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OPINION

Paradigm shift: Prof. Zeev Hanin on how Hamas attack paves way for Israel's return to Gaza

In the wake of a fifteen-year period of “turbulent peace” between Israel and Hamas, the foundational concept of Israeli security policy—deterrence—has run its course, according to Professor Zeev Hanin from Ariel University. Israel finds itself compelled to reengage with Gaza, and a political green light has emerged. Following the recent heinous acts by Hamas terrorists, there's been a notable shift in Western public opinion—traditionally sympathetic towards Palestinians. This alteration in sentiment could see Israel garner unprecedented support from its allies.

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The paradigm shifts: From deterrence to control

Hamas' invasion of Israeli territory on October 7th has created a situation unlike any seen in many years, perhaps since the days of Auschwitz. The death toll is rising, approaching the levels seen during the Day of Atonement War. The echoes of that time are evident in the assessment and decision-making process within Israel's military and political leadership, which has suffered a systemic breakdown. Just like fifty years ago, intelligence was providing conflicting recommendations, and in the end, the decision of Israel's military and political cabinet aligned with the prevailing “paradigm” entrenched in these circles for over a decade. This term, beyond its literal meaning, carries an ironic undertone in Hebrew—entailing a fixation on one's own worldview and convictions, leading to decisions made without considering all objective data. In the autumn of 1973, this “paradigm” led Israel to an existential threat. Though the enemy was eventually defeated, victory came at a heavy cost to the nation's image and morale. The trauma from those events remains deeply ingrained in Israel's historical memory.

On the other hand, that war sparked a thorough reassessment of societal values and catalyzed significant political shifts. Dubbed the “Israeli Velvet Revolution,” the electoral earthquake of 1977 marked the conclusion of the Labor Party's dominant quarter-century rule, propelling Israel's semi-competitive political landscape into the realm of a robust liberal democracy.

The organization aiming to represent the interests of Arabs residing in the territory of Mandatory Palestine before the Arab-Israeli War of 1948 and their descendants.

United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East – the UN agency providing assistance to Palestinian refugees in Syria, Lebanon, the West Bank, and the Gaza Strip. The agency is responsible for organizing education, healthcare, and the provision of social services to the Palestinian refugee population in these areas.

The Day of Atonement War sparked a thorough reassessment of societal values and catalyzed significant political shifts

The current scenario is marked by a barrage of rockets from Gaza, the majority of which have been intercepted by the “Iron Dome” defense system. However, some have broken through, causing damage to towns and cities in the southern and central regions of the country. The pivotal event, however, was the breach of the technologically advanced land, underground, and underwater “security fence” surrounding Gaza, a security investment exceeding a billion dollars. This breach resulted in the cold-blooded killing of fifteen hundred lives, including dozens of children, in the neighboring kibbutzim and moshavim, where trust was placed in the reliability of defense structures. The atrocities included rape, burning of homes, and beheadings, culminating in a massacre at a youth festival. Furthermore, around one hundred fifty Israelis were captured and taken hostage within the Strip. It's unmistakable that this new trauma has eclipsed the collective memory of the Day of Atonement War.

Moreover, it appears that a new trauma has caused a paradigm shift in society's perspective. The first public opinion poll conducted among Israelis since the war's onset revealed an overwhelming majority (86%) attributing the consequences of the well-planned and sudden breach by heavily armed, well-prepared, and ideologically indoctrinated ISIS-style terrorists to the responsibility of the country's leadership. This sentiment is echoed by 79% of those who supported the parties of the current ruling coalition—the center-right Likud party and the religious parties—in the recent elections. This underscores that, at least at this current stage, the traditional divides of “left” and “right” within Israel have blurred in the face of this conflict.

The organization aiming to represent the interests of Arabs residing in the territory of Mandatory Palestine before the Arab-Israeli War of 1948 and their descendants.

United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East – the UN agency providing assistance to Palestinian refugees in Syria, Lebanon, the West Bank, and the Gaza Strip. The agency is responsible for organizing education, healthcare, and the provision of social services to the Palestinian refugee population in these areas.

At the current stage, the traditional divides of “left” and “right” within Israel have blurred in the face of the conflict

Israel's unilateral withdrawal from the Gaza Strip in 2005 resulted in the armed takeover by the radical Islamist group Hamas, transforming it into a base for sporadic rocket attacks and terrorist incursions against Israel. For a long time (at least since the conclusion of the Israel Defense Forces' counterterrorism operation Cast Lead in the winter of 2008-2009 and the rise of Benjamin Netanyahu's second cabinet), Israeli governments, both right-wing and centrist, operated on a similar belief. Namely, with the fragmentation of the Palestinian Authority into areas controlled by radical Palestinian nationalists from the Palestine Liberation Organization under Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) in the Arab enclaves of Judea and Samaria (referred to as the “West Bank” in global discourse) and the enclave of radical Islamic fundamentalists in the Gaza Strip, the only somewhat realistic policy option for the Strip remained the aforementioned “paradigm.”

In simpler terms, Hamas had certain unspoken boundaries that Israel was willing to tolerate in terms of occasional rocket attacks, counting on its effective deterrent capabilities. If these boundaries were crossed, Israel would respond with counterterrorism efforts. These operations occurred twice in 2006, then in 2008, 2008-2009, 2012, 2014, and 2021. They were time-bound and focused, not aimed at overthrowing Hamas because Israel's objective was not reoccupation of the Strip with its military, and there was no entity in sight capable of managing the enclave externally or providing an alternative to the Palestinian fundamentalist rule.

On the surface, Israel's crisis management arrangement in Gaza without direct governance seemed to suit Hamas leaders as well. A low-intensity conflict, directed by Tehran and its partners in the Red-Green alliance, continued. Meanwhile, Israel, while maintaining the blockade on the sector and controlling the supply of humanitarian goods, weapons, and military materials, nevertheless consistently provided Gaza with humanitarian goods, medicine, fuel, water, and electricity. Israel also admitted Gazans for treatment in its clinics, including members of their top leadership. For instance, the commander of Hamas armed forces was saved in an Israeli clinic through a profound neurosurgical operation. Presumably, calculations were based on the belief that Hamas, despite its loud claims of “uncompromising struggle against the Zionist enemy,” was inevitably forced to cater to the essential needs of the local Arab population, living significantly worse than not only Israeli Arabs but also their compatriots in Judea and Samaria. Therefore, the “carrot and stick” policy had been deemed optimal in Jerusalem for over a decade.

The organization aiming to represent the interests of Arabs residing in the territory of Mandatory Palestine before the Arab-Israeli War of 1948 and their descendants.

United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East – the UN agency providing assistance to Palestinian refugees in Syria, Lebanon, the West Bank, and the Gaza Strip. The agency is responsible for organizing education, healthcare, and the provision of social services to the Palestinian refugee population in these areas.

Israel's crisis management arrangement in Gaza without direct governance seemed to suit Hamas leaders as well

Precisely, the idea carefully nurtured for a year and a half after the latest IDF operation in Gaza, dubbed “Guardian of the Walls,” that Hamas, in the medium term, “is not interested in a new escalation,” has recently led the Israeli government to introduce a series of additional relaxations. These ranged from resuming the previously suspended financial aid transfer from Qatar, delivered to Gaza through Israeli crossings in the form of suitcases of cash, and expanding the range of goods supplied to the Strip (including those that could be used for military purposes) to significantly increasing work permits in Israel for Gaza residents (with over 50% unemployment and wages 7-10 times lower than the Israeli minimum wage). In July of this year, approval was also granted for the development of the nearby Gaza Marine offshore gas field, a project that Hamas would de facto receive production and revenue from, which had been on hold since the start of the “second intifada.”

It's hard to argue that the “deterrence paradigm” exploded in the hands of Israelis on the morning of October 7th. It cannot be said that, unlike the explicitly bloody attack by Islamist militants, the inadequacy of the “ deterrence paradigm” came as a surprise. It had been criticized before in Israel's analytical and political circles. The plan for the radical dismantling of Hamas' terrorist infrastructure and the elimination of its military and political leadership was proposed back in 2016 by the then-Israeli Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman. (Two years later, he left Benjamin Netanyahu's fourth government when it became clear that the government preferred to stick to the “paradigm” rather than execute this plan.)

Today, it is the understanding of the future course of events—complete dismantlement of the fundamentalist regime in Gaza and the eradication of the terror infrastructure, not just the “restoration of boundaries”—that dominates the national agenda. While the question of “what is to be done” is relatively clear, the optimal methods for implementing these plans remain to be chosen.

Ceremonies aside

The previous paradigm of “limited deterrence” took into account the widely accepted differentiation in the Western world between “bandits and terrorists” and the “uninvolved.” Therefore, the UN, human rights NGOs (whether real or fictitious), as well as the leadership of the US and the EU, demanded extreme caution and “proportionality” from Israel and the IDF during counterterrorism operations. Acting in line with this imperative, the IDF significantly eased the situation for Hamas militants. They strategically positioned their combat bases and military facilities in densely populated residential areas, headquarters, and warehouses within UNRWA schools, clinics and mosques, using groups of specially placed “uninvolved” civilian residents, including children, to shield rocket installations.

According to the IDF's ethical code, attacks in such cases were usually called off, even if rocket systems were firing on Israel at that very moment. To avoid civilian casualties, the famous humane “roof knocking” methods were employed: warnings via SMS saying, “everyone leave this area,” followed by a non-explosive round fired as a signal. Jokes about nearly every IDF company having its own military lawyer, with whom the commander needed to consult on whether to open fire, whether it would violate the rules of engagement, and whether everyone might end up on trial—in Israel, not in The Hague—after the battle have gradually tapered out.

Even considering these constraints, Israel's window of “freedom to act in self-defense against clear aggression,” acknowledged by its Western allies, was short-lived, typically lasting only a matter of days, stretching at most to a few weeks. Putting aside the customary backdrop of any Israeli counterterrorism operation—the anti-Zionist and anti-Semitic fervor seen in Arab-Muslim nations, university campuses, progressive groups, and immigrant communities across Europe and North America—the “show of solidarity” from leaders of the free world was restrained. Discussions around the “inadmissibility of collective punishment” and efforts to achieve “swift de-escalation” commenced within a few days.

The organization aiming to represent the interests of Arabs residing in the territory of Mandatory Palestine before the Arab-Israeli War of 1948 and their descendants.

United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East – the UN agency providing assistance to Palestinian refugees in Syria, Lebanon, the West Bank, and the Gaza Strip. The agency is responsible for organizing education, healthcare, and the provision of social services to the Palestinian refugee population in these areas.

Israel's window of “freedom to act in self-defense against clear aggression,” acknowledged by its Western allies, lasted only a matter of days

Certainly, even within this timeframe, Israel, leveraging all its military technologies, could have wiped Gaza off the face of the Earth. However, this was practically impossible due to the unacceptability of catastrophic civilian losses for Israelis and the misalignment of such a scenario with Israeli leadership's political objectives. The task was to destroy the accumulated potential of the terror infrastructure, eliminate a significant number of militants and field commanders of terrorist groups, while commanders of Hamas' military wing and especially the political leadership remained relatively untouched. Their operational headquarters are located in the basement of Gaza's largest clinic, a place nobody ever intended to bomb.

Clearly, this is all in the past today. The prevailing opinion in Israeli society was articulated by Giora Eiland, former head of the National Security Council, whose political beliefs by no means align with being a “right-wing hawk”:

“Believing in a flawed paradigm blinds us to the true complexity of reality, leading to dire miscalculations and outcomes. The objective of eradicating Hamas as a terrorist entity is unequivocal and of utmost importance. Therefore, Israel has no choice but to turn Gaza into a place where it will be temporarily or permanently impossible to live.”

Will this viewpoint garner support from the global community? Presently, as the tally of Jews slain “by those bearing a fascist banner in green” within a day mirrors the darkest days of Auschwitz, the free world's reservoir of tolerance has noticeably expanded. This was exemplified in the address by U.S. President Joe Biden. As an emissary of the generation embodying “stalwart American non-Jewish Zionists,” and thus a genuine American, he conveyed this sentiment:

“We have always said that Israel has the right to exist and to defend itself, but let's clarify: it is at the forefront of our fight for all that is good and bright against absolute evil. This is our war, and it's not just that we are helping Israel; Israel is helping us. So, don't even doubt: everything you need, you will get, and we strongly advise Hezbollah to the north and Iran to the east to not even try.”

Simultaneously, Biden called key European leaders, working out something like a joint position - “We stand for Israel.”

Therefore, Israel has a little more time until the inevitable emergence of the “blame shifters.” The answer for them is very simple: Hamas went to war with Israel. As a semi-state entity, it falls within the norm of international law – the party that started the war is responsible for its own casualties. And for its war crimes – including using its citizens and captured hostages as human shields.

The organization aiming to represent the interests of Arabs residing in the territory of Mandatory Palestine before the Arab-Israeli War of 1948 and their descendants.

United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East – the UN agency providing assistance to Palestinian refugees in Syria, Lebanon, the West Bank, and the Gaza Strip. The agency is responsible for organizing education, healthcare, and the provision of social services to the Palestinian refugee population in these areas.

The party that started the war is responsible for its own casualties and for its war crimes

So, presently, the typical messages from Gaza, common in previous rounds of escalation, asserting “we have demonstrated our presence, you must take us seriously, now let's negotiate,” seem less relevant. Israelis are likely open to negotiations with surviving terrorist leaders, but not before they find themselves in custody. All residents of Gaza have been offered the opportunity to evacuate from areas susceptible to ground operations, preferably towards the south of the Strip or into Egypt. However, Egypt appears reluctant to assume responsibility for the inhabitants of the Gaza Strip, fearing the revival of the idea of creating an enclave for Gaza Arabs in the desolate Sinai under Egyptian and international control, with the world providing substantial funds for the creation of the corresponding production and social infrastructure. The Egyptians are evidently not enthusiastic about this notion, agreeing only to mediate.

The “Second Front”

The question remains whether pro-Iranian groups operating in Lebanon and Syria will intervene in Israel's war against Hamas, despite warnings. These countries have been in a formal state of war with Israel since 1948, interrupted by the 1949 armistice. Concerning the governments of these nations, there is little doubt that a war with Israel would mark the end of their regimes. The challenge lies in the limited autonomy of official Beirut and Damascus, as decisions are predominantly made by Hezbollah and Iran, respectively.”

The organization aiming to represent the interests of Arabs residing in the territory of Mandatory Palestine before the Arab-Israeli War of 1948 and their descendants.

United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East – the UN agency providing assistance to Palestinian refugees in Syria, Lebanon, the West Bank, and the Gaza Strip. The agency is responsible for organizing education, healthcare, and the provision of social services to the Palestinian refugee population in these areas.

The question remains whether pro-Iranian groups operating in Lebanon and Syria will intervene in Israel's war against Hamas

In the course of the Second Lebanon War, Israel struggled to define whether it was engaging with Hezbollah's military wing, Hezbollah as a whole, or Lebanon as an aggressor state. Today, this dilemma is absent: the war will be waged against Lebanon as an aggressor state, entailing appropriate consequences. Lebanon is deeply apprehensive of this prospect, but Hezbollah, as mentioned earlier, remains undeterred and receives signals from Iran to “do something.” At present, this Shiite terrorist group attempts to “perform” by sporadically shelling northern Israel and dispatching saboteur groups, receiving a proportionate Israeli response. It appears, at this stage, the group is not prepared for a third war with Israel. However, despite the anticipated catastrophic consequences for Lebanon, this does not preclude its intervention should the IDF become entangled in the Gaza conflict.

Nor is the situation likely to be significantly influenced by the Assad regime in Syria, whose control over Hezbollah, Iran, pro-Iranian formations, or Hamas cells in “Palestinian refugee” camps is limited. Another factor is Russia, with whom Israel has established a certain “understanding” following the presence of Russian forces in Syria. Specifically, this understanding entails non-interference in Russia's sphere of interests in exchange for freedom of action to prevent the establishment of a new Iranian front against Israel in Syria and to thwart the arms transfer channel to Hezbollah.

In a sense, this “understanding” still holds today, although Russia is evidently reducing its presence in Syria, yielding ground to Iran, and striving to gain certain political and diplomatic dividends from Hamas' aggression against Israel. However, Russia is unlikely to be a direct instigator pushing the group's militants to attack Israel. Rather, firstly it is interested in efforts of Hamas, which is a “legitimate organization” in Moscow's view, to pursue any support in the surrounding world, and secondly it anticipates that the Gaza war will hinder the normalization of Israel's relations with Saudi Arabia and, consequently, further decline of Russia's role in the region.

The organization aiming to represent the interests of Arabs residing in the territory of Mandatory Palestine before the Arab-Israeli War of 1948 and their descendants.

United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East – the UN agency providing assistance to Palestinian refugees in Syria, Lebanon, the West Bank, and the Gaza Strip. The agency is responsible for organizing education, healthcare, and the provision of social services to the Palestinian refugee population in these areas.

Russia is unlikely to be a direct instigator pushing the group's militants to attack Israel

Interim Conclusions

At the time of writing these lines, providing any definitive forecasts is impossible. We will confine ourselves to two assumptions.

First: no return to the previous “paradigm” regarding the Islamist enclave is anticipated. The international community and moderate pro-Western Arab regimes will have to pay, in various senses of the word, their share in finding a creative and positive solution to the issue of the Arab population in the Gaza Strip—excluding, of course, the terrorists whose fate is to be determined by international legal and moral norms.

Second: Hamas leaders have not only embraced a suicidal path concerning their regime but have also notably intensified the salience of the “Palestinian issue” overall. It remains plausible that the intention of the Saudi bloc nations to “turn the page,” shifting the focus from initially addressing the counterproductive Palestinian problem to prioritizing the normalization of relations before revisiting the Palestinian issue, will garner further acknowledgment and support.

The organization aiming to represent the interests of Arabs residing in the territory of Mandatory Palestine before the Arab-Israeli War of 1948 and their descendants.

United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East – the UN agency providing assistance to Palestinian refugees in Syria, Lebanon, the West Bank, and the Gaza Strip. The agency is responsible for organizing education, healthcare, and the provision of social services to the Palestinian refugee population in these areas.

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