The Strategic End-State for Israel's Military Operation in Gaza
By Dr. Joshua Sinai
Israel is justified in pursuing a transformative regime change in Gaza. On October 7, Hamas committed the most horrific mass genocide attack against an adversary country’s citizens since 9/11 (including holding some 240 hostages, with most of them civilians), undermining its legitimate right to continued rule.
Nevertheless, unless a new transformative strategic end-state is formulated by the Israeli government for the concluding phase of its ground invasion in Gaza to overthrow and destroy Hamas’s political and military leadership and infrastructure, the military campaign is bound to fail in achieving long-term political objectives to ensure Israel’s long-term security.
With military warfare an extension of politics, if the Israeli government will not propose a new political solution to the conflict with the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza, the currently vaguely formulated end-state for the military campaign will generate devastating violent blowbacks. It is already leading to violent local, regional and worldwide protests by militant pro-Hamas demonstrators and rioters, including on university campuses. Although misguided, Hamas’s atrocities against Israeli civilians on October 7 are justified by them in response to the military campaign’s solely focused physical devastation of parts of Gaza.
Tragically, while Israel’s justified military invasion into Gaza is already succeeding in the short-term – although, as of mid-November all Israeli hostages have not been returned – a poorly thought out strategic end-state dooms it to a lengthy period of protracted occupation, with damaging consequences for the country’s overly stretched economy.
Problems in Israel’s Military Operation in Gaza
Thus far, Israel’s end-state for the military invasion calls to eliminate Hamas’s leadership and infrastructure, consisting of an estimated 20,000-30,000 fighters (and an additional 10,000 Palestinian Islamic Jihad fighters) and their extensive military arsenal; eliminate any remaining pockets of resistance; and withdraw from Gaza, with a “new demilitarized security reality” no longer threatening Israel along the border.
The Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) are considered brilliantly effective at the operational and tactical levels, but it is at the strategic level that the overall military campaign is lacking. According to published reports, the country’s political echelon is holding back on formulating its long-term political plans for the post-Hamas overthrow in Gaza, stating that they need to first focus on defeating Hamas militarily. Worse, since the likely violent upheaval that will be unleashed by the future post-Hamas era in Gaza is not being addressed by a coherent strategic plan by the Israeli government, a political and military vacuum is brewing in Gaza with Hamas’s leadership in hiding from assassination, either in the extensive underground tunnels or in exile in Qatar (and elsewhere), with a restive and furious local population not acquiescing to continued IDF rule. This is already being accompanied by daily attacks by their supportive Palestinian terrorists in the West Bank, as well as cross border rocket and weaponized drone attacks by Hizballah from the norther border and the Houtis in Yemen.
To fill the political and military vacuum in Gaza, with its population of an estimated 2+ million, according to public reports, Israel is being asked by the United States and other allies to enable the Palestinian Authority (PA), which barely exerts security control over its parts of the West Bank, and is led by an unpopular 87-year-old President, with no presidential or parliamentary elections held over the past two decades, to take over administrative rule, bolstered by regional and international political and financial support.
Hamas, however, is not merely a military organization, but a popular political and religious representative of the militant Muslim Brotherhood movement, with deep roots in Gaza (and the West Bank), especially among its highly indoctrinated younger population, as well as in other parts of the Arab world, including Egypt (where it originated) and Jordan. It is also popular among the Muslim populations in Europe, the United States, and other parts of the world.
The Palestinians in Gaza, as well as in the West Bank, lack any hope for a better personal, economic and political future. In one indicator of economic hopelessness, prior to October 2023, the unemployment rate in Gaza was estimated at 66 percent, while in the West Bank, it was around 25 percent.
Thus far, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s right-wing government has been pursuing an expansionist settlement policy in the West Bank, including tolerating revenge rampages by militant Jewish settlers against neighboring Palestinian towns, where Palestinian terrorists have launched attacks against the settlers. These and other factors have cumulatively served to undermine the rule of the Palestinian Authority, whose relatively weak security services cooperate with their Israeli counterparts. Given the legitimacy problems facing the PA, the Gaza Palestinians will likely rebel against any Israeli imposed rule over them that would involve the PA, which Hamas had overthrown in June 2007. They will be supported by their counterpart Hamas adherents in the West Bank (including East Jerusalem), as well as by militant Israeli Arabs who also support the Muslim Brotherhood. This will lead to a violent and protracted uprising against any attempt by Israel to impose a new ruling authority over them that does not address their overall national aspirations and usher in a far more promising future.
The Path Forward for a Strategic End-State for Israel in Gaza
In military warfare, an effective strategic end-state integrates the strategic level (a desired overall outcome), the operational level (the military forces and equipment employed), and the tactical level (the tactics that will be employed to defeat the enemy in battle).
Based on this formula, there is path forward for Israel to formulate an effective strategic end-state that will enable its militarily justified pursuit of regime change against Hamas to lead to a new, more peaceful and prosperous coexistence with the Palestinians in Gaza and West Bank.
This will usher in what will amount to a fundamental regional realignment between Israel and the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza that will lead to a durable and permanent peaceful coexistence.
To make this possible, Prime Minister Netanyahu and his inner security Cabinet need to announce that the ultimate objective of the regime change in Gaza is to usher in a new form of coexistence between Israel and the Palestinians that will also provide some sort of independent, demilitarized state for the Palestinians in the West Bank. This would be accompanied by a significant curtailment and reduction of Jewish settlement activity, including in the Arab dominated East Jerusalem. Elections would be held in Gaza to elect a new governing body and political leadership that would implement transformative political and economic development in what will become Palestine’s twin state. A comparable election would be held in the Palestinian controlled areas of the West Bank to elect a newly-legitimized PA. This would be funded by massive economic aid by Israel’s neighboring Arab countries, such as Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States, which will be backed by the United States and Europe.
Four Hurdles to Overcome
This envisioned strategic end-state faces at least four hurdles in pursuing regime change in Gaza and the West Bank. First, the currently right-wing Israeli coalition government is not suitable to implement it, since only a liberal orientation – while still being security-minded – could pursue a conciliatory approach to advance, together with the Palestinians, a popular and legitimate new governing regime in Gaza and the West Bank.
Second, such a transformative initiative would need to be led by someone with the stature of the late Israeli President Shimon Peres who, following the 1994 Oslo Peace Accords, called for regional economic cooperation to strengthen peaceful relations between Israel and its neighboring Arab states. Such a forward-thinking statesman is lacking in Israel. Under Netanyahu’s leadership, the current government had spent the past year attempting to impose a regime change in Israel that would undermine the independence of the country’ judiciary, which led to massive protest demonstrations against it across the country, so it would not be interested in U.S.-Agency for International Development-type liberal political and judicial institutions for the West Bank and Gaza.
Third, the Israeli coalition government includes the leaders of the far-right-wing settlement movement, who would violently oppose any initiative to establish an independent Palestinian state in the West Bank that would curtail their settlement expansion.
Finally, there is the question of who will take over in Gaza. Historically, the American-led regime change in post-Second World War West Germany succeeded in its de-Nazification program because a non-Nazi political and economic elite was present to provide new leadership and mobilize the population in a new democratic and peaceful direction. Does Gaza, therefore, possess a local “non-Hamas” political and economic elite to lead a new administration that can effectively govern the “twin-state” of Palestine with legitimate popular support, and will the Palestinian Authority in a newly legitimized form be able to fill the political gap??
These appear to be insurmountable hurdles, but no other political outcomes will achieve the objectives of long-term peaceful coexistence between Israel and the West Bank and Gaza Palestinians. This proposed strategic end-state for Israel’s Gaza military operation and its aftermath is not hopelessly utopian, as it expresses the views of numerous prominent retired Israeli security leaders.
Israel is facing an existential threat to its long-term security and national identity. There is an optimistic path forward but it will require a transformative paradigm shift in Israeli national security. The alternative will leave Israel in a long-term precarious state of insecurity along its borders, as well as within its country.
Dr. Joshua Sinai, a long-term contributor to IACSP, is Professor of Practice, Intelligence & Global Security Studies, Capitol Technology University, Laurel, MD.