Thinking About the Basics of This War: The Two Sacred Israeli Narratives that Hamas Violated on October 7 (Hard Questions, Tough Answers- November 6, 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. Why can’t Israel explain what it wants in Gaza? What is wrong with Israeli hasbara (public diplomacy)?

A. Let’s begin by acknowledging that Israel’s war objectives and war-fighting tactics are still, after a month, considered sufficiently legitimate to warrant the ongoing support of the United States and European governments. Further, of the many other governments and publics that today condemn Israel, most either condemned it or were ambivalent from the beginning, the awful opening act: the October 7 atrocities committed by Hamas.

There is another answer to the question of near-global condemnation, a cynical one: the world is always against Israel by the end of the first week of war. That is why the Six-Day War was so successful in terms of public diplomacy: it took less than a week.

True, the US administration is pressing the Netanyahu government hard to commit to a variety of war aims: reducing civilian casualties, endorsing the two-state solution, declaring temporary ceasefires or ‘pauses’, channeling more and more humanitarian aid. Israel is not entirely compliant. But Washington nevertheless supports the Israeli war effort.

Meanwhile, Israel itself continues to search for an agreed strategic outcome for the war. Indeed, the issue is the topic of a lively public debate. Reinstall the West Bank-based Palestinian Authority when this is over? Allow Gazan Islamists to continue ruling but in a disarmed Strip where Israeli forces retain the right to intervene, as in Area B of the West Bank? Turn the Strip over to the United Nations? The Arab League? Renew Israeli settlement of the Strip, thereby reversing the withdrawal of 2005?

Note that the Netanyahu government is silent on these issues. Note, too, that the Biden-Blinken end-game demand to renew an Israeli-Palestinian peace process based on the two-state solution is barely mentioned in the Israeli internal debate. Hamas might indeed be dismantled, but the PLO and Palestinian Authority are considered corrupt and ineffective as peace partners, while Israeli politics after the war will probably still favor the right and the center--not the near-defunct Israeli peace camp. Indeed, it can be argued that Hamas’s atrocities and the reluctance of West Bank Palestinians to denounce them are pushing Israeli public opinion, including anti-Netanyahu opinion, either further toward the racist right or toward ‘relocation’--leaving Israel.

Meanwhile, Israel has failed to persuade much of the world--especially the Arab world--that it will not expel or transfer Palestinians from the Strip into Egyptian Sinai. Few in Israel take this idea seriously. But the Arab world does: ‘transfer’ evokes Palestinians’ own historical narrative of nakba, the flight and expulsion of 1948.

It is particularly hard for official Israel to deny the intention of ethnic cleansing when the Ministry of Intelligence--one of several ‘fake’ ministerial dumping grounds for underemployed members of Netanyahu’s party or coalition--publishes a proposal to “resettle” Gazans in Sinai. Or (worse?) when Ministry of Heritage (another Netanyahu fiction) head Amichai Eliyahu advocates nuking the Gaza Strip. Or when PM Netanyahu talks about “mighty vengeance” despite President Biden’s admonition to Israel not to repeat America’s mistakes after 9/11.

And what about persuading the world that Israel has humanitarian concerns for Gazans, or that it will eventually leave the Strip? Israel is not really trying. Note that the IDF is not yet able to show proof that it is in the process of ‘dismantling’ Hamas or is about the find the hostages, i.e., that it is fulfilling its own declared war aims for the Strip.

Q. Indeed, dismantling Hamas and rescuing the hostages are two thoroughly defensible war aims . . .

A. The truth of the matter is that Israel did not have a viable strategy for the Gaza Strip before this war, and it does not have one now. As we shall see, for most Israelis this does not currently matter, given the military challenges and constraints that the Israel Defense Forces face in the Strip. In other words, concerning the political as opposed to military endgame, Israel does not really know what it wants in Gaza. But it more or less knows what it wants and needs militarily.

Q. And that is?

A. The political leadership uses inflated and threatening rhetoric about Israel’s military aims, apparently because it believes that this will intimidate the enemy and reassure the Israeli public whose support it needs after it failed so awfully on October 7. Even the codename given in Israel to the war, “Swords of Iron”, reflects bombast. But at the end of the day, Israel’s objectives in this war boil down, consciously or subconsciously, to a response to the following strategic narrative: the barbaric attack of October 7 violently violated two basic assumptions that the Israeli public relies on concerning its ‘contract’ with the state.

First, after 2000 years of defenseless exile and the Holocaust and in view of the ongoing threat of anti-Semitism worldwide, it is the duty of the State of Israel to protect Jews everywhere and, when necessary, rescue them. That is the story of the July 1976 Entebbe rescue and the story of Ethiopian Jewry. Every child in Israeli schools learns that that is the lesson of Jewish history and particularly the Holocaust.

The slaughter of 1400 Jews (and a number of non-Jews under Jewish protection) on October 7 totally and completely violates this perceived obligation of the State of Israel to the Jewish people. Indeed, it is so outrageous because it took place on our home turf, not in some distant corner of the Jewish world.

To, in effect, redeem ourselves and begin to redeem the contract with the state, we must rescue those hostages. This explains why the IDF cannot agree to relent, say, to a brief ceasefire without Hamas first delivering on progress with the hostages. This explains why, if Hamas is defeated in the northern Strip but some of the hostages are in the southern part of the Strip, the war will likely continue. This is why senior IDF officers, in an unprecedented step, apologized to Gaza periphery refugees for not protecting them on October 7.

Second, Hamas is a violent Islamist, anti-Semitic movement bent on destroying us. It is part of an alliance of Islamists--the rest Shi’ite, not Sunni Muslims like Hamas, but nevertheless Islamist and anti-Semitic--all of whom declare their dedication to our destruction. Iran is the leader of this ‘Axis of Resistance’. That Hamas preempted on October 7 and attacked on its own without coordinating with its Islamist allies, as attested to on Friday by Hezbollah’s Shaykh Nasrullah, is fortunate for Israel.

But that Israel did not effectively deter Hamas from attacking brings us to the second basic assumption linking Israelis to their state that was violated on October 7: the state and its security arms protect Israel’s citizens and deter their enemies. The state failed. Only defeating Hamas convincingly will begin to restore deterrence. Not only against Hamas (which theoretically could remain in Gaza if thoroughly and forever deterred) but against Hezbollah on our northern border and, further afield, against Iran.

A convincing defeat of Hamas will also help, after October 7, to restore public faith in Israel’s security institutions. This is absolutely necessary for the security road ahead.

Q. So this is not just about a Palestinian threat?

A. No. This explains the relentless nature of the Israeli operation in the Strip. Despite Israeli threats and bombast, this is at heart not about vengeance or punishment. It is about deterring militant Islam in a very convincing way. In a place like Gaza, and confronting Hamas’s human shield tactics, this inevitably means a heavy civilian death toll. Anyone who, confronting the loss of so many lives in the Strip, desperately calls upon Israel to stop fighting, to call it a day having punished Gaza enough, ignores this vital aspect of Israel’s war aims and needs.

This particular danger, then, this challenge, is Islamist and not specifically or particularly Palestinian. To treat the current conflict as part and parcel of the historic Israeli-Palestinian conflict is undoubtedly territorially and politically relevant. A two-state solution, however unlikely right now, does indeed remain the best idea. But there is also a bigger picture, and it concerns militant Islam as far away as Iran and Yemen.

As an Israeli-Palestinian conflict, this war is not a life-or-death affair for the State of Israel, which will exist no matter how the war ends. But it very much is a crucial stage in Israel’s struggle to deter militant Islam. Suppose President Biden gets his wish and Israel, once victorious in Gaza, commits to a two-state solution. Would this be the end of Islamist enmity toward Israel? A two-state solution that strengthens Israel is not what militant Islam seeks. We saw this with the Oslo process. You can be certain the Iranians and Hezbollah will find a new rationale to target Israel.

Two core values, the safety of Jews wherever they are and deterring the Islamists, are what the entire war can, or should be, distilled down to for Israelis. Israelis instinctively get this; the rest of the world not so readily. That is why Israel’s war aims are so hard to explain and to justify to our neighbors and the world, yet are totally supported by Israeli Jews, left and right, secular and religious.

This explains why the government of Israel has no official objective concerning how Gaza should look when the war ends. This is why Israel began the war by declaring a siege of the Strip--neither food nor water nor electricity would enter--and even after abandoning the siege idea still finds it hard to prioritize the humanitarian aspect. This is why Israel’s friends in the region and beyond instinctively project additional war aims: political, humanitarian.

And note: this is my own subjective understanding of what this war is really about; the Netanyahu government does not try to explain the war this way. Worse: that same government is totally inept and dysfunctional--it was before the war, it is more so in wartime.

There you have, in a nutshell, our hasbara quandary.