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Why Israel can’t accept a ceasefire Hamas has dictated the parameters of victory

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

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.

ELuttwak

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Brian Villanueva
Brian Villanueva
5 months ago

When will the Western elites remember that wars are not won with hearts and minds. They are won with tanks and grenades.

It sounds great to say you’re trying to convince people they’re wrong. That’s called diplomacy, and there is absolutely a time for it. But sometimes no compromise is possible. Sometimes each nation believes themselves entitled to the same resource. (Don’t kid yourself, wars even today are nearly always fought over resources.) Once the air raid sirens go off, diplomacy has failed. The Foreign Minister needs to step aside to the Defense Minister can take over.

Benedict Waterson
Benedict Waterson
5 months ago

Well we’re lucky to have always lived in peacetime in wealthy western countries, but that breeds a kind of complacency about the realities of conflict, or even decadence, after a number of decades.
If Israel wants to ‘win the battle of hearts and minds’ in the long run then it should try to convert Hamas to Judaism.

El Uro
El Uro
5 months ago

Why do you think that “Israel wants to ‘win the battle of hearts and minds’”?

Rafi Stern
Rafi Stern
5 months ago
Reply to  El Uro

We want to live here and in peace.

David Giles
David Giles
5 months ago
Reply to  Rafi Stern

They won’t give you peace, ever! So wake up and get on with winning your war.

Charles Stanhope
Charles Stanhope
5 months ago

Just let those superb Malinois ‘attack dogs’ loose in the Tunnels, and they’ll do the rest.
As a general rule A-rabs detest dogs and the feeling is mutual.

Additionally ALL Hamas dead must be cremated, if only to cheat them of their supposed heavenly rewards!

Mark Phillips
Mark Phillips
5 months ago

With a bacon sandwich clutched between their Jaws.

Matthew Freedman
Matthew Freedman
5 months ago
Reply to  Mark Phillips

That’s like unnecessary hate. Calm down.

Keith Merrick
Keith Merrick
5 months ago

What would constitute ‘necessary hate’?

Richard Gipps
Richard Gipps
5 months ago
Reply to  Keith Merrick

Maybe something like in psalm 97 – Let those who love the LORD hate evil, for he guards the lives of his faithful ones and delivers them from the hand of the wicked.

Andrew Thompson
Andrew Thompson
5 months ago
Reply to  Mark Phillips

Clutched tightly at their other end too!

Arthur G
Arthur G
5 months ago

No need to risk the dogs. Seawater will do the job. Literally nothing can stop the flow of water with the mass of the Mediterranean Sea behind it.

Clare Knight
Clare Knight
5 months ago
Reply to  Arthur G

The dogs would get shot sea water is much better.

Charles Stanhope
Charles Stanhope
5 months ago
Reply to  Clare Knight

The ‘dogs’ have a proven track record, most recently in Afghanistan where an Australian SAS Malinois won the Dickin Medal.
Frankly they just ‘love’ it because it is precisely what they are trained to do.

Eleanor Barlow
Eleanor Barlow
5 months ago

Or be killed by a female soldier which will be viewed as total humiliation as well as cheating them of their illusory rewards.

Katja Sipple
Katja Sipple
5 months ago

I love dogs, and would not want to risk their lives. Somebody else farther down the comment thread suggested the purifying power of seawater, and flushing the tunnels seems like a better alternative.

Clare Knight
Clare Knight
5 months ago
Reply to  Katja Sipple

Exactly.

Lynn
Lynn
5 months ago

Now I unsubscribe because I don’t need to be reminded that there are such angry & unhappy people

Charles Stanhope
Charles Stanhope
5 months ago
Reply to  Lynn

Perhaps you should ‘get out more’?

Morry Rotenberg
Morry Rotenberg
5 months ago

Hamastan says that some 20k Gazans have been killed. Of course mostly women and children they claim. Where are the mass graves? I would assume as part of Hamas’s propaganda war that those graves would be plastered all over the complicit anti-Israel media. I have not seen any.

Walter Schwager
Walter Schwager
5 months ago

There are videos of mass burials of children, heart breaking

D Walsh
D Walsh
5 months ago

You the the truth and they hate you, but don’t let that stop you Walter

Vyomesh Thanki
Vyomesh Thanki
5 months ago

It’s so easy to just give Walter a downvote instead of giving a reason for downvoting.

Iris C
Iris C
5 months ago

Most casualties will be women and children by the mere fact that one man has a wife and children. Thus it is just emotional propaganda to stress that point

glyn harries
glyn harries
5 months ago

Looking at the level of bombing and destruction, and that Hamas stopped civilians from fleeing to the south as they were using them as human shields, 20,000 deaths out of 600,000 seems probable.

Keith Merrick
Keith Merrick
5 months ago
Reply to  glyn harries

Like in an Arab bazaar, I think one is expected to bargain down from the original figure until you reach a number acceptable to both parties. But the BBC et al are happy to pay the Hamas asking price, no questions asked, no haggling.

Benedict Waterson
Benedict Waterson
5 months ago

It is very densely populated and population demographics include a high proportion of children. Tragic.
Israel gave certain areas forewarning so they could evacuate, but this is impossible at such a scale in such a short timeframe

Last edited 5 months ago by Benedict Waterson
Rafi Stern
Rafi Stern
5 months ago

I heard a figure that the US killed 12 civilians for every enemy fighter killed in Iraq. Hamas and Jihad fighter wear civvies so they are not immediately recognisable as fighters and the Hamas do not publish figures of their dead fighters. However, given that it is estimated that over 5000 Hamas fighters have been killed in Gaza, the fighter to civilian ratio is a lot better than was ever attained in Iraq or Afghanistan.

Keith Callaghan
Keith Callaghan
5 months ago

I made a similar comment to yours on a Daily Telegraph article – but it was removed for some reason.
Tens of thousands of fatalities is hundreds of tons of bodies – but, as you rightly say, where is the evidence?

Keith Merrick
Keith Merrick
5 months ago

Western media seems determined to show the Israelis in a bad light so there’s no real need for Hamas’ propaganda machine to do much. They can sit with their feet up, fart out a few made up figures from time to time and the BBC will do the rest.

Tony Buck
Tony Buck
5 months ago
Reply to  Keith Merrick

Don’t you think that dropping bombs (inevitably to some extent, on children and other civilians) shows the Israelis in a bad, or at least an unflattering, light ?

Matthew Freedman
Matthew Freedman
5 months ago

These protestors call for a ceasefire and the destruction of Israel in the same tweet. I’d like a permanent ceasefire and a 2 state solution. Most pro-palestine people reject the 2 state solution and want a one state arab-muslim state solution with genocide, expulsion or forced arabisation of the Jews in Israel. I want peace, they want war. I want a permanent ceasefire. They want war.

Andrew Holmes
Andrew Holmes
5 months ago

After bin Laden was killed, I was listening to a Seattle talk show. A caller said shouldn’t it have been better for the Seals to wait outside until bin Laden came peacefully out.
Each time I read comments decrying Israel’s war on Hamas I think of that caller. If you oppose Israeli actions, offer a plausible alternative. Anything presented otherwise is not rational.

David Renton
David Renton
5 months ago
Reply to  Andrew Holmes

if possible the best option was to capture OBL, keep in at some Black site that not even the NSA knows about, interrogate him , empty that brain of his of any info. When you are done, keep him locked up , and keep him alive for as long as possible.
Of course tell the world you killed him and dumped his body in the sea
No one would ever know, Lawyers, Human rights would not apply to him

Peter Lee
Peter Lee
5 months ago

Quote ‘Very reasonably, the Biden Administration has been asking the Israelis to hurry up with their fighting’.
ï»żSounds more like a varsity football game.

Phil Mac
Phil Mac
5 months ago

A relief to read an article of clarity. I’m tired of arguing with people that from the perspective of those pulling the strings this fight is little to do with Palestine but instead is just a front on the larger war waged by militant, radical Islam.

UnHerd Reader
UnHerd Reader
5 months ago
Reply to  Phil Mac

Perhaps two factors can operate at once.

Keith Merrick
Keith Merrick
5 months ago

Great piece. It’s annoying that those who claim to want peace actually want, knowingly or not, Israel to lose. I hope the Israelis aren’t forced into a ceasefire by these people.

Alex Lekas
Alex Lekas
5 months ago

I’ve not heard that theory before – that Israel was set up for the purpose of failing. It’s not unbelievable, given the things govt officials have done. I’ve just never heard that explanation. Maybe I’ve missed it.

N Satori
N Satori
5 months ago

Until the Islamic Republic of Iran is neutralised there will be no lasting peace (or any kind of peace) in the region.
[Currently, Brigadier General Mohammad Reza Naqdi of the Islamic Revolutionary Corps is threatening to seal off the Mediterranean (?!) by shutting the Strait of Gibraltar and other waterways if the bombing of Gaza does not cease. Grandiose and bellicose, of course but consider the prospect of a future nuclear armed Islamic Revolutionary Corps]

Right-Wing Hippie
Right-Wing Hippie
5 months ago

Very reasonably, the Biden Administration has been asking the Israelis to hurry up with their fighting
“Would you hurry up in there? The Chinese need a chance!”

El Uro
El Uro
5 months ago

Cowardice is the wisdom of today

chris sullivan
chris sullivan
5 months ago

Agreed – also of interest is what the Gazans would do if Hamas were, in fact, neutralized ie carry on their brainwashed menace or sue for a meaningful solution. Very interested to know the answer ????? – but i fear the worst…..

John Kirk
John Kirk
5 months ago

This happened to me a few times and each time the inevitable conclusion came almost instantly. Blimey, I’m in a fight because the other guy wants it. After that you don’t have a lot of choice.

I always thought the Israeli policy of settlements looked wicked and wrong-headed. But I know very little about it.

On the other hand the evil of Hamas couldn’t be clearer. I know which is the lesser of the two evils.

In any case as this article shows Israel must and will fight. The other guy wants it. The tragedy for the innocent Palestinians seems unavoidable. May Israel prevail quickly.

Last edited 5 months ago by John Kirk
UnHerd Reader
UnHerd Reader
5 months ago

From the country that bombed Nagasaki, Hiroshima, Dresden, Falugia …and sprayed Agent Orange over the rural population of Vietnam comes the high moral call for ending the inadvertent collateral casualties caused by Isreal in its reaction to the barbaric massacre of its own citizens. Hypocrisy???

George K
George K
5 months ago

Israel is choosing a very elusive target of “eliminating” Hamas in place of a very tangible target of saving its hostages. Is it reasonable to sacrifice dozens of people for the sake of hypothetical apeasement of Gaza? I agree that Sinwar and the top of Hamas will certainly escape, the rest of Hamas is entirely dispensable. And the only way to ensure Hamas is out of business is imposing a total and prolonged occupation by Israel, including close monitoring of kindergarten education, mosque Friday sermons, establishing multiple checkpoints to control/hinder movement inside the strip. In its turn it will result in increasing frustration and resentment of the local population. Zugzwang as it’s called.

Kolya Wolf
Kolya Wolf
5 months ago
Reply to  George K

Israel’s objective is to prevent any receptions of the October 7 atrocity. Halting its attack on Hamas in return for the release of the hostages would have exactly the opposite effect.

Michael Cazaly
Michael Cazaly
5 months ago

But the objective of stopping the bombing is NOT to “win over the population”. The objective is to stop killing them.
It is the Hamas leadership/ fighters who carried out October 7 and they who should pay.
In former times, Israel was very effective at doing precisely that; it needs to recover those skills.

Alan Osband
Alan Osband
5 months ago

Clearly before October 7 the Israeli government could not have believed Hamas had the intentions you describe ,because then they would surely have had to accept the responsibility of protecting their border , with all the attendant costs in keeping many soldiers always on duty .

Edward De Beukelaer
Edward De Beukelaer
5 months ago

is it possible to ‘beat’ Hamas? This war will just go on for ever won’t it?

Mike Doyle
Mike Doyle
5 months ago

It seems to be that Israel can only win if every Hamas fighter is captured, dead, or fled.

John Dewhirst
John Dewhirst
5 months ago

T

Dermot O'Sullivan
Dermot O'Sullivan
5 months ago

Make believe your enemy is subhuman and you may do as you wish.

Alex Lekas
Alex Lekas
5 months ago

The Muslims have done that with Jews forever. But don’t feel left out; they do it with we infidels, too.

D Walsh
D Walsh
5 months ago
Reply to  Alex Lekas

Keep going Alex, now what does the Talmud say about Christians or the Goyim

Rafi Stern
Rafi Stern
5 months ago
Reply to  D Walsh

Please tell us. What does it say?

James S.
James S.
5 months ago
Reply to  D Walsh

I’ll hazard a guess and say that IF the Talmud has anything to say about Christians it’s not anywhere close to what the Quran says about infidels, particularly Jews.

D Walsh
D Walsh
5 months ago
Reply to  James S.

look it up James, go on, prove me wrong

Lesley van Reenen
Lesley van Reenen
5 months ago
Reply to  D Walsh

Why don’t you reply to Rafi?

Dick Barrett
Dick Barrett
5 months ago

Something very like this disturbing piece of pro-genocide propaganda could have been written by a German General during the Warsaw Ghetto uprising. The fact is that even if Hamas did 10 more attacks like the one on October 7, there would still be fewer dead than have been murdered by the Israeli “defence” forces since that date. Why then should we in the West give any support whatsoever to Israel??

Kolya Wolf
Kolya Wolf
5 months ago
Reply to  Dick Barrett

You seem to be under the impression that a just war is one in which the injured side kills the number of enemies equal to its own fatalities and then calls a unilateral ceasefire.
While your doctrine has a certain mathematical simplicity, it lacks any moral dimension.

martin logan
martin logan
5 months ago

Sounds like a recipe for endless war in Gaza–and endless shame for the West.
That may seem Israel’s only option. But as Luttwak himself acknowledes, this will continue to result in huge civilian casualties, and will soon lead to a humanitarian catastrophe. (Funny how he thought a ceasefire in Ukraine was the best option)
The US and all other western nations cannot afford to have anything to do with this.
If we cannot restrain Israel from committing war crimes, we can at least withdraw all support.
Israeli incompetence and pride led to 7 Oct.
And unless we cut the cord completely, we will be no better than Putin when he was supporting Assad in Syria.

Last edited 5 months ago by martin logan
Lesley van Reenen
Lesley van Reenen
5 months ago
Reply to  martin logan

The West has plenty of shame without mentioning Israel. School is out.

George Scialabba
George Scialabba
5 months ago
Reply to  martin logan

Thanks, Martin. You and D.Walsh give me hope. The rest of the commenters here are pretty frightening.

Rod Lewis
Rod Lewis
5 months ago

Ain’t that the truth….

Eleanor Barlow
Eleanor Barlow
5 months ago

I find you and other commenters with the same views pretty frightening because a] you have fallen for Hamas propaganda hook line and sinker – and b] are prepared to see Israel destroyed and another barbarous Islamist regime installed in its place.

Rafi Stern
Rafi Stern
5 months ago
Reply to  martin logan

Yout asumption is that Israel is committing war crimes which make it no better than Assad’s Syria. This is a baseless claim. Can you provide a comparison of what Syrian, Iranian or Russian forces do to prevent civilian casualties or what civilian to fighter kill ratio they (or US forces) have?

Steven Jones
Steven Jones
5 months ago
Reply to  martin logan

“Israeli incompetence and pride led to 7 Oct”

While Israel clearly had got too comfortable and cocky with regard to Hamas, this statement is close to victim blaming.

MJ Reid
MJ Reid
5 months ago
Reply to  martin logan

Please explain why it is always the fault of Israel? Israel exists and is allowed to defend itself. Except it is not, is it? Hamas are terrorists but have the backing of the world due to its very successful propaganda machine. Show dead and dying children and the great unwashed and liberal moms of the world fall to its knees crying. Hamas et al know exactly what they are doing as to Hezbollah. Children and women have always been used in this way for terrible men to get exactly what they want, when they want it. Power and control and at the moment, Hamas control everything. The West’s media are complicit. Go back to showing what is hapoening in Ukraine and other parts of the world, stop stoking the propaganda machine. Social media removes the paraded dead and dying children. People move on to the next thing. Worth a try…

Kolya Wolf
Kolya Wolf
5 months ago
Reply to  martin logan

Dead Hamas fighters cannot participate in an “endless war”.

martin logan
martin logan
5 months ago

Amazing how a supposedly “young” nation seems to have been born senile.
Luttwak exemplifies the real problem with Israel: it totally lacks a grand political strategy, or even a coherent military strategy.
From day one, for 75 years, it has only thought about how to win the next war. Quite often it doesn’t even do this very well, being surprised and humiliated in the process.
The Middle East is not one sea of Islamic militants. There are possible allies–if Israel accepts that the 7 million Palestinians inside its borders must have equal rights in a one or two state solution.
But ingenious “solutions” created out of sticky tape and Zionist ethno-nationalist “Hope” won’t get Israel any closer to being a normal state than any of its other efforts over the past 75 years.
Until that happens, just pull the plug–and leave!

Lesley van Reenen
Lesley van Reenen
5 months ago
Reply to  martin logan

You are talking about probably a collective of the most intelligent nation on earth. Do you honestly believe they have ‘no plan’? Of course they are a democracy and far, far more liberal than their neighbours. That means the plans change. Looks like there is a singular plan now.

D Walsh
D Walsh
5 months ago

The average IQ for Israel is 92, so its clearly not the most intelligent nation on earth. don’t take my word for it, please look it up

Also killing thousands of innocent civilians is a piss poor plan

El Uro
El Uro
5 months ago
Reply to  D Walsh

Innocent civilians?

Rafi Stern
Rafi Stern
5 months ago
Reply to  D Walsh

Have you ever lookup how many innocent civilians were killed in Iraq or Afghanistan? And have you taken the time to find out how many of the innocent civilians of Gaza were fighters wearing civvies (hint: none of their fighters wear uniforms except when they are on parade)? I heard a figure that the US killed 12 civilians for every enemy fighter killed in Iraq. In Gaza it is estimated that over 5000 Hamas fighters have been killed, which means that Israel is doing a better job than the US ever did of minimalizing civilian casualties.

Alan Osband
Alan Osband
5 months ago
Reply to  Rafi Stern

The war in Iraq was a crazy disaster , from pretty much anyone’s perspective
except possibly the gulf states and perhaps Israel , or possibly Iran and maybe Russia and China .

Last edited 5 months ago by Alan Osband
Lesley van Reenen
Lesley van Reenen
5 months ago
Reply to  D Walsh

Given that Ashkenazi Jews score about 15% higher than others on IQ tests, I do wonder who is dragging it down? Stupid people abound. The average IQ in Africa is 66. Anyhow, there are enough super intelligent Israelis to make the country a beacon of light in the desert by many measures. Pity they are surrounded by such mediocrity.

R.I. Loquitur
R.I. Loquitur
5 months ago

Average Arab IQs are sub-80. 2 million Arabs are Israeli citizens.

Lesley van Reenen
Lesley van Reenen
5 months ago
Reply to  D Walsh

My reply to this has not been published. Maybe because I used the word Ashken**i.

Last edited 5 months ago by Lesley van Reenen
R.I. Loquitur
R.I. Loquitur
5 months ago
Reply to  D Walsh

You know how averages work, right? And that Israel has 2 million Arab citizens with sub-80 IQs? Please look it up.

Eleanor Barlow
Eleanor Barlow
5 months ago
Reply to  D Walsh

The average IQ for Arabs is around the 76 mark, so Israel is far from being the least intelligent nation in the region. No doubt this is the reason Israel has won all of its wars.

Alan Osband
Alan Osband
5 months ago
Reply to  martin logan

What makes me laugh is you seem to think surrounding governments are interested in the democratic rights of the Palestinians . Who are these countries ? Are they themselves democracies ?

Last edited 5 months ago by Alan Osband