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Israel’s Impossible Dilemma

user avatar Author: Editors Desk Source: The Atlantic
December 4, 2023 at 19:40
John Macdougall / AFP / Getty
John Macdougall / AFP / Getty

The IDF can hand Hamas either a Pyrrhic victory or a real one

To no one’s surprise, Israel and Hamas have resumed fighting in Gaza after almost a week of temporary truces and prisoner exchanges. Despite American and other entreaties to limit civilian casualties, Israel appears determined to push into the south of Gaza, but its strategic thinking seems to end there, and to hold no plausible endgame in sight. As a consequence, the next phase of this vicious conflict will almost certainly lead Israel to an unenviable dilemma: whether to grant Hamas a small and ultimately hollow victory or a much larger and all-too-real one.

The next stages of the fighting seem clear. Israel will likely seize all of the significant aboveground urban areas in Gaza’s south, just as it did in the north. After that will come a major battle for control of Hamas’s extensive underground tunnel network, where most of the group’s fighters, leaders, equipment, and remaining hostages are presumed to be located. Ultimately, Israel may seek to destroy the tunnels themselves, perhaps by flooding them with seawater. In doing so, Israel will expect to have inflicted irreparable harm on Hamas, rendering it unable to govern Gaza or pose a threat to southern Israel for the foreseeable future.

All of those goals are plausibly achievable. But Israel’s larger stated aim—of utterly eradicating Hamas—is impossible. Hamas is a brand name, not a list of individuals and objects. Israel could destroy its leaders and all of its equipment, declare victory, and leave Gaza to its fate. Hamas, in some form, would still crawl out of the rubble and declare a “divine victory” of its own.

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