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‘The goal is to destroy Hamas, not to save the hostages’

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Fighting between Israel and Hamas resumed in the Gaza Strip after a truce agreement expired early Friday, dashing hopes of a prolonged ceasefire in the region. To better understand the rapidly evolving conflict in the region, FRANCE 24 spoke to Hussein Ibish, Senior Resident Scholar at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington.     

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4 min

Israel on Friday said it had resumed combat in the Gaza Strip shortly after a 7-day truce expired, which saw the release of 110 hostages held in Gaza by Hamas in exchange for the return of 240 Palestinian prisoners to the West Bank and East Jerusalem.  

Accusing Hamas of violating the terms of the truce, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu said in a statement that Hamas “has not met its obligation to release all of the women hostages today and has launched rockets at Israeli citizens”.

Hamas meanwhile blamed Israel for “resuming war and aggression” in Gaza. The Palestinian militant group said it was open to extending the truce but that Tel Aviv had rejected all offers to release other hostages. 

As both sides in Gaza take up arms again, the question of the remaining 137 captives’ fate is left hanging in the air, with the international community wondering whether another ceasefire between the warring parties is possible. 

FRANCE 24: Does the resumption of hostilities come as a surprise to you? 

Not in the least, Israel appears determined to push into the South [of Gaza] and sees the above ground territory just as it did in the north. That is a prelude to pushing into the tunnel network where it expects to confront the majority of Hamas fighters, try to rescue the high-value hostages, seek out and capture and kill the [group’s] leadership, and ultimately destroy the tunnel network itself by flooding it with Mediterranean seawater or in some other way rendering it inoperable.

FRANCE 24: Who are the hostages remaining in Gaza? Why has Israel chosen to resume its offensive despite the internal pressure to pursue negotiations? 

The most important ones are Israeli soldiers. Hamas hopes to trade them for its own fighters and even some leaders in Israeli prisons, although Israel is unlikely to be interested in such an exchange. 

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[The Israeli government] is more committed to the war than to hostage negotiations and there was no indication that a reasonable deal could be struck for many of the remaining prisoners. Israel supposedly renounced the Hannibal doctrine – which held that a captured Israeli soldier is better off dead than alive, because they are too valuable when alive – but it still behaves with a similar logic. 

The goal now is to destroy Hamas, not to save the hostages. This has never fully morphed into a “war to save the hostages”, which would have been very intelligent, but it may not have served Netanyahu’s political purposes, which may be linked to prolonging the war in order to stay in power as the best way of staying out of prison.

FRANCE 24: What is Israel’s end goal? Is it achievable in the short term?

Israel is merely lashing out and seeking vengeance. The stated war aim of “destroying Hamas” is not possible because Hamas is a brand name and an idea, not a list of individuals or equipment and infrastructure that can be killed or destroyed. The organisation will survive, no matter what Israel does.  

So, the question is what does Israel want to happen at the end of the main fighting? And they have zero answer to that. They don’t even seem to have considered [that eventuality]. I don’t believe they have thought much beyond the phase of killing as many Hamas people as possible and destroying the tunnels and all of their equipment and infrastructure.  

The Israelis are operating without a political context, which is a disaster for any fighting force, because, as Clausewitz (Editor’s note: Prussian general Carl von Clausewitz) says, war is politics by other means. 

FRANCE 24: What is Hamas seeking to obtain in its fight with Israel? 

Hamas, in contrast, has a very clear aim: it wants Israel to stay in Gaza so that it can develop, over time, an insurgency against occupation forces which it is now describing as “a state of perpetual war” against Israel.  

This cannot mean anything other than an insurgency in Gaza against patrolling Israeli troops. Hamas’s prime directive since its founding by the Muslim Brotherhood in Gaza in 1987 is the marginalisation of the secular nationalists of Fatah (Editor’s note: the Palestinian National Liberation Movement is the largest faction of the West Bank’s governing party) and making the Palestinian national movement and Islamist cause led by Hamas.  

Therefore, Hamas has a clear political framework for this war, unlike Israel. It wants to use the insurgency, and not just this phase of the war with Israel – which is dangerous because it means so much instant devastation for the people and society of Gaza – to waive the bloody shirt and claim that it is the only legitimate leader of the Palestinian national movement because it, alone, is fighting Israeli occupation forces on a daily basis over control of Palestinian land in Gaza.  

It will contrast this with the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank, which it will call the gendarmerie of the occupation, and with the PLO (Editor’s note: the Palestine Liberation Organisation is the West Bank’s governing body) sitting alone, listening to crickets chirping, at an empty negotiating table.  

This is the Hamas goal: to use the war and, hopefully, even more the ensuing insurgency against a long-term Israeli presence in the urban interior of the Gaza Strip to press its claims for primacy in the Palestinian national movement and, ultimately, achieve its founding first principle of taking over [said movement]. 

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