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International Affairs

Escalation of Gaza conflict may be exactly what Netanyahu wants

As things stand, the Binyamin Netanyahu war cabinet plans to launch a major ground offensive on Rafah in the coming weeks. The stated purposes are to free the surviving hostages taken by Hamas in its cross-border atrocity raid in October and to destroy Hamas itself.

Whether it would be possible to accomplish both by a ground offensive is uncertain. If the offensive is intended to annihilate the military strength and personnel of Hamas by aerial and land barrages and to occupy the remains of Rafah by street to street, house to house combat, what are the chances of rescuing alive and further unharmed the hostages who have survived until now?

If Hamas commanders and fighters understand that the Israeli government has decided on their physical annihilation, what are the chances that the fanatical leadership or the foot-soldiers in Hamas will free the hostages in advance of their own certain destruction?

Is it plausible that the hostage-takers will release their hostages in advance of what they consider to be their own inevitable “martyrdom”? Would their warped ideology permit them to reward Netanyahu with a substantial rescue of the hostages in addition to their own destruction? Or would their cruel and macabre calculus impel them to “take the hostages with them”, thereby ensuring the downfall of Netanyahu and the political hawks who support him in the Knesset?

Are Hamas fighters to surrender themselves into long-term captivity? Or will the Israeli government quietly kill them rather than add, say, 10,000 to its population of prisoners and detainees held at present? I have always suspected that mass graves rather than prison camps is the intended destination for captured Hamas fighters. The shoot-to-kill option is much neater from a long-term, flawed Israeli perspective, rather than having to identify who are the Hamas activists who must be annihilated. How would they be distinguished from low grade supporters of Hamas and apparatchiks of the Hamas administration in Gaza?

While it may seem harsh to view the options in this way, it may also be realistic.

Any deal involving survival of the Hamas leadership and the mass release of Palestinian prisoners currently held by Israel would probably spell the political end for Netanyahu and the hawks, even if it spared what remains of the buildings and infrastructure of Gaza from total destruction.

The aim of the Israeli right is to destroy Hamas no matter what the cost in terms of Palestinian lives. Total occupation of all of the Gaza Strip is a war aim. Expulsion of the Palestinian population from Gaza, or partial settlement of the strip by Israel, is a war aim of some of the far right in Israeli politics.

Even Jared Kushner has articulated the idea to annex Gaza and to relocate its population to the Negev area of southern Israel. He sees Gaza as valuable real estate waiting for development once clearance is completed. There are echoes here of his father-in-law’s famous bid to buy Greenland from Denmark. The curt rejection by the Danish prime minister earned her the description “nasty” from Trump.

If annexation does not happen, who will rebuild Gaza for its people? Does Israel hope wealthy Arab states will rebuild Gaza for the Palestinians? Could that happen without a clear policy to integrate the West Bank and Gaza under effective Palestinian control with a view to establishing a two-state solution?

Or will the Israeli right simply play for time? Such a strategy might involve the destruction of most of Gaza, major degradation of the Palestinian population, temporary Israeli military administration of the wastelands, intractable negotiations and delay, all the while hoping that in time the world’s gaze would be distracted to other issues elsewhere.

All of this was inevitable once the major western powers allowed Netanyahu the go ahead for his war of annihilation. It was obvious to me and I wrote and spoke about the likelihood of our ending up where we are, and where we appear to be going, if he was given his head. It must have been equally obvious to those professional diplomats and strategists who we call “gamers” in Washington, London, Paris and Berlin.

The Israeli attack on the Iranian consulate building in Damascus was a calculated step in escalation. Iran will respond in some fashion. Does Netanyahu calculate that widening and deepening the conflict on a regional basis could yet rescue him, by portraying him as the man who is fighting an existential war for Israel’s survival?

Biden and Blinken talk about red lines in relation to Rafah. Are more than one million Palestinians now to be herded north into the ruins of Khan Younis and Gaza city so that the Hamas fighters can be flushed out, cornered, and killed? What chance have the hostages or most of them if that happens? Just how does the US administration see this crisis ending?

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