Garvan Walshe is a former national and international security policy adviser to the Conservative Party
In 1939, the Zionist leader and subsequent Israeli Prime Minister, David Ben-Gurion, found himself confronted with a British government policy limiting Jewish immigration to Palestine (known as the “White Paper”), and Britain’s declaration of war against Nazi Germany. Palestine was at the time ruled by the British under a “mandate” from the League of Nations.
Ben-Gurion needed to oppose restrictions on Jewish immigration to Palestine, when Jews were being persecuted in Nazi-ruled Europe and had few opportunities to escape elsewhere, while also supporting British policy in fighting the Nazis. He resolved this dilemma by compartmentalisation, declaring that: “we must fight the White Paper as if there was no war, and we must fight the war as if there were no White Paper”
After Hamas’s October 7 attack, a similar spirit animated Israel’s pro-democracy movement that had been fighting Netanyahu’s attacks on the rule of law: they must fight Hamas as if there were no Netanyahu, and fight Netanyahu as if there were no Hamas.
This led to the creation of the Israel’s emergency War Cabinet, in which the centrist politician and former Israel Defence Force (IDF) chief of staff, Benny Ganz, joined Yoav Gallant (the Defence Minister that Netanyahu had tried to fire for defending the rule of law in the spring) and Netanyahu himself as well as two observers: Gadi Eizenkot (another former IDF chief of staff, and opponent of Netanyahu), and Ron Dermer, (a political consultant and Netanyahu supporter).
Once extraordinary American pressure was added (including Anthony Blinken, the Secretary of State, spending eight hours at an Israeli Cabinet meeting), management of the Israeli war effort resembled a three-headed beast, consisting of Netanyahu, Ganz, and the United States. This coalition has curbed the excesses of Israel’s initial response and effected a change in the official Israeli rhetoric, but it’s becoming increasingly clear that it can’t substitute for a clear war strategy.
The first step in any strategy is to identify the threat your enemy poses, and in this Israel has still not corrected its mistakes from the pre-October 7th period. It refers to Hamas as a terrorist organisation, which is true but incomplete.The terrorist’s strategy is to use indiscriminate violence to force a stronger opponent to make concessions towards the terrorists’ aims. But Hamas’s aim is Israel’s destruction, and any pretence it made at coexistence was revealed to be a trick by the October 7 attacks.
It is also a governing authority, but a decidedly parasitic one, channelling the large sums of money it has received from Qatar and international aid agencies into its military infrastructure, including a vast network of subterranean tunnels, without providing bomb shelters for its civilians. Inverting the view that the first duty of government is to protect its citizens, it uses the civilians as human shields protect its armed forces.
So after attacking Israel (and doing nothing to protect the population it rules from Israel’s retaliation), it has gone underground. Israeli ground forces are meeting little open resistance, only finding Hamas squads emerging from tunnels for hit-and-run attacks on Israeli armoured vehicles. This tactic has not come as a surprise to the Israelis, but its strategic meaning eludes them.
Despite running what amounts to a state, Hamas isn’t fighting like a conventional government. It has switched to guerrilla mode, hiding out in its tunnel network to harass and bleed Israeli forces. Its limited interest in exchanging hostages for a ceasefire that suggests Israel has not found a way to press them militarily. And if Israel had hoped its bombardment of Hamas property would force them out into the open in order to defend it, that hasn’t worked either.
Israel now finds itself fighting an insurgency in a territory it doesn’t want to govern, against an enemy that thinks its own people are more use to it dead for their propaganda value, than alive, as resources for carrying on the fight. A counter-insurgency is a contest for political control, involving loyalty (the “hearts”) and practical incentives (the “minds”) of the population.
This isn’t a contest that Israel can win on its own. Notwithstanding Netanyahu’s declaration that Israel would need indefinite “security responsibility” for Gaza, it doesn’t have the domestic political will to reoccupy the territory for more than a temporary period nor the legitimacy among Palestinians to engage in a contest for Gazans’ political loyalty.
Only other Palestinian groupings can, and they will need large amounts of money from Saudi Arabia, the UAE and the West to become strong enough to take on Hamas. Yet securing their involvement will require the Israelis to make important concessions, and return to negotiations intended to lead ultimately to a Palestinian state – but with safeguards to ensure that it does not get taken over by Hamas.
This they cannot do while their government is being led by the man who has devoted the last quarter century to preventing one coming into existence. This man, however, has no shame. He refuses to resign, and for the moment has the support of a majority in the Knesset, backed by extremists in the “Religious Zionism” faction, whose political fortunes peaked at the last election, and who know the electorate will punish them for allowing the most serious massacre of Jews since the Holocaust to occur on their watch.
If Israelis had hoped they could have dealt with Hamas first, and then turned around to finish off the enemy within, they are mistaken. In fact, the road to defeating Hamas runs through the Israeli Prime Minister’s office.