What is next in the Israel-Hamas war The Statesman 19 Dec 2023 Maj Gen Harsha Kakar



What is next in the Israel-Hamas war The Statesman 19 Dec 2023

          The Israel-Hamas war in Gaza continues unabated in its third month. All calls for a ceasefire have come to naught. The short five-day pause ended with both sides blaming the other for breaking it. While over 18000 Gazans are claimed to have died, majority being women and children, Israel military casualties are on the rise. Last week, in a single day, Israel lost ten of its soldiers. The location of the remaining hostages as also their being alive remains unknown. Destruction in Gaza continues to mount. The Hamas leadership has refused to relent stating that the longer Israeli forces remain in Gaza, the more casualties they would suffer.

          Israel’s war aims of eradicating Hamas is unlikely to be ever achieved as current trends display growing support for it amongst the Palestinians. The US plan for the Palestinian Authority (PA) to take control of Gaza as a prelude to a two-state solution, is unlikely to find acceptance as Palestinians are already seeking removal of the PA and its president, Mahmoud Abbas, claiming them to be agents of Israel. Hatred for Israel is increasing. It is unlikely that Israel will accept the authority of the PA as Tel Aviv had propped Hamas as a counter to it.

          Global support for Israel appears to be declining, despite continued US backing. In the recent UN General Assembly (UNGA) vote on a humanitarian ceasefire in Gaza, 153 nations, including India, were in favour of it. There were just 10 against. This vote was after the US vetoed a similar demand in the UN Security Council. While the UNGA vote is non-binding, the message is clear, the US and Israel face increased isolation.

          The Israeli economy is already under intense strain and would remain so until hostilities end and its embodied soldiers return to their vocations. Much of Northern Gaza has been obliterated and the destruction has moved into the southern sector. Over 2.3 million have been rendered homeless. The world has taken note and want suffering of civilians to end, which is impossible as they are cramped in a small area.

          The war is already showing signs of expanding. Hezbollah is hinting towards joining the conflict and Houthi’s have begun engaging ships proceeding towards Israel. Iran backed Iraqi rebels are targeting US bases.

          There can be no peace deal with Hamas as it does not represent a state and is a declared terrorist organization. Hence, culminating the war based on an agreement with Hamas is unlikely. It would mean that Israel will only declare end of operations once it achieves its laid down end state.

          An issue of concern is what is the end state envisaged by Israel. Destruction of tunnels is possible to a large extent, as is killing of Hamas fighters. Recovery of hostages could happen though all would not be found alive. However, destruction of Hamas as an ideology is beyond any fighting force. Removing one level of the leadership would open doors for the next. Hamas 2.0 may turn out to be even more brutal than the current organization. With high numbers of innocents killed, volunteers for joining Hamas will witness a quantum leap. Those who survive this war would anyway be enemies of Israel for eternity.   

          Destruction of Hamas military power may provide Israel a few years of peace but the cycle will re-emerge. However, Israeli military losses will be difficult to make up, considering its threats and needs of its armed forces. The longer it stays in Gaza, the more casualties it would suffer and the more it would be hated by the local populace.  

          Diplomatically, while Arab states have turned a blind eye to Israel’s relentless operations, the question remains for how long. If Israel fails in its agenda or losses continue at the current scale, it would impact its efforts to build diplomatic ties with Arab states. It cannot force Gazans into a worse open-air jail than what they have already experienced. If it imposes harsher restrictions, there could be a diplomatic backlash.     

          Israel would be banking on the world to reconstruct Gaza. The question remains how much assistance would flow. Ultimately, it may fall on the US and Israel to do the needful. Arab states would never accept responsibility of Gaza, adding to Israel’s problems. In case Israel is forced to take on this task, it could face a perennial insurgency. Is it willing to risk it.

          A unilateral ceasefire declared by Israel would be a win for Hamas. As would be increased Israeli casualties. In such a scenario, other terrorist groups in the region would be emboldened. The victory of the Taliban over the USSR and the US emboldened similar organizations in West Asia. In Iraq and Libya, post US operations and removal of the leadership of these states, terrorist organizations gained a foothold, threatening an entire region.

Al Qaeda and the ISIS may have been eliminated in a specific region but have remerged elsewhere. An ideology like Hamas or of other terrorist groups is difficult to defeat. Similarly in Gaza, considering the growing hatred for other religions, terrorist groups from outside, including those operating in West Asia or Africa, may gain a foothold, enhancing insecurity. There will always be nations which will fund and exploit these groups to engage their arch enemies.

Gaza will continue to remain a thorn on Israel’s side unless there is a diplomatic solution providing Gazans more freedom, economic viability and a state, which currently seems nowhere on the horizon. Suppressing a region, as with Gaza or even in Pakistan in Baluchistan or Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, will result in violent revolts. Israel has experienced it multiple times but failed to learn.         

          At the end of the day, Israel may have won the battle but the war is far from over. Hamas may have lost the battle but would live to fight another day, with fresh forces, fresh leaders, fresh ideas, fresh weapons and fresh strategy. Israel will always face threats. The region will remain a flashpoint unless lessons from the causes of the current conflict are examined and relevant measures taken. Nations which hold a sway over Israel must work in unison to prevent a similar catastrophe from reoccurring.