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[Dennis Ross] Israel must end the Gaza War

By Korea Herald

Published : April 17, 2024 - 05:30

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The Iranian-Israeli war has now emerged from the shadows with the barrage of over 300 drones, rockets, and cruise missiles Iran launched at Israel. Along with the US military and other partners, the Israel Defense Forces were able to intercept 99 percent of them.

Once again, the Israeli military demonstrated its superb capabilities, but US support was essential. Although Israel takes pride in being able to defend itself, circumstances have changed. When facing threats on seven fronts, as the IDF acknowledges, it is important that Israel had the help, and Israelis should recognize the value of being part of a coalition as they face Iran, its proxies, and their Russian backers.

If nothing else, Iran’s attack should remind the Israelis that their war with Hamas is not being fought in an international vacuum and support from the outside matters. That war is now in its seventh month. Israel is succeeding in a tactical sense. It is dismantling Hamas’s military infrastructure, and it has destroyed it as an organized fighting force, with 19 of 24 Hamas battalions no longer existing.

That is an important achievement. Regrettably, this tactical success has come at a high cost in Palestinian civilian lives and to Israel’s image internationally. So, while Israel may be succeeding militarily, it is losing politically.

Clausewitz’s famous maxim that “war is the continuation of policy with other means” does not seem to be guiding Israel’s strategy. Yes, Hamas forced this war on Israel; and, yes, Hamas posed an unprecedented military challenge by being embedded in hundreds of miles of tunnels beneath Gaza’s civilian population. But Israel required a strategy whereby it could defeat Hamas militarily without losing the world’s sympathy in the process. A military campaign with the political objective of ensuring that Hamas could neither threaten Israel again nor remain in power rested on a central premise: to have the time and political space required to defeat Hamas, Israel would need to meet Gazans’ humanitarian needs and minimize their suffering.

There may have been no way to avoid the cruel dilemma that Israel faced: how to defeat Hamas as a military force without Palestinians dying in terrible numbers. But there were viable options for creating humanitarian corridors for evacuations from northern to southern Gaza in the first two weeks after Oct. 7, when Israel launched an intense bombing campaign. Following that, it was essential for Israel to ensure deliveries of the humanitarian assistance needed to address Palestinians’ housing, food, water, and medical needs. And, if Hamas acted to divert that assistance, as it did, Israel had an obligation to stop that and provide security for the distribution of aid.

This was not just a moral obligation; it was a strategic imperative that the international community not come to believe that Israel was indifferent to Palestinian suffering. And yet that perception has taken hold, with the result that Israel is held solely responsible for stopping the war. It is as if Hamas has no responsibility, when Hamas leaders should have been pressured by the United States and the international community to leave Gaza to spare the public. For too many, the recent Israeli airstrike that killed a group of World Central Kitchen aid workers was not a tragic accident but the result of a campaign that too often seems prone to hitting military targets regardless of the costs to Palestinians.

A few weeks into the war, I wrote that I did not favor a cease-fire, because it would allow Hamas to survive, reconstitute itself, and try for another Oct. 7. Those who said Israel should not respond other than in a limited, targeted way failed to understand that the perception that Hamas had gotten away with inflicting such a terrible price on Israel would have invested its ideology of “resistance” (and commitment to the destruction of Israel) with enormous credibility throughout the Middle East.

Regardless, Israel still needed a strategy that not only minimized humanitarian suffering but also was tied to a clear and achievable objective. Bad statecraft is always tied to objectives that can neither be achieved nor framed in a way that makes support for them possible. Elimination of Hamas was never in the cards, any more than the elimination of ISIS has been for the US. Rescuing the vast majority of the Israeli hostages held by Hamas since October 7 was never possible by military means.

But the permanent demilitarization of Gaza – so that it could never again be a platform for attacks against Israel – was possible. It still is, and it needs to be Israel’s strategic objective. In its discussions with Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and his war cabinet, US President Joe Biden’s administration should focus not just on how to deal with the remaining four Hamas battalions in Rafah but on reaching an agreement on how much is enough to achieve demilitarization. In reality, Israel is not far from being able to declare success, end the war, and get its hostages back while many remain alive.

Israel should condition its definition of sufficient demilitarization on the creation of mechanisms by which the US, European donors, and Arab states ensure that all aid flowing into Gaza is monitored from entry to storage to end use. The Israelis can condition all reconstruction assistance (as opposed to humanitarian aid) on Hamas not being in power – no one will invest in rebuilding if it is – and on the credible functioning of the monitoring mechanisms.

Ensuring that Hamas can never return to power requires a Palestinian alternative to it in Gaza. The Palestinian Authority is too weak and too corrupt to play that role soon. Once credibly reformed so that it has the capacity for decent governance, however, the PA can and must fill the void.

With Hamas essentially defeated militarily and the public in Gaza wanting life restored, Arab states could play a transitional role in administration and providing security. From my conversations with a number of Arab leaders, I know that they are prepared to play an unprecedented role in Gaza, including by deploying troops, provided that their involvement is a bridge from the end of the war to a viable Palestinian alternative. They don’t want Hamas to come back, but they also don’t want to be in Gaza forever.

With the exception of the extreme right, no one in Israel wants to be stuck in Gaza, responsible for 2.4 million Palestinians, and facing a likely insurgency. Israel can end this war soon and save those hostages who are still alive, having demilitarized Gaza and set the stage for an alternative to Hamas.

And it needs to do so. It is bad enough that 55 percent of Americans disapprove of Israeli action in Gaza. What is worse is that this war is becoming a crucible for how the next generation thinks about Israel. Given that, and given that Iran has again demonstrated that it is the issue, Israel needs to bring the war in Gaza to an end. Its military defeat of Hamas allows it to do so soon.

Dennis Ross

Dennis Ross, a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, was the director of policy planning in the US State Department under President George H.W. Bush, a special Middle East coordinator under President Bill Clinton, and a special adviser for the Persian Gulf and Southwest Asia to former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. The views expressed here are the writer‘s own. -- Ed.

(Project Syndicate)