Sun 26 Nov 2023 9:02 am - Jerusalem Time

A fraught battlespace awaits Israel after the pause

By David Ignatius

Israel faces an agonizing and probably controversial dilemma ahead: After pausing the Gaza war for humanitarian reasons, how will the Israel Defense Forces start it up again to complete its objective of destroying Hamas’s political power? Need something to talk about? Text us for thought-provoking opinions that can break any awkward silence.

Friday’s celebrations of the release of 13 Israeli women and children didn’t mask the concern among senior Israeli officials about what’s ahead in this stop-start war as Israel seeks to recover all 240 hostages and also crush the Hamas forces that hold most of them. “It’s bittersweet,” said one senior Israeli official in an interview on the eve of the hostage release. “I’m thinking of those who will not come out tomorrow.”

Israel hopes this round of trading hostages for Palestinian women and teenage prisoners can be extended until all the roughly 100 women and children held in Gaza have been freed. “At this point in time, Israel is focused on getting all 100 women and children released,” the senior official said. It will be far harder to expand the process further to include the more than 100 male civilians and soldiers. That probably means a return to battle soon.

“The next stage will be high-intensity conflict,” said the senior Israeli official. “The IDF is determined to go to the next stage of the war. We’re not at the stabilization phase yet.” Asked about the likelihood that this renewed Israeli attack will draw international criticism, he responded: “There is very strong determination on the part of the IDF and the Israeli people that we can no longer live with Hamas ruling Gaza.”

Here’s the nub of the problem: Israel will seek to resume offensive operations at a moment when international pressure will grow for a permanent cease-fire. An example is Qatar’s Foreign Ministry spokesman Majed Al-Ansari, who told reporters Thursday in Doha, “Of course, our aim is for this deal to end in a lasting truce.” Qatar has been the key mediator between Israel and Hamas in the hostage-release negotiations.

I’ve watched Israel repeatedly face similar dilemmas in past wars — of diplomatic pressure to halt fighting before the IDF believes it has completed its mission. In the 1973 Arab-Israeli War, Israel had trapped the Egyptian Third Army on the east side of the Suez Canal and was stopped only by the intervention of U.S. Secretary of State Henry A. Kissinger. In the 1982 siege of Beirut, Israel resisted repeated calls for a cease-fire before finally agreeing to a U.S. deal that allowed Palestine Liberation Organization chairman Yasser Arafat to leave the city with his forces.


Perhaps the most relevant example of stop-start warfare against Hamas was Operation Protective Edge in 2014. Israel invaded Gaza to destroy Hamas tunnels and stop rocket fire. Israel attacked July 7. The United States and Egypt brokered temporary, short-lived cease-fires on Aug. 1, Aug. 10, Aug. 13 and Aug. 19 before a lasting truce was reached Aug. 26.

For all the devastation this latest war has brought to Palestinian civilians, Hamas fighters remain well-entrenched underground. Clearing operations aren’t over in northern Gaza, and those in southern Gaza have barely begun. A second Israeli official said the Hamas tunnel network “is more developed than we thought” and that at least 600 tunnel shafts have been discovered and closed in the north alone.

The next phase of the war probably will include heavy assaults on Khan Younis and other Hamas strongholds in southern Gaza. But Israeli officials hope that during this stage, more international humanitarian aid will be available to ease the suffering of Palestinian civilians, reducing the horrific images that drew global protests during the first six weeks of the war.

Hamas will undoubtedly use the pause to rest and regroup, and so will the IDF. “The pause will let our fighters get better prepared for the next stage of the war,” said the first Israeli official.

After the pause, Israel must make some tough decisions about IDF force levels. After the Oct. 7 Hamas terrorist attack, Israel called up an estimated 300,000 reservists — an unprecedented number that left the Israeli economy badly depleted of young talent. Some unneeded reservists may be sent back to their civilian jobs.

But the first Israeli official stressed that destroying Hamas is an overriding concern. “There’s an understanding that from an economic perspective, we need to win the war,” he said. “The costs of war are short term, relative to the long-term benefit of people going back to living safely.”

In the political-military sphere, one of the hardest maneuvers is advancing forces against an information barrage to stop the conflict. After the joy of the hostage releases in the coming days, Israel will face that difficult challenge — of how to finish the job it started against Hamas without triggering renewed international outrage.

Source: The Washington Post


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