Australia/Israel Review

Editorial: Don’t throw Hamas a lifeline

Feb 27, 2024 | Colin Rubenstein

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken with Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem (Image: Haim Zach/ GPO/ Flickr)
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken with Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem (Image: Haim Zach/ GPO/ Flickr)

“You may have missed it amid the media defeatism,” the editorial for the Wall Street Journal opened on February 4, “but Israel is winning its war in Gaza.”

What was true then is even more true now. As Israeli journalist Haviv Rettig Gur revealed during his recent visit to Australia, over the last three months, the IDF hasn’t just been winning the war, having defeated most of Hamas’ armed battalions, it has also learned a great deal about how to better counter Hamas’ massive tunnel threat and eliminate Hamas terrorists without having to fight as destructively above ground.

According to Israeli military sources, Hamas’ Khan Younis Brigade has now been essentially defeated, leaving the southern Gaza city of Rafah with its four Hamas battalions the last significant territory under Hamas’ control. 

In addition to being Hamas’ final bastion, Rafah, along the Egyptian border, is also the key to preventing Hamas from dominating and benefitting from current and future aid flows into Gaza, and being able to continue to smuggle arms into Gaza through tunnels under the border. 

Unless Hamas can somehow be forced to make a deal that amounts to effective surrender – which appears very unlikely – there should be no doubt that the war cannot end without defeating those remaining battalions; killing, capturing or forcing into exile the organisation’s top leadership, thought to be hiding in Rafah; and ending Hamas’ ability to control cross-border aid and arms flows. 

Otherwise, the terror group’s rule over Gaza – focused wholly on turning it into a dedicated terror base riddled with tunnels and other military infrastructure – will likely continue. There would be every likelihood that Hamas would soon attempt to repeat the murderous attack it perpetrated against Israel on October 7, as it says it intends to.

As for the fate of the 134 Israeli hostages still being held in Gaza, most Israeli analysts agree that only continued military pressure will convince Hamas to lower its terms to agree to another hostages-for-temporary ceasefire deal like the one it agreed to last November. 

Since then, Hamas has been making delusional demands tantamount to requiring Israel’s complete surrender in exchange for any release of more hostages – including withdrawing all Israeli troops from and ending all aerial surveillance of Gaza, terminating the blockade of military material into Gaza, and freeing hundreds of terrorist prisoners chosen by Hamas itself. 

These are all “obvious non-starters”, as US Secretary of State Antony Blinken noted.

Admittedly, the population of Rafah has swelled to 1.2 million people during the war, mostly from civilians fleeing the fighting in northern Gaza. It’s true that in the war’s early stages, the IDF told Gazans to move south for their own safety. And one cannot but feel sympathy for the hardships faced by Palestinian civilians who have had to relocate one or more times and are now being asked to move again – though it’s worth remembering the distances involved are only a few kilometres. 

That said, the slogan we keep hearing that the refugees in Rafah “have no place to go” is simply wrong. As the WSJ has reported, the IDF has discussed with the US, Egypt and some Gulf states some very feasible evacuation plans for Rafah’s refugees to pre-prepared camps along the Gazan coastline, possibly with Egyptian oversight. 

Israel’s military has emphasised repeatedly that just as there is no victory over Hamas without Rafah, there will be no invasion of Rafah before civilians have been given ample time and means to relocate to safer areas – and rightfully so. 

Given all this, the joint statement released by the Prime Ministers of Australia, Canada and New Zealand on Feb. 15, expressing “grave concern” over Israeli plans to enter Rafah while calling for a ceasefire in which “Hamas must lay down its arms and release all hostages immediately,” displayed disturbing contradictions and a lack of realism. 

It would of course be ideal if Israel’s war against Hamas could be ended by the latter agreeing to lay down its arms and release all hostages, obviating the need for Israel to undertake military operations into Rafah. But as noted above, Hamas’ current demands demonstrate it is nowhere near agreeing to anything of the sort. So if Israel can’t enter Rafah, but Hamas won’t lay down its arms, what happens then? 

Moreover, the three PMs also quite rightly called for a negotiated ultimate two-state resolution to achieve lasting peace and security. However, this can’t possibly happen while Hamas, dedicated to both Israel’s destruction and killing Jews, retains power in Gaza. PM Albanese and Foreign Minister Wong have acknowledged as much in the past by repeatedly insisting that Hamas must have no role in Gaza’s future. 

The only way to disarm Hamas and to prevent it from scuttling any future hope for a political resolution is to decisively defeat it, and that will only happen if Israel does conduct a military campaign in Rafah – or the threat of such a campaign forces Hamas to back down from its far-fetched demands.

Wishful thinking – or a vague feeling that “there must be a better way” – cannot change this reality. 

This disconcerting unrealism of the Feb. 15 statement reflects a wider trend of fanciful and self-contradictory thinking that has crept into much of Western policymaking in recent weeks regarding the war – including the problematic draft resolution submitted to the UN Security Council by the Biden Administration on Feb. 19. 

It’s time to lower the hysteria and design a principled and reality-based approach to resolving the Rafah military conundrum. This must protect civilian lives as much as possible, yet also close the chapter on Hamas rule in Gaza, which has caused so much pain and suffering to Israelis and Palestinians alike. Otherwise, such suffering will only continue. 

It would be simply tragic to throw Hamas a lifeline at the precise moment when its collapse is imminent – thus snatching defeat for Israel from the jaws of victory – and miss the opportunity to move Palestinians and Israelis in a new direction of conflict resolution instead of continued bloodshed. 

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