A tipping point?
Dec 19, 2023 | Amotz Asa-El
Israelis see progress in Gaza war
Trapped inside biblical Gaza, and realising his Philistine enemies had laid ambushes to capture him, the legendary Israelite warrior Samson ruined their plan by marching up to Gaza’s wall, uprooting the massive gates and carrying them on his back all the way to the realm of the Israelites.
More than 3,000 years later, Samson’s descendants are back in Gaza, intent on proverbially emulating his feat, as the IDF ploughs its way through the major towns of the 40-kilometre-long Gaza Strip.
As the fighting sparked by Hamas’ surprise attack on October 7 entered its third month, the war’s social, political and diplomatic repercussions seemed to become ever more complex – yet the military picture is steadily clearing, suggesting that the IDF has now broken Gaza’s gates.
Faced with some 40,000 or so armed men hiding out in well-stocked tunnels under an urban landscape thick with civilians, the IDF set out to fight sequentially in the Strip’s three districts – after emptying each of as many non-combatants as possible. The first such area was the Strip’s northern part, which includes Gaza City, and contained about half of Gaza’s population of more than two million.
The northern Strip’s civilian population was told – via leaflets, loudspeakers, social networks and mobile phone calls and messages – to move south. Hamas, realising it was being deprived of its human shields, commanded the population to stay put and also positioned roadblocks to prevent civilians fleeing.
The people, however, voted with their feet in what became a massive exodus from north to south.
The IDF then surprised Hamas by emerging in the heart of Gaza City with two armoured divisions, which engaged the enemy’s troops face-to-face. The troops on the ground reached the headquarters of multiple Hamas battalions, assisted by drones that directed them to specific buildings. Whenever the troops detected clusters of gunmen, they called in airstrikes targeting them.
Coupled with aerial bombing of rocket arsenals and missile launchers, and the targeted killings of Hamas commanders, Hamas’ northern army was soon decimated. This outcome convinced the Israeli public that dislodging Hamas militarily is indeed feasible.
This northern phase of Israel’s invasion was close to completion when a truce was announced on Nov. 24 to allow a gradual exchange of Israeli female and child abductees for female and minor Palestinian prisoners. The truce lasted one week, during which time Hamas released 105 abductees – including Thais and other foreigners who were released under separate arrangements from the Israel-Hamas deal – in return for more than 240 prisoners, as well as the entry into Gaza of increased amounts of fuel, medicine and food.
Fighting resumed on Dec. 1, after Hamas reneged on its promise to release all of the kidnapped women and children held in Gaza, and then began firing rockets. The IDF then moved to the Strip’s central district, focusing on its largest city, Khan Younis – making plain Israel’s resolve to send ground troops throughout the Strip’s entire 365 square kilometres.
The intention of Israel’s military planners, it now seems evident, is as simple as it is painstaking: to find, engage and defeat every Hamas unit, and to find and destroy every tunnel, rocket, missile, bunker and armoury built by the terrorist group.
As the Jewish festival of Hanukah arrived, beginning on Dec. 7, and Israeli soldiers in Gaza were lighting candles amidst the jeeps, tanks, and levelled houses, Hamas’ defence was showing definite cracks.
For the first time since the war began, hundreds of Hamas troops surrendered. Civilians, speaking to Egyptian and Israeli media, began to openly accuse Hamas of having destroyed their lives and stolen much of the humanitarian aid that arrived from abroad to Gaza’s gates. Some also spoke bitterly of Hamas leaders hiding underground, abandoning the civilians of the Strip above ground to war, anarchy and starvation.
This does not mean that the fighting is easy, nor that it is likely to end anytime soon.
IDF casualties in the fighting, 115 soldiers as of Dec.13, are hardly a fraction of Hamas’ losses, which are uncounted but clearly in the thousands, and according to the IDF comprise a large proportion of the casualties suffered by Gazans, despite Hamas’ effort to wage war while surrounded and shielded by civilians.
The IDF death toll, while far lower than Hamas’, is quite high by the standards that normally apply in Israel’s close-knit society. Even so, there is a broad consensus in Israel concerning the need to eradicate Hamas, even at great cost. The sense that the war affects everyone in Israel became even more chillingly palpable on Dec. 7 when the IDF’s list of fatalities included 25-year-old commando reservist Sgt.-Major Gal Eisenkot. Eisenkot was the son of Lt-Gen (res.) Gadi Eisenkot, a member of the Government’s five-person war cabinet representing the National Union party and a former IDF Chief of Staff. The following day Gen. Eisenkot also lost a nephew, Sgt-Major Maor Eisenkot, who fell in northern Gaza.
Indeed, the barbarity and scope of Hamas’ October 7 assault, which Israelis now call Black Saturday, has produced a broadly accepted new Israeli security doctrine, namely, that the Jewish state cannot tolerate the build-up of jihadist militias anywhere along its borders.
This means that while Israel seeks to eradicate Hamas down south, in the north it will also have to eventually seek to push Hezbollah into the Lebanese hinterland, beyond the Litani River which marks south Lebanon off from the rest of the country.
Israeli analysts believe that Hamas did not expect the IDF to invade Gaza in response to October 7, much less as forcefully as it did, or IDF soldiers to be as highly motivated as they have been in clearing Gaza’s towns and streets. The IDF’s constant targeted killings of key Hamas figures, mostly from the air, are also diminishing Hamas’ ability to resist the counterattack it triggered.
Casualties of Israel’s targeted killings include numerous leaders of the October 7 massacre, as well as battalion commanders, regional commanders, intelligence officers, missile engineers and key Hamas political leaders – such as Zakaria Abu Maamar, Hamas’ Chief of External Relations, and Jawad Abu Shammala, the Treasurer who financed Hamas’ military machine.
While the fighting in Gaza has consensus backing inside Israel, beyond the battlefield, the war has generated its fair share of social, political, and diplomatic controversies.
The most urgent issue in Israeli public debate remains the fate of the 138 abductees believed to still be held by Hamas. In a tense meeting with the war cabinet on Dec. 5, relatives of those abducted demanded new swap deals to secure their release and pointed to new reports from released abductees that women captives were often being sexually abused.
When urged to release all Palestinian prisoners held by Israel in return for all the abductees, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu said such a deal “does not exist”, and that Hamas’ aim in any such deal would be to secure its survival and later launch yet more atrocities like October 7’s, “and this we will not accept, nor will you.”
The plight of the abductees and the limbo in which their families live is reflected in the uncertainty also affecting some 130,000 Israeli civilians who remain displaced from their homes, after the Government evacuated them from communities along the Gaza and Lebanese borders to hotels throughout the country.
While this spiked overall Israeli hotel occupancy to 90%, it is obviously an abnormal situation, and also an economically costly one – not only because of the price of accommodation, but also because of the thousands of businesses that these evacuees were compelled to shutter.
This financial burden has generated political controversy after Netanyahu’s Finance Minister, Bezalel Smotrich, refused to fully shift funds promised under coalition agreements for assorted sectarian causes to the war effort.
Incorporating the budgetary demands of Netanyahu’s coalition partners – including increased funding for ultra-Orthodox education – the fiscal-2024 budget was approved by the Knesset in a first reading on Dec. 6. The opposition and much of the media cried foul, and the National Union party voted against the budget despite having joined an emergency government to assist in running the war.
Beyond the social angst and political stress, mounting diplomatic pressure is also being felt and debated in Israel.
Initially after October 7, Israel’s allies rallied behind it unequivocally and unreservedly. US President Biden and French President Macron travelled to Israel personally to display their solidarity, as did three current and former British prime ministers – Rishi Sunak as the incumbent, David Cameron as the Foreign Minister and Boris Johnson, accompanied by former Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison, both as private citizens.
However, as the fighting continues and the number of civilian casualties in Gaza grows, foreign pressure to end the fighting has been gathering. This was underscored by US Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s statements on Dec. 1 that “the way Israel defends itself matters,” and that it is imperative that “the massive loss of civilian life and displacement of the scale that we saw in northern Gaza not be repeated in the south.”
The Israeli Government and army say they hear the American comments and are making very certain that the IDF’s tactics and strategy fully comply with the demands of international law. Having said this, there is no indication that anyone in Israel is ready to prematurely halt the IDF’s assault.
Having seen Hamas torch Israeli families in their homes, shoot Israeli children in the head, kidnap others, and commit rape and murder against numerous Israeli women – Israelis from centre, right and left now tell each other, every hour, every day: “This is a war of Ein Brera (‘no choice’) – it’s either us or them.”