The war against Hamas it appears is being conducted on two separate levels. One pits the IDF against its Arab/Muslim enemies. There the sides “understand” each other quite well. The second is the Israel-U.S. level in which the latter either by design or default speaks as if Washington is on another planet.
For instance, on the first level, Iran’s Tasnim news agency on October 10, quoted the Islamic Republic’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei as telling an audience of Iranian military cadets that “From the military and intelligence aspects, this defeat [of October 7,] is irreparable. It is a devastating earthquake.”
Some days later, in an apparent response, Israel’s Defense Minister Yoav Gallant commented on the beginning of the “next phase” in the IDF’s operation against Hamas, which began the night of October 27, by saying “Last night the earth in Gaza shook.”
However on the Israel-U.S. level the miscommunication is apparent. The gap is most noticeable with regard to repeated calls by Washington (and other Western capitals) for Israel to abide by the laws of warfare in the pursuit of its military response to Hamas’s massacre.
It could be argued that Washington’s position is meant to provide President Joe Biden political cover given the upcoming U.S. elections and his need to placate the “progressive" wing of his Democratic Party to keep it unified. However, the almost daily pronouncements by Biden himself as well as U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin's missives to his Israeli counterpart Yoav Gallant on the need for the IDF to follow the rules of war suggest otherwise.
In contrast, Israel’s political and military leadership has repeatedly conveyed its assessment of the country’s dire strategic situation and the stark choices it is now facing. For example, on October 19, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu welcomed British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak on a solidarity visit to Israel saying, “this is our darkest hour.” He repeated this ominous imagery later the same day when greeting Czech Prime Minister Petr Fiala.
In an address to the nation on October 25, Netanyahu said “Israel is in the midst of a fight for our existence,” declaring that the goal was “saving the nation.”
Three days later, at a press conference with Gallant and former defense minister and IDF chief Benny Gantz (who was newly installed as minister without portfolio in Netanyahu’s war Cabinet), the concerted message was that the war against Hamas is one of historical and existential significance for the country and therefore Israel must win it.
Netanyahu said, “There are moments in which a nation faces two possibilities: live or expire. We now face that test…” He went as far as to compare the fight to the Allies’ WWII war against the Nazis, stressing that in both cases “a fight to the finish” was obligatory. The prime minister described the conflict as “our second independence war” and declared “right now my mission is to save the country.”
Resorting to apocalyptic terminology, one with far-reaching strategic implications, Israeli leaders repeatedly stressed that “Never Again is Now,” thus strongly intimating that the IDF may be authorized to use any and all means at Israel’s disposal to defeat the enemy in order to prevent another Holocaust.
In its most extreme form, this last-resort “doctrine” has sometimes been labeled the "Homeowner Gone Berserk" response. Moreover, Israel is keenly aware that the war against Hamas must communicate clearly to Iran and its regional proxies, first and foremost the Hezbollah terrorist army in Lebanon, what awaits them if they dare attack. The enormous destruction inflicted on Gaza is therefore a tangible and graphic warning to Israel’s other enemies.
It is not as if Washington is completely oblivious to Hamas’s malevolent practices. For example, in an address to the Washington Foreign Press Center on October 23, National Security Council’s Coordinator for Strategic Communications Rear Admiral (ret.) John Kirby said, “Hamas…because they’re nothing but a terrorist group – they’re certainly not a responsible governing power – they could care less about the laws of war and they could care less about the people of Gaza, using them as human shields, tunneling under their homes, headquartering themselves in hospitals and schools, encouraging them to stay home right there in northern Gaza and putting them literally in harm’s way because they don’t care. That’s the big difference between Israel and the United States, and groups like Hamas. So there’s a big difference in approach here.”
Yet Washington’s reiteration of the need to fight by the rules of war not only denotes the disconnect between the two allies as to the kind of military actions needed to remove the Jihadists’ threat. The U.S. position is militarily nonsensical. Even worse it fails to address the counterproductive nature of fighting by the rules vis-a-vis a jihadist army like Hamas as this style of combat in essence reaffirms the jihadist strategy.
Indeed, the West’s rules of warfare are nothing but a force multiplier for jihadists like Hamas. They boost this murderous army’s ability to press on with its deadly strategy and aid its efforts to escape the promised obliteration by Israel.
It might also be noted that Khaled Mashal, former chairman of the Hamas politburo, told the Egyptian news website and television channel Sada el-Balad on October 29, that “Russia benefited from the [Hamas] attack as it diverted the U.S. attention from Ukraine.” He went on to claim that “While China saw the attack as impressive, the Russians told us that what happened on October 7, will be studied in military academies.”
In essence, the jihadist strategy envisions carrying out monstrous attacks deliberately designed to shock and chip away at any vestige of (the U.S.-engineered) world order and then hide under the umbrella of “world opinion”—i.e. their Arab brethren and the usual cabal of Russia, China and the “progressive” West European left supported by the Muslim “fifth column” residing across Europe and the U.S.—accusing Israel of committing “genocide” so as to limit and undercut its expected military response to their terrorist outrages.
The demands for Israel to follow the laws of war tacitly assume it can afford it given its overwhelming military superiority. However, history is replete with examples where the stronger force on paper did not prevail. Israel’s own independence war—where a Jewish force smaller in size and inferior in armaments beat several invading Arab armies—proves it.
Besides in Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan, where the U.S. fared badly militarily, the Americans packed up and withdrew. Israelis do not have this luxury. Unlike the U.S., Israel has zero margins for error. Israel MUST WIN to survive. There is simply nowhere else to go for Israelis.
The laws of warfare—Hamas’s force multiplier
The adherence by Israel and Western nations to the rules of war is an integral part of the jihadists' war. Indeed, these terrorists have long concluded that the laws of warfare as they currently stand are but an aspect of the West’s efforts at world “domination“— i.e. meant to disarm them of any capacity to conduct armed “resistance.” Thus their operational doctrine, an outcome of their military inferiority, embraces and lionizes the exact opposite of those rules. More importantly, they have figured out that the laws themselves can be exploited to seek to constrain any retaliation in kind to the horrors they inflict. If successful it would be tantamount to expropriating the operational decision-making of any hi-tech army like the IDF and relegating it to international sanction.
The demand to follow the laws of warfare in these asymmetrical conflicts, as they are dubbed, is in fact the Achilles heel of the civilized world and its exploitation is a cardinal element in the jihadist strategy to destroy the West. It would not be an exaggeration to argue that this aspect is as central to the jihadists' plans as the arms supplied by Iran. Certainly, it is eerily reminiscent of committing the biblical sin of “Have you murdered and also inherited.”
Following the laws of war while fighting jihadists leads to the ad absurdum of the IDF's 2014 Operation Protective Edge—by now one of 15 such inconclusive “rounds” fought in Gaza since Israel disengaged from the Strip in 2005.
Accordingly, in response to the Goldstone Report—a study commissioned by the UN Human Rights Council that accused the Israeli military of war crimes and possible crimes against humanity for its conduct during Operation Cast Lead in 2009—the IDF has adopted strict self-imposed limitations on its military operations during the 2014 round.
IDF officers even boasted of the stationing of military lawyers at various command levels to advise planners of the legality of impending actions. Combat engagements were likewise videotaped to prepare alibis for a possible “Gladstone-II” inquiry.
The military has also launched an investigation into its wartime conduct, headed by a major general and involving legal and military experts – who did not participate in the war themselves. Operation Protective Edge it turns out, was conducted with the IDF constantly looking over its Goldstone “shoulder.”
There should be little doubt that this operation as well as other similar counterproductive IDF fighting rounds in Gaza have produced the catastrophe of October 7, 2023. As Amos Harel, the defense analyst of the Israeli paper Haaretz wrote on May 12, “If the [IDF’s] operations [in Gaza] were really all that successful, we wouldn’t need them once a year on average, with the time between them becoming shorter in the past few years.”
Indeed, the tendency of hi-tech armies to respond to jihadist attacks through limited strikes of advanced standoff or long-range precision weapons—such as the repeated pinpoint raids by the Israeli Air Force (IAF) in Gaza—may have been self-defeating. Jihadists have portrayed such tactics as indicative of cowardice and of Israel’s strong aversion to casualties. Similarly, the prolonged period until the launch of Israel’s ground operation in Gaza following the catastrophe of October 7, was interpreted by Hamas as another proof that the the IDF was a “paper tiger.”
Civilians—Hamas’s weapon of choice
While U.S. leaders have repeatedly called on Israel to protect civilians, the latter are an integral part of jihadists like Hamas’s strategy. Generally, the more is Hamas successful in having its supporters, especially those residing in Western democracies, putting pressure on local politicians to call for obeying the rules, the greater will be its motivation to continue fighting.
The ability of these democracies to stand together against the barbaric onslaught on the civilized world will be politically more difficult as well. In this sense, the ever-expanding Arab and Muslim communities currently living in the West are a potential strategic threat of the first degree and a clear political asset of jihadism.
Separately Israel’s civilian population as well as its own noncombatants are a critical strategic asset of Hamas.
Accordingly, Israel’s civilian victims are not some “collateral damage “—i.e. accidental casualties of a firefight. Israeli civilians ARE the main target of Hamas and other like-minded jihadists. And the more of them are murdered and brutalized in unspeakable ways the better, as the goal is to terrorize the country’s population.
The idea is to cause a breakdown of societal order, stir panic, hysteria and a conviction that the enemy cannot be deterred or defeated. As the IDF and other hi-tech militaries increasingly rely on technology to destroy military capabilities, terrorist armies like Hamas and Hezbollah aim to instill in societies like Israel’s the desperate realization that, no matter the IDF’s lopsided military advantage, they cannot defend their country. The only option is for them to leave the land.
Thus, since 2001, when the first Qassam rocket was fired by the Izz ad-Din al-Qassam Brigades, the military arm of Hamas, tens of thousands of rockets were fired squarely at Israeli population centers from Gaza. Leading international human rights organizations have called Palestinian terrorists' use of rockets against civilian and civilian targets a war crime and a violation of international law.
The desire to kill Israeli civilians is apparently so great that the rocket barrages continue, and over time have significantly escalated, despite Hamas and the other Gaza terrorists’ full knowledge that the attacks will trigger painful retaliations.
Moreover, Hamas, with the help of Iran, invested its energies in extending its rockets’ ranges and increasing their payloads so they could reach farther into Israel and cause an even greater number of civilian casualties.
Hamas and the other jihadist terrorists openly expressed glee and satisfaction over pictures of Israeli citizens cowering in fear as sirens across the country blare and warn of the “brave rockets” of the “resistance” on their way to major Israeli population centers.
Of course, the horrors of October 7, a deliberate and carefully planned mass slaughter, is the culmination of this Hamas message. As such, it was almost exclusively aimed at Israeli civilian communities. The fact that almost all of the 240 or so hostages now in Hamas’ hands, not to mention the vast majority of the 1,400 casualties inflicted by the attack, are noncombatants certainly confirms that the premeditated diabolical intent of the invasion was plainly killing Jews.
But Jihadists like Hamas also use their own civilian population in their strategy. There are three elements at play in this regard:
First, unlike civilized nations that seek a limited fight in favor of a quick return to the negotiating table, jihadists conduct total and protracted wars encompassing all segments of society. Thus, it was reported that during the current war, Hamas is using Gazan civilians to lure IDF soldiers into ambushes.
Second, putting their own population in harm's way is a given. There’s no doubt that Hamas anticipated a brutal IDF response. Indeed, it betted on it, figuring out that once the reprisal comes it and its Arab and other cohorts will scream to high heaven that the “occupation” is guilty of “war crimes” in an attempt to limit the extent and duration of any retaliation.
It can be argued that the more exposed Hamas kept the Palestinian population, the greater the leeway it assessed it had to conduct unspeakable butchery. Or put differently, without Gaza civilians intentionally put in the line of fire as “sacrificial lambs,” to provide a diplomatic-political shield, a murderous orgy like October 7, could not have been conceived.
Mousa Abu Marzouk, a member of the Hamas politburo, confirmed this satanic plot. In an October 27, 2023, interview on Russia Today TV, he was asked why haven’t Hamas built bomb shelters for the civilian population. Marzouk answered that the tunnels in Gaza were built to protect Hamas fighters from airstrikes, not civilians. Hamas fights Israel from within the tunnels, he said.
He went on to claim that it is the responsibility of the United Nations to protect Gazans and that according to the Geneva Conventions, it is the responsibility of the "occupation" to provide civilians in Gaza "with all the services," as long as they are under occupation. Of course, Marzouk conveniently ignores the fact that Israel disengaged from Gaza in 2005 and that Hamas has been the sole ruler of the enclave since 2007. Moreover, there would have been no need to protect Gazans from the IAF had Hamas not attacked Israel.
Third, victimhood is promoted as a means of mass mobilization. Further, the greater the number of victims one can claim, the stronger the impact on world opinion. Thus, a stronger enemy would hesitate to use its overwhelming superiority to achieve a decisive military outcome. Apparently, victimhood is so well entrenched that even Hamas's supposed rivals promote it. For instance, Hafiz Barghouti, editor of the Palestinian Authority’s daily al-Hayat al-Jadidah, wrote on Oct. 27, 2000, that Palestinians who refuse to endanger their children in the fight against Israel are nothing less than traitors.
In line with this logic, Hamas and Hezbollah locate their rocket launching sites and weapons depots inside or in close proximity to densely populated civilian areas. Besides deliberately exposing civilians to possible harm, which would provide them with a propaganda advantage, they bet on the reticence of Israel and other civilized countries to cause casualties among noncombatants to shield their military capabilities. In a way, this method could be termed the “poor men’s hardening” of jihadists strategic sites.
Finally, as Secretary of State Antony Blinken told the U.S. Senate Appropriations Committee on October 31, a worsening of the humanitarian situation will increase the likelihood of expanding the cycle of violence by Iran's proxies who will enjoy the opportunity to present themselves as the saviors of the civilian population in Gaza - "a situation for which they themselves are responsible for.”
President Biden pointed to another danger, namely, the destabilization of the normalization process between Israel and Arab countries due to the suffering of the civilian population in the Gaza Strip—a clear Iranian objective.
Hamas member Marzouk said in an al-Jazeera interview on October 29, that "we expected a lot from Hezbollah and our brothers in the West Bank, but we are amazed by the shameful position of our brothers in the Palestinian Authority."
According to him, "members of the Palestinian Authority and some Arab countries are secretly calling on the West to eliminate Hamas." Marzouk is certainly trying to undermine Arab regimes friendly to Washington, but may not be off the mark completely. If so the reality in some Arab quarters runs contrary to Biden’s warning.
The yammering by Hamas backers, as well as Western powers, for Israel to abide by the laws of war plays into this terrorist army’s hands. For jihadists like Hamas, the codes of warfare are nothing but force multipliers. Pressing Israel to abide by these rules is tantamount to granting Hamas a license to keep on ridiculing, indeed taking advantage of, any “by the book” attempt to contain it. Further, as long as Hamas’s murderers survive, its hopes of accomplishing its nihilistic goals will be perpetuated.
For its part, Israel has certainly not yet gone berserk. At the same time, it has already stepped up the rungs of its escalation ladder and is clearly communicating that it is willing to climb much higher given the perceived threat to its survival and its newly adopted Never Again Is Now strategic doctrine.
- Dr. Avigdor Haselkorn is a strategic analyst and the author of books, articles and op-eds on national security issues.