Notwithstanding the Biden Op-Ed, the Biden Administration may prove vulnerable to pressure, as the Democratic electoral prospects for 2024 take a hit.
US and Israeli intelligence had earlier expressed their settled certainty that Hamas leaders and their command HQ were to be found under Al-Shifa hospital. It was widely believed that, with the hospital surrounded, the world was about to witness the collective Hamas leadership arise from the dark depths of their hospital bunkers with their hands up, only to be led away, ignominiously, as captives.
That was the script. Only it didn’t pan out. Rather, the Israeli inept public relations efforts – that are still continuing - to prove the validity of Israeli Intelligence’s claim of there having been a Hamas HQ under the hospital have been roundly ridiculed around the globe. What has followed however, is the grave sequella of Palestinian hospitals generally being either surrounded or attacked, thus lending credence for many to the notion that the original intelligence claim has become the pretext to the wider destruction of the Strip's humanitarian infrastructure - so as to sear the Palestinian consciousness with the conviction that with homes, schools and hospitals destroyed, how could they return? There would be nothing there to support social existence.
I recall a similar episode during the 2006 war on Hizbullah. The Israelis were convinced they knew the precise location in Dahiya in Beirut where the Hizbullah Command was hidden; they bombed it flat. Only Hizbullah -- like Hamas today -- wasn’t there. I wrote in 2006 a two-part analysis, which described how Hizbullah in 2006 had won the intelligence ‘war’, and had fed false human intelligence to Tel Aviv. Perhaps Hamas may have learnt a thing or two…
The Israeli entire ‘Hamas strategy’ was constructed around the premise of the collective Hamas leadership hiding beneath Al-Shifa: Their anticipated surrender was meant to herald an alluringly quick end to the Hamas revolt, and the opportunity to shift gears towards getting the Europeans to arm-twist Egypt to receive the displaced Gaza population for ‘humanitarian reasons’. Reportedly, EU President Von der Leyen, visited Egypt and Jordan to present them with financial offers ($10bn for Egypt and $5bn for Jordan), in exchange for the dispersal of the inhabitants of the Gaza strip elsewhere, and to facilitate the evacuation of the Palestinian population from the Strip in line with Israel’s now explicitly stated aims.
However, former minister Ayalet Shaked’s tweet, “After we turn Khan Yunis into a soccer field, we need to tell the countries that each of them take a quota: We need all 2 million to leave. That’s the solution to Gaza”- by being so explicit, likely has torpedoed Von der Leyen’s initiative. No Arab state wants to be complicit in a new Nakba. Further diplomatic damage was inflicted by ministers, Knesset members and retired generals calling for a transfer of Palestinians abroad, to use a nuke on the Strip, and not to be deterred by the outbreak of epidemics, which will only expedite an Israeli victory. .
A hostage exchange is tentatively agreed. In the end, Netanyahu bowed to the pressures building up within a fractured Israeli society as a result of intense lobbying by the hostage families – and by the US. The question now is what is the new end-game when the hostage exchange truce finishes: More of the same, or harsher destruction -- this time in south Gaza?
One faction wants to build on the military pressures (in the anticipation that this will force further hostage releases). Another simply wants to level Gaza and to create such a humanitarian crisis that the West sees no alternative but population resettlement in Egypt, Jordan or elsewhere. Both Jordan and Egypt are firmly resisting these threats and the promised inducements.
A Hudna in my experience, inevitably is highly precarious. Two key lessons that I learnt from trying to initiate truces during the Second Intifada were that a ‘truce is a truce’ – and only that: Both sides use it to reposition themselves for the next round of fighting. And the second, was that ‘quiet’ in one confined locality does not spread de-escalation to another geographically separate locality; but rather, that one outbreak of egregious violence is virally contagious - and spreads geographically instantly.
The present hostage exchange is centred on Gaza. However, the Israelis has three fronts of hot conflict open (Gaza, northern border and in the West Bank). An bad incident occurring in any one of the three fronts may be enough to collapse confidence in the Gaza understanding and re-launch Israeli assault on Gaza.
On the eve of the truce, by way of example, Israeli forces heavily bombed both Syria and Lebanon. Seven Hizbullah fighters were killed.
A hostage release, per se, resolves nothing. What does all this imply for the course of the war? Well, the war cabinet faction led by Gantz and Eisenkot, had argued that Israel must save whomsoever hostages it can, won the day in a tense three hour cabinet meeting.
The Israeli military already has announced its intention to renew the fighting immediately after the end of the cease-fire: Israeli officials have been telling their US counterparts that they anticipate several more weeks of operating in the north, before shifting focus to the south. US spokespersons have explicitly given a green light to continued Israeli military action, and to the shift of focus to southern Gaza -- abeit with a pro-forma caveat: "We believe both that they have the right to do that, but that there is a real concern, because hundreds of thousands of residents of Gaza have fled from the north to the south at Israel's request", said a US Deputy National Security Adviser.
It is therefore likely that the hawkish cabinet faction understand that time is limited (a few weeks, perhaps) and that, if they are honest with themselves, they acknowledge they have not begun the job of any meaningful degrading of Hamas.
Notwithstanding the Biden Op-Ed, the Biden Administration may prove vulnerable to pressure, as the Democratic electoral prospects for 2024 take a hit. The US is racked by heated division on Israelis and Palestine. The Biden window, therefore, may prove much shorter than the bluster of Biden’s opinion piece suggests.
Hamas’ timeline is likely the longer, if true that reportedly, their underground facilities are well provisioned. So far, the IDF have relied on tanks and armoured personnel carriers for their Gaza operations, with little by way of foot patrolling to prevent attacks on its armour. As a consequence, the IDF are suffering considerable loss of armour -- but their absolute priority is given to force protection.
The bottom line is that to degrade the main Hamas force requires precisely that type of conflict that the Israelis are so anxious to avoid. The Israeli command is not confident that it can prevail in a ruined urban, hand-to-hand warfare setting. This also happens to be the battlespace in which Hamas’ expertise lies.
Heavy bombing of Gaza surface area is no substitute: invading hospitals and destroying people's homes will not bring an end to Hamas. More and more civilians will die; and as the weather worsens and disease spreads, the situation in Gaza simply will be seen everywhere (save amongst certain western élites) to be wholly unacceptable and intolerable. The growing anger will serve to shorten the shortest war timeline (Israeli ‘latitude’ to continue decimating Gaza). Doubts amongst Israeli élites are also growing.
In parallel to Gaza, the West Bank is rapidly emerging as a third front in the Israeli war. Attention naturally is focused on Gaza and the daily exchanges of fire across the northern border that have significantly intensified in the past two days. Yet, between these latter two, the West Bank front is heating up – albeit limited in scope, but with no less important consequences, since 7 October, 210 Palestinians have been killed, and more than 2,800 wounded, in the West Bank.
More widely, Iraqi groups continue attacks on US bases in Syria and Iraq: US bases and troops in Iraq and Syria have faced near-daily assaults from rocket fire and drones, recording at least 65 incidents since 17 October. And the Yemeni Armed Forces -- in a major maritime escalation -- have seized an Israeli-owned cargo vessel (48,710 gross tons), the Galaxy Leader, in the Red Sea
The stance elucidated by Biden will bring about a lengthening and widening of war. The cold anger in the Islamic sphere, too, will begin to force action by hesitant Islamic states (reluctant to cut across "Israel" or the US): If the Israelis are strangling the supply of fuel into Gaza, why should energy producers not squeeze Israeli supplies until they allow free flow of fuel into Gaza? The pressure for this type of action inevitably will gain more traction, as Gaza’s misery draws out, and as the West Bank situation becomes more incendiary.