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Israel Has Fallen Into Hamas' Trap. But There's a Way Out

Ms. Fortna is 100% correct in her assessment. Astutely presented.

Only one problem...Israel's leaders and the majority of its citizens are too stupid to figure this out. Sorry if that's too blunt for you...put on your big boy pants.

Forgetting whether you think "this or that is justified" the plain fact is this isn't working and will get worse as the IDF continues to trip over its own two feet and telegraph horrendous suffering of innocents over global media.

Biden's finally waking up to the giant turd he's stepped in but lacks the balls to stop supplying arms/money for this disastrous campaign.

Israel Has Fallen Into Hamas' Trap. But There's a Way Out

Hamas' hope is to provoke Israel into killing enough civilians to defeat Israel politically – a classic terrorist strategy of provocation that Israel has fallen for. But beating Hamas requires unconventional thinking

By Page Fortna, Haartz Media

Mar 10, 2024 4:27 pm IST

Israel's strategy in Gaza has been to defeat Hamas militarily through siege, bombardment, and ground operations. Intent on destroying Hamas' tunnel network and eliminating its leadership and fighters, it has resisted calls for a ceasefire and more access for humanitarian aid.

Israel may win the battle with this strategy, but it will lose the war.

With its brutal attack on October 7, Hamas successfully drew Israel into a trap. Israel's defenders lay responsibility for the civilian toll in Gaza at the feet of Hamas. Yes, Hamas uses human shields and intentionally built its tunnels under densely populated areas -- that is precisely why Israel's current strategy will not work. Because Hamas wins politically when Israel kills Palestinian civilians.

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If Israel wants to defeat Hamas both militarily and politically, it must provide massive amounts of humanitarian aid to shelter and feed Palestinians in safe havens, including within Israel proper.

This is not a war of attrition in which the more the IDF hurts Palestinians the more likely they are to sue for peace, nor a war in which military targets can justify – strategically, let alone morally – high civilian casualty rates. It is the opposite. Every civilian killed, every grievously injured child, every image of desperately hungry Palestinians, every horror story from hospitals, every bit of Palestinian pain helps Hamas politically, both within Gaza and the West Bank, and internationally.

Israel seems to think that Palestinians will blame Hamas for their misery. They won't. The opposite is more likely. Research, including my own on the dynamics of support and legitimacy in other conflicts, shows that when people are under bombardment and siege they rally around those fighting for, and dying with, them. Hamas' own culpability for provoking the disaster doesn't matter. To the extent any Gazans blame Hamas for their predicament, they cannot speak freely in the current situation, and the shared humanitarian disaster undermines rather than increases their ability to protest.

Across the world, the toll on Palestinian civilians is visible for all to see. This has put the Palestinian national cause, largely sidelined even in the Arab world, firmly back on the international agenda; undermined support for Israel among its closest allies, squandering the moral support Israel deservedly garnered in the immediate aftermath of October 7; divided American Jews along generational lines; and turned support for Israel, until recently a bedrock of mainstream American politics, into an electoral liability for Joe Biden.

Hamas leaders know they cannot defeat the IDF militarily. Their only hope is to provoke Israel into killing enough civilians to defeat Israel politically. This is a classic terrorist strategy of provocation. Israel has fallen for it, hard.

Remarkably, Israel is matching or exceeding Hamas' own brutal proportions of civilians killed. IDF and Hamas, respectively, estimate 10,000 or 6,000 militants killed. Of over 30,000 dead, the other 67-80% are civilians. Whatever one believes about intentionality, of people killed, Israel has killed a similar proportion of civilians as did Hamas, a terrorist organization explicitly targeting civilians, on October 7, when 73% of the victims were civilian.

The death toll on October 7 was widely compared to a "dozen 9/11s" as proportion of the Israeli population. By this metric, 30,000 of 5.5 million Palestinians equals 545 "9/11s" (or worse, 1,420 "9/11s" out of the population of Gaza). And these figures are an undercount – they don't include those who still lie under the rubble, let alone those killed by the siege: from disease, malnutrition, or lack of medical treatment.

The death toll is staggering and will only get worse as starvation sets in. This only helps Hamas.

Mother of the Palestinian twins Wesam and Naeem Abu Anza, who were born during the war between Israel and Hamas and were killed in Israeli air strikes, reacts during their funeral, in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip last week.Credit: Mohammed Salem/ REUTERS

What to do? How can Israel defeat Hamas when its military strategy backfires politically? Here's how: Rather than besiege and bomb densely populated areas, Israel should declare a temporary cease-fire (unilaterally, if necessary), provide civilians voluntary passage to safe havens, and supply these with massive amounts of aid, solving the humanitarian crisis.

Negotiations for the release of hostages could take place during the temporary ceasefire.

Some safe havens might be in Gaza – if and where it is possible to secure them and provide sufficient aid. Not only is it hard to keep areas secure from bombardment in the tiny strip of territory that is Gaza, Hamas will rightly see substantial and effective aid efforts as a threat and try to thwart them. To defend against this, Israel will need to take a much bolder step – to set up well-equipped camps inside Israel proper, in the Negev.

Note that Egypt isn't a viable possibility to host refugees – that would be seen as a step toward permanent displacement. Not only will Egypt not allow it, Palestinians wouldn't accept it. Hamas would gain politically from any attempt to move people to Egypt, as it plays into the narrative of displacement and fears of another Nakba. Any camps outside of Gaza have to be in Israel proper. This would credibly reassure Palestinians they could return immediately after the war, allaying such fears. This plan will not be popular within Israel (and it will be a tough sell to the far-right Netanyahu government) but that is precisely what makes it credible to Palestinians that they will eventually be allowed to return home. Israelis have no desire to keep Gazans within the 1967 borders.

High-tech IDF screening, including face recognition, could prevent Hamas attempts to infiltrate safe havens in the Negev. Militarily secure perimeters would be needed to reassure Israelis fearful of enraged Palestinians in their midst, and to protect refugees from vengeful attacks by far-right militias. Trust between Palestinians Israelis is at an all-time low.

Israel has strong capacity for providing humanitarian aid. The emergency pier proposed by the Biden administration to get more aid into Gaza could help, but would not be enough, nor soon enough. This roundabout method of delivering aid is not necessary. Israel should deliver this aid itself; it is in its own self-interest to do so. And by providing the aid itself, Israel need not worry about checking it for weapons.

Where help from the US and others is needed is to alleviate concerns of Palestinians wary of entering Israeli-administered camps. The US, Britain, EU, and UAE, along with international aid agencies, could help in day-to-day administration; with assurances they not become internment camps.

Some Gazans might still choose to stay where they are, but no one would be trapped, at least not by Israel. Hamas might attempt to prevent people leaving, but would have difficulty doing so without using force. Absent Israeli bombardment, coercion to prevent desperate people from reaching safety would quickly undermine Hamas' support.

Once civilians have moved into safe havens, Israel could resume military operations, including into Rafah. Fighting Hamas would be easier without civilians in their midst, sparing the lives (and psychological health) of Israeli soldiers.

Resolving the humanitarian disaster in Gaza would cut the political rug out from under Hamas, depriving it of its jujitsu ability to use Israel's military strength against it. This would also remove the Houthi's stated justification for attacks on ships in the Red Sea, and help counter charges of genocide filed against Israel in the International Court of Justice.

Israel can win the battle militarily, without shooting itself in the foot politically. Shifting from siege warfare in Gaza to providing humanitarian refuge for Palestinians, including within Israel, may seem like a crazy idea in the current political context.

So crazy it just might work.

Page Fortna is the Harold Brown Professor of US National and Security Policy in the Political Science Department and Director of the Saltzman Institute of War and Peace Studies at Columbia University. Her current research is on terrorism in civil conflicts.

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