Virtual Media Briefing: Israel's Military Strategy in Gaza

Thursday, December 21, 2023
Athit Perawongmetha/Reuters

Professor and Director, Security Studies Program, Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service, Georgetown University

Eni Enrico Mattei Senior Fellow for Middle East and Africa Studies and Director of the International Affairs Fellowship for Tenured International Relations Scholars, Council on Foreign Relations

Trustees Professor of Security and Technology and Director, Carnegie Mellon Institute for Strategy and Technology, Carnegie Mellon University


Executive Editor, Foreign Affairs

Panelists discuss Israel’s incursion into Southern Gaza, military tactics thus far, and potential exit strategies for the Israeli army.

VOGT: Hi, everyone. Thanks very much for joining us. I’m Justin Vogt. I’m executive editor of Foreign Affairs

We’re joined today by three absolutely first-rate experts in this field. These are the kind of people that we, at FA and at the Council turn to when we have big, dumb questions to ask, that we can get really smart answers on, and even sort of small, narrower issues of detail. These are the kind of people that we turn to. And I’m really looking forward to learning something here myself. This is a conflict that has raised a lot of questions and called a lot of our assumptions into question. So I’m hoping that they can shed some light. You have bios for Dan Byman, for Steven Cook, and for Audrey Kurth Cronin. I won’t read them to you and bore you with those details. Let’s just get started.  

I’m going to start with you, Dan. You have an article, actually, on the Foreign Affairs website today which is called “Israel’s Muddled Strategy in Gaza.” And I suggest that everyone who’s on this call might want to take a look at it. It’s along and detailed, and interesting, piece based on some research and reporting that you did in Israel recently. I’m going to pose this question to you, and also to Audrey and Steven. We’ve talked a lot about in the past the past eighteen months, in a different context, about a theory of victory, right? This is a question that is often posed actually to Ukraine, in the context of the war in Ukraine. What is Ukraine’s theory of victory? When I look at what’s happening in Gaza, the question I constantly have is, what is Israel’s theory of victory in this conflict? 

BYMAN: So I would say that Israel has multiple theories of victory. And at times, they either are not thought through or contradict each other. So at a most basic level, Israel would say it wants to destroy Hamas. And that’s something I think most people could nod their heads about, but in practice that can mean a lot of different things. And Israel is trying to target Hamas leadership. It’s trying to crush its infrastructure and its fighters in Gaza. But that’s an exceptionally difficult way, in the end, to destroy this organization, unless there’s some way to replace its rule in Gaza. And as part of Israel’s thinking, they’ve focus much more on the tactical, short-term question, and much less on the longer-term if Hamas is diminished in Gaza what’s going to take its place? And I’ll just add very briefly, for conversation, Israel has a bunch of other goals that are actually outside Gaza. And that includes making sure that Hezbollah is not able to threaten Israel, that the U.S. relationship is intact, that its people renew their faith in a government that gravely failed on October 7. And so it’s trying to juggle lots of leading objectives, and at times these really don’t work together. 

VOGT: OK. Let’s go to Audrey. Same question, Andrey. You can either pivot off of what Dan said or tell us something different. What do you think Israel’s theory of victory is? 

CRONIN: I think Israel has a military objective, not a theory of victory. In military—its military objective is to end Hamas. But a strategy incorporates political plans to reach an outcome. And I think those are missing. 

VOGT: So if you had to gauge the success of what they’re doing, you could just look at tactical rather than strategic aims. Purely from a tactical point of view, are they getting closer to the end-state that they—the short-term end state that they seek, or not so much? 

CRONIN: No, I think they’re not getting closer, unfortunately. It gives me great sadness to say that. I think that they’re actually undermining some of their broader strategic interests in focusing so heavily on a military objective. So I think that the political end state is fuzzy and not well developed, and is in many respects at odds with the broader strategic interests of Israel. So by pursuing strictly kinetic use of force, they’re undermining the longer-term interest, I think, of Israel, both at home and in the region and potentially even in the world. Because I don’t think that Israel has a realistic pathway to ending Hamas, particularly using the kind of tactics that it’s using right now.  

Even if Israel destroys this version of Hamas, as Dan has already said, you know, even if it is successful in destroying its military wing, its political leadership, these can be replaced. And unless Israel stops killing thousands of Palestinian civilians, another group is going to take its place. And there will be a renewed cycle of violence. So that broader political situation for Israel won’t be improved. I think Israel could have a viable strategy to end Hamas, but that’s not what they’re doing right now. I’d be happy to talk about what you think that strategy is, but— 

VOGT: We’ll get to it. Yeah, I’m sure we will. Yeah. 

Steven, your take on Israel’s theory of victory? Any different from Audrey and Dan’s? 

COOK: It’s somewhat different. Just let me just say at the outset that I’m somewhat at a disadvantage here, because I’m not a guns and trucks military analyst. But having looked at this situation and listened carefully to what the Israelis are saying, it strikes me that their theory of victory is to render Hamas incapable—and this is somewhat of a twist on what Dan and Audrey are saying—to render Hamas incapable of threatening Israel in the same way that it did on October 7. And this includes destroying the Hamas leadership.  

In terms of kind of broader strategic political goals, I think the Israelis are being kind of coy about what it is that they actually want. Either that’s because they don’t really know or that they know but they don’t really want to tell everybody what it is. And I think that the logical outcome—and some of the things in which senior leadership are saying—would lead one to believe that there will be an occupation of the Gaza Strip in some way, shape, or form, for some period of time, in order to make sure that their theory of victory is actually achieved. Which is, rendering Hamas incapable of threatening Israel in a variety of ways. 

Now, that may, in fact, undermine Israel’s international standing. It may cause tension in the U.S.-Israel relationship. But like every other state, Israel’s primary responsibility is to ensure the safety and security of the country. And that seems, to me, the way in which they are going in order to do that. 

BYMAN: Let’s shift and talk about Hamas for a second, because I have the same question when it comes to Hamas. What is Hamas’ theory of victory here? And I guess you could talk about, in a sense that’s the motivations behind the October 7 attack. But I sort of want to focus more on they did that, and we could talk about why they did that and whether it was—you know, it went the way they thought it was going to go, and, you know, whether it was the outcome that they intended.  

I’m sort of more interested in now, given the—given that now Hamas has faced ten weeks of this Israeli assault on Gaza. Given the realities that they face now, what—as far as we’re able to understand—I mean, Dan, you can travel to Israel and talk to Israeli generals, and IDF personnel, and policymakers there. You can’t go to Gaza and talk to, you know, the leaders there. But as best we can tell, based on their statements and what they’re doing on the ground, what is Hamas’ theory of victory at this point, if they have one, Dan? 

BYMAN: So part of their goal is survival. But if they survive, they will probably emerge stronger politically. And they launched a devastating attack on Israel. And that attack has tremendous support among many in the Arab world, especially in the Palestinian community. There’s a real sense among Palestinians that Israel needs to feel the pain that Palestinians feel, that their community has experienced, and that Israel was simply ignoring them. And Hamas has put this back on the map. We’ve seen polling showing huge increases in support for Hamas, especially in the West Bank. So if it survives, it will be politically stronger. To a degree, it satisfied some of the goals of one of its most important patrons, Iran. So it benefitted there as well.  

But it has to have some recognition of the overwhelming material superiority of Israel. And that’s something that Hamas is always trying to reconcile, the reality of Israel’s power with Hamas’ effort to undermine it and weaken it. And, to me, it hasn’t squared that final circle. In the end, Hamas may emerge politically stronger from all this, but it is still highly vulnerable to its Israeli counterterrorism, if not in a fundamental Hamas will be destroyed sense, much more in a—on a day-to-day basis Hamas will be off balance, its leaders will be being killed, it will have to hide, it will be under pressure. And that’s something that, to me, it’s probably going to fail at, at least in the short term. 

VOGT: Audrey, you wrote this tremendous book that I often refer to when I’m having conversations about this. It’s called How Terrorism Ends. And one of the statistics that I always remember from that book—and you correct me if I’m wrong—but I think it’s something along the lines of only about 8 percent of terrorist groups—what we define as terrorist groups, you know, actually achieve their goals. And I look at Hamas today and I’m wondering, you know, what are the chances that they’re going to wind up in that 8 percent or are they going to meet some other fate. What’s your understanding of how—whether they’re trying to survive or do something else? 

CRONIN: Yeah. So—yeah. So I think the figure’s even a little less than that. But the figure is about achieving their strategic goals, so achieving their outcome goals, which is, for Hamas, presumably it’s about having a homeland for the Palestinian people broadly and strategically. But I think its theory of victory right now in this particular part of their struggle is all about mobilizing popular support for itself and destroying Israel, as is stated in their charter. And it’s done so in a classic way that terrorist groups always do, and that is by provoking Israel to overreact and to undermine itself. I agree with you, Dan, that they’re faced by a much more militarily strong foe, so what they’re doing is they’re using Israel’s own strength against Israel. 

And they’ve also taken another classic terrorist tactic, which is to polarize—polarize populations, both in Israel—they were already pretty polarized; now it’s even worse—but also regionally and globally. Globally is the most worrisome aspect of the polarization that has, in some respects, been successful with respect to Hamas’ tactics. 

So, anyway, it’s definitely provoked Israel to use overwhelming force—military force—in ways that are hurting it. And you know, Hamas has maneuvered, in some respects, Israel into lashing out with brutal force in a way that undermines its legitimacy in terms of the perceptions of many of the members of the audience that are watching. And this is really quite alarming. 

I mean, if you think about the constituency that Hamas was trying to reach—initially Iran, Hezbollah, its own members—and now an international community that’s appalled by the violence against the Palestinian people, it’s very, very worrisome. And I hope that Israel can engage in a much broader strategic perspective that includes a more clear understanding of what the political ends should be with respect to Hamas, so as to undermine that strategy. 

VOGT: Steven, does Hamas have a theory of victory, or are they just staying alive? 

COOK: I think staying alive is part of their theory of victory. I think that, you know, it’s important to recognize that a critical component of Palestinian identity—and now I’m not just talking about Hamas—is steadfastness and resistance. And in particular for Hamas and its cadres, it is resistance. So as long as there is Hamas, and they are resisting, and they have the capability to fire at Israel whether it’s missiles or rockets, or engage Israeli troops in the Gaza Strip against the mighty IDF, they are resisting and they remain. And therefore, it is a victory. 

It does also have the important effect—and this is something that Audrey spoke to—which is to suck the Israelis into an open-ended conflict within the Gaza Strip. Hamas, like all Islamist groups, have a much longer timeline than many of us have or many of us suspect that they do. So this is, from their perspective, an opening shot or another round in a long-term struggle that is aimed at undermining Israel by sucking it in, polarizing Israeli society. 

Israeli society actually is not polarized at the moment. It was quite polarized on October 6, but there’s been a rally around the flag. Now, they may hate Prime Minister Netanyahu, but there is a rally around the Israeli flag. But ultimately, over time, an open-ended conflict in the Gaza Strip is likely to polarize Israeli society, weaken its economy, demoralize its leadership, and undermine the trust of its people in its leadership. Those are kind of longer-term strategic goals towards the ultimate goal, which is the liberation of all of Palestine—not Gaza and the West Bank, but all of Gaza, the West Bank, and sovereign Israel. 

So I think that it would be a victory. Look, Hamas—what Hamas did on October 7 is something that no Arab force has been able to do since 1948. So they have gone a long way towards securing that victory. And as much firepower as the Israelis can bring to bear, as long as there is one Hamas terrorist left firing back at them it constitutes some semblance of a victory. 

VOGT: I’m interested in this question of polarization. Dan, you were in Israel recently. What was your sense about that? It’s such a crucial part of the—of the strategy of terrorism to polarize the enemy. And I’m curious, my impression, as Steven has said, that, you know, there’s been a kind of a unity of a—of a polity that had been previously very polarized around the judicial reforms, and if anything it seems to me that there’s been some unity around the repudiation of Netanyahu, you know, that everybody seems to—(laughs)—to dislike Netanyahu or distrust Netanyahu at this point. What was your sense of that? 

And I guess the follow-up question I have is, how—if we can assume that at some point that will end, what would be likely at this point to erode that sense of solidarity? Is it reservists returning from service? What are the factors? What are the things we should be looking for to start seeing, hmm, maybe this is going to track? 

BYMAN: So my impression—let’s be clear, this is an impression—was that at present there is tremendous unity. You see, you know, an outpouring of patriotism. You had huge adherence to reservist callups, lots of volunteers, lots of civil society action that have been directed at the government now directed at supporting both troops and the displaced. But it’s a country that really has raw wounds, and these wounds are painful. And there is an expectation that senior military and intelligence officials will resign as soon as the first round is done, and they’ve announced they will. Military and intelligence leaders have said this. 

However, political leaders have not. And if Netanyahu and perhaps some others do not resign, there will be mass demonstrations; that the polarization that Steven mentioned that had occurred before October 7, that will return with a sense of anger at Netanyahu. 

An important caveat, though, is the divisions that caused that polarization about the direction Israel should go in, divisions between Jews and Arabs, between the orthodox and the secular, those have not gone away. And now you have this horrible failure. And there will be—I think one thing that could set all this off is a sense that the government is playing politics with the response rather than doing what’s best for Israel, and of course that latter concept sounds good but is subject to interpretation. But we’re seeing this already with Netanyahu at times trying to embrace Biden, but also criticizing the Biden administration in a variety of ways, often through subordinates. We’re seeing it with regard to how Israel has described the role of the Palestinians, where Biden’s trying to say: Look, I’m the one who saved you from Oslo—or, excuse me, Netanyahu’s trying to say: I’m the one who saved you from Oslo. So we’re already seeing politics creep in as Netanyahu tries to stay onto his job, and I think that could further polarize Israel and actually make things even worse, you know, six months from now. But this is an opportunity for the country to come together, and maybe that will happen. 

VOGT: I’m struck when I read commentary—commentary in Foreign Affairs and in the American media more broadly—that there are these two ideas that kind of crop up constantly when we talk about the day after, right; that everybody understands that there’s this need to figure out, well, what’s going to come next in Gaza. Steve, I think you had said maybe the Israelis have some idea about this—(laughs)—and they’re just not saying what it is. Maybe they don’t know. But there seems to be this constant suggestion of two things, and that is, one, a revitalized, a reformed Palestinian Authority somehow ruling or playing a role in ruling Gaza once Hamas has been eliminated or, you know, destroyed; and the other is that there needs to be some kind of revitalization of the two-state solution as a long-term goal, partially because that might actually solve the problem but also you see this argument that, oh, without that you won’t get any buy-in from Arab states, who will have to play some role in Gaza, so you have to at least sort of pay lip service to that goal. And I’m struck by this because it seems to me that there’s—in Israel and even amongst Palestinians, there just seems to be absolutely no interest in either of these things. And I really would love to hear—Steven, you’re sort of—you’re sort of—(laughs)—you’re champing at the bit to answer this, so I want to go to you. I’m going to—we’ll come back to you, Audrey. But I’m just—I’ve rarely seen such a wide delta in all the decades of—you know, of this conflict and American involvement in it. What’s going on? And why is there this disconnect? Steven, maybe you can tell me what you think. 

COOK: Sure. Sorry, I just—I don’t mean be laughing. I just—it’s because there is this extraordinary disconnect that I have touched on any number of times in my recent writings at Foreign Policy. Sorry, Justin. And, you know, it’s extraordinary because it seems that American officials and others are seizing on something—the revitalization of the Palestinian Authority and a two-state solution—because they’re bereft of any other ideas. And I don’t blame them for being bereft of any other ideas. But certainly reviving the Palestinian Authority and the two-state solution have got to be, at this point, two foreign policy unicorns for the United States 

In particular, when it comes to reviving the Palestinian Authority—and when we’re talking about that timeframe that the Biden administration or its successor would be working with—it seems to me an important—it’s important to understand that this is a quasi-state that is compromised by, you know, extraordinary corruption, dysfunction, and a total lack of legitimacy. There was an extraordinary piece in the New York Times today, actually, by a Palestinian political activist which underlined each one of these things. So it would take a long, long time in order to revitalize the Palestinian Authority. I can tell you, having just traveled in the Gulf, the Gulf countries are willing to play ball here but they are very, very wary of pouring money into the Palestinian Authority, knowing that it’s not going to go to good use. 

So it what it would take, I think, is mismatched with the amount of time that anybody is working with. And the very idea that Mahmoud Abbas and the people around him are willing to give up power is also something that is quite open to question. I know that the Palestinians—what’s missing in this discussion, particularly the discussion in Washington, are the Palestinians who are essentially saying: What we need if we’re going to rescue the Palestinian Authority, or come up with some other governing authority, is to bring Hamas into it. Bring Hamas into the PLO in that way in which we can have a kind of broad coalition of Palestinians confronting this problem. Of course, this is a non-starter for the Israelis. And there have been any number of attempts at reconciliation between Fatah and Hamas over many, many years that has never worked.  

As far as the two-state solution goes, Dan was just in Israel. I think it should be clear to everybody, and Dan can attest to it because he was on the ground, that Netanyahu has rejected it. Benny Ganz has been coy at best about it. That the Israeli electorate has lurched to the right now—this is probably the least-propitious moment to speak to Israelis about the two-state solution. So it boggles the mind that we can—that we’re talking about a two-state solution, rather than some sort of kind of interim steps. Now, interim steps are—you know, that’s what we had during the Oslo period. And that led to nothing as well. But at least it stabilized the situation. 

When it comes to the two-state solution, the Palestinians can’t satisfy Israel’s minimum of demands for peace. And the Israelis can’t satisfy the Palestinians’ minimum demands for peace, which are mirror images of each other. Israel doesn’t want to be confined to the 1967 borders, wants Jerusalem to be its unified eternal capital, and rejects the idea of Palestinian return. Palestinians need a capital in Jerusalem, need a contiguous, fully sovereign state, and need, at least symbolically, return of Palestinian refugees from 1948. Neither of them can satisfy each other’s demands.  

Therefore, what you have is continuing stalemate, even after this. Even after this horrible, horrible situation there is this—a sense that crisis comes diplomatic opportunity. Maybe in 1973, but with the movement of these populations against this idea, at least for the—and in particular the Israelis where the asymmetry of power lies—where the power lies in this asymmetric relationship, it seems to me that the administration is mouthing words because they don’t have any other words to mouth otherwise. 

VOGT: Audrey, do you want to—you want to weigh in on that? I think that’s an interesting answer. What do you think? 

CRONIN: Yes, sir. Yeah, I think it’s a pipe dream. A two-state solution, and for all the reasons that Steven just said, but also that the territory that the Palestinian state would be on has been encroached upon by the settlers. So where exactly would this state be? And that’s been a long-term process. That’s been a—what I would argue—is actually a very strategic process on the part of the Israeli government. And so the Netanyahu government is not going to work against its own right-wing support, which is very heavily represented among the settlers. So, you know, there are three big problems.  

The first is that there’s a lack of leadership among the Palestinians. And we don’t know where the states would be. The second is that Israelis are politically way too far to the right. And that’s unlikely to change, even after Netanyahu. And, finally, the United States has lost influence in the Middle East and it’s not going to be bringing parties together like it has, you know, in the past. So I just think that things could change on any of those three dimensions. I’m a bit more of an optimist than you are, Steven. But I agree with you that, right now, a two-state solution is not viable. 

VOGT: Dan, why don’t you—why don’t you take a crack at this one? And then I’m going to open it up to questions from the participants. 

BYMAN: Sure. I’ll briefly share their pessimism, especially in the short term, right? I mean, there’s one thing Israeli Jews agree on, which is that the Palestinians cannot be trusted to make peace. And, you know, just to add one particularly bitter note on October 7, that the—many of the particular kibbutz that were attacked were actually very left wing. So this in a—in the way of a cynics kind of proved the point. That you see the people who most think the Palestinians should be, you know, treated as human beings with their own rights, they are the ones who are victimized. And so there’s—on the left, there is a sense of outrage and anger against Hamas, and more broadly against the Palestinians, let alone on the right, as both Audrey and Steven have pointed out, have been moving in this direction for decades really against this. So there’s no hope of the short term.  

My only long-term hope is I don’t see another answer, right? And so I don’t know what the alternative is, other than continued tension and conflict. Which, you know, may endure for decades, or centuries for that matter. But in the end, if we’re talking about moving beyond conflict, to me we have to get to something like a Palestinian state with Israel having security next to it. And that is optimistic, and even naïve at present, but perhaps something to talk about for the long term. 

VOGT: OK. Well, merry Christmas, everyone, with this message of peace, joy, and hope. 

Let’s—(laughs)—turn things over to some of our participants. I know we have some highly knowledgeable folks actually who are on the line and who are going to have interesting questions of their own. 

OPERATOR: (Gives queuing instructions.) 

And we’ll take our first question from Barbara Slavin. 

Q: Hi there. Barbara Slavin from Stimson Center. 

I want to second a lot of what Audrey said. And ask if you have to predict the next few weeks, or even longer than that, would you imagine the Israelis will scale back a little bit to try to get the scenes of carnage off the front pages, but that they will remain in what essentially amounts to a renewed occupation of Gaza? In which case, we’re looking at—I mean, I keep thinking of south Lebanon and how, you know, Israel had soldiers in south Lebanon and proxies and whatnot for years and years and years, and finally withdrew because of the casualty tolls and the hostage taking, which continued. 

CRONIN: Can I take that? 

VOGT: Yeah, go ahead. 

CRONIN: OK. So, yes. Hi, Barb. 

I agree that there’s going to be enough pressure on Israel that—I think the answer to your question is that I think there’s going to be a reduction in heavy kinetic military force used in Gaza sometime within the next three weeks, I’d say, that looks like what’s coming out from press accounts. And it’s certainly what Blinken is pressuring for. You know, I just—I think it’s very sad. If you look at the history of terrorism, and particularly states that have used repression, I mean, you don’t really want to think about Gaza looking like Grozny. And it’s not the first time that a state has responded in this overwhelming way. So, you know, I’m not saying that there’s—I have deep sympathy for Israel. 

But there are lots of more effective ways that they could respond, and that would be more successful in reducing the threat to Israeli citizens. You know, if Israel were trying to reach out to some of the folks that support Hamas, trying to undermine Hamas rather than draw a lot of opprobrium against themselves in the long run, and even in the short run, that would be a better approach. You know, even Antony Blinken in his press conference, I guess it was yesterday, was saying, you know, why not focus on what Hamas is doing, rather than, you know, just Israel? On what Hamas should do, must do, to end the suffering of Palestinians?  

I couldn’t agree more. But unfortunately, what’s happening right now is because of what Israel is doing, they’re drawing all the airtime and attention, and taking it away from undermining Hamas. Hamas is supposed to be representing Palestinian civilians. What has Hamas done in order to support them? That’s where Israel should be trying to develop its strategy, to look at the hypocrisy of Hamas and the fact that they have had the resources to do better by their people, and instead of—instead of using such overwhelming force and preventing humanitarian aid to—or, insufficient aid to the Palestinian people. All of these things are drawing the spotlight on Israel’s response. 

VOGT: Let’s take another question. 

OPERATOR: Our next question is from Carrie Kahn. 

Q: Hi. I’m a reporter with NPR. 

I just had—I had a question about military strategy of Israel, and if you’re talking with former or current strategists. Do they tell you that this—they’ve won—that their main target is the infrastructure? I’m talking military. I’m not thinking political. Is the tunnels, that’s their main target? And so there’s no way they could get to the tunnels unless they did this massive displacement and massive bombings? Is that the strategy, militarily? And if you’re hearing from them, is this, like, something they’ve been wanting to do? Like they couldn’t get rid of the tunnels in 2013-14, so now they see a window? I don’t know. I just—I was hoping to get a little bit more military strategy on what they were—what you’re hearing what they’re thinking.  

And they have this one-time window, and this is the only way you can get the tunnels is when you get the—like, what they’ve just done to Gaza City, it just seems like they leveled it. And if you saw the briefing yesterday about Palestine Square, they just leveled it. And did they not—and they say they—and the briefing that we got yesterday was they said that they are going to render these tunnels once and for all worthless. So is that something they couldn’t do unless they got the whole population out and just bomb the hell out of it? Or what are you hearing? 

VOGT: Dan, I’m going to send that to you, because you addressed this to a certain degree in your piece. And I think it’s a good question. We also, we did—we did advertise this as about Israeli military strategy. So, Carrie, I appreciate the question. 

BYMAN: So I’ll say yes, but with a lot more. So Israel is trying to destroy Hamas in the sense of go after its military power. And that’s embodied in its commanders. That’s embodied in the twenty-five (thousand) to thirty thousand fighters it has. And it’s embodied in its military infrastructure. And some of that includes ammunition caches. Some of it is observation points. Some of it is fortified strong points. But a lot of it is this massive tunnel network. Before the invasion, the estimate of the tunnel network was that was roughly the size of the London Underground. Israeli military forces are saying they’re surprised at the scope and scale the tunnel network, even though they knew was tremendous before this. And, yes, they want to take it out. 

A bit of a surprise to me was that Israel actually didn’t have a Gaza invasion plan. Perhaps I’m too used to dealing with the U.S. military, which kind of has, you know, just in case we need to go into Canada here is the plan that we have on the shelf, right? They really, you know, take planning to, I think, a happy extreme, but to an extreme. I would have thought Israel would have a Gaza invasion plan just as a contingency. But they really didn’t have that. They had plans to kind of go after more border efforts, but not the more massive one. 

They would say the destructiveness is necessary because Hamas has co-located its military and civilian assets. And so if you’re going to go after and ammunition cache, it’s going to be near a mosque or school. That if you’re going to go after fighters, they’re going to be mixed in with a civilian population. Gaza is incredibly densely populated. And so it’s very hard to avoid destructive operations whenever you’re fighting in a city. And I would add, which is Israel historically, like other Western militaries, has a tradeoff between military necessity and the casualties inflicted on civilians. 

Israel, to me, clearly has changed the ratios of that, where it’s far more willing to inflict civilian casualties than it was in previous operations. So before there might be uncertainty, before there might be, well, there are a couple of civilians there, we have to worry. Now it’s much more wantonly destructive. And I’ll point out, this even applies in the case of hostages. We know a number of hostages have been killed by Israeli military forces, probably more that we don’t know. And in the past, that would have been a tremendous pause or caution on Israeli military operation.  

And they’re going much more aggressively than ever before. They’ve lost a fair number of people, over 100 of these operations, which is high for Israel. But it’s actually lower than one might expect given the intensity of urban warfare and the intensity of urban operations. So I think there’s a lot that explains the destructiveness. Some of which is just the nature of the task, but some of which is very different rules of engagement compared with past operations. 

VOGT: Dan, can I just quickly follow up with a really, really quick question about this? How long do you think that Israel can sustain this current kind of operation, right? What it’s doing now, can it just carry on forever? Or is there some kind of, between the reserves and the rotations and their stockpiles, like how long could this actually go on if they wanted to? 

BYMAN: So this is a huge question for Israelis. So in terms of ammunition, some things they’re running out of and need replenishment from the United States. So there are a few items that they can’t sustain forever. Reserves, you know, forty days of reservist duty is a very big deal in Israel. And these reservists have been fighting for over seventy. And they’re—I want to stress that word “fighting,” right? So it’s not that—some are occupying other positions, but many are actively involved in Gaza. And so it’s a huge Israeli military effort there. 

That will—the scale of that will diminish as Israeli operations start to wind down. But Israelis, you know, they say we need another six months. I actually agree with Audrey. I think that it’s—through international pressure, meaning the United States especially, that they’ll start to draw things down. We’ll start to see a shift more towards raids and special operations forces, which we’re already seeing in the southern part of Gaza compared to the northern part of Gaza. But at present, there is tremendous willingness on the part of Israelis to sacrifice. You know, one thing we’re seeing is when people will lose a child in Israel, you know, which is wrenching for anyone, they’re talking about the necessity—the parents are talking about the necessity of an operation. And that’s in contrast to the past, where there might be criticism of the government or a sense that this was wasted.  

So there is a strong sense that this is a necessary war. So I think the political will is there, at least in the short term. But I do think U.S. patience, in particular, is wearing thin. And the U.S. is going to go from gentle advice to pointed criticism, which we’ve already seen, the much more, the time to stop is now or we’re not going to be providing munitions or diplomatic support for high-intensity operations. But I think the U.S. will continue to support lower intensity, more targeted operations. 

VOGT: OK. Let’s take another question. 

COOK: Can I just— 

VOGT: Yeah, sure. Go on, Steven. 

COOK: Can I just jump in here for a second, because I just want to direct Carrie to a rather extraordinary article in the Times of Israel yesterday, which was translated from the Times of Israel’s Hebrew site. It was an interview with an Israeli reserves officer who also happens to be an architect, who is explaining the importance of the tunnels, how they work, and how Israel’s military strategy is either fit or not fit to deal with the tunnels. But one of the things he did say was that the intensive bombing was an effort to sort of crack open these tunnels. That when the stems of the tunnels come out in buildings, the best and safest way for the IDF and their personnel to get to them is by bringing those buildings down. And that was one of the explanations for it. But it was really a very, very interesting article. Something, you know, again, as not a guns and trucks military analyst, I thought it gave a tremendous amount of insight into that part of the Israeli military operations. 

VOGT: Thanks. I’m going to take a look at that. That’s interesting. I hadn’t seen that. Let’s take the next question. 

OPERATOR: Our next question is from Mark Goldberg. 

Q: Hi, everyone. This is Mark Goldberg. I’m the editor of U.N. Dispatch. And I host the Global Dispatches podcast. 

So about an hour ago, the World Food Programme released the results of a technical assessment of food security in Gaza, and found there to be famine-like conditions in parts of Gaza, and predicted a more widespread famine in the not-so-distant future. To the best that you can deduce, what is the strategic logic on the Israeli side that’s driving them to foment such a massive humanitarian crisis, potentially even to include a famine? And if I can maybe sneak in a second, related question. Antonio Guterres last week suggested that there may be a mass displacement from Gaza to Sinai as conditions deteriorate along southern Gaza well past a breaking point. Do you see that as a potential outcome? 

VOGT: Anyone want to take a crack at those? 

COOK: Yeah, let me take at the—particularly the last part of it, given my vocation of looking at Egypt. The Egyptians have been very, very forthright that they are going to prevent the mass displacement of Palestinians into the Sinai. There is increasing pressure on them, given the fact that there are so many people who are now kind of basically on the doorstep in Rafah and they are confronting a catastrophic humanitarian situation. It is an extraordinarily delicate moment because the Egyptians have hinted that the peace treaty between Egypt and Israel would be in jeopardy if the Israelis intentionally pushed hundreds of thousands of Palestinians into the Sinai. Keep in mind that the Egyptians already have Libyan refugees, Sudanese refugees, and it is also a country that is essentially broke. So this is extraordinarily sensitive. It’s not unprecedented for a hole to be blown in the walls that the Egyptians have built. Egypt has been a full partner in Israel’s blockade of the Gaza Strip, and the Egyptians see the displacement of Palestinians as a security threat given the fact that they believe that large numbers of Hamas fighters will find refuge in the Sinai Peninsula. And of course, the Egyptians are fighting their own extremists in the northern Sinai, a conflict that has gone forgotten by many people. 

In terms of mass starvation as a weapon, I know that a number of NGOs have said that that—that the Israelis are intentionally doing that. Since I don’t work on that issue, I can’t really qualify it. But what—it seems to me that the massive Israeli onslaught is in part intended to do two other things in addition to destroying Hamas. 

One is to demonstrate to the leadership in Hezbollah and the leadership of Iran what Israel’s military can do and what future they would confront if they were to attack Israel and the—and the war were to widen. And I think that there’s a certain intentionality to the kind of leveling of places. 

It’s also, I think, intended—and whether this works or not remains an open question—it’s intended to drive a wedge between the Palestinian people and Hamas. And we are starting to—as Hamas buckles, and you’re starting to see some buckling of Hamas, you’re starting to see people speak more freely about what Hamas has wrought and brought down upon them. The poll numbers still demonstrate solid support for Hamas for what it did, but you are starting to see people questioning what Hamas has done, especially since it has absconded with humanitarian relief intended for all of these poor people. I mean, look, they’ve been doing this for years and years and years. How do you think we got these tunnels? But in this moment—in this incredibly dangerous moment and fraught moment for all of these civilians, the fact that Hamas has absconded with humanitarian relief, and combined with the Israeli onslaught, is intended, I think, on the part of the Israeli leadership—of course, unsaid—to drive that wedge between Hamas and the Palestinian people. 

VOGT: Audrey, you had your hand up as well, and I imagine you want to dive into that. Yeah. 

CRONIN: Yeah. Just a brief addition to—I actually do not believe that this is part of an Israeli strategy. You know, yes, it might be a way to drive a wedge between the Palestinian people and Hamas, but I am afraid that the opposite is happening because there is this very large international awareness of the horrible situation for the Palestinian people, and that is being blamed on Israel rather than on Hamas—even as Hamas takes much of the food, exactly as you said, Steven. 

You know, I’m very fearful that this is undermining what could be a much more effective Israeli strategy. I really do worry about this broader sense of counter-mobilization. I think that the fact that there’s a new humanitarian maritime corridor apparently potentially coming in via Cyprus, I read right before the—I don’t know how much to credit that, but I read that in the press myself right before we went on this call. Let’s hope. But I think that the Israelis are not being strategic in—and I do not believe that they have any kind of a strategy to starve out anybody. I think that they’re just fearful of supplies that might reach Hamas via the border with Egypt, via the Rafah crossing. And I think it’s a bad—a very bad policy. 

VOGT: OK. Let’s take the next question. 

OPERATOR: Our next question is from Ori Nir. 

Q: Hi. Thanks for calling on me. I’m Ori Nir with APN. I am addressing Audrey. 

First, regarding two-state solution, just to say it’s not a pipe dream. The fact that it is not attainable or viable in the short run does not mean that it’s unobtainable in the long run. But that’s a conversation we can have some other times. (Laughs.) 

CRONIN: I agree with you on that. I said it was a pipe dream in the short run. 

Q: OK. Cool. 

COOK: I am the one who thinks it’s not possible. 

Q: All right. 

But I wanted to ask you regarding the actual topic of your—of your article, which is the military strategy of Hamas. There’s a lot that’s interesting there, and my question was whether you saw anything other than the tunnels that is unique about Hamas’ strategy/tactics. What do you think is new here? And if you don’t see anything that’s new, what do you think they’re doing well, from their perspective, post-October 7? Thank you. 

CRONIN: Yeah. What I see this as is an evolution of the kind of strategic developments we’re seeing with accessible new technologies, particularly ordinary things like drones. I mean, we’ve seen this in Ukraine, but Hamas was very creative in how they used both low levels—low-tech sorts of weapons—I mean, everything from an AK-47, to a bulldozer, to small drones, to quadcopters where they could drop grenades down, automatic machine guns. They were very effective at using that low-altitude attack. And above all else, they were extremely effective at coordinating their attacks. These were not a swarm because they were not autonomous capabilities that were communicating with each other, but they had so well planned the attack that surprise was their biggest technological advantage. And they used accessible technologies, some of them that were built in Gaza but also many supported or technologically advised by Hezbollah and Iran. But they used all of these capabilities in an extremely effective way that you wouldn’t have expected from a terrorist group. So it was—it was surprise, it was also accessible technologies, and it was also very old-fashioned low types of technologies including the tunnels. 

VOGT: Thanks for that, Audrey. 

Let’s take another question. 

OPERATOR: Our next question is from Brett Kitt. 

Q: Hi. This is Brett Kitt from Nasdaq. 

I’m wondering whether you feel that the—whether intentionally or by effect this will have the—will change the status quo in terms of the viability of a Palestinian state, if one were to be proposed—in that, in Gaza, the destruction is so widespread, the population has been displaced, the infrastructure has been destroyed, that there is nothing there for anyone to go back to that could be called a state without really building one up again almost from scratch; and that, you know, in doing so it kind of diminishes the argument for a state, at least maybe in the Israeli mind, the same way that the settlements in the West Bank have diminished the area that, you know, would be available for a Palestinian state. 

VOGT: Dan or Steven, do you want to—do you want to take that? 

BYMAN: I’ll do both. 

COOK: Dan, you want to start, I’ll finish up? 

BYMAN: A few words, then let Steven say something smarter. 

So, you know, yes, this is utterly devastating. And Gaza was in really rough condition before this in terms of, you know, basic economic indicators like, you know, unemployment and economic activity, and now it’s a moonscape, right? Now it is in—you know, in ruins and needs, you know, billions of dollars of investment. 

And then when we think about the longer-term question, you know, Palestinian workers in Israel, there were twenty thousand from Gaza and about a hundred and fifty thousand from the West Bank. Some of those twenty thousand provided intelligence to Hamas on very specific details on various targets. There are—Israelis told me some of them were involved in atrocities as well. And the idea that Israel would a year from now say, oh, we’ll bring workers back because we want to improve the Palestinian economy, that’s going to be a nonstarter in many places. So a lot of potential economic activity in the future is also going to be diminished. So, yes, this makes it much harder for, really, any kind of Palestinian daily life, let alone successful state. And so, you know, this will require a lot of international aid. 

But I want to go back to points made earlier, which is that international aid is not simply countries opening up their wallets and saying, you know, we’ll give to whatever, it doesn’t matter, right? They are going to have their own political desires. They’re going to want to see particular Palestinian leaders or changes in the Palestinian structure. They’re going to want to see justice by Israel. So the reconstruction part of this is a huge task, and a politically difficult one as well as a massive economic problem. 

COOK: Let me just add a couple of things. Dan perceptively captured the Israeli attitude and the—and the lack of economic opportunity in the future for Palestinians in Israel. I think the Israeli right has a more compelling argument now than it did when, for example, Ariel Sharon accomplished the Israeli withdrawal from Gaza in 2005. At the time, they said this was not going to bring security. It hasn’t brought them security. And so the Israeli right is going to say, it hasn’t brought us security. Things have to change. We’re not going to—we’re not going to make the same mistakes over and over again. So therefore, we’re not going to see large numbers of Palestinian workers within Israel. Israel is not going to be forthcoming when it comes—to as if it was forthcoming to begin with—but forthcoming when it comes to the economy in the Gaza Strip. 

As far as international aid goes, in theory this sounds like a good idea. But who is going to administer, who is going to help do the reconstruction of the Gaza Strip? In addition, many countries—the Saudis, for example—have a long history of promising copious amounts of aid to the Palestinians, and a much shorter history of actually delivering it. For the reasons that I outlined earlier, that there’s very little trust in Palestinian leadership and Palestinian institutions to actually deliver on promises of reconstruction and changes to Palestinian institutions. 

So I think that both in the Gaza Strip as well as the West Bank this catastrophe has undermined the economy, as well as undermined any prospect for a Palestinian state. It’s going to take a generation, at best, to rebuild the Gaza Strip. And now you have a generation of Israelis who are opposed to the idea of accommodation with the Palestinians in any way. 

CRONIN: Yeah, I would only add one last thing, which is that there’s been a—one of the scenarios that our friends who still believe in a two-state solution put forth is that there might be aid that comes through moderate Arab countries. But the fact that Qatar was sending so much money to Hamas all of these years, I mean, I think it’s the New York Times that did a wonderful set of stories on this. The amount of money that was flowing into Gaza, and then not actually being used to help the Palestinian people, I think that’s going to make it even less likely that moderate Arab regimes are going to want to rebuild. 

VOGT: But, I just want to note, that was with Israeli acquiescence, right? And perhaps the strategic sort of short-term move on Netanyahu’s part, it’s an interesting kind of element here. 

CRONIN: Great point. 

VOGT: Let’s take another question. 

OPERATOR: Our next question—oh, I think we just lost them. We had, Susan. Sorry about that. Looks like we just lost them.  

VOGT: OK, is there is there another one after that, or? 

OPERATOR: Nope, that was our last one. 

VOGT: We’ve reached the end of the queue? 

OPERATOR: Oh, she’s back. 

VOGT: She’s back, OK. 

OPERATOR: So sorry. (Laughs.) Disappeared again. So that was our last one, mmm hmm. 

VOGT: OK. All right. I think we can—we can probably wrap it up, actually, at that point. I think we’ve gotten a lot of—a lot to chew on. I always like to leave these sessions with a couple of questions that I want to think about more, and I do in this case.  

But I just want to thank Dan, and Audrey, and Steven. Thank you so much for bringing your expertise to bear on this, and for following it carefully, and for writing so clearly and persuasively for us and for other places. It’s really appreciated. I hope everybody gets a little bit of a respite from the gloom and doom. We’re lucky, very lucky, to be far away from it. And as the new year comes, I just want to put in two cents for remembering just how difficult this is for people who are closer to it. We tend to talk about these things at a very high level of abstraction. There are human beings who are suffering on all sides of this conflict. And just—I like to kind of ask people to spare a thought for them as well as we head into the new year. So thank you all, and thanks to everyone who participated. 

COOK: Thank you. 

CRONIN: Thank you. 

BYMAN: Thank you. 


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