INTERVIEW: The war before a second truce

Amira Howeidy , Tuesday 5 Dec 2023

Israel’s primary objective in its war on Gaza is to exact extraordinary revenge upon the Palestinians rather than to retrieve its captives from Hamas, analyst Mouin Rabbani tells Al-Ahram Wekly.

The war before a second truce

 

Israel resumed its bombardment of Gaza following a seven-day truce that ended on Friday with renewed force this week, with Palestinian survivors of the bombardments describing them as being even more intense than before.

Having forcibly expelled over one million people from northern Gaza to the south of the Strip, the Israeli Occupation Forces’ (IOF) bombs are now killing more Palestinians daily in the heavily populated southern parts of the besieged Strip.

The IOF has simultaneously targeted Gaza’s civilian infrastructure and educational, religious and cultural institutions including its parliament, universities, libraries and courts, after it had destroyed more than 60 per cent of the enclave’s homes before the truce began.

The resumption of the Israeli airstrikes with increasing force has exacerbated Gaza’s worsening humanitarian crisis, which has now eclipsed the brief respite of the seven-day truce. Scenes of Hamas’ political victory with the release of Palestinians from Israeli prisons during the exchange process have been replaced with fresh images of annihilation.

In a telephone interview with Al-Ahram Weekly, Mouin Rabbani, an expert on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, explained that contrary to what its leaders say Israel’s war on Gaza is primarily driven by the objective of depopulating the Strip.

Rabbani, also co-editor of Jadaliyya, a political publication focused on the Arab world, said that neither the US nor Europe would permit Israel to continue its war for another 50 days out of concerns that it could lead to uncontrolled regional conflict and have negative impacts on their economies, especially in an election year for US President Joe Biden. 

He spoke to Al-Ahram Weekly by phone from Montreal, Canada on Monday. Excerpts:

Why did Israel resume its war on Gaza when Israeli civilian hostages are still being held by Hamas?

We need to understand that the release of the captives was always a secondary rather than a primary objective for Israel. Its primary objective was to exact extraordinary revenge upon the Palestinians, not Hamas or Islamic Jihad, but Palestinian society in the Gaza Strip, in order to seek to significantly degrade Hamas as a military and governing force.

I don’t think Israel’s continuing assertion that it intends to eradicate Hamas is taken particularly seriously by anybody, including the Israelis themselves. Its strategic perspective was to seek to depopulate the Gaza Strip by expelling its population into the Sinai Peninsula. This was an initiative that was enthusiastically embraced by the United States, but then was stillborn because, I think to US Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s surprise, the Arabs didn’t sign on to it.

Israel claims that the truce collapsed because Hamas fired a rocket at the Gaza envelope – which doesn’t appear to have caused any damage or injury – 40 minutes before the expiration of the final extension of the truce. I think we can dismiss this because two days earlier Hamas set off a number of explosives against the Israeli forces in the Gaza Strip claiming it was responding to Israeli violations of the truce, which according to Israel resulted in several soldiers being wounded.

Nevertheless, in that instance Israel did not renounce the truce and resumed its offensive, so obviously there was something bigger going on. Now I’m not in a position to draw a clear conclusion, but what appears to be the case is that Israel tried, after the initial four days [of the truce], to make its extension for an additional day dependent on Hamas changing the formula agreed at the onset of the negotiations.

Israel’s claim is that there were additional Israeli women that Hamas either refused to release, or falsely claimed that it would need time to locate them. What Hamas asserts is that it refused to release them according to the existing formula, which involves Israeli civilians. Because these women were captured in military uniform from military bases, [therefore] they would only be released according to a different formula.

So, that’s how the truce broke down. In terms of why the truce broke down, I think either Israel or the Palestinians, or both, felt that renewing the confrontation would serve to improve their bargaining position for the next truce. The other explanation is that Israel felt under pressure to resume the offensive before additional time was spent because of the growing realisation, not only in the international community, but also in the West, of the extraordinary level of death and destruction that Israel was causing. We’re talking about the most intensive bombing campaign in the history of the Middle East. We’re not talking about Iraq or Libya. But about the miniature Gaza Strip.

It seems clear to me that Israel has taken a decision to resume its offensive and was therefore not going to reach any agreement. But it needed to go through the motions to preserve its ability to call on the Egyptians and Qataris to eventually resume their mediation to be able to claim that the other side did it to satisfy the Americans.

You say that the US and EU won’t permit Israel to continue its war for another 50 days due to concerns about uncontrolled regional escalation. How do you see that happening in a region that is already weak and vulnerable?

Forget Hizbullah and Iran. Let’s look at Yemen, [where] the Houthis [who launched a series of attacks on vessels in the Red Sea] are sitting at the entrance of the Bab Al-Mandab Strait, which is a very narrow choke point connecting the Arabian Sea to the Red Sea.

All they need to do is to create the realistic expectation that there will be repeated regular attacks on shipping in the Bab Al-Mandab to have a very significant effect on world trade. Instead of using the Bab Al-Mandab and Suez Canal, ships going from Asia to Europe and back will start sailing around South Africa and the West African Coast. I’m sure there will be attempts to contain the Houthis, but I’m making the observation that they have been doing this and that these have been escalating.

Now, of course, if persuasion fails, there may be military action against them, but we’ve had ten years of war in Yemen that demonstrates that military action against the Houthis doesn’t necessarily produce the required result. The Houthis don’t need to conquer territory or physically seize ships like they did a week ago. All they need to do is fire a missile into the sea, and they don’t need to hit anything to achieve their objective.

How do you think the Hamas-led resistance has fared so far? Do you think their military statements about destroying Israeli tanks and targeting Israeli soldiers now have the same kind of political impact and resonance that they had in the first month of the war?

At the start of this war, Israel and the US, with solid support from other Western states, established two principles on the basis of which it would be prosecuted. Number one: Hamas has to be eradicated and can no longer govern the Strip. Number two: no ceasefire, no negotiations – in other words, the three no’s.

Then, not only did you have a truce, but you also had a negotiated exchange of prisoners, and this was all made possible because Israel and the US were negotiating through Qatar and Egypt admittedly, not just with Hamas but also with Yehia Al-Sinwar, the architect of the 7 October attacks. I think that increased the stature of Hamas among the Palestinians generally, certainly including in the West Bank. I would assume that the picture in the Gaza Strip is more mixed, given the extraordinary level of targeted indiscriminate fighting that’s been visited upon them.

Hamas’ objective on 7 October was to achieve a prisoner exchange, but considering the scale of Israel’s response and the destruction and massive Palestinian death toll, has Hamas developed its political objectives?

I would disagree with the premise of your question, which is that Hamas was primarily motivated by a desire to seize Israeli captives to exchange for prisoners. If that had been their objective, I think they would have done this very differently. I think Hamas’ objective was to irrevocably shatter the status quo, certainly with regard to the conditions of the blockade on the Gaza Strip. Hamas is an Islamist movement, and when they say that Al-Haram Al-Sharif and the Al-Aqsa Mosque [in Jerusalem] are of essential importance to them, well we already have evidence that when they speak this way and act on the basis of their statements then maybe, maybe, at some level we should take their convictions seriously.

Thirdly, I think they also hoped to put Palestine back on the Arab and international agenda at a time when it was being completely marginalised and was basically being left to Israel to unilaterally resolve this issue in the way it saw fit because everyone assumed the Palestinians would just roll over and die.

If Hamas did this solely in order to free Palestinian prisoners, and even if it succeeded in doing so, it would have a lot to answer for. Because I think you would have at the very least the relatives of 15,000 people who were slaughtered asking Hamas, if this is what you’ve achieved, wouldn’t it maybe have made more sense to let these people rot in prison for a few more years and all our loved ones would still be alive?

So, I think Hamas may have misjudged the sheer scale of the Israeli response, but I think they also understood that if they managed to capture even one Israeli soldier, then there was going to be a furious Israeli response and that this alone would have made them set their objectives significantly higher.

Hamas’ leadership in Gaza has been conspicuously silent since the war began. We’re seeing political figures in Beirut and Doha but not a word from Hamas’ leader in Gaza Yehia Al-Sinwar. What message is being conveyed here?

We’re not talking about [Hizbullah Secretary-General] Hassan Nasrallah being based in Beirut in a city that is at a considerable distance from the Israeli border and has access to sophisticated communication. I suspect that few people would begrudge the Hamas leaders in Gaza, who’ve gone deep underground, their prioritisation of operational security. I haven’t seen complaints about Yehia Al-Sinwar or [Al-Qassam Brigades leader] Mohamed Deif’s silence. They’ve been sending [Military Spokesman] Abo Obeida to do their messaging.

We do know that the Egyptians, the Qataris, the Americans and the Israelis, through the Egyptians, are certainly communicating with Al-Sinwar. So, he’s clearly communicating with the outside world. If you contrast him with Hamas leader Ismail Haniyyeh and his predecessor Khaled Meshaal, Al-Sinwar isn’t really a person who constantly gives long speeches either in public or on television.

You said you expect another truce to go into effect by next week, when complex negotiations would take place about the exchange of senior Palestinian political prisoners in Israel. What kind of time frame do you see this materialising in?

I don’t think this round is going to conclude with an agreement or an exchange of prisoners and its implementation. I expect a new truce to be reached, as [commentator] Norman Finklestein has suggested, by Christmas. The truce would be a prelude to negotiations that have probably already started, but I suspect are quite far from being concluded.

Do you think the release of Marwan Barghouti, the popular Fatah leader serving a life prison sentence in Israel, is plausible, since his name is on Hamas’ list in exchange for the Israeli generals that have been captured? If that eventually happens, what would it mean?

I’m by no means excluding the possibility, slight as it may be, that Israel either manages to locate its captives and bring them out alive, or it manages to locate and bring back their corpses, and in that case, there would be no deal. There is no one single scenario, but what I’m saying is assuming, and I think it’s a reasonable assumption, that Hamas manages to hold on to its captives for sufficiently long to produce a negotiated prisoner-exchange, they’re going to demand the release of senior Palestinian leaders in Israeli prisons for the senior officers they hold. I think they would particularly like to see Marwan Barghouti and Secretary-General of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine Ahmed Saadat released because in their view that would demonstrate to the Palestinians that they’re in this not only for themselves but also for the national interest.

I think the political impact of Barghouti’s release would be very significant and a double-edged sword for Hamas. Barghouti, even though I think his popularity has been enhanced by his imprisonment, is one of those figures that if Fatah can be saved, can be saved by people like him. It would be a massive gain for Fatah. The main loser, I think, would be Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas initially. The other thing to understand about Barghouti is that he represents the trend within Fatah that has advocated power-sharing with Hamas. So, he’s a potential individual who, should there be a presidential election – I don’t think there will be or there should be – would be the kind of candidate Hamas would be willing to throw its support behind.

You have written that a scenario like this would be a very bitter pill for Israel to swallow. But the results of military failure tend to be bitter, and the US and Europe will help Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, or whoever replaces him, take the medicine. What did you mean by this?

If my position is that I’m not going to negotiate with you because I’m going to get what I want from you through the use of armed force, and therefore that I don’t have to give you anything in exchange, but then I end up not only negotiating with you, but also reaching an agreement with you and actually implementing it – and I not only take from you, but I also give to you, perhaps much more than you give to me – then that kind of means I have egg all over my face.

An Irish Republican once told me that you can’t achieve at the negotiating table what you can’t achieve on the battlefield. The outcome of negotiations tends to reflect reality on the ground rather than transform it.

Why would the US and Europe allow this to happen?

Again, I think the US and EU gave Israel a free hand and unqualified support and weapons and the diplomatic cover needed at the beginning because they had bought into the myth of an omnipotent and omniscient Israel that had had an unfortunate failure on 7 October but would easily achieve all its objectives in short order.

 

On the one hand, we’ve seen a collapse in Western confidence in Israel’s intelligence and military capabilities. On the other hand, and more importantly, the main concern now of the Western states has nothing to do with the slaughter of thousands of Palestinians. Instead, it is of regional escalation. We could be seeing an all-out war between Israel and Lebanon. The US has committed to intervene in such an event, but it’s obviously something it doesn’t want to do. No one wants to see oil prices rise in an election year in the US.

* A version of this article appears in print in the 7 December, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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