IN THE MEDIA

This is no time to throw Hamas a lifeline

Mar 15, 2024 | Colin Rubenstein

Fighters from Hamas' Qassam Brigades (Image: Shutterstock)
Fighters from Hamas' Qassam Brigades (Image: Shutterstock)

The Australian – March 15, 2024

 

“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. Over the last four 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 network 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 continuing to siphon off aid flows into Gaza, and rearming through cross-border tunnels.

Unless Hamas decides to surrender, which seems unlikely, it’s hard to see how the war can 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 be resupplied.

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.

As for the fate of the 134 Israeli hostages still 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. However, with Ramadan having commenced and Hamas rejecting recent proposals, immediate prospects for an agreement have lessened.

Hamas has continued making delusional demands tantamount to requiring Israel’s complete surrender in exchange for the 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 many hundreds of terrorist prisoners chosen by Hamas itself.

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

Rafah’s population 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 northern Gazans to move south for their own safety, although no promise was made, implied or otherwise, that a day would never come when the IDF would need to manoeuvre in Gaza’s south as well. Still, one can only feel the deepest sympathy for internally displaced Palestinian civilians experiencing yet another move – even if it is likely to be only a few kilometres.

That said, the mantra we keep hearing that the refugees in Rafah “have no safe place left to go” is untrue. As reported, the IDF has put forward plans for large numbers of tent encampments to be set up for Rafah’s refugees along the Gazan coastline, with aid from the US, and some Gulf States, possibly with Egyptian oversight.

Given all this, the joint statement released by the Prime Ministers of Australia, Canada and New Zealand back on February 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,” appears contradictory and unrealistic.

Naturally, it would be ideal if Hamas could be cajoled to lay down its arms and release all hostages, obviating the need for Israel to undertake military operations into Rafah. But if Hamas won’t disarm, what happens then?

Moreover, the three PMs also quite rightly called for a negotiated two-state resolution to achieve lasting peace and security. However, any path to such an outcome remains blocked while Hamas controls Gaza. Recognising this, PM Albanese and Foreign Minister Wong have repeatedly stressed Hamas must have no role in Gaza’s future.

The only way to scuttle Hamas’ plans to sabotage all peace moves is to decisively dismantle it and that will only happen if Israel, sooner or later it now seems, pursues Hamas into Rafah – or the threat of such a campaign forces Hamas to scale back its demands. Wishful thinking cannot change this reality.

This disconcerting unrealism of the February 15 statement reflects a wider trend of fanciful and self-contradictory thinking that has crept into recent Western policymaking regarding the war.

If Israel’s allies have better military options for ending Hamas rule in Rafah – a scenario that both protects civilian lives to the greatest extent possible, yet also gives Hamas no relief from the pressure – let’s hear them. So far, nothing serious or viable has been forthcoming.

Otherwise, throwing Hamas a lifeline now, as it teeters on the brink of defeat, amounts to scuttling any hope of long-term peace, and dooming both Palestinians and Israelis to endless rounds of warfare like the current conflict.

Dr Colin Rubenstein is Executive Director of the Australia/Israel & Jewish Affairs Council.

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