Picture credit: RONALDO SCHEMIDT/AFP via Getty Images
Artillery Row

Has Israel walked into a forever war?

A brutal conflict seems unlikely to be winnable any time soon

The Washington DC establishment, with its so-called Beltway, that corridor of power that boasts such might today while always wondering what tomorrow brings, has been dominated by two questions of late. First — what will Israel and Iran do to each other next? Then comes the follow-up, for some insiders just as nightmarish. Might Israel be fighting a war it can never win in Gaza, succumbing to that dreaded prospect, the Forever War ?

“What Iran did, lighting up Jerusalem with drones and the like, means all us allies rally round this Israeli government,” said one White House aide, speaking the morning after we watched intercepted missiles flying over Al-Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem, not to mention that centrepiece of Jewish prayer, the Wailing Wall below. “But the nagging question is out there for us all. This crisis began in Gaza, and hopefully ends in Gaza, without a regional conflagration, but can Israel win in that tiny Strip?”

To put it baldly … can Israel get its job done in Gaza?

He paused, a sigh so audible. “What we have to question is whether Israel can ever finish the job it set for itself, and eliminate Hamas.” Note that he said it was Israel’s war, not America’s. The days of the Joe Biden bear-hug for Israeli leader Bibi Netanyahu have long since passed, and with this decline have come the questions that now bedevil the relationship between Washington and Jerusalem, beyond the mutual desire to stare down the Ayatollahs in Tehran.

To put it baldly, as heard from veteran observers of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in Washington, can Israel get its job done in Gaza?

The numbers speak — certainly to one US Intelligence officer who has monitored the conflict for years, dating back to the peace accord Israel signed with the Palestinian leadership of Yasir Arafat in the early 1990s. Israel, he says, estimated that there were 30,000 Hamas fighters when they invaded Gaza after the horrifying attacks on Israeli civilians on October 7. Israel claims to have killed 13,000 of them since, although those numbers cannot be verified.

“What speaks is that the Israelis report the deaths of less than 120 Hamas leaders,” he claims, insisting one on the list was in reality a journalist, another an aid worker with strong views on Hamas, “and the vast majority of those were killed in the first few weeks of the war, very few leaders since.” The head of Hamas, Yahya Sinwar, remains at large, six months plus on, he notes. “Even the Israelis will tell you he’s the brain — the master-strategist they fear most.”

What about the infamous tunnel network that Hamas had when Israel invaded, the source of their military muscle against a conventional enemy? Hundreds of tunnels, the Israeli Defence Force said at the time. “Think of Gaza as two layers,” explained the Israeli Defence Force (IDF) spokesman Jonathan Conricus then. “One layer for the people, the street, another for Hamas underground.” For its part, Hamas claimed 500 kilometers, 310 miles of deep-shaft maze as its one-of-a-kind bunker.

US intelligence concludes the Israelis have identified close to 200 tunnels, most notably the one they claimed lay under the Al-Shifa hospital in Gaza City as a command centre for Hamas before they stormed it. “But tunnel shafts taken out, neutralised? No more than 10 per cent judging by what we see,” says that expert.

Then turn to the conflict on the ground, at street-level. The list is long of areas Israel claimed to have cleared of “terrorists.” But among others, the IDF has now had to return, as they put it, to the teeming Zeitoun neighborhood of Gaza City, to the Shati refugee camp, and the city of Beit Hanoun. All were once “cleared” — but not forever, it seems.

Finally, there is the chilling issue of Israeli hostages. From early days, the Israeli Government reported 253 hostages taken by Hamas on October 7, from nine months old to 85 years. Just three have been rescued by the IDF operation in Gaza. Some 109 were released in the one ceasefire round negotiated so far. The bodies of 12 have been recovered, three of them killed by Israeli soldiers in a botched operation.

“That leaves 129 hostages, and our Government says 34 are dead,” said Einav Zangauker, whose son Matan is among those held. “Watch what Hamas says,” adds the US Intelligence source.

Hamas insists more hostages than that have died in Israeli air strikes, alongside the 33,000 plus Palestinians they report killed so far — what US Intelligence portrays as the “moral trap” the IDF walked into when they invaded. “Hostages were bound to be caught up, and die, in such an operation if it went months, not days.”

“The time for hostages isn’t short, it has run out,” concluded hostage campaign organizer Tom Barkai as tens of thousands marched in Tel Aviv recently, demanding the Netanyahu government bring them home, even via a ceasefire, “we know they are dying there.”

So any balance-sheet, on Israeli objectives and targets met, leaves many more questions than answers. Consider Netanyahu’s insistence that the Hamas political machine, which once won elections in Gaza, would be destroyed too. A wartime opinion poll among Palestinians during last December’s ceasefire showed an increase in popular support for Hamas across Gaza, and clear rejection of the Palestinian leadership the West preferred for any future Palestinian state.

Then consider what US Intelligence has concluded. Witness this sobering, front-line thought issued in its annual Threat Assessment in March. “Israel will probably face lingering armed resistance from Hamas for years to come, and the military will struggle to neutralise Hamas’s underground infrastructure, which allows insurgents to hide, regain strength, and surprise Israeli forces.” 

All of which leaves some in that Washington Beltway diagnosing endless conflict between a Bibi Netanhayu, his hand bolstered by those attacks from Iran and the support of old allies, and his enemy in Gaza. “We sometimes forget that one extreme needs another to keep the battle raging, it’s been the story in the Middle East for so long,” to quote that White House aide, still digesting those images of Iranian missiles intercepted over the Holy Land. “The fear is that Netanyahu almost wants a Forever War, to keep himself in power. And on the Hamas side, it seems Yahya Sinwar is the very man to give him just that.”

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