Opinion: Israel is winning the ground war but losing the battle for public opinion
It has been more than six weeks since the barbaric Hamas attack on Israel on Oct. 7 — Israel’s 9/11 — and more than three weeks since the Israel Defense Forces began ground operations in the Gaza Strip. How is this war going? From my vantage point, it can be summed up as follows: Israel is winning the ground war while losing the battle for international public opinion — and failing to formulate a plan for what comes after the guns fall silent.
The IDF has encircled the northern Gaza Strip and is now conducting operations in the heart of “Hamastan” — including seizing al-Shifa Hospital, which Israel claims is a base of Hamas operations. Israel has lost more than 50 soldiers during the offensive but has not yet encountered serious resistance from Hamas. As Israeli troops have advanced, rocket attacks from Gaza have declined.
“The ground operation was successful with fewer casualties than all the predictions forecast,” retired Maj. Gen. Amos Yadlin, a former director of Israeli military intelligence, told me. “There has been excellent cooperation between ground forces and the air force and intelligence. And they basically control northern Gaza — with one caveat, which is that many of the Hamas fighters who were not killed are in their underground fortress, which still exists.”
Israeli troops still need to figure out how to deal with the Hamas tunnel network — where hostages could be held — and to move into large sections of Gaza City that the IDF has not yet entered. As occurred with U.S. forces in Iraq and Afghanistan, Israeli casualties could climb as soldiers transition from offensive operations to trying to control the terrain they have seized.
There is little doubt that Hamas has suffered a serious blow, but its senior leadership has not been captured or killed. Israel suspects that Yahya Sinwar, the organization’s leader in Gaza, is hiding in his hometown of Khan Younis, the biggest city in southern Gaza.
Israeli troops have not entered southern Gaza at all. When they do — and that is clearly the next stage of Operation Swords of Iron, as the Israelis have dubbed their campaign — they will have to deal with a population of some 2 million people, including hundreds of thousands of people who have relocated from northern Gaza to escape the fighting there. The potential for more civilian casualties is high.
The IDF is undoubtedly gaining valuable operational expertise and intelligence from its offensive so far, but the process of destroying Hamas’s hold on Gaza will be a lengthy one. “We are only at the beginning,” Zohar Palti, a former official at the Israeli Defense Ministry, told me, while Yadlin estimated that it will take an additional six months to dismantle Hamas.
The big military question is whether the IDF will get anything like the amount of time it wants. In all of its wars going back to the 1982 invasion of Lebanon, international outrage over civilian casualties forced Israel to curtail offensive operations before achieving a clear-cut victory. The pressure is also building during this war. Put another way, the political clock is ticking faster than the military clock.
Initially, the world was horrified by the brutality of Hamas, but now much of the world is horrified by the brutality of the Israeli response. The Hamas-controlled Gaza Health Ministry reported that 11,100 people had been killed in Gaza, including 4,000 children, before it stopped reporting figures amid a collapse in communications. Even Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu conceded that “we’re not successful” in trying to minimize civilian casualties given Hamas’s cynical use of civilians as human shields.
Israel has begun to ameliorate some of the damage to its own reputation by finally allowing, under U.S. pressure, humanitarian relief supplies and fuel into Gaza and by publicizing Hamas’s use of hospitals and schools as fighting positions. But the damage has been done, with Israel’s most fervent critics accusing it of committing war crimes and even genocide (despite the IDF’s insistence that it is trying to comply with the laws of war). A Reuters-Ipsos poll last week found the number of respondents who say the United States should support Israel has declined from 41 percent to 32 percent since the start of the conflict, while 68 percent agreed that “Israel should call a ceasefire and try to negotiate.”
A short cease-fire of up to five days might occur as part of a deal to release some hostages held by Hamas, but a longer cease-fire is a complete nonstarter for the Israelis. Israel is still reeling from the worst one-day attack in its history, and some 200,000 Israelis still cannot return to their homes in the north and south because of ongoing fighting. Israelis know that a longer cease-fire now means Hamas has won. “I’ve never seen such determination since 9/11,” a U.S. official who deals with the Israeli government told me. “They are utterly and totally committed to dismantling Hamas, and whatever is required to get the job done, they will do it.”
Israel’s implacable determination to defeat the terrorists who attacked it on Oct. 7 is likely to ensure that the IDF has the time it needs to secure the Gaza Strip, no matter how much blowback it receives from abroad. But there is still no indication of what will come next.
Netanyahu, a man without a moral compass, has been desperately triangulating between the demands of the international community not to reoccupy Gaza and the demands of his right-wing coalition not to empower the Palestinian Authority. He has said Israel will not occupy Gaza but plans to assume “overall security responsibility” for the territory. He has also said he won’t turn it over to the Palestinian Authority. That is an incomprehensible mishmash from a leader who has lost any legitimacy to lead.
The Netanyahu government is missing a priceless opportunity to assuage Palestinian anger and reach out to moderate Arab regimes. It should be reiterating its commitment to a Palestinian state and offering to start talks with the Palestinian Authority — as advocated in a Post op-ed by the president of the World Jewish Congress. At the same time, Israel should be working with its international partners to train and expand the Palestinian security forces — which currently cooperate with Israeli forces to police the West Bank — so that they can eventually take control of Gaza. And Israel should be cracking down on the illegal expansion of settlements and settler violence in the West Bank, which are raising the risk that Israel will have to wage a two-front war.
A U.S. official warned me that the West Bank is “teetering” and said: “If Israel wants to stay focused on what’s most important, which is winning the war in Gaza and getting the hostages out safely, they’ve got to find a way to reduce tensions in the West Bank. The best way to do that is to stop extremist settler violence. That, to me, is a wartime imperative.”
But that is an imperative that the Netanyahu government, in thrall to right-wing settlers, remains blind to. So the war continues, with no end in sight and no certainty beyond greater suffering and bloodshed. Israel is winning the conflict, but the ultimate outcome remains as murky as it did six weeks ago. / The Washington Post