Special Analysis from Yossi Alpher- Gaza War, Day 10: Israel's Dilemmas (October 16, 2023)


Yossi Alpher is an independent security analyst. He is the former director of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University, a former senior official with the Mossad, and a former IDF intelligence officer. Views and positions expressed here are those of the writer, and do not necessarily represent APN's views and policy positions.

Q: Monday October 16 is day ten of the war. Israel faces a multitude of military dilemmas, humanitarian dilemmas, regional diplomatic dilemmas, and domestic and political dilemmas. Where do you start?

A: Of necessity, with the military, where the most lives are affected and the biggest catastrophes are liable to transpire.

Here, two dilemmas stand out. First, when and how to invade the Gaza Strip while maximizing military achievements and minimalizing losses on all sides except Hamas--whose elimination is, in a variety of formulations, the war objective. Currently, attention is focused on the IDF’s attempt to persuade or force Gazan civilians to move from the northern to the southern half of the Strip prior to Israeli forces entering the north.

On the one hand, time is of the essence as the Gaza humanitarian situation generates growing international criticism of Israel. On the other, waiting allows the Israel Air Force and additional IDF forces outside the Strip to destroy infrastructure and target Hamas leaders. It also allows a steady flow of Israeli reservists abroad to return home to service, reflecting the country’s broad commitment to fighting Hamas. Then too, in view of the danger of heavy civilian losses and the many traps and ambushes Hamas has undoubtedly laid for Israel while IDF troops descend into Hamas tunnels, it is very possible that the IDF’s invasion of Gaza will be slow and cautious.

Second, what to do about the northern front. Hezbollah has initiated a campaign of low-level warfare along Israel’s northern border, using both its own and Palestinian forces. It has chased Lebanese Army and UNIFIL forces away from the border--its fiefdom. Israel is responding but trying to avoid accidental escalation. Once again, Iranian, Hamas and Hezbollah officials are meeting in Beirut.

Will Hezbollah escalate and if so, when: now or only when the IDF has penetrated deep into the Gaza Strip? Logic dictates that the IDF fight on one front at a time. There is however a school of thought in Israeli security circles that suggests Hezbollah provocations should be seized upon by Israel to preempt in the north and capitalize on support from the US and EU to deal once and for all with Hezbollah’s huge missile arsenal. Yet Washington has reportedly made it clear that it fears a regional war and that its two carrier groups in the eastern Mediterranean will fight side by side with Israel against Hezbollah and even Iran only if the latter attack first.

Certainly war in the north, if it breaks out, will be far more damaging to Israeli civilian and military infrastructure than war against Hamas in Gaza. Hezbollah’s arsenal of rockets and missiles is far larger and deadlier. Then too, there are reports that Iran is moving some of its Shiite proxy militias from Iraq to Syria, possibly with the objective of opening yet a third front against Israel along the Golan border. The Houthis in Yemen, another Iran ally, are also threatening to join the fray, presumably by launching their Iranian missiles at Eilat.

Q: Humanitarian dilemmas?

A: First and foremost, the hostages held by Hamas and Islamic Jihad in the Strip. By Israel’s latest count there are at least 199--comprising mostly Israelis but also foreign nationals from some 30 countries. Some of the hostages are infants, children and the elderly. Some are dual citizens, including 14 Israeli-Americans.

The inexact count of hostages reflects Hamas’s refusal to relate to their number publicly--if it even has a grip on the hostage situation in the chaotic Strip. It also reflects Israel’s difficulty in finding and identifying all the bodies of victims of the October 7 attack so the status of the unaccounted for--deceased or hostage--can be determined. Some of the dead are so badly burned that DNA identification is impossible.

The hostages constitute a dilemma for both sides. Israel prioritizes their release yet refuses to be paralyzed by their plight, all the while proceeding with bombing attacks and invasion plans that jeopardize them. Hamas, for its part, is hard put to explain even to fellow Islamists why it is holding civilians, particularly the very young and elderly.

Publicly, Israel is demanding that Hamas release all civilian hostages unconditionally. Unsubstantiated reports indicate that countries that maintain relations with both sides--Russia, Turkey, Qatar, Egypt--may be mediating. If and when the IDF invades Gaza, and particularly if Hezbollah responds by attacking, the hostage plight is liable to be shunted even by Israel to the back burner. Meanwhile the hostages’ desperate families have established a vigil outside IDF and Israel government headquarters in Tel Aviv.

We have already noted the growing humanitarian dilemma inside the Strip. It is exacerbated by two factors. One is Israel’s own siege: denying fuel, electricity and water to Gaza and pushing Gazans southward. The other is Egypt’s refusal to allow Gazans, as they are pushed south toward the Sinai border, to cross it and enter Egyptian territory. This is in keeping with Egypt’s resolute insistence that Gaza, as part of Palestine, is Israel’s problem, not Egypt’s; that Gazans are Palestinian, not Egyptian.

Here Egypt is consistent. Having occupied the Strip between 1948 and 1967, it refused offers to reoccupy it (e.g., by PM Menachem Begin) and relieve Israel of occupation burdens prior to Israel’s 2005 withdrawal. Currently, it confronts Israeli and international pressures to prevent a humanitarian catastrophe in the Strip by opening the border. In the balance hang Israel’s very good relations with Egyptian intelligence and the two countries’ prosperous natural gas dealings.

Q: Doesn’t Israel have a humanitarian duty to deal with this?

A: Israel argues that since 2005 it does not occupy Gaza. Nothing proves this better than the fact that Israel was brutally attacked from there by forces representing Gaza’s Hamas rulers. Now Israel has the right to respond against aggression, its sole obligation under international law being to try its best to avoid civilian casualties--which explains the IDF’s thinking in its demand that Gazans abandon the northern part of the Strip.

Israel’s approach, under US pressure, is not without contradictions. Does Israel besiege the Strip and withhold water and electricity, or open a humanitarian corridor and offer water to southern Gaza as an incentive to Gazans in the north to do Israel’s bidding and move there? Offer the humanitarian corridor in return for the northern Gaza exodus, information on the hostages, Egypt opening the Rafah border crossing, or all of the above? Work with the US to compensate Egyptian leader a-Sisi with heightened economic aid in return for admitting Gazans to Sinai, conceivably to the detriment of Israel-Egypt relations?

Hamas, for its part, is a terrorist movement that does not respect international humanitarian law. It prefers to use Gazan civilians as human shields in defiance of international law and will blame Israel for Gazan casualties.

An IDF invasion of Gaza, when it comes, will almost certainly confront Israel with massive humanitarian dilemmas. But it is hard to find a more humanitarian alternative to what Israel is doing. And if Israel does not invade and, despite all the dangers, eliminate Hamas, the latter will declare victory on behalf of the Iran-led Islamist Resistance Front, thereby guaranteeing more attacks on Israel and probably not only on Israel.

Q: And if the Hamas leadership and fighters flee northern Gaza, including Gaza city with its central importance, along with the civilian population?

A: In this case, the IDF will destroy Hamas’s military infrastructure with its considerable underground deployment in tunnels (termed by Israel “the metro”). But Gaza city is Hamas’s headquarters and logistics center. The expectation is that the Hamas leadership, which is exhorting civilians to remain in the north, will also remain there with its forces. Still, invading only part of the Strip is a gamble on the part of the IDF. So is the likelihood that Hamas will use Israeli hostages as human shields.

Accordingly, Israeli security officials are hedging their bets. We are hearing variations on Israel’s war aims, e.g., remove (only) the Hamas senior echelon, or avoid entering the southern Gaza Strip, leaving it twice as demographically crowded as before. This poses the possibility of ending up relying once again on ‘mowing the lawn’ and awaiting the next eruption, even if Israel’s efforts have delayed it for a few years.

Q: Regional dilemmas? Doesn’t Israel have most of the region, the US and Europe on its side?

A: Yes, but how can it keep them on its side when the losses and suffering pile up in the Strip? Already Saudi Arabia has announced a freeze on normalization. Public opinion throughout the Arab world is siding with the Palestinians. Mass protests and fake news there and in Europe present the Gaza crisis as if there never was a Hamas pogrom in the western Negev bordering Gaza on October 7 and Israel started everything.

Beyond Israel’s Arab neighbors--particularly Jordan with its large Palestinian population--Iran and Russia are of particular concern.

Iran continues to deny any involvement in Hamas’s October 7 attack. It is letting its allies and proxies--in Lebanon, Iraq, Syria and Yemen--do most of the threatening. But we know it was involved in the broad strategic planning and that a Hezbollah decision to join the war is essentially an Iranian decision. On Saturday, via the United Nations, Iran cautioned Israel that an invasion of Gaza would prompt Iranian intervention. This unusual warning presumably means war with Hezbollah in Lebanon and with Shiite militias in Syria, but perhaps an international terror campaign as well.

Russia’s President Putin, who is normally respectful of Israel and who looks the other way when the Israel Air Force attacks Iranians and their proxies in Syria, has blamed Israel for the war and supports Hamas. Incredibly, he compares Israel’s week-long siege of Gaza with the 872-day-long WWII Nazi siege of Leningrad. Does he want to distract attention from Ukraine? Please his Iranian arms suppliers? One way or another, this is worrisome in view of the danger of escalation to Israel’s north where Russia maintains air, ground and naval forces.

Indeed, if we needed strategic justification for US President Biden’s decision to send two US Navy carrier groups to the eastern Mediterranean, Putin has provided it. Biden’s speech last week in support of Israel, a truly remarkable gesture, touched the hearts of even Israel’s right wingers. (Of course it helped that meanwhile candidate Trump was badmouthing Bibi.)

Netanyahu has invited Biden to visit wartime Israel. In view of political realities in Israel and the US, a Biden visit would be a winner for both leaders, albeit one that Netanyahu decidedly does not merit.

Biden, incidentally, spent 90 minutes on Zoom with the families of missing US-Israel dual citizens. Netanyahu met with representatives of the families on Sunday.

Q: Domestic and political?

A: Apropos Israeli government disfunction, it was fascinating to watch, on Saturday, an interview with Minister of Energy Yisrael Katz, a Netanyahu stalwart. “Can you acknowledge the government’s responsibility for what happened a week ago?” the interviewer asked Katz. “The entire country is responsible,” Katz replied. “What’s important now is to pull together.” After 10 more minutes of trying to get an admission of governmental responsibility--note, not even governmental guilt--the interviewer gave up. Katz, pleased with himself for standing up for Bibi, walked away with a thin smile on his lips.

It is also fascinating to note that when someone in authority--IDF Chief of Staff Herzi Halevi, National Security Adviser Tzachi HaNegbi, Education Minister Yoav Kish (“we were dealing with nonsense”), even Kahanist Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich--does acknowledge responsibility, that is the end of the conversation. Nothing further is demanded. It is understood that the details will be investigated after the war.

Put simply, it is easier to support an inept government’s war effort when that government acknowledges that the war is rooted in its ineptitude and, by implication, asks the public’s forbearance. After all, Benny Gantz’s opposition party has joined a small war-cabinet, thereby officially acknowledging the need to pull together until this is over.

Netanyahu himself, in multiple appearances, refuses to say anything that could conceivably be construed by what remains of his ‘base’ as an admission of culpability for visiting upon Israel the disaster of October 7. On the contrary, on Friday night, speaking on Israel TV, the ‘terrorism expert’ who believed in ‘economic peace’ with Hamas as an alternative to the PLO said, amazingly, “we have always known who Hamas is”. His ministers and ‘explainers’ toe the line. He is obviously hoping that a smart victory, the passage of time, and the fake conspiracy theories that right-religious media churn out to the effect that October 7 was a left-wing plot, will make people forget.

That might work on more of the public were it not for government inefficiency. Most of Netanyahu’s 30-some ministers are political hacks or, worse, messianic extremists, totally unsuited for their jobs. A few have tried to visit hospitals or the Gaza periphery battlefield and been chased away by angry crowds. Bibi’s appointee as coordinator for the families of the missing and abducted, Gal Hirsch, a retired brigadier general whose military and business careers have been unmitigated failures, was at least smart enough to join the Likud.

Bibi’s loyalty to his party rather than the country is one of several parallels with Golda Meir in 1973. “What’s good for the party?” (today’s Labor party), she would ask out loud in a crisis. Not “what’s good for the country?” No wonder intelligence gets fouled up in that kind of atmosphere.

Noam Tibon, a former general who ran to the battlefield on his own the morning of October 7, fought Hamas terrorists and has been volunteering ever since along with multitudes of ordinary citizens, summed it up on Friday: “There is no government, just citizens who care.”

Q: Bottom line?

A: Despite the Netanyahu government’s monstrous mistakes in mishandling Hamas and the Palestinian issue prior to October 7 and despite its anti-democratic bent, Israel is justified in going to war.

Moving forward, the new unity war cabinet faces three major challenges. At the strategic level, winning the war and decimating Hamas while avoiding a regional conflagration. At the national moral-ethical level, rescuing the hostages. At the broad humanitarian level, avoiding unnecessary Gazan casualties.

It is hard to believe that all three objectives are fully attainable. There are too many contradictions among and between them.

Finally, once the smoke clears, who will rule Gaza or even that part of Gaza conquered by the IDF? Israel does not want to. Neither does Egypt. Both agree that Hamas must not. There is talk of a UN force or a pan-Arab force. Neither is capable of suppressing a resurgent militant Islamist movement if the IDF does not or cannot finish the job. That contingency would leave a major strategic vacuum, with ramifications for the entire Middle East.