While the IDF is engaged in Gaza, in what is becoming a protracted war, aiming to weaken Hamas and secure the release of captives, the main effort by Hamas and its backers has been focused on reaching as prolonged a cease-fire as possible.
Such a cease-fire has operational and tactical importance for Hamas. However, its main significance lies in the strategic arena. Hamas hopes a cease-fire will compel Israel to change its war objectives and revert to the softer approach that the Islamist group initially believed Israel would follow right after the Oct. 7 massacre.
I believe that Hamas leaders, despite the severe blow inflicted on Israel, were convinced that the Israeli response would focus on targeted airstrikes that would extract a significant price from the Palestinians and perhaps even a limited ground maneuver. However, they never anticipated that Israel would launch an all-out undertaking to eliminate the terrorist organization and deprive it of its military-terrorist capabilities along with retaking the Gaza Strip.
Hamas likely believed that had Israel subscribed to a small-scale approach, they could build on the success of Oct. 7 and effect a change that would result in a new “equation” between the organization and the Jewish state. Meaning, the release of the terrorists imprisoned in Israel, lifting the blockade and stopping the normalization process between Israel and Saudi Arabia.
Hamas assessed that Israel’s weakness and its problematic relations with the U.S., coupled with its inherent reluctance to pay the high price involved in a broad military operation to remove Hamas from Gaza, would ultimately prevent it from completely defeating Hamas, just like in previous flare-ups.
In previous rounds, whenever the fighting ended, both sides licked their wounds, but Hamas then quickly recovered and again posed a threat to the area near Gaza and to Israel as a whole.
This time Israel adopted, to the surprise of Hamas, a different approach that could strategically weaken the organization to an unprecedented extent, thereby also affecting both radical factions associated with the organization; the radical axis led by Iran on the one hand, and the Muslim Brotherhood axis, which includes Qatar and Turkey, on the other.
All actions by Hamas, Iran and its proxies (Hezbollah, the Houthis and Shi’ite militias in Iraq), as well as Qatar and Turkey, should be seen in the context of the attempt to persuade President Joe Biden to pressure Israel to stop the fighting and eventually adopt an alternative approach.
This effort motivates them to create the impression that there is a severe humanitarian crisis in Gaza. It is what made Hamas play a cynical game with the captives, and this is also what has prompted the Shi’ite militias in Iraq to step up their attacks on U.S. forces. Likewise, this explains the gradual escalation by Hezbollah in the north and the missile launches from the Houthis in Yemen, and the potential expansion of the conflict by Iran and its allies.
This is also the context through which we must treat the numerous protests in Western capitals calling for a cease-fire. Even Jordan and Egypt are joining the chorus for various reasons, primarily due to the concern about a flow of Palestinian refugees into their territories. The Palestinian Authority calls for a cease-fire, but it is unclear if it is genuinely interested in one.
So far, Hamas and its allies’ efforts have been unsuccessful. Biden is under pressure, along with most Western leaders. They understand the importance of Israel’s success in undermining Hamas and the moral justification for it.
Israel’s recent moves, such as advancing on the ground, exposing the illicit Hamas activity at the Rantisi and Shifa hospitals, and continued close coordination with the U.S. regarding the management of the conflict against Hezbollah, contribute to Biden’s ability to withstand pressure.
As the fighting continues, Israel will need to remind Western leaders, led by Biden, that letting Hamas stay in power is beyond the pale and that Israel can bring about the organization’s demise within a reasonable time without causing a humanitarian disaster in Gaza or leading to actions that would escalate the conflict into a regional war.
This is how Israel would be able to ensure room to act and the time needed to achieve its strategic goals, even if it agrees to short cease-fires/pauses to free the captives.
IDF Brig. Gen. (res.) Yossi Kuperwasser is director of the Project on Regional Middle East Developments at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs. He formerly served as director general of the Israeli Ministry of Strategic Affairs and head of the research division of IDF Military Intelligence.