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. Israel’s forces appear to be close to achieving their main military goals in the northern Gaza Strip. What happens next?
A. Once Gaza City’s Shifa Hospital has been emptied and the Hamas complex underneath it destroyed, the northern 40 percent of the Gaza Strip will become to a large extent a mopping-up operation. But the war will hardly be over. Israel will confront four strategic challenges.
One is securing Israel’s borders with the Gaza Strip and Lebanon so that over 120,000 displaced Israelis can return to their homes, or rebuild their homes. A second is deciding, in concert with the United States, Egypt (regarding Gaza), and possibly the United Nations (regarding Lebanon) how Israel’s security needs on the Arab side of those borders will be guaranteed.
Yet a third strategic challenge is humanitarian: in coming operations in the southern Gaza Strip and/or southern Lebanon, how to allow civilian aid into a war zone, how to evacuate civilians from war zones. And--increasingly in view of international criticism--how to limit civilian casualties even as the IDF’s operations comply with international law.
A fourth challenge, carried over from the month since October 7, is preventing the conflict from spreading any more than it already has--through escalation by Hezbollah, involvement of Iranian proxies in Syria and Yemen, and/or an intifada-type uprising in the West Bank.
This analysis points to two additional missions--whether of a military or diplomatic nature, or both, is not clear. On the one hand, there will still be a need to secure Israel’s southwest border by eliminating or neutralizing Hamas forces in the southern 60 percent of the Strip. Apparently many of Hamas’s 240 or so Israeli and foreign hostages are also in southern Gaza. Possibly--if they have moved via the “metro” tunnel network south out of Shifa--senior Hamas leaders are already in the southern Strip too.
On the other hand, Hezbollah’s military attacks along Israel’s northern border with Lebanon must cease and, in view of Hezbollah’s aggression, its elite Radwan Force must be pushed back from the border.
Q. This is a heavy ongoing agenda. Where does the IDF begin: in the southern Gaza Strip, southern Lebanon, or both?
A. Let’s first discuss Gaza. Here Israel will face three immediate challenges: the political-military fate of the northern Strip; whether and how to invade the southern Strip; and the hostages. Regarding all three, there are diplomatic-political options and military options.
This is where the tensions begin between Israel and its supporters and allies in the United States and the European Union. The latter want to reintroduce the West Bank-based Palestinian Authority to the Gaza Strip, presumably beginning with the liberated northern 40 percent of the Strip. Prime Minister Netanyahu opposes this initiative, arguing that the PA is corrupt, inefficient and supports terrorism. He stated back on October 20 that “all talk of decisions to hand over the Gaza Strip to the Palestinian Authority or any other party is a lie.”
But Netanyahu offers no alternative. He allows that Israel itself does not want to administer the Strip. Nor does he support proposals by his coalition’s messianic far-right faction to renew Israeli settlement activity in the Strip. He wants the IDF to remain a security presence there. But only a security presence which, if construed as occupation, will encounter not only Biden administration opposition but considerable Israeli public discomfort as well.
Netanyahu’s politics obfuscate his strategic calculations (surprise, surprise!). If he allows the return to Gaza of the PA--meaning in effect the PLO, Israel’s Oslo-based negotiating partner for a two-state solution--he will be understood to be working hand in glove with the Biden administration, which seeks to leverage the Gaza conflict toward refocusing on a two-state solution.
Netanyahu opposes a two-state solution. He and his coalition partners covet the territory of the West Bank. That is why for the past decade and a half Netanyahu promoted Hamas’s rule in Gaza. Hamas also opposes a two-state solution and opposes any dialogue whatsoever with Israel. Hamas’s presence in Gaza has for years meant no serious chance for anyone to promote a two-state solution to be negotiated with the PLO.
True, the PA-PLO is weak and corrupt. Even when it did negotiate a two-state solution with Israel (2000, 2008, 2013-14), its demands were too extreme. Nor does it wish to be seen in the Arab world as having been reinstalled in Gaza (Hamas expelled it by force in 2007) by Israeli bayonets.
On the other hand, the PA consistently cooperates with Israel regarding security issues in the West Bank. Besides, no one can point to an alternative to PA-PLO rule in Gaza; they are “in” by default.
Note, in connection with discussion of the future of the Gaza Strip, the total dissonance in the ‘music’ of the Netanyahu government as opposed to that of the international community. The former wants only security with regard to Gaza, to be followed by a loss of interest on the part of the world so Israel’s messianic settlers can pursue their agenda of swallowing up the West Bank.
The latter, for example the G7 last week, wants a “broader peace process . . . a two-state solution.” US Secretary of State Blinken wants to install in Gaza “an effective and revitalized Palestinian Authority”.
Q. So the question who will rule Gaza and toward what end is a source of controversy between the Netanyahu government and the international community. And a second challenge is posed by the IDF heading south to continue the fight against Hamas there?
A. At this juncture, it will be difficult for Israel to garner international and regional support or even tolerance for an all-out fight against Hamas in the southern Strip. This is particularly so because, following the move of around a million people from the north to the south at Israel’s demand, nearly all Gazans are now living in the south, which is more crowded than ever.
This means that civilian casualties will be even more horrendous in the south than in the north. Not to mention mass human suffering for lack of shelter, particularly with the onset of winter. Already Washington and European capitals as well as the moderate Arab states that fear and detest Hamas and have called home their ambassadors to Israel yet still cling to strategic relations, are feeling the pressure of mass pro-Hamas protests.
Yet if a substantial Hamas force as well as some of the movement’s terrorist leaders and many of the hostages remain in the south and Israel does not pursue the war southward, the IDF will not have achieved its Gaza objectives. Hamas will celebrate ‘victory’ and gear up for another round. Israel’s friends in the Arab world will distance themselves even further. Southern Gaza thus poses a major dilemma for Israel.
Apropos another round, note the recent statements of Hamas exile leaders to the NYTimes and Washington Post to the effect that the October 7 attack was intended to ignite a far broader conflict territorially than a mere fight over the Gaza Strip. Note, too, apropos broadening the conflict, that a variety of pie-in-the-sky schemes to ‘transfer’ Palestinians out of southern Gaza--to Egypt, to Israel’s Negev, or even all over the world, 100.000 per country--ostensibly while Israel completes cleaning out the southern Strip, have been consistently shot down.
Sadly, Netanyahu’s coalition contains quite a few headline-seeking loudmouths who are incapable of strategic thinking and whose bizarre schemes provide fodder for regional and global criticism of Israel.
Some kind of limited Israeli military activity in the southern Strip, beyond ongoing air strikes, is likely. If Hamas maintains even a residual presence in the south, Israel will have to rely on a threat of military force to back up its demands: for demilitarization of Gaza’s southern border with Israel, perhaps for expulsion of Hamas’s leaders, and of course for hostage release and/or prisoner swaps.
Alternatively, some sort of deal could be struck to release the hostages while leaving a defanged Hamas in place in the south. Perhaps even some combination of Hamas and the Palestinian Authority, despite Netanyahu’s objections.
Q. In other words, we are looking at the prospect of less than a clean victory in Gaza. And Hezbollah?
A. In parallel to whatever measures are now invoked regarding Gaza, the Israeli public unanimously supports the demand to render the border with Lebanon safe, meaning free of a Hezbollah threat just across the border fence. A sizeable Israeli force has been massed along the border since hostilities began on October 7. Some 60,000 residents of border moshavim and towns have been evacuated.
In recent days Hezbollah, presumably in consultation with Iran and together with Hamas units in Lebanon, has escalated its cross-border attacks. Israel’s response has been aggressive but, according to the IDF’s own definition, defensive in nature: combat, but not (yet) war. Note the presence of US naval forces in the Eastern Mediterranean, signaling to Hezbollah to avoid escalation into an all-out missile attack on central Israel.
With the heavy work in northern Gaza behind it, the IDF could conceivably now attack Radwan Force emplacements across the northern border fence with the goal of pushing Hezbollah back. (Radwan is a Hezbollah quasi-military commando force numbering around 2500 troops.) This could happen in parallel with a limited military move against the southern Gaza Strip. But in the case of southern Lebanon, Israel could also, in close coordination with the US and EU, insist that the United Nations enter the picture.
UN Security Council Resolution 1701 from 2006 helped end Israel’s Second Lebanon War. A key provision of 1701, never effectively enforced, was supposed to place UNIFIL, a UN force, in the area of southern Lebanon between the Litani River and the fence, and to push Hezbollah further north. Israel could argue that all it asks is that 1701 be enforced and rendered effective.
But would the Russians and the Chinese, both cheerleaders for Hamas in this war, cooperate to ensure the necessary votes at the Security Council? Should Israel move to the offensive against Hezbollah in parallel with an initiative at the UN? Could an Israeli move trigger escalation by Hezbollah and/or by Iran’s other proxies that threaten Israel from Syrian and Yemeni territory? Another dilemma.
Q. Bottom line?
A. It is hard to see just how Israel can realize all its war aims against both Hamas and Hezbollah. Tensions with the Biden administration over both humanitarian and strategic issues like the southern Strip and southern Lebanon could escalate.
Ultimately, hostage release is likely to be prioritized over neutralizing all Hamas forces.
Netanyahu’s defective leadership, which got us into this mess, appears to be heavily stressed by the decisions ahead. His government remains stunningly incapable of dealing with Israel’s own refugees from Gaza- and Lebanon-border communities and with the war’s effect on the economy.
Israelis are united over the need to defeat the Islamist terrorist enemies on Israel’s borders. But pressures are growing inside the country regarding two domestic issues that are related to the war. One is the economic cost of an extended war and the bloated Netanyahu coalition’s inclination not to fund it by cutting its own entitlements. Another is the way the war is being exploited by Netanyahu’s messianist far-right ministers to militarize Israeli society, attack West Bank Arabs and their land, and impose a McCarthyist crackdown on free speech and human rights among Arab citizens of Israel.
Here we encounter the limits of the national unity generated by the events of October 7.