A Plan to Defeat Hamas and Avoid a Bloodbath

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By Ketrin Agustine

A Plan to Defeat Hamas and Avoid a Bloodbath

At least twice this week, columns of Israeli armored vehicles made brief forays into northern Gaza — a probable prelude to a full-scale invasion of the territory, for which Israel has called up more than 300,000 of its reserves. The strategy? Nobody seems to know for sure, and the government isn’t saying. On Monday, The Times reported that the Pentagon had doubts about the readiness of Israel’s forces and whether its objective of eradicating Hamas is even achievable.

The dilemma Israelis face, to cite the old proverb, is that the only way out seems to be through — through Gaza’s narrow streets, its booby-trapped roads and buildings, the vast maze of tunnels in which many of the hostages are imprisoned. In my conversations with Israelis this week, the historical analogy that keeps popping up is the battle of Stalingrad.

Other courses may be even riskier. A limited military campaign conducted mostly from the air and ending in the same kind of stalemate that Israel has seen before would be a major victory for Hamas, emboldening it and allies like Hezbollah for future and deadlier attacks.

Even worse is the cease-fire being proposed at the U.N. General Assembly, which would reduce civilian casualties but leave Hamas in power and, despite the past weeks of Israeli bombing, mostly untouched. Among other effects, it would make it impossible for the tens of thousands of Israelis who have fled their homes near the Gaza border and are now displaced people within Israel to ever safely go back.

Is there another way? Naftali Bennett, a former prime minister, thinks so. At his home in the leafy town of Ra’anana a few miles north of Tel Aviv, he spells out what he calls his “squeeze approach” — a plan that is original in its conception and unexpected in its conclusion.

“What’s important is to not play along with the lines that Hamas wrote for us,” he says. “I think there’s a much less costly way to go about things.”

Naftali BennettOfir Berman for The New York Times

Hamas’s master plan, as Bennett sees it, is roughly as follows: Provoke, via its gruesome massacres on Oct. 7, a massive Israeli ground invasion. Force Israeli troops to fight for weeks or months on unfamiliar and terrifying ground, causing thousands of casualties. Dribble out opportunities for hostage releases or cease-fires as a way of weakening Israel’s resolve and obtaining material concessions, particularly fuel. Bleed the Israeli economy dry by requiring the country to keep its citizen army mobilized for months. Count on diplomatic pressure and Israel’s well-known low tolerance for high casualties to get Jerusalem to call it quits after a few weeks of war, just as it often has in the past.

What Bennett envisions is to turn Hamas’s current assets into liabilities. Five in particular: terrain, time, triggers, the world’s attention and the hostages.

Militarily, the plan he sketches begins by having Israel establish a security zone in Gaza two kilometers deep while also cutting the territory in half, somewhere between Gaza City and Khan Younis. Already, nearly 800,000 Gazans have fled from north to south, despite efforts by Hamas to keep them in place. Two humanitarian corridors, subject to Israeli controls, will allow civilians still trapped in the north to move south. Israel will permit water, food and medicine to reach the south and will create medical and humanitarian safe havens in the buffer zone.

This is the most manpower- and firepower-intensive part of Bennett’s plan, but it does not involve a thrust into the heart of Gaza’s cities. It leaves the north of Gaza completely cut off — above all, of energy. “There’s a reason they’re asking for fuel,” he says of Hamas’s recent attempts to trade hostages for gas. “They’re asking for fuel not for their citizens but for their tunnels,” which are used exclusively by Hamas fighters and their allies.

Gaining this kind of control means that Israel isolates the battlefield — a core requirement in any successful war and a time-tested way of protecting civilians. It allows most of Israel’s reservists to go home, relieving the heavy strain on the economy. It eases the crisis on the international stage while doing nothing to release Hamas from its chokehold.

Most important, it allows Israel to conduct what Bennett describes as an “ongoing and persistent series of targeted ground raids” over a long period without the need to occupy cities in force.

Smaller raids tend to produce fewer deaths, particularly civilian casualties, and less physical destruction, at least when compared with airstrikes or artillery fire. They play to the unique skills of Israel’s special forces. They reduce the chances of a triggering event in which large numbers of civilian casualties prompt Hezbollah to open a front in the north or Palestinians in the West Bank to start a third intifada. And they minimize the exposure of regular Israeli infantry to the hazards of dense urban combat.

“I don’t want to get into a Viet Cong-type war of tunnels,” Bennett says. “I want to surprise them by letting them dry out in the tunnels. Imagine a Hamas terrorist waiting in one of those tunnels with his weapons. The one thing he doesn’t expect is to be stuck there for nine months with no logistics backing, running out of food, cold, wet and miserable.”

As for the hostages, Bennett recognizes there are no easy answers. But he thinks Hamas has begun to realize that “holding babies, the elderly and foreign citizens is an inherent liability, given that they want public sympathy.” In the meantime, Hamas will probably do everything it can to keep the hostages alive and reasonably healthy, if only because they are useless to it when dead. This, too, is a drain on the group’s dwindling resources.

Bennett sees the war lasting months, even years, much like the campaign against ISIS in Iraq and Syria. The long timetable imposes a need for patience on an Israeli public justifiably hungry for vengeance and victory. But the cumulative result of his concept would be the complete destruction of Hamas’s war-fighting capacity and the deaths of thousands of its fighters.

There’s a coda to his plan. At some point, any Hamas fighters who remain in Gaza will be offered the chance for passage to a third country — Algeria, maybe, or Qatar, where Hamas has financial patrons. While Bennett dislikes the linkage, safe passage may be the price Israel is willing to pay in the end for the freedom of remaining hostages.

“It would be like Beirut in 1982, when Yasir Arafat and all of his terrorists got on a boat and left Lebanon forever,” Bennett says, recalling the Palestinian leader’s forced eviction to Tunisia under Israel’s siege of the city. At that point, the displaced people of southern Gaza might choose to return to their homes, and the displaced people of southern Israel could confidently opt to go back to theirs.

Could it work? War never offers clean choices — particularly one that was foisted on Israel through a day of “pure, unadulterated evil,” as President Biden rightly called Hamas’s atrocities. There’s also a larger set of questions of what happens to Gaza after the war ends.

Israel will almost certainly keep the buffer zone in Gaza for years to come, not only for security but also as punishment for Hamas’s depredations. The Palestinian Authority will be reluctant, at least at first, to re-establish itself in the territory on the heels of Israel’s victory. In all likelihood, an international security presence will be needed in Gaza, much like in Kosovo after its war. This, too, could last years.

But the question isn’t whether Bennett’s plan is perfect or if there are gaps to fill. It is whether it’s better than the alternatives for achieving Israel’s core aims: destroying Hamas, exacting justice, protecting the innocent, deterring the wicked and, as David Petraeus once asked about Iraq, explaining to the world “how this ends.” By those counts, it’s a plan worthy of attention and respect.

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