force in Gaza.

U.S. President Joe Biden has called for a “revitalized Palestinian Authority” to govern Gaza. The PA now controls the West Bank and works closely with Israel there on security, but its leadership is incompetent and unpopular. Israel’s harsh policies and expansion of settlements in the West Bank steadily undermined the PA there, and its invasion of Gaza has worsened the organization’s legitimacy problem, as Palestinians admire Hamas’s defiance and see the PA as complicit in Israel’s occupation. “There is no Palestinian leadership,” one interviewee noted acidly, even as he added, “Palestinians must control Gaza.” If the PA were put in charge of Gaza, Palestinians would see it as a handmaiden of the brutal Israeli occupiers. Without significant support from Israel, the PA’s forces would be overwhelmed even by a remnant of Hamas.

Held Hostage

Everywhere I looked in Israel, the faces of hostages stared out from posters. Their treatment in Gaza and the need for their release came up constantly in my conversations. Hamas took roughly 240 hostages on October 7, and a little under half have been freed. The remainder, estimated at 129 today, are still in Gaza, and it is unclear how many of them survive. (Israel believes at least 20 of them have died.) At a psychological level, the presence of over 100 hostages is an open wound for Israel. At a tactical level, it complicates the IDF’s operations.

To comprehend the scale of the trauma for Israelis, consider how Israel has handled hostage situations in the past. In 2011, it traded more than 1,000 Palestinian prisoners for a single Israeli soldier whom Hamas had captured, Gilad Shalit. Since October 7, it has already freed around 240 prisoners in exchange for Hamas’s liberating more than 100 of those captured on October 7, including 23 citizens of Thailand and one from the Philippines, as well as many dual nationals. Many of the remaining hostages are young Israeli men of fighting age, and Hamas has vowed to extract a high price for their release—part of the reason that talks collapsed after the initial releases. Remaining hostages also include women whom Israelis believe were raped or otherwise brutalized, and Hamas is reluctant to release them lest they publicize their abuse. Further complicating the hostage problem, perhaps around 30 of the remaining hostages are under the control of Palestinian Islamic Jihad, another terrorist group, or other factions in Gaza.

Conducting high-intensity military operations while trying to free prisoners is exceptionally difficult. Just as Hamas places its forces among civilians, it uses hostages as shields. Friendly fire by the IDF has killed some Israeli prisoners, and IDF bombing has undoubtedly killed more. If military operations continue, Israel will likely be able to liberate some of those kidnapped, but it will also lose many in the fighting.

The Northern Front

Israel has long relied on deterrence to counter its enemies, trying to convince them that any attack would leave them worse off. Measuring deterrence is difficult. Most Israelis would have said before October 7 that Hamas was successfully deterred, but Hamas nonetheless attacked, and its success may inspire other enemies to do so as well. In general, it is hard to understand the risk-reward calculus of a foe, especially a highly ideological one.

Even as Israel fights on in Gaza, it has engaged in a back-and-forth with Hezbollah on its northern border, with Hezbollah firing rockets and attacking Israeli border posts and the IDF bombing Hezbollah positions. Israeli leaders hope to demonstrate resolve by making Hezbollah pay a price for its aggression, but they also wish to avoid a larger war while their forces are occupied with fighting Hamas. For now, Hezbollah also seems to want to avoid full conflict, launching limited attacks to show solidarity with Hamas but avoiding a more intense campaign. The devastation of Gaza has probably reinforced deterrence: Hezbollah may not want to risk its strongholds in Beirut looking like the moonscape that is much of Gaza today.

Eventually, however, Israel may want to wage a larger war against Hezbollah in the belief that unless it does so, deterrence will not hold and Israel might be surprised again. As one Israeli security official put it to me, “Deterrence is something that lasts until the other side is ready for war.” Hezbollah keeps elite commando units—its Radwan forces—on the Lebanese border with Israel. It also has a substantial rocket arsenal that can reach targets throughout Israel and is big enough to overwhelm the country’s missile defense system.

Israel may be able to continue deterring Hezbollah from launching a war, but the threat of rockets and commando attacks—a repeat of October 7, but in the north and from a far more capable foe—keeps Israeli military planners up at night. In early December, in fact, Gallant, the defense minister, threatened to open up a second front against Hezbollah if the group didn’t remove its Radwan units from the border.

Foreign Friends

Israel is a small country, and despite its military prowess, it cannot operate alone indefinitely. It also sees itself as a Western democracy and is sensitive to criticism from other members of that club. So Israeli leaders have looked on with worry as Western support appears to slip. Anti-Israeli protests have broken out across Europe, and 17 of 27 EU members supported a UN General Assembly resolution calling for a cease-fire.

Arab leaders, including ones who have recently signed peace treaties with Israel, are very critical of Israel publicly—even if they strongly oppose Hamas and its brand of political Islam privately—because Arab publics are outraged by the Palestinian death toll. Yet the new peace deals with Bahrain, Morocco, Sudan, and the United Arab Emirates have held, and there is little sign that they are in jeopardy, even as their leaders’ rhetoric grows more heated.

Israel can live with fraying European ties and growing criticism from Arab states, but losing American support would be an altogether different matter. The Israelis I spoke with were uniformly glowing about Biden—a “mensch,” in one interviewee’s words, and, in another’s, “the biggest friend of Israel since Harry Truman,” who was the first world leader to officially recognize Israel. On top of the more than $3 billion Israel receives from the United States in military aid every year, Congress and the White House are now considering a package that would provide a $14 billion supplement. Israel also depends on the United States for munitions, which it needs in Gaza and would need far more of in a war in Lebanon. The United States also regularly provides cover for Israel at the United Nations—for instance, vetoing a recent Security Council resolution calling for a cease-fire in Gaza.

So far, support for Hamas has grown among Palestinians.

But many Israeli leaders worry that American support may not last forever, and those who don’t harbor that fear should. Biden’s own party is increasingly split over Israel’s conduct in the war, the president himself has now criticized “indiscriminate bombing” in Gaza, and officials in his administration are pressing for an end to major military operations. The Biden administration has also strongly discouraged a preventive war in the north against Hezbollah, with senior U.S. officials, including Biden, telling their Israeli counterparts not to expand the war. The United States deployed two aircraft carriers to the eastern Mediterranean Sea with the explicit purpose of deterring Iran and Hezbollah and the implicit goal of reassuring Israel that the United States has its back—a marked change from before October 7, when many in the Middle East believed the United States was turning its back on the region to focus on China.

To maintain strong U.S. support and avoid putting Arab leaders into a box from which they cannot escape, Israel will need to tone down its military operations in Gaza. But a less aggressive and less destructive campaign will make it harder to kill Hamas’s fighters and demolish its infrastructure. In the north, Israel is also constrained. Barring a serious act of provocation by Hezbollah, Israel cannot launch a war in Lebanon and maintain U.S. support.

Keeping the Faith

Israel was a divided country before October 7, with Netanyahu’s extreme right-wing government pushing to weaken the judiciary, expand settlements in the West Bank, and protect the prime minister from allegations of corruption. Now, Israelis are united behind the goal of destroying Hamas, but many hold Netanyahu responsible for failing to prevent the attack and want to see him resign.

Israelis’ loss of faith in their leaders might simply seem like normal politics, not anything to do with counterterrorism, but in fact such an outcome represents a major goal of terrorists. Hamas was probably seeking to destroy Israelis’ confidence in their government institutions, and even if that wasn’t a goal, this consequence has surely been a welcome bonus for the group. Absent such confidence, displaced Israelis will not return to their homes near Gaza or Lebanon. And skeptics of the Israeli government will see some of its continued anti-Hamas operations as a way for Netanyahu to keep himself in power, not as a genuine necessity in the fight against terrorism.

When it comes to restoring faith in government, Israel has a long way to go. Although Netanyahu has brought some opposition figures into a war cabinet, his own support has plummeted, with a November poll finding that just four percent of Israeli Jews considered him a trustworthy source of information on the war. As operations in Gaza ebb, commissions will investigate the military and intelligence failure on October 7, and the revelations will in the short term no doubt cause Israelis to lose even more confidence in their security institutions. Some confidence will be restored as the IDF and Israeli intelligence services demonstrate their combat proficiency in Gaza, as most Israelis agree they have already by hitting Hamas hard and limiting Israeli casualties. And as a new generation of military and intelligence leaders replaces those who have taken responsibility for the October 7 debacle and promised to resign, some trust should be rebuilt. But in the end, it will probably take years of relative calm for Israelis to regain their faith.

No Way Out

All of Israel’s goals are difficult to achieve, and some are at cross-purposes. A continued military campaign, which would be necessary to severely degrade Hamas and to help rebuild public confidence in the military, will take months to succeed—and even then, it will be unlikely to kill every last Hamas leader and destroy every last tunnel. Releasing hostages and maintaining U.S. support, however, will be difficult to achieve without reducing military operations. And an intense campaign will not help find a solution to the long-term problem of who will govern Gaza: when the dust has settled, Israel will need a Palestinian partner to run the strip, and destructive military operations diminish its credibility among the population there.

Because its goals are difficult to achieve separately and even harder to achieve together, Israel is likely to fall short. Whatever happens, more of Hamas’s leaders and fighters will probably survive than Israel would prefer, and Hezbollah will probably continue its rocket attacks as the war rages in Gaza. Yet a lack of complete success does not mean failure. Hezbollah, like Israel, does not appear to want an all-out war. The October 7 attack has brought Israel and the U.S. government closer and diminished concerns that Washington will abandon the Middle East.

But what became clear from my conversations is that Israel’s current approach to Gaza is too ambitious, and the time has come to correct course. In the coming months, Israel should move away from high-intensity operations while continuing to eliminate Hamas’s top leaders through drone strikes, raids by special operations forces, and other means, doing so even if some of Hamas’s military infrastructure and regular forces remain. Israel needs U.S. backing, and that requires limiting civilian casualties in Gaza, greatly expanding humanitarian efforts in the strip, and avoiding an unprovoked war with Hezbollah. To reassure the Israeli population without fully destroying Hamas and Hezbollah, Israel should station more military forces near Lebanon and Gaza. Perhaps most important, Israel and the international community should begin the long process of bolstering the PA and other alternatives to Hamas to govern Gaza.

Israel must also accept the reality that in many ways, it is damned if it does, damned if it doesn’t. Its leaders must make hard choices about which goals to prioritize and which to set aside. One Israeli security official put it to me best: “The only resource in the Middle East more plentiful than oil is bad options.”

Source: Foreign Affairs