Ami Ayalon

Former Shin Bet chief: Invading Rafah will not defeat Hamas

A military operation without the promise of two states will ultimately end with the resurgence of the terror group


In a document released on 21 January, Hamas claims that the terrorist organisation did not target civilians during its October 7 attack on southern Israel despite copious evidence of mass civilian casualties. (Photo by Chris McGrath/Getty Images)

April 05, 2024 11:15

V In a November 1997 interview with Hamas monthly Palestine al-Muslimah, Sheikh Yassin, the founder and leader of the terror group, was asked what he feared. He replied that his greatest worry was a reality in which Palestinians believed that a diplomatic process would lead to the establishment of a Palestinian state alongside Israel. If that came to pass, he asserted, the Palestinian public would not support Hamas and the terror group would vanish as an influential factor.

The massacre carried out by Hamas on October 7 led to war in Gaza. This is a just, defensive war. Israel could not reconcile itself to a reality in which an extremist terrorist organisation that deprived us of our right to a state continued to control Gaza.

However, after six months of fighting, what is the result? Hundreds of IDF soldiers have been killed and 134 hostages are still held under impossible conditions, if they are alive at all. According Hamas, more than 32,000 Palestinians, most of them women and children, have been killed.

We must understand that Israel’s refusal to define the “day after” turns the war into a goal in itself, not a means to achieve a better political reality.

More than 20 years ago, Major General Professor Yehoshafat Harkabi wrote about the difference between the military commander and the statesman in how they perceive the enemy. “In military thinking, the enemy is a collection of targets for attack; in political thinking, the enemy is a human-state entity that needs to be convinced and appeased. In military thinking, we are indifferent to the enemy’s sufferings, on the contrary, we seek to increase them; in political thinking, we must also feel his pains.”

Benjamin Netanyahu’s declaration that absolute victory over Hamas will be achieved by defeating it in Rafah clarifies that in his view, victory on the battlefield will lead to the elimination of Hamas as a political and military force in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. If Harkabi were alive, he’d likely say there are no statesmen leading Israel today.

The consequences of military entry into Rafah could be devastating for Israel. Scenes of killing and destruction in densely populated urban areas, following the Security Council’s decision to demand an immediate ceasefire in Gaza, will flood television networks and strengthen calls for immediate punitive measures against Israel.

The Arab League countries, which in January 2024 reiterated their commitment to the “Arab peace initiative” by demanding an immediate ceasefire in Gaza, will be obliged to take a stand. Egypt, which will face Palestinian masses pressuring its border in Rafah, and Jordan, where the majority of its citizens are Palestinians, will be forced to examine the continuation of their commitment to peace agreements.

The “axis of resistance” led by Iran and its proxies – Hezbollah in Lebanon, the Houthis in Yemen, and groups under its influence in Syria and Iraq – will see its popularity grow further on the Arab street, and Hezbollah will be compelled to consider expanding attacks in the north.

Global jihadist organisations like Al-Qaeda and Islamic State will exploit the growing chaos in the region and expand their efforts to target Jewish and Israeli targets worldwide.

The rift with the US will be inevitable and the administration will have to re-examine its relations with Israel, including delaying or suspending military aid.

As for Israel, beyond the blood price we will pay in the lives of soldiers and civilians who will be killed, the thought that a military operation in Rafah will lead to the elimination of Hamas testifies to our misunderstanding of Hamas. Israel’s reduction of the discussion to military language leads to the thought that it can be defeated on the battlefield. The complete opposite is true. The occupation of Gaza without a political horizon that leads to the establishment of two states will accelerate the military and political resurgence of Hamas and capture the Palestinian public even in the West Bank behind it.

The struggle against Hamas as an ideological-religious organisation with a military arm continues both on the battlefield and in the ideological dimension.

Even if we defeat Hamas on the battlefield – disarming most of terrorists, capturing those who have not been killed, destroying its command hubs, its tunnels, and the arms industry it has built – the belief in a holy war that it disseminates in Palestinian society and in Islamic countries will only strengthen.

We must understand that today’s war is a war against Hamas but not against the Palestinian people, and therefore the question of why the Palestinian people support Hamas today requires an answer.

This question occupied me after I finished my term as Commander of the Navy and was appointed to head the Shin Bet after Yizhak Rabin’s assassination.

In meetings with Palestinian security chiefs, most of them former terrorists, they clarified to me that cooperation with them in our joint struggle against Palestinian terrorism would continue only within the framework of a diplomatic process leading to the end of the occupation and the establishment of a Palestinian state alongside Israel.

Therefore, my answer to the question is clear. Palestinians today see themselves as a people fighting for their right to live in their own state alongside the State of Israel. When they believe that a diplomatic process will lead to its establishment, they will support the leadership leading the diplomatic process, as they did in the 1990s. But when they lose faith in diplomacy, they support Hamas and its violent path despite the terrible price they pay.

According to a survey of Palestinians by pollster Khalil Shikaki, conducted in March 2024, the majority – 61 per cent – of those surveyed in Gaza supported a two-state solution if such an arrangement were possible.

The way to defeat Hamas requires a return to the words of Sheikh Yassin in November 1997. He said that Hamas would surrender only if the Palestinian people saw a horizon of political independence in a reality of two states side by side.

So what do we have to do today? Israel should announce that it is ready to sign an immediate ceasefire and pay any price (in terms of the duration of the ceasefire and the number of terrorists to be released from prison), provided that all hostages held in Gaza are returned.

This is Israel’s victory picture in the current war. This is the state’s supreme commitment to its citizens and this is the value on which we depend as a nation.

Continuing the fight against Hamas, until its defeat, requires us to promote a regional diplomatic process that creates a moderate coalition led by the Americans and Saudis.

Only a historic compromise with the Palestinian people would allow this coalition to come into being. I do not see this as a surrender or submission. In my view, this is the only process that allows Israel to maintain its security and preserve its Jewish-democratic identity.

Ami Ayalon is a former Labour MK. He was previously head of the Shin Bet

April 05, 2024 11:15

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