A tunnel under Gaza (MAHMUD HAMS/AFP via Getty Images)

December 23, 2023   4 mins

During their protected wars in Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan, America’s leaders and generals could never define victory. Hamas, by contrast, has a clear understanding of what it looks like. Now that the terror group has demonstrated the failure of Israel’s deterrence, it insists it will not any more short ceasefires in exchange for hostages, but only a complete end to Israel’s offensive, which would of course leave it in full control of Gaza.

What would this entail? Most immediately, this would also hand Hamas the millions of dollars in aid that will arrive from Western nations, as well as the billions coming from Qatar, Kuwait and other oil-rich countries. And while these funds are intended for welfare distributions and for civilian reconstruction, Hamas will of course use them to rebuild its underground tunnel networks, and to fund its military training, propaganda and political units in and out of Gaza.

The reason it would get away with this is straightforward: Hamas has never pretended to be fighting for the well-being of Gaza’s population, or for Palestine as a national cause. It serves global Islam —the Umma  that rejects all nationalisms and demands supremacy over all other religions. In other words, it accepts no responsibility for the dead and wounded of the war, or for Gaza’s reconstruction.

Hence, if there is a permanent ceasefire, Hamas can start to prepare its next surprise attack, hoping for another October 7 of indiscriminate killings and rapes. If anyone in Gaza objects, Hamas will also act as it did in the past, shoving sacks over their heads and shooting them in front of crowds.

And yet, steadfastly ignoring this inevitability, retired generals and even, in an unguarded moment, Secretary of Defense, Lloyd Austin, have urged the Israelis to reduce their bombing or even their attacks altogether, in order to win over Gaza’s population. Yet this is to forget that such a formula failed in Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan: populations dominated by brutal extremists cannot be “won over”.

For the Israelis, however, there is clarity: because Hamas defines its victory so clearly, so can the Israelis. While the “complete end of the offensive” that Hamas, the UN and countless American and British undergraduates demand would mean a complete defeat for Israel, the continuation of the war — sine die, as they say in diplomacy — is the essential precondition of victory.

In this sense, little has changed since 1948: the Israelis might have to keep fighting on their own without US support. As soon as the first of Israel’s wars started on May 15, 1948, the US and the British, then very much the senior partner in the Middle East, imposed a total arms embargo on everyone involved. This favoured the Arab armies, who already had their British-supplied kits of small arms, machine-guns, field artillery and even a few aircraft and tanks, while the Jews only had rifles and submachine guns. It was very much the goal of the British Foreign Office and US State Department that the newly proclaimed State of Israel should be defeated as soon as possible, so as to preserve the stability of British power over the region.

But, then, something entirely unexpected happened: the Jews started winning. As a result, having favoured war to put a quick end to Israel, the Brits then had to end it to save their collapsing Arab allies. And the resourceful Foreign Office had the necessary remedy, promptly backed by the obedient State Department: on June 11, 1948, the UN Security Council imposed a total ceasefire, after 26 days of fighting. Had the Israelis not resumed fighting on July 9, Israel could not have emerged as a viable state.

Even so, this set the pattern for all subsequent UN ceasefires in the region: as soon as Israel launches its counteroffensives and starts winning, the UN General Assembly demands an immediate ceasefire, and pressure builds on the UN Security Council to actually order one.

But here the continuity ends. Everything else is very different now that Israel is a stronger, more self-sufficient military power. The US can certainly help to deter Hezbollah, and is the only power that can disarm the Houthi menace in the Red Sea and Suez Canal. But only Israel can incapacitate Hamas, by fighting in one alley, tunnel and bunker after another right across the Gaza Strip.

Very reasonably, the Biden Administration has been asking the Israelis to hurry up with their fighting, instead of prolonging the suffering of Gaza’s civilians. And just as reasonably, the Biden Administration has been asking the Israelis to use less air power, less artillery and more infantry to reduce civilian casualties. But to move faster in Gaza’s intricate urban terrain would sharply increase Israeli casualties. The same is true of any imposed reduction in artillery fire and air strikes. And to do both simultaneously would not just add to Israeli casualties but multiply them.

Because the leaders on both sides know those things, and because they respect each other, there is a back-and-forth process of mutual accommodation day by day. But the unavoidable reality is that Israel cannot end its offensive, nor even accept protracted ceasefires in exchange for hostages.

Instead, its forces must persist until every basement and tunnel has been cleared and Hamas’s cadre of trained fighters has been drastically reduced. Nor is the capture of Yahya Sinwar, the top Hamas leader in Gaza, a realistic goal — with the help of Sinai Bedouin smugglers, it would be all too easy for him to escape and join Hamas’s other leaders in their five-star suites in Doha.

Of course, although essential, destroying the military power of Hamas cannot by itself bring about a permanent state of peace in Gaza. But if Hamas can no longer subject Gaza’s population to its perpetual war, it will be victory enough.

Professor Edward Luttwak is a strategist and historian known for his works on grand strategy, geoeconomics, military history, and international relations.