Endstate in Gaza

Sub Title : Possible outcomes in the backdrop of IDF’s partially successful offensive

Issues Details : Vol 18 Issue 1 Mar – Apr 2024

Author : Ajay Singh

Page No. : 32

Category : Geostrategy

: March 22, 2024

Five months into Israel’s incursion into Gaza following the devastating attacks on Simchat Torah Day, the operation’s efficacy remains questionable. Despite substantial military action, Israel’s primary objectives appear unmet, and the broader consequences suggest a complex and uncertain path forward for regional security and peace

Impasse in Gaza

It has been five months now, since Israel rushed into Gaza, seeking retribution for the horrific Hamas attacks on Simchat Torah Day, that killed around 1400 Israelis and took 253 as hostages. Since then Gaza has been virtually flattened to the ground; 31,000 have been killed and over 1.4 million (in a population of 2.3 million) displaced. 65% of its buildings and infrastructure have been bombed to rubble and the entire population is under threat of starvation and disease.

But at the end of it all, what has Israel achieved? When they declared ‘Operation Swords of Iron’ on 07 October 23- its first formal declaration of war in 50 years – they set out with three aims in mind; the freeing and bringing home of the hostages, the elimination of Hamas and its war-waging potential, and the establishment of a new regime in Gaza, that would ensure Israel’s lasting security.

They have attained partial success of these aims. Out of the 253 hostages, 105 have been returned in prisoner swaps, many have been killed by Israeli bombings, three were shot by Israeli soldiers, even as they raised a white flag to draw attention, and others were killed in cases of mistaken identity. Only three prisoners – including a woman soldier, Private Ori Megidish – have been rescued so far by Israeli forces. Despite  raging protests across Israel to “Get them Back” the remaining hostages are nowhere close to a return home.

Nor has Hamas or its leadership been eliminated. Israel claims to have killed 13,000 Hamas fighters (presumably buried under rubble with other civilians.) But none of the top three who planned and executed the operation have been killed or apprehended – Yahya Sinwar, the head of the Gaza faction of Hamas, Mohammed Deif, the shadowy head of its Al Qassam brigade and Marwan Issa, its head of operations – are still on the loose (though, Issa was reportedly killed in a Israeli air strike.) Hamas fighters still pop up from tunnels to cause casualties to approaching troops and they still can fire rockets sporadically into Israel.

It is in the last aim – that of ensuring lasting security – that Israel is struggling the most. Israel’s actions have weakened its position in the Middle East, not strengthened it. Its security is now more fragile, and they are more isolated than at any point since 1967. They have angered most of the Arab world, they face growing anger in the West Bank, and the Hezbollah, Houthis and other Iran sponsored militia have taken up arms in support of Gaza. Iran too is making threatening gestures. Even its long-time ally, the USA, is showing exasperation at Israel’s relentless prosecution of a war which seems to be more angry retribution, than the following of a deliberate plan.

The war has already gone on longer than any other of Israel’s wars (less the 1948 War for Independence) but there seems no clear end in sight. Perhaps because Israel itself did not envisage a clear end-state for its war aims. Yet, where could this war lead to?

The End-state

How can Israel attain its war aims?  The return of hostages – one of the major aims – can only be achieved through talks and negotiations. Much was expected from the talks brokered by Qatar and Egypt for a Ramadhan truce, in which Hamas would release the remaining hostages in return for a complete ceasefire and assumption of humanitarian aid into Gaza, during the holy month of Ramzan. These talks were skuttled since Israel could not give a guarantee for a permanent ceasefire, and only offered a pause in the fighting, leading to Hamas apprehensions that if they returned the prisoners, they would lose their only trump card and leave Israel free to resume its offensive thereafter. Logically, Israel’s only hope to get the prisoners back safely is through a prisoner swap and a truce.  Else few will be extricated safely. But perhaps by now, even the prisoners have merely become pawns in the larger game.

The elimination of Hamas and its war making potential will be attained – irrespective of the collateral damage to the rest of Gaza – but then what? Even if the trio of Sinwar, Deif and Issa are killed or captured and most of the cadres eliminated, it would merely set the grounds for a new generation of angry resentful young men to take on the mantle. Hamas would merely re-surface in another form.

And there is an even greater threat looming on the northern front – from the Hezbollah in Lebanon. The Hezbollah and Palestinian groups in the West Bank have intensified their attacks and that will pose a long term security threat to Israel. After eliminating Hamas will Israel go after Hezbollah next? They are many in the Israeli cabinet – including the hard-line defence minister, Yoav Gallant, who favour an attack into Lebanon to eliminate Hezbollah, but that would be an even more difficult nut to crack. Hezbollah is four times the size of Hamas and its fighters are better trained and equipped. Israel would also remember its last two disastrous invasions of Lebanon. In 1982, it merely destabilised Lebanon and helped create the Hezbollah. In its invasion of 2006, it was fought to a standstill by Hezbollah and eventually forced to withdraw from Lebanon. If Israel decides to take on the Hezbollah, it may be a dangerous gamble.

More so, Israel is running out of time. It is no longer seen as the victim, but the aggressor. They have lost the war of perception and world pressure is building up to stop the war and allow the resumption of humanitarian aid into Gaza. South Africa brought up a case in the International Court of Justice, accusing Israel of committing genocide in Gaza. After vetoing three UN resolutions for a ceasefire in Gaza, the USA finally supported a UNGA resolution calling for “immediate and sustained ceasefire in Gaza, and resumption of humanitarian aid.” Even as the USA provides bombs to Israel, and drops food to the bombed population of Gaza, it too is running out of patience  with its ally. It has begun the process of building a pier of the Gaza coast to enable humanitarian aid to enter the enclave (which has been under land, air and naval blockade by Israel since 2007). The US administration openly criticises Netanyahu, whose far right policies have led to this catastrophe in the first place, with  Biden publicly announcing, “Netanyahu is hurting Israel more than helping it.”

Without unstinted US support, Israel would have to stop the war soon. Their military successes have been limited so far and they have merely attacked Gaza City in the North, then moved to Khan Younis in the South then towards Central Gaza, pushing the civilians from one end of the strip to the other. They are now poised for a ‘final offensive’ towards Rafah in the South, where an estimated 1.5 million Gazans are cramped and dislocated by the war. Should Israel go ahead with this – a step Biden calls “A red line” –  it will escalate the war, isolate Israel even more, and at the end of it all still have little to show.

But Israel would want to show some gains, and should they succeed in killing/capturing some of the top Hamas leadership, it could be induced to halt further operations. Perhaps then, a truce could be hammered out, in which the remaining hostages are released in return for ceasefire and the resumption of aid into Gaza. That might be the initial stage.

Then would come the even more difficult part. Establishing an architecture in Gaza that ensures Israel’s continuous security.  With Hamas gone, who would take over the governance of Gaza? Israel may have to keep a long-term presence there  (after all they occupied it till 2005, when they were finally forced out after the second intifada). But that will also make them responsible for its rehabilitation and reconstruction. And eventually the governance would have to be done by a local body. Fatah, which was pushed out of Gaza by Hamas in 2006 (with a little help from Israel) may be urged to move back there. But Mahmoud Abbas, the head of the Palestinian Authority is not keen on, “Riding into Gaza in an Israeli tank.” So Israel may be forced to maintain their own presence there for some time to come, which will drain its resources considerably, and further weaken its perception in the world.

And at the end of it, all, Hamas, despite its virtual decimation, may emerge from the conflict as having attained its aims.  It launched its 7 October attacks with the aim of drawing attention to the Palestinian cause and reviving the two state solution. It has succeeded in doing so. More and more parties – including the USA, Saudi, Iran and Russia – are stating that the only way to permanent peace is the establishment of a Palestinian state in Gaza and the West Bank.  That may take some time but at least the two-state solution is back on the table. It is quite likely that Netanyahu and his rabid right-wing coalition government may be forced to resign after the war and a moderate government could come in its place. If this war restarts the process of ensuring a just and equitable solution for the Palestinian people, it might just be a greater harbinger of Israel’s security then this brutal exhibition of retribution that it is following now.