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So, Who’s Winning?

The current action has been named the “forever war” by many 

Photo: Flash90

A general mood of disquietude hangs over the citizens of Israel. In large part, that is a function of uncertainty about how the war with Hamas is going and something approaching dread with regard to the impending war with Hezbollah, generally assumed to be inevitable.

The uncertainty about the current war is due to a large degree to the nature of the war, which is mainly centered on fighting taking place deep underground. In conventional warfare involving troops on the ground, civilians far removed from the front can at least post large maps of the battlefield on the wall and place pins on the map to mark the progress of the respective sides. Nothing of that kind is possible with respect to the current fighting.

Days and weeks pass in which there is little reporting from the battle front, unless a group of Israeli soldiers is killed in action. Only then do we learn in what kinds of activities they were engaged. Needless to say, dribs and drabs of information generated by tragic events hardly does much to increase optimism.

And even when the public is told that 40% to 50% of Hamas’s tunnel network has been destroyed, or that 80% of the tunnels between Egypt and the Philadelphia Corridor on the Gaza side of the border have been rendered inoperative, it does not know how to evaluate the significance of that information in terms of the announced goal of the war of destroying Hamas.

How can those statistics, some of which are contradicted by other sources, be reconciled with the statement of the IDF’s chief spokesman, Admiral Daniel Hagari, two weeks ago, that it is impossible to defeat Hamas, or with the intercepted emails of Yahya Sinwar, in which he claims that “we have Israel exactly where we want her”?

LET US START with the good news. Our soldiers have fought with great bravery and resourcefulness. In the words of Haviv Rettig Gur, they have shown themselves to be very quick learners. Initially, in northern Gaza, the IDF sought to eliminate tunnels with heavy bombing. That strategy not only proved ineffective, as the tunnels were buried too deeply to be destroyed by Israeli bombs, but caused heavy civilian casualties.

Yet by the time the fighting moved south to Khan Younis, the IDF had absorbed the lessons and learned to fight in the tunnels, including by employing drones and dogs to avoid traps set for it. The number of civilian casualties, even according to the Hamas health ministry’s doctored figures, has plummeted.

By every metric, the IDF has surpassed the performance of American troops in counterinsurgency operations and the expectations of the Americans. At the beginning of the fighting in Gaza, the US warned that Israel would incur 10,000 deaths. So far, just over 300 soldiers have fallen. Those deaths represent a terrible loss, to be sure, but nothing like what had been predicted.

In the battle against ISIS in Mosul, it took nine months for US forces and their Iraqi allies to uproot 9,000 ISIS fighters, and 10,000 Iraqi soldiers were killed doing so. Hamas is by every measure a much more formidable enemy. ISIS had no extensive network of tunnels. Nor did it enjoy the support of the local population as Hamas does. In addition, Hamas had over four times as many fighters as did ISIS in Mosul.

Projected IDF casualties is only one example of the Americans’ wild underestimation of Israel’s capabilities. America did everything in its power to prevent Israel from conducting an operation to rout the remaining Hamas battalions in Rafah, on the grounds that the IDF could not possibly clear Gazan refugees from the area in less than four months. Israel succeeded in doing so in a month. Meanwhile, by uncovering at least forty tunnels under the Philadelphia Corridor and moving methodically to destroy them, Israel has cut off the major pipeline of weapons to Hamas built up over decades.

THE QUESTION THAT REMAINS, however, is whether any of this matters. What of IDF chief spokesman Hagari’s admission that Hamas cannot be defeated? As Henry Kissinger wrote during the Vietnam War, “The guerilla wins if he does not lose. The conventional army loses if it does not win.”

By that measure, Hamas seems to be nowhere near waving the white flag of surrender. A prolonged war — the current action has been named the “forever war” by many — drains Israel economically and psychologically, and serves the interests of Iran and its other proxies in the region.

Major Andrew Fox, a lecturer at the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst and a veteran of three tours of duty in Afghanistan, writing in Tablet magazine, provides a plausible account of Israel’s current strategy and what comes next. First, Israel recognizes that there are no plausible international partners for administering Gaza after Hamas. And any such partners would simply become a new form of human shield for Hamas, and thereby limit Israel’s ability to strike back at Hamas as needed.

Neither can Israel afford to clear and hold areas of Gaza on the model of allied counterinsurgency efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan. That would require minimally 50,000 Israeli troops long-term in Gaza, which is unsupportable. And it would be unnecessarily wasteful, as Israeli troops can remain safely across the border, rather than in hostile territory.

The type of societal transformation that took place in Germany and Japan after the unconditional surrender of those two countries to end World War II, albeit after civilian casualties in the millions, is not currently in the cards. In Germany, there were plenty of politicians not tainted by the Nazi Party after the war; and in Japan, Emperor Hirohito himself renounced his “divine” status. By a large majority, Hamas remains the choice of Gazans to rule them, though it is not so popular in Gaza as it is in the West Bank, due to the heavy price Gazans have paid for Hamas rule.

Given that Israel has no means to force Gazans to give up their attachment to Hamas — that is probably what Hagari meant when he said Hamas cannot be defeated — Israel has decided to instead degrade its capabilities from Hamas 3, which launched the October 7 attack, to Hamas 1. The latter could throw Fatah supporters from 15-story rooftops, but not threaten Israel with mass casualty attacks. That, in this reading, is what Prime Minister Netanyahu means when he declares that the war will only end when Hamas is destroyed.

To that end, the IDF has methodically razed Hamas infrastructure in Gaza City, Khan Younis, and now Rafah, and is doing the same thing along the Philadelphia Corridor, which will prevent Hamas from reconstituting itself to its pre-October 7 strength. Israel controls the Netzarim Corridor dividing north and south Gaza, and with its facial recognition technology, it will be able to prevent known Hamas commanders from moving about freely. In addition, it has razed every building within a kilometer of northern Gaza’s border with Israel, which makes a repeat of October 7 highly unlikely.

There is support for Fox’s theory from President Biden’s May 31 speech (after it was already Shabbos in Israel) outlining what he said was an Israeli peace proposal. In their regular podcast, Call Me Back, Dan Senor and Haviv Rettig Gur remained puzzled how Israel could possibly have advanced such a proposal — if indeed it did. For one thing, in President Biden’s account, it remained completely unclear how Hamas would be removed from power. And moreover, Israel would remove its forces from “all populated areas,” prior to the release of all the hostages.

Rettig Gur, however, seized on the phrase “all populated areas” to mean that Israel could still carry on destroying all the tunnels along the Philadelphia Corridor and securing other border areas. In short, it would continue to degrade Hamas’s military capabilities, while rendering it incapable of rebuilding them. That is basically the strategy outlined by Major Fox.

UNFORTUNATELY, THE IDF is not the only party to have learned lessons from the past eight months. So have our enemies. And many of those lessons do not bode well for the future.

Sinwar has shown himself to have a keen sense of Western public opinion in his manipulation of the Gazan population — “necessary sacrifices,” in his words. Israel has been subjected to actions in the International Court of Justice, the International Criminal Court, and it fights under the ever-present threat of a UN Security Council Resolution demanding the cessation of hostilities.

Both Western media and the Biden administration have proven themselves eager consumers of Hamas propaganda about humanitarian crises in Gaza and Israel’s wanton killing of civilians, neither of which claims can withstand scrutiny. The Hamas-supplied casualty figures have been dramatically revised downward, and in any event make no distinction between the deaths of civilians and combatants. The ratio of civilian to combatant deaths is unprecedentedly low in the history of modern asymmetric warfare.

Sinwar has further exposed the limits of American support for Israel. America has, says John Spencer, professor of urban warfare at the National War College, placed demands on Israel — including ones that are self-evidently impossible, such as eliminating civilian casualties entirely — but offered no strategy about how they might be achieved. When surprise, speed, and overwhelming force have been called for as the keys to victory, the United States, says Spencer, has repeatedly held Israel back. And as Dan Senor noted in his podcast with Haviv Rettig Gur, the repeated criticism of Israel and pressure placed upon it by the Biden administration have simply reinforced Hamas in its refusal to negotiate over hostages or anything else.

Most ominously, the various slowdowns in American arms supplies to Israel have made it more and more difficult to even contemplate going to war with Hezbollah, without knowing that it will have the armaments it needs to win such a war. In the meantime, Hezbollah has effectively redrawn the borders of Israel by forcing 80,000 Israelis in the north to flee their homes and to remain in hotels for months.

When Prime Minister Netanyahu recently complained publicly about the slowdown in American arms shipments, he was not referring to weapons requested by Israel for its operation in Rafah, about which the administration had expressed humanitarian concerns. Rather he was referring to the weapons needed to fight Iran and its most important proxy, Hezbollah. As Netanyahu put it in his protest, the slowdown comes at a time when “Israel, America’s closest ally, [is in a] fight for its life against Iran and our other common enemies.”

Despite the Biden administration’s professed confusion about what Netanyahu could be talking about, Politico reports that as long ago as December, Israel requested Joint Direct Attack Munitions (JDAMs), converter kits that turn “dumb” bombs into “smart” bombs. And the Americans have been “sitting on it ever since.” They say it is “under review.”

Michael Doran, the leading scholar of the Democrats’ tilt toward Iran since the Obama administration, labels the tactic an “Italian strike,” i.e., working strictly according to the labyrinthian rules of weapons procurement — rules that the president can set aside whenever he wants to. “The purpose of the Italian strike is to force the Israelis into dependence on the United States, to deny them the ability to make long-term plans — namely, plans regarding Hezbollah and Iran.”

Lenny Ben-David, a former Israeli consular official in Washington, notes that the Obama administration did the same thing during Israel’s 2014 war with Hamas.

The greatest fear of American policymakers is anything that could potentially drag America into a military confrontation with Iran, and Iran has made clear that it will not stand aside if a full-scale war erupts between Israel and Hezbollah.

That war appears increasingly inevitable, as the emptying of the north under constant Hezbollah fire represents a loss of Israeli sovereignty. Daily, Israelis are exposed to nightmare scenarios of Hezbollah firing 3,000 rockets and drones per day, overwhelming Israel’s multiple layers of air defense systems, of an electrical grid knocked out for four days, and of precision-guided missiles aimed at oil refineries in Haifa and Ashdod, off-shore natural gas rigs, and the Dimona nuclear reactor. Moreover, there is little question that Hezbollah forces, battle-tested over years of fighting in Syria, would attempt to invade from across the Lebanon border.

Israel’s ability to weather the storm will depend on rapidly inflicting huge damage on Lebanon, including Beirut, to force Hezbollah, the de facto ruling power in Lebanon, to halt.

It is terrifying to contemplate the possibility that the current administration will force Israel to enter such a war without knowing whether it has the weapons necessary to win.


Yonoson Rosenblum’s most recent book, Ordinary Greatness: One Hundred Songs of Praise (Adir Press), is available at bookstores and via www.Feldheim.com.


(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 1018. Yonoson Rosenblum may be contacted directly at rosenblum@mishpacha.com)

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