Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has said his military will not stop until it dismantles a labyrinth of tunnels often burrowed under private homes and even beneath Gaza’s mosques. But Netanyahu has not called for destroying the organization that built those tunnels: Hamas—and he won’t, multiple Israeli officials told The Daily Beast. Which raises the question: Why are Israeli forces in Gaza—at the cost of more than 1,300 lives and a rising tide of global condemnation—in the first place?
“You have to think through what comes next,” a senior Israeli official said this month when asked why Israel was not pursuing regime change against Hamas. “You don’t want to actually administer Gaza and you don’t want someone worse taking over.”
Another senior Israeli official said that Jerusalem’s military did not even seek to take out the entire stockpile of Hamas rockets. Instead, he said, this latest round of fighting was aimed at creating deterrence and destroying the tunnels. More recently, Israeli officials have said they also seek to demilitarize Hamas.
A third official added Israel would accept leaving Hamas for now with its current store of missiles, if the Egyptian government were to agree to more stringently monitor goods passing over its border with Gaza. Under this plan, Cairo would police how much concrete and iron comes into the country to keep Hamas from rebuilding the labyrinth of tunnels that pass under the Israeli and Egyptian borders, allowing them to smuggle in both more tunnel building material -- and the rockets (or machine tools to make them) that have rained down on Israeli cities.
"The goal hasn't changed. It's to restore sustained quiet and peace...not to dismantle the whole terror infrastructure," and go after every last rocket. "But that could change," the official said.
The official noted that Egypt has already destroyed roughly 90% of the tunnels that crossed into its territory. Israel has destroyed 80% of the ones they have found, and needs only a few days to obliterate the rest. The official said Israel would be willing to destroy those remaining tunnels during such a ceasefire, acceding to an earlier proposal by Secretary of State John Kerry.
"The question is, what do we do to make sure Hamas doesn't go from 3,000 rockets to 30,000 after we leave," he said. "That's why we need a mechanism," to monitor the inflow of goods at the border that is as stringent on the Egyptian side as the Israeli side.
The modest goals of Netanyahu’s current war contrasts with his government’s rhetoric about its target. Last month, Israel’s Minister of Intelligence compared Hamas to the Islamic State of Iraq and the Sham (ISIS), the Jihadist fanatics rampaging through Syria and Iraq.
Netanyahu himself has made similar comparisons. “Hamas is like ISIS, Hamas is like al Qaeda,” he said during a press conference on July 22.
But it’s not the first time the rhetoric about Hamas and reality of Israel’s war aims haven’t quite matched. At the end of Operation Cast Lead, in 2008 and 2009, Israeli troops stopped short of attacking Hamas leadership who were camped underneath al-Shifa hospital in Gaza City for the war. The brief skirmish between Hamas and Israel in 2012 also ended with Hamas still in place. While the terms of the ceasefire and an agreement between Israel and the United States to cooperate on interdicting illicit arms shipments to Gaza was supposed to defang Hamas, the deal didn’t work.
As Israel learned this month, Hamas improved the range of its rockets since its last war, even though its southern border with Egypt has been closed for a year.
The problem for Israel is that it’s stuck. Many top U.S. officials now concede that as bad as Hamas is for both Palestinians and Israelis, it’s the least bad alternative. Gen. Michael Flynn, the outgoing director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, told an audience at the Aspen Security Forum on July 26 that Hamas rule of Gaza was something he believed should continue.
“If Hamas were destroyed and gone, we would probably end up with something much worse. The region would end up with something much worse,” he said. “A worse threat that would come into the sort of ecosystem there…something like ISIS.”
Israel’s ideal outcome would be for Hamas to capitulate to Israel’s demands to disarm and reform into a defanged version of its current self—a troublesome but manageable part of a larger Palestinian political infrastructure. But if Hamas won’t bend, it might break, and that would be the worst possible outcome for Israel, said Aaron David Miller, a former Middle East negotiator now with the Wilson Center.
“Reform or regime change, that’s the central question,” he added. “An unanchored, unmoored, lawless Gaza in the hands of something like ISIS or Islamic Jihad, this proposition would be fundamentally worse than the one we inhabit and inherit now.”
The problem with Netanyahu’s strategy, according to Miller, is that Netanyahu may never be able to achieve the ending to the war he’s looking for. He’s unlikely to get a capitulation by Hamas and he can’t afford to destroy its leadership. He also can’t accept a tie, as the 2012 ceasefire was widely viewed in Israel.
“Right now, Bibi is stuck. He doesn’t have an answer to the question, how do you give the Israeli public the kind of decisive victory that he and others have been talking about?” said Miller. “Bibi is risk-adverse. He wants a way out of this. The problem is, he can’t find one.”
The Israeli public still supports the current war. But some Israeli leaders are calling for the war to end. Israel’s former president and prime minister, Shimon Peres, on Wednesday suggested publicly that the Gaza mission has “fulfilled itself.”
“Now what is needed is to find a way to stop it. It will take more time, I don’t know exactly how much, maybe days or a little more, but it will end,” he said.
This also reflects the thinking of the Obama administration. The U.S. government, led on this issue by Secretary of State John Kerry, has been pushing reform over regime change for Hamas ever since the crisis began. Kerry’s draft ceasefire proposal, rejected unanimously by the Israeli cabinet last week, was criticized for giving too much recognition and support to Hamas, which is still listed by the State Department as a foreign terrorist organization.
Despite the now-public rift between Israel and its most important ally, America remains willing to support Israel—at least for the moment. On Wednesday, the Defense Department acknowledged that on July 23 it made munitions available to Jerusalem for its war from a stockpile of weapons stored by the United States inside Israel.
But how long that support will last is an open question, given the civilian casualties that are mounting from this Gaza war. The latest horror came Wednesday, when an attack on a school run by the United Nations killed at least 15. A statement from the White House that condemned the shelling of the U.N. school was careful not to condemn the party widely believed to have done the shelling: Israel.
This story has been updated with fresh information from Israeli officials.
-- with additional reporting by Kimberly Dozier