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Netanyahu wanted to 'collapse' Hamas. This war could collapse Israel

The Gaza war has been a huge miscalculation for Israel. As well as being a moral and military disaster, it is fuelling resistance and reigniting the embers of anger across the Arab world
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu holds a press conference in Tel Aviv on 28 October 2023 (Reuters)

After a particularly heavy Israeli barrage during the siege of Beirut in July 1982, US President Ronald Reagan called Menachem Begin, the Israeli prime minister, to demand the shelling be stopped.

"Here on our television night after night our people are being shown the symbols of this war and it is a holocaust," Reagan said.

Unlike the Democrat in the White House today, a Republican US president was able and prepared to back his words with action. The US halted cluster munitions and the sale of F16s to Israel.

Reported casualty figures of the war in Lebanon vary wildly. According to Lebanese estimates, 18,085 Lebanese and Palestinians were killed in the four months after the invasion was launched. The PLO’s figures were: 49,600 civilians killed or wounded.

In just two months, Israel has killed as many people but inflicted a far higher level of destruction in Gaza

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According to military analysts interviewed by the Financial Times, Israel’s devastation of northern Gaza, where 68 percent of the buildings had been destroyed by 4 December, is up there with the allied bombing of Hamburg (75 percent), Cologne (61 percent), and Dresden (59 percent). This is what happened to these cities after two years of bombing.

Nearly 20,000 Palestinians, 70 percent of whom are women and children, have been killed in half the time it took to force the PLO to leave West Beirut in 1982. And still, Israel’s blood lust has not been sated for the Hamas attack on 7 October. 

Expressing the popular mood, Zvi Yehezkeli, Channel 13's Arab affairs correspondent, said Israel should have killed 100,000 Palestinians. Daniella Weiss, the head of the Israeli Settler Movement, said that Gaza must be erased so that settlers can see the sea.

Sacred ground

Unlike the siege of Beirut or the 1982 massacres at Sabra and Shatila refugee camps, the nightly bombing of Gaza is being streamed live by Al Jazeera. 

Millions of Arabs cannot tear themselves away from witnessing the scenes of horror in real-time. A 91-year-old woman in Amman, Jordan, told her son she was ashamed to eat her meal in front of the television while Israel was starving Gaza. 

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Enforced mass starvation is not hyperbole.

Human Rights Watch accused Israel of using mass starvation as a weapon of war. Starving Gaza as a government policy was confirmed by Miri Regev, the transport minister, who asked in a recent cabinet meeting whether starvation could affect the leadership of Hamas. She had to be corrected by her colleagues that starvation was a war crime.

The effect these pictures are having is a catastrophe not just for this government, or for any future government of Israel, but for however many Jews decide to stay in this land when this conflict is finally over.

The destruction of Gaza is laying the foundations for another 50 years of war. Generations of Palestinians, Arabs and Muslims will never forget the barbarism with which Israel is dismantling the enclave today. Gaza, itself one big refugee camp, is becoming sacred ground.

PA's plummeting support

There are Israelis who get the message. Ami Ayalon, the former head of Shin Bet and commander of the navy, is one of them. Ayalon identified a fundamental weakness of the conventional thinking in Israeli security circles.

He told Aaron David Miller, a US Middle East analyst, that whereas the Israeli army saw victory through the prism of hard power - the more people it killed and the more it destroyed, the more it thinks it has won - Hamas considers victory through the prism of “soft power" - the more hearts and minds it has won, the greater the victory.

The Israelis are committing the same mistake that the French committed in Algeria when they killed half a million to 1.5m Algerians, constituting 5 to 15 percent of the population, between 1954 to 1962, thinking by doing so they would win the war. However, by the end of the war they had to leave and give Algeria its independence.

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Nothing else can explain the spectacular rise of Hamas in the polls in the West Bank, Jordan, and even in places such as Saudi Arabia, where the leadership has tried consciously to bury the war by holding festivals.

The widely respected PLO pollster Khalil Shikaki, no lover of Hamas, found that 72 percent of respondents believed that Hamas was “correct” to launch its attack on 7 October, with 82 percent in the West Bank backing it.

At the same time, support for the Palestinian Authority had plummeted accordingly. Shikaki found that 60 percent wanted it dissolved.

A series of US intelligence assessments confirm the meteoric rise in Hamas’s popularity since the start of the war. Officials familiar with the different assessments say the group has successfully positioned itself across parts of the Arab and Muslim world as a defender of the Palestinian cause and an effective fighter against Israel, CNN reported.

This is bad news for all those countries - with the US, of course, in the lead - who think that the PA can replace Hamas in Gaza. These are not just figures. It's the new post-7 October political reality.

Any Fatah grandee who says otherwise gets instantly challenged. The ever-ambitious exiled Palestinian grandee Mohammed Dahlan and his clan today sound like long-time Hamas supporters, not like the former lynchpin of an international plot to displace Hamas from Gaza in 2007 once it had won free elections the year before.

Done deal

But the newly anointed successor to PA President Mahmoud Abbas, Hussein al-Sheikh, secretary of the PLO executive committee, still does not get the change of mood in Ramallah.

Speaking to Reuters, Sheikh laid into Hamas by saying it had fought five wars against Israel since 2008 and had got nowhere by taking on the occupation militarily.

"It is not acceptable for some to believe that their method and approach in managing the conflict with Israel was the ideal and the best.

"After all this [killing] and after everything that's happening, isn't it worth making a serious, honest and responsible assessment to protect our people and our Palestinian cause?

"Isn’t it worth discussing how to manage this conflict with the Israeli occupation?” Sheikh said.

As for the PA taking over Gaza post-war, this was a done deal, Sheikh seemed to imply. He told Israel’s Channel 12 that Israel and the PA had agreed on a mechanism that would allow the authority to receive funds held since the start of the war.

It took all of two days for Sheikh to do a 180-degree U-turn over his attack on Hamas. He was asked how a Fatah leader who polled three percent could criticise Hamas, who polled 48 percent, on his own turf.

Speaking this time to Al Jazeera, Sheikh said his comments about Hamas’s accountability had been "misrepresented": "The Palestinian Authority is the first to defend the resistance,” he told Al Jazeera, nervously.

Divide and rule

Israel’s offensive in Gaza has indeed changed the whole of the Middle East, as Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu promised it would do, but not in ways in which either his government or future governments would benefit.

For 17 years, Gaza was forgotten about or ignored by the rest of the world except during the wars of 2009, 2012, 2014 and 2021, with America and the major European powers doing their best to reinforce the siege laid on Gaza by Israel and Abdel Fattah el-Sisi’s Egypt.

If Jordan had been quiet for 50 years after the bloody war between its army and the PLO, Jordan today is a boiling reservoir of hatred against Israel

Well, with 60 percent of it destroyed and with the best part of 2.3 million people with no homes, schools, hospitals, roads, shops or mosques to return to, there is no danger of Gaza being ignored any longer.

If, for 17 years, Israel’s policy was to divide and rule by separating Gaza from the West Bank and removing all possibility of taking part in a national unity government, Gaza and the West Bank are reunited as never before.

If Jordan had been quiet for 50 years after the bloody war between its army and the PLO, if the divisions between the east Jordanians and the Palestinian citizens of Jordan were marked by mutual distrust, Jordan today, both Jordanians and Palestinians, is a boiling reservoir of hatred against Israel. There are increasing attempts to smuggle arms through to the West Bank over a 360km border, over four times as long as its borders with Lebanon and Syria.

Jordan reckons Israel would need five times the number of troops it has facing Lebanon to secure this border.

With 13 refugee camps and millions of Palestinians as citizens, Jordan is the largest reservoir of Palestinians in the diaspora, around six million, outnumbering the Palestinians living in the West Bank and Gaza.

People hold placards during a protest in support of Palestinians in Gaza, in Amman, Jordan December 1, 2023. REUTERS/
People hold placards during a protest in support of Palestinians in Gaza, in Amman, Jordan on 1 December 2023 (Reuters)

If, on 6 October, Netanyahu had been crowing that victory for the Zionists was imminent, waving a map of Israel before the United Nations general assembly which wiped Palestine off the map, then today his boasting looks woefully misplaced; if Saudi Arabia's signature on a deal recognising Israel was regarded as just a matter of time, the Abraham Accords have today dissolved into the cauldron that Israel has stoked in Gaza.  

Netanyahu's 'blame game'

And what of opinion in Saudi Arabia? The latest poll contains two astonishing figures for a country whose leader is consciously trying to shed old ways, which includes  support for Palestine.  91 percent agree that the war in Gaza is a win for Palestinians, Arabs and Muslims, and 40 per cent have positive attitudes to Hamas, which is a 30 point shift from August this year.

Today, if you read and listen to what the Saudis, Bahrainis, Qataris and Emiratis are saying, recognition of Israel bears a striking resemblance to the Arab Peace Initiative of 2002, which the accords were designed to replace.

The key feature of the Abraham Accords as devised by the former US ambassador to Israel, David M Friedman, and Jared Kushner, was to make a Palestinian veto irrelevant. Now it is back again. Even if more countries sign, this is becoming irrelevant, as the real fight is crystallised between Palestinians and Israel. 

In the ruins of all these plans, Netanyahu and his extreme right-wing coalition have only one way they can go - forward. They cannot retreat.

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For his own political and legal survival, Netanyahu has to continue the war. So too does national religious Zionism. Itamar Ben-Gvir and Bezalel Smotrich know they will lose a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to change the demographic balance of Jews and Palestinians in the West Bank if Netanyahu is forced to shut down the war by US President Joe Biden.

Asked by Middle East Eye what plans Israel had for the “day after" war ends, senior Israeli analysts and former diplomats were unanimous in their response - there were none. 

Eran Etzion, former diplomat and member of the National Security Council, said that Netanyahu was indeed thinking about the day after, but only in as much as to how that affects his chances of political survival.

“It is very clear he has already realised that the Americans are going to stop him before he has achieved the goals of the war," he said.

"He is already preparing for the ‘blame game', in which his targets will be Biden, the military chiefs, the media, and, as we say in Hebrew, the whole world and his wife who prevented him from achieving victory.

"So for him, the day after is the continuation of the war by any means, the goal being survival in power."

Etzion noted that, even after two months of the campaign, there was no official forum or group of officials planning governance in Gaza post-war, and there were no official discussions between the Israeli defence establishment and US officials in Washington.

Astonishing miscalculation

The war may well wind down under US pressure, and continue as a conflict marked by strikes by the Israeli army against the Hamas leadership and prolonged guerrilla war carried out by fighters acting in small units. 

But this entails Israel not just seizing the Rafah crossing and sealing the tunnels to stop Hamas from being resupplied with weapons smuggled over the border, it means Israel providing the civil administration for the north of Gaza it has so completely destroyed.

As well as being a moral disaster, it's a military one as well. It has given resistance a popularity and status in the Arab world unheard of for many decades

For the right wing, the hostages Hamas continues to hold are as good as dead, but Netanyahu will come under increasing pressure from their families to abandon his war.

The ghosts of Lebanon are truly coming back to haunt Israel. It took 15 years for Israel to leave after Beirut became untenable, but leave they did in 2000. When they did, Hezbollah became the dominant military and political force in the country.

This war has been an astonishing miscalculation for Israel. As well as being a moral disaster, it's a military one as well. It has given resistance a popularity and status in the Arab world unheard of for many decades. 

Not even the first and second intifadas were as successful as Hamas has been in Gaza in the last two months. Gaza has reignited the embers of Arab anger at its humiliation at the hands of Jewish immigrants.

The outcome of this war could well be a continuous state of conflict which will deprive Israel of the claim that it has become a normal western-style state. In these conditions, the expansion of the war will always exist, as attacks by the Houthis in Yemen on western shipping passing through the Red Sea show.

“Mitut Hamas” (collapse Hamas) is the slogan in Hebrew and the aim of the Israeli war cabinet. After two months of such destruction, they could as well revise this to read “mitut Israel”, because that is the effect this war might yet have.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

This article is available in French on Middle East Eye French edition.

David Hearst is co-founder and editor-in-chief of Middle East Eye. He is a commentator and speaker on the region and analyst on Saudi Arabia. He was the Guardian's foreign leader writer, and was correspondent in Russia, Europe, and Belfast. He joined the Guardian from The Scotsman, where he was education correspondent.
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