Israel continues to battle Hamas in Gaza, where questions linger over how long its forces will take to genuinely subdue Hamas’s stubborn resistance. However, other troubles hover over the Jewish State or lie just below the horizon. How much attention Israel is giving to these remains unclear. But they exert outsize influence over the outcome of the conflict itself.
When Israel launched its offensive in Gaza shortly after Hamas’s savage attacks on southern Israel, it may not have been fully aware of the challenges this military operation would bring. That includes both the time it will take its forces to demilitarize Hamas, i.e., eliminate its capability to threaten Israel, and remove it as the governing authority over the densely populated strip of land and its 2.2 million Palestinian inhabitants. While Hamas’s authority over Gaza has been nearly neutralized, Israeli authorities have made it abundantly clear that neutralizing Hamas’s military capabilities will be a months-long struggle, perhaps extending to the end of 2024 or beyond.
Hamas has had 16 years to entrench itself, literally and figuratively, in Gaza. Its sophisticated social, organizational and infrastructure network is extensive and deep. Furthermore, stepped-up recruitment and training have increased the ranks of Hamas combat forces to more than 30,000.
Israel has claimed to have killed some 8,000 of Hamas fighters. Yet Hamas fatalities are only a third of the number killed by Israeli forces in Gaza. This figure is approximately 22,300 and does not include the estimated 7,000 that still lie buried and unrecovered in Gaza’s sprawling mounds of collapsed building rubble. Moreover, Israeli Defense Force (IDF) bombings and artillery shelling have devastated Gaza’s landscape. About 300,000 of this strip’s housing stock of some 440,000, or 70% percent, and some 18% of its building structures are destroyed. The Wall Street Journal characterized Gaza as a “modern-day Dresden,” a reference to the leveling of this German city by the mass bombing of allied aircrafts in World War II.
Israel’s Critics Rising
Beyond the continuing struggle against Hamas, Israel must also contend with an increasingly vocal international community outraged by what it sees as the disproportionate loss of human life and destruction. There have been multiple calls for immediate ceasefires by UN members and even within the UN Security Council. Israel has rebuffed these calls because it sees a ceasefire as inherently advantageous to Hamas. It argues that a ceasefire would preserve Hamas forces and presence in Gaza and, therefore, be tantamount to awarding this terrorist organization a victory. Israel’s biggest and most important supporter, the United States, agrees with this Israeli assessment and has blocked various UN Security Council resolutions calling for a ceasefire.
However, America’s support for Israel not only in the UN but also on the battlefield with weapons and munitions has caused problems for itself. American policy on the matter has put it at odds with most of the international community and led to claims of hypocrisy and double standards. American critics point out that the US calls for condemnation of Russian aggression against Ukraine but neglects Palestinian cries for support in its struggle against “Israeli aggression.”
Since coming into office three years ago, the US administration of President Joe Biden has exerted supreme effort to move America back into the good graces of its allies and the international community, especially the Global South. The Biden administration is making amends for the twin foreign policy disasters of earlier this century: Iraq and Afghanistan. US support for Israel may now be earning America another black eye in international affairs precisely at a time it can least afford it.
However, the goodwill Biden earned in Israel at the start of the conflict may now be paying off. He is responding not only to international pressure but also to domestic pressures, including within his own Democratic party in an election year. Now, Biden and his team are ratcheting up pressure on Israel to rein in its Gaza onslaught. For instance, they are asking Israel to hit targets more precisely and cut down collateral casualties. Israel’s announcement earlier this month to withdraw five troop brigades from the battle zone is due in part to American counsel. Going forward, Israeli forces must find a way to do more in Gaza with less. The IDF has to find a way to achieve its aims using less aerial and artillery bombardment, fewer troops, and most importantly, fewer Palestinian casualties.
Regional Challenges Abound
While the much-feared multi-front war has fortunately failed to materialize, Israel finds itself (or its allies, principally the US) increasingly engaged in security operations elsewhere in the Middle East. Violence has increased steadily in the West Bank as Palestinian attacks and disturbances have become more brazen and frequent at a time when Israel cannot afford to be drawn away from its operations in Gaza. Efforts to quell the West Bank violence have led to the deaths of some 320 Palestinians. This latest uprising is unquestionably stimulated and promoted by Hamas, which has a limited but active presence in the West Bank. Hezbollah has also stirred the pot because it sees disruptions as integral to Iran’s “Axis of Resistance” plan to foment and elevate instability in and around Israel. Among West Bank Palestinians there is also palpable frustration with Palestinian Authority (PA) President Mahmoud Abbas. They are tired of the woefully corrupt, inept and disordered PA, and Abbas’s Fatah party, which have little to show for their 18 years of governance.
Aside from Gaza, Israel’s major concern in its immediate region is Hezbollah. Armed activity, including skirmishes along the Israel-Lebanon border and cross-border artillery shelling, has increased since October 7. While both sides want to avoid an all-out conflict, as occurred in 2006, their behavior to date suggests that the risk of escalation is rising. Israel’s risky January 2 drone attack to take out Hamas Deputy Chief Saleh Al Arouri in Beirut could have been just the match to light up a major eruption between Israel and Hezbollah. For now, Hezbollah Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah has ruled that out, pledging only retributive “punishment” for the attack. But border tensions remain dangerously high.
In addition to the West Bank and Hezbollah in southern Lebanon, Israel faces growing attacks from Iran’s “Axis of Resistance” proxies in Syria and Iraq. They are increasingly attacking US troops. In the Red Sea, Houthi rebels threaten shipping passing through the world’s main commercial thoroughfare between Asia and Europe. A US-led, 14-nation coalition, Operation Prosperity Guardian, issued a warning January 3 to the Yemen-based Houthis to halt their attacks on commercial vessels or face unspecified consequences. These are likely to entail armed strikes against Houthi bases in Yemen, potentially reigniting and even expanding that nation’s nearly nine-year civil war. Until recently, this war had shown promising signs of coming to some closure, at least as far as foreign involvement was concerned.
As far as Israel is concerned, the Houthis are not an immediate threat. The IDF has indeed launched defensive rockets to down some Houthi missiles headed to Israel but Israeli conflict with the Houthis is eminently manageable for now and unlikely to increase.
While the Houthis are an irritation, its puppet master is a major threat. Iran has used proxies to orchestrate an effective distraction for Israel, which drains the country and its closest ally and supporter, the US. By sending naval ships to the Red Sea, America is now fighting battles on Israel’s behalf. Unquestionably Iran’s intention is to present the Islamic Republic as the region’s genuine leader. Iran will decide to escalate, or de-escalate, the conflicts in southern Lebanon and the Red Sea in accordance with its national interests. Neither the US nor Israel has figured how to neutralize Iranian influence and power in the region. But one thing is clear: increased US military activity will have unpredictable consequences throughout the region and in the US. This is particularly relevant during an already politically and emotionally fraught US election year.
And Problems Closer to Home
Israel’s formidable external challenges may pale in comparison to its internal problems. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu faces growing unpopularity at home. Some polls indicate that as many as 70-80% want him to resign after the war. In fact, only 15% want Netanyahu to keep his job after the war.
Netanyahu has also suffered a constitutional setback. On January 1, the Israeli Supreme Court’s historic ruling overturned the Netanyahu government’s contentious judicial reforms. The court struck down the law challenging the “reasonableness” standard, casting more dark shadows over Netanyahu’s leadership. While his early exit in the midst of the Gaza war seems unlikely, it cannot be dismissed, especially if the court finds Netanyahu guilty of the charges involving bribery, fraud and breach of trust charges.
Even more important than Netanyahu is the biggest question looming over Israel: What happens “the day after?” At present, the embattled prime minister has stated that Israel will be responsible for maintaining Gaza’s security after the war. That will be costly after a war that is estimated to cost Israel 2.00% of its GDP in 2024. This isn’t a responsibility that Israel could or would want to shoulder indefinitely. So, if not Israel, then who? Netanyahu has rejected any security role for the PA’s security forces, which admittedly cannot even police the West Bank effectively.
There is also the related question of governing Gaza with Hamas out of the picture. Palestinians and the international community will unquestionably reject that role for Israel. This idea smacks of settlement or even annexation, two words that enrage both groups. Note that Israel is unlikely to want to take on the task of governing Gaza either. Running this over-populated, now impoverished stretch of land with a wrecked economy that has effectively been leveled will be an unimaginably herculean task. Imagine the costs and the headaches associated with building and operating hospitals, schools, roads, water, sewers and more. Think of hiring all the local staff to carry out these and so many other public administration tasks. This would be a thankless task and a nightmare for Israeli administrators.
Managing the Day After: America Has Some Advice
There hasn’t been much public talk within Israel about how the country will deal with Gaza once the war is over. Defense Minister Yoav Gallant recently presented his vision of the day after with Israel assuming control of security and an “Israeli-guided” Palestinian body running day-to-day administration. According to Gallant, the US and other countries would oversee rebuilding.
Gallant’s plan, which isn’t yet official Israeli policy, may be a start but will require further fleshing out within Israel and among the broader international community. The US, other countries and, most importantly, the Palestinians will need to sign off on this or any other approach if it is to work.
For both security and administration, Israel will have no choice but to turn to the international community, starting with the US. Washington will have a lot to share from its experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan. The Israelis would be well advised to pick the Americans’ brains for what to do and, even more importantly, what not to do, which the US learned the hard way.
Rebuilding Gaza will ultimately prove to be a task too expansive and expensive for just the US, already saddled with the accumulated debt of failed nation-building experiments in Iraq and Afghanistan. Enter the Europeans and the Arab countries. Their participation will be necessary, especially in financing the reconstruction of Gaza’s razed landscape. Without their willing and active participation, Gaza will not recover, and Israel will remain with an impoverished neighbor it can’t support with an increasingly hostile and largely young population on Israel’s borders.
No country, including the US, is likely to pony up anything close to what Gaza will require without a firm commitment from Israel to accept a separate, independent state for the Palestinian people. Recognizing and accepting that reality after the last 15-plus years of fruitlessly trying to dodge or ignore it, may be the biggest challenge for the people of Israel and their leadership.
And even with an Israeli acceptance of two states, questions of governance in the future Palestinian state and who are to be Israel’s negotiating partners will be difficult to answer. Hamas, as presently conceived and organized, is unacceptable and the PA lacks the resources, leadership, competence and trust of the Palestinian people. Clearly, a lot of work will need to be done and the Palestinians will need considerable help from the international community to make the two-state solution a reality.
The two-state solution and the various questions it entails can no longer be kicked down a dead-end road.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.
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