By Trudy Rubin
As Israel relentlessly bombs Gaza and moves troops toward the border, it is hard to predict how the war with Hamas terrorists will end.
The scenes of carnage in Israeli towns and villages near the Gaza border — 900 dead, including scores of families with small children executed in cold blood; young women dragged off as hostages, some with babies; and 260 young people gunned down at a music concert — have horrified Israel and much of the world. This was an ISIS-style slaughter.
Yet the challenges confronting Israel in its expressed goal of smashing Hamas are mammoth. The terrorist group and other militants are holding around 150 Israelis hostage in Gaza and have threatened to kill them if the bombing continues. The war could expand to the occupied West Bank and to Lebanon, where Hezbollah militants, backed by Iran, have 150,000 missiles pointed at Israel.
And hanging over this crisis is a question about whether the current Israeli government, headed by Benjamin Netanyahu, can handle this immense challenge, after the incomprehensible intelligence and security failures that enabled Hamas to invade.
Below are a few questions I’ve had from readers that I’m mulling over in my own mind, along with answers based on conversations with Israelis, conference calls, and my own experiences in Israel, the West Bank, and Gaza over several decades.
– How could this disaster have happened?
Israel suffered an unimaginable security failure. Egyptian intelligence officials say their Israeli counterparts ignored repeated warnings that “something big” was about to happen with Gaza. Netanyahu’s office denies this, but Hamas training operations near the Gaza border fence, prior to the attack, were apparently dismissed as unimportant.
“No one [in the government] was willing to see that they were practicing,” said Nimrod Novik, an Israeli Mideast expert who advised former Prime Minister Shimon Peres and is a board member of the Foreign Policy Research Institute in Philadelphia. Meantime, he said, “Eighty percent of the Israeli standing army was deployed policing the West Bank,” which government ministers seek to annex. That meant only a handful of depleted units were guarding the Gaza border and were easily overrun.
– Why did Hamas attack now, and what was its goal?
Most experts concur that a main goal was to disrupt a potential U.S.-led deal to normalize diplomatic ties between Saudi Arabia and Israel. Iran, a key backer of Hamas, sees such an agreement as a threat because, if it ever went through, it would bring the Saudis U.S. security guarantees, weapons, and possibly nuclear technology. And it would offer the Palestinians very little.
However, Hamas had bigger goals. Taking hostages gives Hamas bargaining chips to exchange for Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails. Moreover, its military “success” boosts its prestige on the West Bank, which it dreams of taking over when the 86-year-old Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas — who heads the anti-Hamas Fatah faction — exits the scene. And it no doubt hopes that Hezbollah fighters in southern Lebanon will ultimately join the war.
Meantime, the Netanyahu government has undermined and blocked funds to the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank, whose police force helps Israeli forces put down Hamas terrorists there. Israeli media blame this paradox on the fact that unlike Hamas, which wants to destroy Israel, the PA supports a two-state solution that Netanyahu opposes.
– Why do Gazans support Hamas?
Not all have in the past. Hamas won only a third of the vote in the 2006 Palestinian elections — mostly because voters were angry at Fatah corruption — but a bizarre election system gave it a majority of parliamentary seats. Hamas then seized total power by military force in Gaza in 2007. Israel has maintained a land, sea, and air blockade on Gaza ever since, creating a virtual prison in which unemployed young men are all too easily drawn to a violent Islamist movement that rejects Israel’s right to exist. Those Gazan civilians who object to Hamas’ authoritarian rule have no avenue to challenge it. They are now at the mercy of Hamas’ war and Israel’s bombs.
– Can Israel destroy Hamas militarily?
Unclear. Israel has tried several times before with bomb strikes and limited military incursions. Each time, Hamas has bounced back. Previous Israeli governments have sought to avoid being dragged into a long-lasting, dangerous ground war in a tiny strip that’s 25 miles long and between three and seven miles wide. A place that’s crowded with two million people and where streets and alleyways have been booby-trapped. Israel does not want to be trapped into reoccupying Gaza — as it was trapped in southern Lebanon for 20 years.
– What is the best possible outcome? And can the United States help?
First, it would be best if a wider war could be avoided. Second, if Arab mediators, such as Qatar (which provides Hamas with funds to run its government), could negotiate a prisoner exchange. And third, if the Netanyahu government can pursue a military strategy that includes a viable long-term vision for dealing with Gaza and the West Bank.
Right now, all of the above look doubtful. The first may be possible if Iran can be convinced that a wider war will boomerang on Tehran. As for the second, Hamas has said there will be no prisoner exchange until the war ends.
But the third is the most problematic, as Israel faces one of the greatest challenges in its history. At this writing, Netanyahu is still resisting the formation of a national unity government with opposition parties, as has been the norm during previous wars. Such a cabinet is essential to convince much of the country that its leaders won’t repeat the failures that enabled this disaster.
U.S. assistance — with weapons or intelligence or diplomacy — can only be useful if the Israeli government has both a short- and long-term strategy to succeed.
Yet Netanyahu refuses, so far, to meet opposition demands that he sideline his most radical, reckless cabinet ministers who could push Israel toward a self-defeating expansion of the war deep into Gaza and the West Bank.
One can only hope that, somehow, wiser heads will prevail.
Trudy Rubin is a columnist and editorial-board member for the The Philadelphia Inquirer. Readers may write to her at: Philadelphia Inquirer, P.O. Box 8263, Philadelphia, Pa. 19101, or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org. This was distributed by Tribune Content Agency.