On Christmas Day 2023, Benjamin Netanyahu penned an editorial in the Wall Street Journal. In it, Israel’s prime minister outlined what he claims to be his country’s three essential terms for peace in the ongoing ground war in Gaza, dubbed ‘Operation Iron Swords’.

These include:
1) The destruction of Hamas,
2) The demilitarisation of Gaza, and,
3) The ‘deradicalisation’ of Palestinian society.
[1]

The first objective is impossible. The second is unlikely to succeed. And, without a full-scale ethnic cleansing operation, the third is destined to fail.

Destroying Hamas

In the first instance, the elimination of Hamas is rendered impossible by its organisational structure. Hamas is a transnational network with connections across the Middle East, including an office in Qatar. They are motivated by a distinct set of ideological principles, which carry wide currency throughout the Islamic world since the Palestinian national struggle is also conceived in terms of jihad.

For a jihadist, there is no higher service to the cause than becoming a martyr (shahid).[2] Hamas fighters, therefore, do not fear annihilation. And even if the movement was eradicated within Gaza, it would continue to wage war against Israel.[3] The further displacement of Gaza’s population, most likely to refugee camps in Jordan or the Sinai, would become fertile ground for enlisting new recruits. Resistance would then take the form of cross-border raids or similar actions, which would only serve to internationalise, and thus escalate, the conflict further.

Demilitarisation

Secondly, as an operational matter, the demilitarisation of Gaza, so that ‘the territory is never again used as a base to attack [Israel]’,[4] has been slow-going. By the end of 2023, confirmed deaths in Gaza stood at above 20,000 – roughly 1 per cent of the pre-war population of 2.1 million. Yet, the vast majority (around 14,000) of these deaths were women and children.[5] This leaves around 6,000 adult male fatalities against Hamas’s estimated pre-war strength of 30,000, with the ability to draw several thousand more troops from its allies.[6]

Therefore, even when one assumes generously that every confirmed male fatality in Gaza is a Hamas fighter, Israel has succeeded in eliminating only one-fifth of the organisation’s pre-war fighting force. The IDF also claims it has killed thousands of additional militants but has presented no evidence.[7] Given the decidedly non-casualty-averse nature of Hamas, especially compared to their IDF counterparts, these numbers are insufficient to achieve ‘demilitarisation’.

Giora Eiland in 2004 (left), Yossi Cohen in 2016 (right)

For this reason, former Mossad director Yossi Cohen has remarked on Hamas’s preparedness.[8] Meanwhile, prominent military analysts, like major general (ret.) Giora Eiland, have commended Hamas’s resilience. Eiland has also stated that he ‘cannot see any signs of collapse of the military abilities of Hamas nor in their political strength to continue to lead Gaza.’[9]

Deradicalising Gaza

Thirdly, the deradicalisation of Gaza, so that children ‘cherish life rather than death’,[10] is a non-starter. Violent resistance, characterised by Tel-Aviv as ‘terrorism’ is, first and foremost, a response to the unlawful occupation of Gaza by Israel and the dire living conditions imposed by the 16-year blockade. In 2010, Britain’s then-prime minister David Cameron described these conditions as being like a giant ‘prison camp’.[11]

The Palestinian resistance to this intolerable status quo is, in fact, a form of anti-colonial nationalism. For reasons relating to culture, religion, political economy, and geography, this nationalist impulse is articulated mainly through political Islam.

Hamas’s legitimacy, therefore, is rooted in its opposition to political Zionism. And its mandate will continue only so long as it can credibly hold itself out as an agent of national liberation. Should Hamas fail in this regard, it would likely go the same way as Fatah and the Palestinian Authority (PA), which are nowadays widely seen as ineffectual at best and collaborationist at worst.[12]

Palestinian resistance factions (Left to right: Hamas, PIJ, Popular Resistance Committees, PFLP, DFLP)

Consequently, the primacy of the national issue has prompted Hamas to ally with factions that broadly share its aims. These include Palestinian Islamic Jihad and the Popular Resistance Committees, but also non-Islamist factions like the Marxist-Leninist PFLP and the Marxist-Leninist-Maoist DFLP. So far, these groups have been united in rejecting external plans for postwar Gaza. And, in a recent meeting in Beirut, announced their intention to form a unity government to address ‘the consequences of the war’.[13]

Thus, even if political Islam were somehow abolished tomorrow, or Hamas mollified its stance so as to resemble the PA, Palestinian nationalist resistance would simply continue under a different guise. The PFLP’s Marxist-Leninist tradition, for instance, has no shortage of martyrs, such as the millions of Vietnamese who perished in their own anti-colonial struggles against France, Japan, and the United States. Many thousands of these casualties occurred in underground tunnels,[14] not altogether different from the notorious ‘Gaza metro’.[15]

As such, there is no reason to think that a non-Islamist Palestinian resistance would prove any less fierce. Radicalism is ultimately a function of Gaza’s dire material conditions, not Hamas’s Islamist ideology.

In the meantime, the wholesale destruction of the territory, under the pretext of destroying Hamas and ‘deradicalising’ Gaza, is achieving the opposite. Even US presidential candidate, Vivek Ramaswamy (Republican Party), who at other times has called for ‘the IDF to put the heads of the top hundred Hamas leaders on stakes and line them up on the Israel-Gaza border’,[16] has readily admitted that the high number of civilian deaths will rally a new generation behind ‘Hamas 2.0’.[17] Ergo, deradicalising Gaza with force is like attempting to quench one’s thirst with seawater.

Hollow land

Israeli officials understand this perfectly well. As such, eliminating Hamas and deradicalising Gaza is not their primary motive. Instead, their main objective is to realise what former Shin Bet director and current Likud minister, Avi Dichter calls ‘Nakba 2023’.[18] In other words, completing the forcible expulsion of Gaza’s population – a process that began during the 1948 Palestine War.[19] Israeli officials often refer to this policy euphemistically as ‘transfer’.[20] And Hamas’s deep integration into Gaza’s civil society means that such measures would be necessary to eliminate its presence in the enclave. However, as noted above, Hamas’s transnational support network would allow it to continue its operations from foreign territory.

Avi Dichter, 2016

Netanyahu’s Christmas editorial in the Wall Street Journal was, in fact, not the only statement he made that day on Gaza’s future. At a meeting of the Likud party, the Israeli leader also stated he was working on finding countries willing to ‘absorb’ Gaza’s 1.8 million displaced persons. The most likely candidates seem to be Jordan and Egypt, though both governments have ruled out opening their borders to Gazan refugees.

Neither they, nor any Arab country, wants to be seen as complicit in an ethnic cleansing of Palestinians from Gaza. And this is before even considering the security issues and geopolitical complications that would arise from Palestinian refugees attempting to continue anti-Israel operations from Jordanian or Egyptian territory.[21]

Areas under IDF evacuation order in yellow, 3 December 2023.[22]

For now, it is sufficient to say that the main objective of Operation Iron Swords is not to eliminate Hamas but to alter the demographic makeup of southern Palestine. It is unclear to what extent Israeli officials are using the ‘hunt for Hamas’ framing to wilfully deceive the public and media, and how much of it they sincerely believe. But given the impossibility of achieving any of their stated goals without finishing off the Nakba, such a distinction hardly matters.


[1] Netanyahu, Benjamin (Prime Minister, Israel) ‘Our three prerequisites for peace’, Wall Street Journal (25 December 2023) https://www.wsj.com/articles/benjamin-netanyahu-our-three-prerequisites-for-peace-gaza-israel-bff895bd.

[2] Burke, Jason, ‘”Our wish is to be martyred”: defiant Hamas fighters count their losses in West Bank’, Guardian (11 November 2023) https://www.theguardian.com/world/2023/nov/10/funerals-for-west-bank-dead-jenin-israel-hamas-war.

[3] Middle East Monitor, ‘Israel could never “eliminate” Hamas, Palestinian professor says’ (27 December 2023) https://www.middleeastmonitor.com/20231227-israel-could-never-eliminate-hamas-palestinian-professor-says/.

[4] Netanyahu (25/12/23).

[5] Thomas, Merlyn, ‘Israel Gaza: What Gaza’s death toll says about the war’, BBC News (20 December 2023) https://www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-67764664.

[6] Ragad, Abdelali, Richard Irvine-Brown, Benedict Garman and Sean Seddon, ‘How Hamas built a force to attack Israel on 7 October’, BBC News (27 November 2023) https://www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-67764664.
     The 20,000 deaths figure is almost certainly an underestimate given the high burden of proof Gaza’s health authorities require to confirm a death. At the end of 2023, some outside agencies put the true death count closer to 30,000, which would also entail a higher number of male deaths. I have attempted to offset this underestimate by assuming that every single confirmed male death in Gaza is equal to a Hamas fatality.
     See Euro-Med Human Rights Monitor, ‘Nearly 30,000 Palestinians killed during 82-day Israeli genocide in Gaza’ (release, 27 December 2023) https://euromedmonitor.org/en/article/6064/Nearly-30,000-Palestinians-killed-during-82-day-Israeli-genocide-in-Gaza.

[7] Jeffery, Jack, Samy Magdy, and Wafaa Shurafa, ‘Israeli strikes across Gaza kill dozens of Palestinians, even in emptied north’, Sydney Morning Herald (29 December 2023) https://archive.is/Oxyhr#selection-2925.0-2925.78.

[8] Middle East Monitor, ‘Ex-Mossad chief: Hamas is more prepared for war than we expected’ (29 December 2023) https://www.middleeastmonitor.com/20231229-ex-mossad-chief-hamas-is-more-prepared-for-war-than-we-expected/.

[9] Giora Eiland (major general, Israeli Defence Forces [retired]). Quoted in MacFarquhar, Neil, ‘Skepticism grows over Israel’s ability to dismantle Hamas’, New York Times (27 December 2023) https://www.nytimes.com/2023/12/27/world/middleeast/israel-hamas-war-military.html.

[10] Netanyahu (25/12/23).

[11] David Cameron (Prime Minister, United Kingdom). Quoted in Watt, Nicholas, ‘David Cameron: Israeli blockade has turned Gaza Strip into a “prison camp”, Guardian (27 July 2010) https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2010/jul/27/david-cameron-gaza-prison-camp.

[12] Ekdin, Yousef, ‘”As Palestinian youths, the political process has failed us”‘, BBC News (13 June 2023) https://www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-65812444.

[13] Abu Aisha, Nour, ‘Palestinian resistance factions call for national solution based on unity government’, Anadolu Agency (29 December 2023) https://www.aa.com.tr/en/middle-east/palestinian-resistance-factions-call-for-national-solution-based-on-unity-government/3095162.

[14] Department of Veterans’ Affairs (Australia), ‘Viet Cong tunnels’ (webpage, updated 13 January 2023) https://anzacportal.dva.gov.au/wars-and-missions/vietnam-war-1962-1975/events/combat/viet-cong-tunnels.

[15] Berlinger, Joshua, ‘The “Gaza metro”: The mysterious subterranean tunnel network used by Hamas’, CNN (28 October 2023) https://edition.cnn.com/2023/10/28/middleeast/hamas-tunnels-gaza-intl/index.html.

[16] https://twitter.com/atrupar/status/1718310094713110982.

[17] https://twitter.com/VivekGRamaswamy/status/1715855113204433145.

[18] Avi Dichter (Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development, Israel). Quoted in Michael Hauser Tov, ‘”We’re rolling out Nakba 2023,” Israeli minister says on northern Gaza Strip evacuation’, Haaretz (12 November 2023) https://archive.is/20231112161851/https://www.haaretz.com/israel-news/2023-11-12/ty-article/israeli-security-cabinet-member-calls-north-gaza-evacuation-nakba-2023/0000018b-c2be-dea2-a9bf-d2be7b670000.

[19] United Nations, ‘The question of Palestine: About the Nakba’ (webpage, accessed 1 January 2024) https://www.un.org/unispal/about-the-nakba.

[20] Haaretz, ‘Israeli lawmakers keep pushing for transfer under the guise of humanitarian aid’ (27 December 2023) https://archive.is/20231227185039/https://www.haaretz.com/opinion/editorial/2023-12-27/ty-article-opinion/israeli-lawmakers-keep-pushing-for-transfer-under-the-guise-of-humanitarian-aid/0000018c-a7d6-df5f-a79c-e7ff4d150000.
     See also Ben Shapiro, ‘Transfer is not a dirty word’, Townhall (27 August 2003) https://web.archive.org/web/20150220130431/http://townhall.com/columnists/benshapiro/2003/08/27/transfer_is_not_a_dirty_word.

[21] Al-Sammak, Ahmed and Elis Gjevori, ‘War on Gaza: Netanyahu looking for countries “to absorb” ethnically cleansed Palestinians’, Middle East Eye (26 December 2023) https://www.middleeasteye.net/news/war-gaza-israel-palestine-netanyahu-countries-absorb-palestinians.
This topic will be addressed in a longer, follow-up post.

[22] Ledur, Júlia, Aaron Stecklenberg, Sammy Westfall, Loay Ayyoub, and Hajar Harb, ‘How Israel pushed over a million Palestinians into a tiny corner of Gaza’, Washington Post (22 December 2023) https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/interactive/2023/gaza-palestine-displacement-rafah-maps-photos/.

Hi, I’m Antony

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