As the 150th day of its war with Hamas approaches, it is difficult to overestimate the sheer complexity of the challenges Israel currently faces.
These challenges – in Gaza, on its northern border, and in the wider region – are ones which an Israeli government of any ideological complexion or political stripe would find both strategically and tactically demanding.
They have been exacerbated and complicated by Hamas’ attacks on October 7, but most predate – and some will outlast – the current conflict.
It is perhaps best to picture Israel facing a multi-dimensional chessboard with a series of constantly moving parts.
Clearly, the most pressing dilemma is reaching a deal to ensure the release of the Israeli hostages seized by Hamas on 7 October. Over 130 hostages – most alive, but up to one-fifth reportedly dead – remain in captivity. We know from those hostages freed during the November humanitarian pause that Hamas continues to beat, psychologically torture and commit acts of sexual violence against those it is holding. We know too that Hamas reneged on a deal to release all women and children in November and that it refuses to allow the International Red Cross access to the hostages.
Understandably, both their families and the wider Israeli public are desperate to free the hostages. But Hamas has scotched a framework agreement reached by Israel, the US and Qatar in Paris earlier this month and has made a series of counter-proposals – including a complete withdrawal of Israeli forces from Gaza – which, as the US secretary of state, Anthony Blinken, suggested contain “clear nonstarters”. Additionally, Hamas is demanding Israel swallow a truly bitter pill: the release of 1,500 prisoners – a third of whom it wishes to pick from a list of terrorists serving life sentences – from Israeli jails. Israeli security chiefs rightly fear that Hamas will demand the freeing of the killers who murdered, tortured and raped their way across southern Israel on October 7.
And the fate of the hostages isn’t the only challenge facing Israel’s military operation in Gaza. While the IDF believes that it has destroyed 60-70 per cent of Hamas’ battalions, the threat both it, and other terror groups, such as the Iranian-backed Palestinian Islamic Jihad, pose remains. Indiscriminate rocket attacks from Gaza continue, Hamas police and officials have reappeared in areas in the north of the strip, and the mastermind of the October 7 atrocities, Yahya Sinwar, remains at large in the tunnel network under Khan Younis. In such circumstances, it is difficult to see how tens of thousands of Israelis who were displaced in the aftermath of the attacks can safely return to their homes in southern Israel.
At the same time, Israel is seeking to facilitate and coordinate the flow of humanitarian aid into Gaza. Nearly a quarter of a million tons of aid – including food, fuel, water, medicines, and cooking gas – has passed into the strip since the outbreak of the war even as Israel attempts to ensure that Hamas doesn’t steal and siphon off for these vital supplies for its own fighters and military objectives.
On Israel’s northern border, the picture is similarly challenging. Iran’s proxy, Hezbollah, which has been described as “a militia trained like an army and equipped like a state”, continues to breach the terms of the UN deal which ended the 2006 war. Despite the presence of UN peacekeepers, its forces operate along the Israeli border, far south of the Litani river which UN Security Council resolution 1701 requires it not to cross. Moreover, instead of disarming, Hezbollah has restocked and massively expanded its arsenal – estimates suggest this has grown to 130-150,000 rockets and missiles – and, with Tehran’s help, acquired both longer-rate and more accurate, precision-guided armaments.
With a clear intent to add fuel to the fire, Hezbollah has increased its cross-border attacks – using rockets, armed drones and small terror cells – since October 7, forcing the evacuation of roughly 80,000 Israelis in the north of the country. Israel is working with the US on a diplomatic solution but its bottom line remains that Hezbollah must pull back from the border so its citizens can get back to their homes.
Hezbollah’s actions are a reminder of Iran’s malign activities which threaten the safety and security of Israelis and the peace and stability of the wider region. Tehran’s ideological army, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, provides cash, training and arms not just to Hezbollah and Hamas, but also to other tentacles of it “axis of resistance” – the Houthis who menace global shipping in the Red Sea and the Iraqi Shia militias who have launched countless attacks on US troops since October and murdered three US soldiers in a drone attack in Jordan two weeks ago.
These challenges are not without solutions. President Biden’s reported plan to pursue a three-track strategy of taking a strong and resolute stand on Iran; bolstering Saudi Arabia’s security while it normalises relations with Israel; and working to bring an end to the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians has much to commend it. Much of the Israeli public appears open to the compromises it will entail.
But the devil will be in the detail. Israelis will rightly demand that any diplomatic steps on the Palestinian front fully recognise their security needs. And, of course, Iran’s continuing drive to become a nuclear power cannot be indefinitely ignored.
In the face of these complexities, it’s very easy for those outside Israel to reach for slogans and soundbites. However, ignoring the challenges Israel faces won’t make them go away. Working with Israel to address, navigate and overcome them offers a better path forward.