What is Israel trying to achieve in its brutal Gaza war?

Images of the aftermath of Israeli airstrikes in Gaza capture similar scenes: Crowds of Palestinians gathering outdoors to stare at the craters where their roads had been, at the heaps of rubble that minutes or hours before had been their houses, apartment buildings, shops, schools, and mosques.

After more than two months of war, the tiny enclave resembles the shattered European and Japanese cities of World War II. Researchers estimate that at least a third of Gaza’s housing is damaged or destroyed. Already over 18,700 Palestinians are dead and 50,500 injured, according to the Hamas-run Health Ministry, and roughly 90% of the population have fled their homes and face food shortages, no electricity, sanitation problems in overcrowded homes and shelters, and spreading disease.

Israeli society has mobilized to support the war and is largely united in the conviction that Hamas, the terror group that launched a murderous rampage from Gaza on October 7, must never again be allowed to threaten Israel. That paramount goal justifies and necessitates the use of maximum force. If Israeli leaders have a theory of what comes after, it is that Israel’s retaliatory fury can serve as a wrecking ball to create the rubble from which a new social and political order in Gaza can arise.

But there are few signs Israel can achieve anything like this, and a growing chorus of international leaders and military experts are warning that Israel is pursuing a half-baked strategy that is forged from a national trauma and premised on a flawed assumption — that massive air power and ground battles can defeat a militancy that blends into the population. In fact, these experts say, it’s much more likely that these tactics will simply create more enemy combatants and play directly into Hamas’ hands.

Hamas’ “very identity is based on the destruction of Israel and not working with Israel, so the notion that collective punishment is going to convince the population of Gaza to push Hamas to come to the negotiating table with Israel is just not going to happen,” said Paul Poast, a University of Chicago professor specializing in international security. “If anything, they’re able to use these very actions to say, ‘Look, this is who we’re dealing with. We’re dealing with Israel. We’ve long told you that they don’t care about you as people, and look.'”

A spokesperson for the Israel Defense Forces told BI in a statement: “In response to Hamas’ barbaric attacks, the IDF is operating to dismantle Hamas military and administrative capabilities. In stark contrast to Hamas’ intentional attacks on Israeli men, women and children, the IDF follows international law and takes feasible precautions to mitigate civilian harm.” The IDF has said that the elevated level of Palestinian casualties are due to Hamas using them as human shields.

So far, Israel’s efforts are not bearing much fruit. Hamas’s top leaders remain at large, hiding in their extensive tunnels or among the 1.9 million refugees who have fled the violence. Israel’s military estimates it has killed 5,000 Hamas militants, or just about 16% of Hamas’ armed wing.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu vowed that “we will continue to the end” on Wednesday, the day it was disclosed that nine Israeli troops died in an urban ambush; the IDF has lost at least 444 troops in the 10/7 attacks and the ground invasion. Israel’s defense minister said Thursday that “it is not easy to destroy” Hamas’ infrastructure and that Israel needs months more for its war.

One of the US’ most influential former diplomats to the Middle East believes the conflict is likely to continue for at least three to four more weeks.

“There’s a certain tension in objectives even from our own standpoint,” said former Ambassador Dennis Ross, the lead envoy for peace negotiations in two US administrations, in a Tuesday phone call from Israel. “On the one hand, we want the Israelis to get this over as soon as possible. On the other hand, we want them to limit the way that they’re doing it.”

Asked if the military destruction of Hamas is achievable, Ross told BI: “I think the Israelis are going to do it, period. And in the end, whether they will do it on a timeline that we want — I don’t know yet.”

Palestinians stand on the edge of a crater after an Israeli strike in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip on December 3, 2023.
Palestinians stand on the edge of a crater after an Israeli strike in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip on December 3, 2023. 
Said Khatib/Getty Images

The bombing ‘trap’

Israeli leaders frequently use World War II, which saw massive civilian casualties in bombing campaigns against large cities like Dresden, Berlin and Toyko, as a reference point in justifying a bombing campaign that struck 22,000 targets in the war’s first two months. Historians call it “strategic bombing” — the practice of systematically striking a nation’s economy and urban areas to try to damage its ability to wage war.

Netanyahu’s office said in late October that accepting a ceasefire with Hamas was akin to the US’s refusal to do so “after the bombing of Pearl Harbor,” the surprise 1941 attack by Imperial Japan that plunged America into war. Similarly, Netanyahu parried questions about rising civilian deaths by referencing a WWII British raid that bombed a school in Nazi-occupied Copenhagen.

Biden appears to have gotten similar treatment. He said Netanyahu told him in a private discussion: “You carpet bombed Germany, you dropped the atom bomb, a lot of civilians died.”

“Hamas conducted the massacre in a way that even the Nazis did not allow themselves to do,” former Israeli ambassador Ido Aharoni told BI in a phone interview. “The Nazis were trying to hide their crimes. We don’t have footage of Jews dying in the gas chambers, but Hamas did it enthusiastically, and they recorded themselves and they shared it with the world.”

Aharoni, a career diplomat who is now a senior faculty member at Tel Aviv University, said that Israel must use its full force to shatter Hamas so it can never again threaten Israel, and if this imperative requires leveling swaths of Gaza and straining the access of its two million residents to food and water, then that’s what is going to happen.

“What do you do philosophically when you deal with an enemy that doesn’t value life? It’s a big philosophical debate. So 10/7 helped us to rewrite the rules of how we fight Hamas. And we made a decision in this philosophical debate that we need to go all the way to take them out. And if the collateral damage is going to be dramatic, just as the collateral damage in Germany and just the collateral damage in Japan was dramatic, then so be it.”

Aharoni continued: “It’s unreasonable to expect Israel to go to war and expect Israel not to win the war at the same time.”

U.S. Troops of the 3rd Armored Division, 1st U.S. Army, advance through the ruins of the city of Cologne, Germany on Mar. 8, 1945. Cologne was one of the German cities the Allies targeted in their strategic bombing campaign.
U.S. Troops of the 3rd Armored Division, 1st U.S. Army, advance through the ruins of the city of Cologne, Germany on Mar. 8, 1945. Cologne was one of the German cities the Allies targeted in their strategic bombing campaign. 
AP Photo

The bombing campaign against Hamas-run Gaza is on pace proportionally with the destruction delivered in the strategic bombing of Nazi Germany. Yet our collective hazy memories of the so-called “Good War” may obscure the fact that, at best, the Allied strategic bombing of Germany didn’t work — it likely led to the death of more Allied troops.

The common fallacy of the so-called “bomb the shit out of them” approach is that enough death and destruction creates a breaking point where the populace cracks and refuses to support its government or overthrows it. In Nazi Germany, for example, the Allies pursued a devastating bombing campaign against 92 cities and towns with the aim of fomenting dissent against dictator Adolf Hitler and degrading Germany’s will to fight.

“That never happened, and the Wehrmacht fought hard all the way to the very end,” said Robert Pape, a University of Chicago professor and scholar of military power. “There’s really no case to make that the killing of German civilians in World War II by the Allied bombing hastened the end of the war. It did not produce political effects and, if anything, it stiffened the morale of the German fighters.”

Pape is the author of “Bombing to Win,” a landmark study of 40 strategic bombing campaigns in the 20th Century. Pape’s research identified what he called an air power “trap” of mistaken thinking by military leaders, who often believe massive bombardment leads those bombed to capitulate.

“When you bomb the civilians, the local population gets more angry and more fearful at the same time,” Pape said. “And what they’re fearful of is being then occupied militarily by this country and military force that bombed them so mercilessly.”

Nazi Germany’s defeat may also be instructive for Israel’s goal of a post-war Gaza free of Hamas, which the Israeli prime minister has vowed to “eliminate.” The military defeat of the Nazis required a naval blockade, air power, and enormous armies closing in on Germany from two sides — and in its wake only about 200 of the top Nazi leaders were tried, leaving many responsible for atrocities untouched. Many Nazi Party members held positions of authority in postwar Germany, including 25 cabinet ministers and a chancellor. In other words, the new government was hardly de-Nazified.

Massive bombardment has had a checkered track record in the wars since. For instance, Poast, the University of Chicago professor and a colleague of Pape, said Israel’s campaign in some ways resembles the US’s expansion of strategic bombing into Laos and Cambodia, which ultimately failed to strangle North Vietnam and the Vietcong’s supply lines and came at an estimated cost of hundreds of thousands of civilian lives.

Smoke rises after bombing of Israeli forces with warplanes in Gaza City, October 7, 2023.
Smoke rises after bombing of Israeli forces with warplanes in Gaza City, October 7, 2023. Another munition can be seen falling toward a target. 
Momen Faiz/NurPhoto via Getty Images

‘Pumped up’

Israel faces long odds. Very few terror groups are defeated purely by military force; it’s many times more likely they become part of a legitimate political process — an outcome that Israel has ruled out. In the throes of its war, Israel has struggled to define who will rule Gaza in Hamas’ absence, or persuade its residents why this would be any better for them.

Aharoni, the former Israeli ambassador, said that the time for Israeli leaders to lay out that roadmap is only once Hamas’ leaders are killed and its forces defeated. He said the end of the military campaign will likely spell the end of the Netanyahu government as well, but for now “the Israeli public is pumped up, united, high spirits. Everybody wants to help. I’ve never seen anything like it. The entire society is galvanized.”

Even under mounting international pressure, the war is almost certain to continue. The thought of Hamas remaining in power, if diminished, is untenable to Israelis, an estimated quarter million of whom fled their homes after 10/7 and have not returned.

“If Hamas still looks like it’s able to fire rockets into Israel, that’s not an outcome that Israelis are going to accept,” said Ross, the veteran US diplomat and peace negotiator who’s also a distinguished fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

Residents and civil defense teams search for victims in the rubble of Israeli attacks on the Jabalia Camp in Gaza on Dec. 6, 2023.
Residents and civil defense teams search for victims in the rubble of Israeli attacks on the Jabalia Camp in Gaza on Dec. 6, 2023. 
Mahmoud Sabbah/Getty Images

‘Payback’ time

Another clear motive in Israel’s war also motivated the strategic bombings of World War II — vengeance. Israel has an entire category of targets chosen for their significance to Hamas and whose destruction inflicts “tactical and mental damage,” an anonymous Israeli military intelligence officer told the magazine IsraelDefense; the Israeli left-wing outlet +972 Magazine and the Hebrew language news site Local Call have reported that the IDF has expanded its targeting and tolerance of civilian casualties. Israel relies on an AI-driven target factory that is able to rapidly produce recommended targets, as BI’s Jake Epstein has reported, and its air force is dropping both unguided munitions and 2,000-pound guided munitions that can be expected to bring death and destruction beyond their targets in Gaza’s dense urban environment. Targeting videos publicized by the Israeli Air Force show it shattering buildings in Gaza it claims were used by Hamas, including their homes.

חיל-האוויר בשיתוף פעולה עם לוחמי חטיבת הצנחנים תקפו אמש (ב׳) בתים של מחבלי נ’חבה, וחיסלו מחבלים מארגון הטרור חמאס שהיוו איום במרחב על כוחות צה”ל. כחלק מהפעילות הלוחמים איתרו והשמידו רקטות בחצר של בית בצפון הרצועה. pic.twitter.com/R8dso1o6Ae

— Israeli Air Force (@IAFsite) December 5, 2023

Israel’s intelligence minister has argued that Palestinians who wish to leave Gaza should be resettled in other countries, a move that would further erode Palestinian claims for a state of their own. For these reasons, Palestinians who flee the Israeli onslaught into Egypt fear they won’t be able to return.

Collective punishment may serve to instill fear towards deterrence from a future attack, but in an ongoing campaign it often has the adverse effect of steeling an opponent’s will to resist. In 1940, Nazi bombers blasted London and other British cities, but the Battle of Britain backfired. It failed to stall Britain’s industries critical to the war and actually strengthened the public’s will to fight.

“The British wanted payback,” said Pape. Britain’s air plans for Germany from the 1930s had focused solely on striking German economic centers, Pape said. But after the blitz, British leaders added population centers to their targets and began to bomb them with a goal of killing 900,000 German civilians. Over the next three years, Allied bombers would damage or destroy an average of half of the buildings in the 92 cities and towns targeted. And yet that campaign also failed to achieve its aims.

Rage is also an essential element for Israel’s sworn enemy. Hamas relies on perceptions that Israel cannot be collaborated with, that it is a deadly enemy of Palestinians that must be destroyed by force, and that its civilians are legitimate targets. A recent poll shows that Hamas’ support has risen in Gaza and soared in the West Bank since the 10/7 terror attacks.

The challenge for Israel is that this ideology is fueled by the hatred for Israelis that’s simmering across Gaza and the West Bank.

“That’s why Hamas is actually so willing to have civilian casualties occur in Gaza,” said Pape, who has also studied the demographics and motivations of suicide bombers. “It’s because each time Israeli bombs kill Palestinians, those Palestinians have family. They have friends who are ripe recruits for Hamas in the future.”

He added: “The real issue here is that very likely Israel is creating more terrorists than it’s killing.

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