How the war in Gaza ended without anyone even noticing

Netanyahu is fighting a battle that everyone except him has realised is over


This picture taken from Israel's southern border with the Gaza Strip shows an Israeli army tank rolling along the border with the Palestinian territory on April 2, 2024, amid the ongoing conflict between Israel and the militant group Hamas. (Photo by RONALDO SCHEMIDT / AFP) (Photo by RONALDO SCHEMIDT/AFP via Getty Images)

April 09, 2024 16:37

Wars usually end with a formal act - a ceasefire being put into effect or one side surrendering and laying down its arms. But there are wars that you only realise ended long after the event. History may yet remember the early morning of 7 April, when the last forces of the IDF’s 98th Division crossed back into Israel, as the moment the war against Hamas in Gaza ended. Exactly six months after it began.

There is still one IDF brigade deployed in Gaza, securing the Netzarim Corridor bisecting the coastal strip. And air strikes and small cross-border raids are still taking place. Hamas is still launching ambushes against the IDF and occasionally a couple of rockets are fired towards Israel. But this is no longer the war in which, at one point, over 20 brigade combat teams were deployed inside Gaza.

Officially the war is still ongoing but it is in a holding pattern that could last for months, possibly years. Under pressure from the far-right parties in his government, Benjamin Netanyahu announced on Monday evening that a date has been set for the operation in Rafah. No-one in Israel is taking that seriously.

An operation in Rafah may take place one day. But it will almost certainly not take place until most of the 1.4 million civilians in and around Rafah move elsewhere. The IDF has made plans for that but American officials who have seen the plans are skeptical they can work. An attack on Rafah, Hamas’ last major stronghold in Gaza where an estimated 7,000 fighters are concentrated, is only worthwhile if they are still there when the attack takes place. But Hamas is demanding that as part of any hostage release and temporary ceasefire agreement, there will be unfettered movement throughout Gaza during the truce.

The IDF plan is that the civilians moving back north from Rafah will have to go through checkpoints to “safe areas”, in order to prevent Hamas fighters and leaders, along with the hostages they still hold, from escaping with them. But Israel now has no remaining levers of pressure to force them to do so. On paper, the plan is for international relief organisations to set up the “safe areas” in the coastal area north of Rafah, to the south of the Netzarim cordon. It is extremely unlikely, however, that any such organisation will cooperate. Especially now that the humanitarian convoys to the Rafah area are in place. They will refuse to help move the Gaza population yet again. And this time around, the Biden administration is not about to help Israel either.

The full details of the tense phone call between Biden and Netanyahu last Thursday are still unknown. The White House readout of the call said simply that the president “made clear that US policy with respect to Gaza will be determined by our assessment of Israel’s immediate action.” But how did he make it clear?

What we know is that once the call was over, Netanyahu rushed to a cabinet meeting where he quickly passed two decisions – to open the Erez Crossing to supply convoys going into northern Gaza and to allow supplies to Gaza to arrive directly from Ashdod Port. These were two steps that Israel has resolutely refused to make since October 7, and all it took was a phone call from Biden to make them happen. Whatever the president said, it was the sternest warning Netanyahu has received in six months - one that motivated him to hold the cabinet vote before National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir arrived at the meeting.

On Monday, Ben-Gvir’s warning that if the IDF doesn’t carry out a wide-scale operation in Rafah, Netanyahu “would not have a mandate to continue serving as prime minister”, along with similar warnings passed on in a hastily convened meeting with Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich, forced Netanyahu to put out his statement on a date being set for the Rafah operation.

Netanyahu now has two sets of red lines, one put down by Biden and the other by Ben-Gvir. He will continue trying to walk between them for as long as he can. Meanwhile, he will pretend that the war is still happening and that the Rafah operation is just around the corner. Perhaps there will be a much smaller and largely symbolic operation in Rafah. Or perhaps we will eventually find out that this was the week that the war ended.

Quietly there are those in the IDF who are now arguing that the battle plan was flawed to begin with and that Rafah, with its crucial border crossing with Egypt, should have been targeted in the first stage of the ground maneuver. After that, the IDF could have worked its way northward or simultaneously attacked Gaza City.

The counterargument is that an operation in Rafah would have needed delicate coordination with the Egyptian army first and that the IDF had to use the opportunity when it was at full mobilisation to strike at Hamas’ centre of government in Gaza City. Carrying out large-scale operations in Gaza City and Rafah simultaneously would not have left enough forces to station on the northern border in preparation for a possible war with Hezbollah.

With hindsight, the critics may be right and it will be the stuff of debate and research by military historians for decades to come. But for now, Israel is stuck without a clear plan for the next stage of the war or whatever comes after the war.

The redeployment of troops out of Gaza could help as a prelude to a temporary ceasefire and hostage release agreement, but it also means that Hamas will continue insisting on free movement for its fighters in Gaza as a pre-condition for an agreement.

In his statement marking six months since the war began, IDF Chief of Staff Lieutenant-General Herzi Halevi spoke of the urgency of releasing the hostages still alive. “The IDF is strong enough for the state of Israel to pay prices for returning its sons and daughters,” he said. “We have a moral debt to them and the IDF will know how to pay a not-easy price and know how to return to fighting forcefully.” That may have to happen in a different war.

April 09, 2024 16:37

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