| Outlook |

Sinwar Plays Us for Chumps

One highly distressing aspect of Sinwar’s manipulation is the American role. According to numerous Israeli officials, quoted by Barak Raviv of Axios, America had full knowledge of Hamas’s revisions but never informed Israel.


Yahya Sinwar has good reason to be pleased with himself. The chances of the Gaza War ending in a stalemate with Hamas able to reconstitute itself as Gaza’s ruling authority grow by the day. For one thing, the Biden administration has made clear that its chief interest is that the war end as soon as possible, not that Hamas’s rule over the citizens of Gaza be ended.

Sinwar’s triumph consists of two parts. First, he has turned Israel into the villain in the eyes of much of the world. The horrors inflicted on Israel on October 7 have either been forgotten or justified. Second, he has reawakened all the divisions in Israeli society that existed prior to October 7, and which for a period of time appeared to be behind us as the nation unified to defeat Hamas.

In both these endeavors, he has been assisted by the United States, whether wittingly or unwittingly, in large part as a consequence of electoral problems that the fighting in Gaza has created for President Biden with young and Arab voters.

Remarkably, the longtime Hamas strategy of ensuring maximum civilian casualties by turning the civilian population of Gaza into human shields has proven successful, and not just on university campuses. According to at least one poll, 50 percent of Americans now believe that Israel is guilty of genocide in Gaza, which does not reflect well on their dictionary skills.

Whatever the civilian toll in Gaza — Hamas claims 34,000, while admitting that it cannot identify at least 11,000 of those, and that the figure includes Hamas fighters — that toll has made barely a dent in the civilian population of Gaza, much less the overall Palestinian population, despite the massive airpower Israel has at its disposal.

There have been genocides in recent history, most notably the Nazis’ efforts to wipe out European Jewry, which gave rise to the Convention for the Prevention and Punishment of Genocide. The Hutus’ butchery of between 500,000 and 800,000 Tutsis in Rwanda in 1994, and the killing of hundreds of thousands of African tribesmen in Darfur at the hands of their fellow Muslim Sudanese Arabs, also qualify as efforts to exterminate a particular racial or ethnic group.

But the total number of Gaza civilians killed would at worst have been an average week’s killing for the Nazis over more than five years of the Holocaust.

Under the customary laws of warfare, culpability for civilian casualties rests with the party that places crucial military assets among civilians, which has always been the essence of Hamas’s strategy.

Providing Hamas with a propaganda victory only incentivizes their human shield strategy, and ensures more civilian deaths now or in the future when Israel is left with no choice but to seek out and destroy Hamas’s underground redoubts. That incentivization is precisely what the United States and its European allies, not to mention campus demonstrators, do every time they imply that Israel is acting beyond the pale — “over the top,” in President Biden’s formulation.

And that is especially the case given the steps that Israel takes to minimize civilian casualties, and its extraordinary success in doing so. To quote John Spencer, chairman of urban warfare studies at West Point’s Modern War Institute, once again: “By my analysis, Israel has implemented more precautions to prevent civilian harm than any military in history — above and beyond what international law requires and more than the US did in its war in Iraq and Afghanistan.”

Spencer went on to suggest that instead of “excoriating the IDF for not doing enough to protect civilians,” the US and the international community “should be studying how they can apply the IDF’s tactics for protecting civilians.” He opined, however, that the US and its allies would be reluctant to employ those techniques because of the higher casualties among their own troops that would result, when fighting “an urban terrorist group like Hamas.”

If the United States were principally concerned with minimizing civilian casualties, rather than using them as a pretext for bringing the war to a halt, there is much that it could do. Perhaps most important, it should use its considerable financial leverage over Cairo to pressure the Egyptians to admit the Palestinian refugees now in Rafah to the vast expanse of the nearly vacant Sinai desert, just across the border between Rafah and Egypt.

The best way to minimize civilian casualties is get them out of harm’s way. Yet the US has not even tried to pressure Egypt to accept the refugees on a temporary basis in an enclosed area in the same way it has pressured Israel, most recently by denying Israel vital armaments.

And instead of offering Israel intelligence on the whereabouts of Hamas leaders in secret Gaza tunnels as an incentive to forgo an operation in Rafah, as the Washington Post reports it is doing, the US should just give that information to Israel, as an ally. After all, President Biden expressed his support for Israel’s goal of removing Hamas from power in the immediate wake of October 7, and has never explicitly retreated from that position.

Yet achieving that goal minimally requires the conquest of Rafah for two reasons. The one most discussed is the presence of Hamas’s remaining brigades in the area (though there are reports that Sinwar himself has already escaped to the environs of Khan Yunis, his home territory).

But no less important is the necessity of capturing and destroying the web of underground tunnels between Rafah and Egyptian-held Sinai. Those tunnels, which are an important source of revenue to both the Egyptians and Hamas, make it possible for Hamas to continue to smuggle in food, weapons, construction materials, and personnel. That is why the first stage of Israel’s Rafah campaign was to take control of the border from the Gazan side in order to allow the eventual destruction of those tunnels.

SINWAR’S SECOND TRIUMPH has been to reignite the mass demonstrations against the Netanyahu government for failing to secure a deal for the return of the hostages. In that respect too he has been aided by the Americans’ repeated emphasis on the return of the hostages in return for a lengthy cease-fire, which would at best allow the Hamas forces in Rafah to continue to lay traps for Israeli forces.

The demonstrators never specify what, if any, terms they also consider unacceptable for Israel — e.g., the return of hundreds of Hamas prisoners with blood on their hands, including Marwan Barghouti, or an indefinite cease-fire, or full Israeli withdrawal from Gaza at the outset. Their apparent position is: No price too high.

But that can only rekindle the bitterest of societal divisions. The number of bereaved parents is already double the number of parents of hostages. And their pain, should their sons’ and daughters’ deaths in combat in Gaza turn out to be in vain, with Hamas still in full control, cannot, and will not, be ignored.

Meanwhile, Sinwar is pulling the strings like a master puppeteer. Last week, Hamas announced that it had agreed to a cease-fire, when, in fact, it had substituted its own proposal for that which Israel had agreed too — “generously” in Secretary of State Blinken’s judgment and “overgenerously” in mine.

Far from being a re-tinkering, the Hamas acceptance was perhaps best described in the title of a piece by Times of Israel editor David Horowitz: “Sinister Hamas terms would let it keep most hostages, win the war, and inflame the West Bank.” Horowitz, incidentally, is an inveterate critic of Prime Minister Netanyahu, so there can be no question of his judgment being tainted by a desire to shield Netanyahu for his failure to acknowledge and act upon Hamas’s “acceptance.”

Under the terms of Hamas’s “acceptance,” it would release hostages — either alive or not — at such a snail’s pace that it would have achieved all its goals and ensured its survival, while most of the hostages remained in captivity. At that point, it could simply abrogate its agreement. That would be the Gilad Shalit exchange of one IDF soldier for 1,027 Palestinian prisoners, including Sinwar himself, on steroids. Israel would have no veto over the Palestinians released, and among those released would be all those rearrested after their release in the Shalit deal.

One highly distressing aspect of Sinwar’s manipulation is the American role. According to numerous Israeli officials, quoted by Barak Raviv of Axios, America had full knowledge of Hamas’s revisions but never informed Israel.

Worse, State Department spokesman Matthew Miller waited more than a day before clarifying that Hamas had not accepted a cease-fire proposal, but rather hardened its position. In the meantime, the world press trumpeted Hamas’s “acceptance,” placing Israel in the position of the recalcitrant party when it issued its inevitable rejection of the Hamas “acceptance.”

Unfortunately, that American stance has typified its role during hostage negotiations, including those for numerous American dual citizens still being held captive. Israel has been forced to negotiate blind throughout. Because Hamas has denied access to the hostages, Israel has no way of knowing which hostages are still alive or what their conditions are, while Hamas knows full well which prisoners are imprisoned in Israeli jails. Yet the United States has never pressed Hamas, either directly or through its intermediaries Qatar and Egypt, to allow access to the hostages, as required in international law.

IN THE SHORT RUN, Israel likely has enough armaments to complete its long-delayed plan to root Hamas out of Rafah, though doing so will infuriate the Biden administration. But the cut-off of numerous types of bombs could well embolden Hezbollah and lead to the dramatic expansion of the present war — something the administration fears greatly, with elections only six months away.

As I have written many times, if Hezbollah were to unsheathe its 150,000 missiles, many of them precision-guided missiles, the entirety of Israel would lie within range of those missiles. Israel would have no choice but to unleash a massive aerial counterattack, which would level much of southern Lebanon, under which those missiles are housed.

At that point, the failure of the United States to resupply Israel with the bombs it needs to defend itself — perhaps even citing again the fear of enormous civilian casualties — would leave Israel horribly exposed.

And if I can contemplate such a scenario, presumably Hezbollah can too. The danger I fear is that the Biden administration’s constant carping about civilian casualties in Gaza — casualties that have so well served Hamas to date — will lead to casualties on all sides dwarfing those in Gaza.


(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 1011)

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