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Israel May Decimate Hamas, but Can It “Win” This War?

I landed in the Middle East for the first time on October 6, 1973. In the Beirut airport terminal, a woman turned to me and whispered in an anxious panic, “The Egyptians have just crossed the Suez Canal!” In a surprise offensive, code-named Operation Badr, after the Prophet Muhammad’s first military victory in the seventh century, Syria and Egypt had invaded Israel on two opposite fronts.

The Yom Kippur War lasted almost three weeks. The Arabs lost militarily, but believed they had won psychologically and politically—forcing Israel to recognize that it was vulnerable and eventually would have to make peace with its enemies. Fifty years later, Hamas is a third-rate militia compared with Syrian and Egyptian forces, let alone Israel’s sophisticated Army and arsenal.

Yet the conflict that erupted this weekend feels more ominous. “Powerful, centrifugal forces have been unleashed that have rewritten the rules for the entire region,” Bruce Hoffman, the senior fellow for counterterrorism at the Council on Foreign Relations, told me. Unlike confrontations in previous decades which followed a pattern of death, destruction, and negotiated ceasefires, this war is “completely unpredictable,” Hoffman said.

Even a decisive Israeli military victory is unlikely to end the country’s increasingly perilous security challenges. It’s not even clear what “winning” means. “There’s no question Israel can inflict tremendous damage on Gaza—on its infrastructure and on its people—and can also target Hamas leaders,” Dan Kurtzer, a former U.S. Ambassador to Israel, told me. But movements regenerate, and “sometimes the next leadership turns out to be more radical, more extreme, than the one that was beheaded,” Kurtzer said. Al Qaeda of Iraq, for example, evolved into the Islamic State of Iraq and then, after a U.S. air strike killed its founder in 2006, into isis in 2013.

Hamas has already achieved some of its objectives in terrorizing Israelis and stunning a country that long seemed almost invincible in the region. “If the war stopped today, or even after Gaza looks like another war zone, Hamas has effectively won,” Kurtzer told me. Their immediate goals “have been achieved or are achievable.”

The conflict has also, at least for now, almost certainly scuttled U.S. diplomacy to broker formal rapprochement between Saudi Arabia and Israel, a pivotal step for Israel to gain recognition from a long-standing adversary. Over the weekend, Saudi Arabia condemned the “continued occupation, the deprivation of the Palestinian people of their legitimate rights, and the repetition of systematic provocations against its sanctities.”

Hamas’s brazen operation—missiles fired as far as Tel Aviv; murder, mayhem, and hostage-taking on the ground; fighters infiltrating Israel on paragliders—has generated fears of a wider conflagration involving other militias and potentially other nations, including Iran and the United States, directly or indirectly.

“We suspect Iranian hands behind the scenes,” the Israeli Ambassador Michael Herzog said on “Face the Nation,” on Sunday. The U.S. pushed back. On “Meet the Press,” Secretary of State Antony Blinken said, “We don’t have anything that shows us that Iran was directly involved in this attack, in planning it or in carrying it out, but that’s something we’re looking at very carefully.” But he acknowledged that “Hamas wouldn’t be Hamas without the support it’s had for many years from Iran.” Later on Sunday, the Wall Street Journal reported that the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps had green-lighted the attack.

Tehran has long been the primary source of arms, financial aid, and military training for Hamas, which makes no secret of the alliance. In remarks following the last major war between Israel and Hamas, in 2021, Yahya Sinwar, the head of Hamas in Gaza, said, “All the thanks goes to the Islamic Republic in Iran that hasn’t been stingy with us over the years.” The U.S. has sanctioned more than four hundred Iranian individuals and companies for providing support to Hamas. The potential for a wider war could be “seismic” in the Middle East, Hoffman said.

The tension is now tangible. On Saturday, as Hamas fighters rampaged across southern Israel, President Joe Biden issued a warning: “This is not a moment for any party hostile to Israel to exploit these attacks to seek advantage.” Over the weekend, the Administration reinforced that message in conversations with allies, surely hoping that they would emphasize the point to Iran and its well-armed proxies in Lebanon, Syria, and Iraq.

On Sunday, the Pentagon ordered a carrier group of warships to the region. It also announced plans to “augment” U.S. warplane squadrons “to address the risks of any party seeking to expand the conflict,” General Michael Kurilla, the Central Command chief, said.

Iran has expressed voluble support for Hamas since the war began. Over the weekend, President Ebrahim Raisi spoke with leaders of Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad, according to Iranian media. In a public message, he called on Muslim governments worldwide to support the Palestinian people.

Since the nineteen-eighties, Iran has created an unofficial alliance of militias in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, and Yemen—known as the Axis of Resistance—under the tutelage of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. They all now have missiles, rockets, and drones capable of hitting Israel. Hezbollah’s arsenal, which is estimated to include at least a hundred and fifty thousand missiles and rockets, is far larger than the Hamas armory.

Since the Yom Kippur War, Israel’s wars have all been with militias. It fought the Palestine Liberation Organization, in Lebanon, in 1982; Hezbollah in 2006; and Hamas in 2008, 2014, and 2021. Defeating non-state actors is a lot more complicated than warring or making peace with a state. As Blinken noted on “Meet the Press,” unlike the 1973 war, the new Hamas offensive is a “massive terrorist attack targeting Israeli civilians.” The United States learned the challenges of engaging with non-state actors in long wars against the poorly armed Taliban in Afghanistan and the abysmally trained isis fighters in Iraq—at great expense.

The prospects of a temporary ceasefire, as has happened in the past, appear remote. Hamas now seems all-in on its covenant to obliterate Israel, Hoffman said.

Hamas, however, is also fragmented, politically and physically, Kurtzer noted. It has a diehard military wing inside Gaza, a diaspora leadership in Palestinian-refugee camps in Lebanon, and political leaders based in Qatar. “I don’t know what Hamas is,” he told me. Its representatives in Doha engage with the outside world, he added, but “what about these guys who spent their lives digging tunnels, crafting weapons out of telephone poles and then integrating them with whatever they could smuggle in from Iran and other places? Those guys, they want to fight.”

Ironically, Israel bears responsibility for the early growth of Hamas. In the mid-eighties, it supported the coalescence of nascent Islamist groups as an alternative to the P.L.O. “because they were religious and not nationalistic,” Kurtzer said.

Looking back, Israel has also ignored the regional trend of rag-tag militias challenging powerful states. Kurtzer noted that the mujahideen confronted the Soviet Union in Afghanistan and Hezbollah took on Israel in Lebanon. (Both militias prevailed.) The U.S. contributed to the political rise of Hamas in 2006 by insisting on democratic elections to solidify a Palestinian government willing to back a peace agreement with Israel.

Hamas won a majority of the seats in the parliament. It eventually wrested control of Gaza away from Fatah, which was willing to engage diplomatically with Israel. That split the Palestinian government into two parts—in the West Bank and Gaza—and effectively doomed the peace process. After the election, then Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice mused, “Certainly, I’ve asked why nobody saw it coming, and I hope that we will take a hard look, because it does say something about perhaps not having had a good enough pulse on the Palestinian population.” The words are haunting, once again, today.

© 2023 New Yorker


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