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Hamas Doesn’t Want a Cease-Fire

Hamas Doesn’t Want a Cease-Fire

Recently, I drove along Israel’s northern border, west to east. To my American sensibility, it is the best road trip in Israel—a 90-minute version of a trip that would take many hours on California back roads—from the ocean through scrubby hills and finally to the Golan Heights. These days there is no illusion of peace, and every few miles I was reminded that across the border in Lebanon is Hezbollah, a threat that would make Hamas look like a nasty but minor nuisance by comparison. At checkpoints, I was forbidden from turning left, toward the border, because the Israel Defense Forces had evacuated the area out of concern over Hezbollah rockets and raids. I was stuck behind military transport trucks in low gear as I gained altitude. When I stopped near Mitzpe Hila, I heard, or rather felt, a ka-chunk, as the IDF fired artillery at Lebanon. The residents of that village told me these booms were a regular occurrence, and I could tell they were not kidding, because only I startled when the next round went out, with another window-shattering ka-chunk. Not even the little dog lazing outside looked up.

The war in Gaza is still going on, and the reports of Hamas’s utter demolition remain exaggerated. (This weekend, the group still had enough capability and freedom of movement to fire missiles into central Israel—a fresh war crime, because it made no effort to discriminate between civilian and military targets.) The progress of this war, and the question of who should administer Gaza after it—An Israeli permanent occupation? The Palestinian Authority? A consortium of Arab states?—remains urgent. More urgent, though, is the question of what will happen if the war expands to include Hezbollah and the West Bank.

Last week, Defense Minister Yoav Gallant described Israel as already engaged in a “multi-front war.” I continue to think Hamas miscalculated badly when it attacked on October 7, and was surprised by the scale of the carnage it wreaked and the reaction it provoked. Now that much of Gaza has been leveled and many thousands of Palestinians killed, though, its incentives have changed. What good would a cease-fire do Hamas now? The brutality of the Gaza invasion has left Israel largely friendless, or at least with its few remaining friends publicly urging restraint. Hamas has friends too, and it very much wants them to join in. Those on U.S. college campuses and in European capitals calling for a cease-fire are demonstrating their admirable independence of the Hamas party line. A cease-fire is the opposite of Hamas’s goal. It wants the war to expand, and there is some evidence that its wish will be granted.

Hamas seems to have launched these attacks without the permission of its main backer, Iran. “You gave us no warning of your Oct. 7 attack on Israel and we will not enter the war on your behalf,” Iran’s leader told Hamas’s leader, according to Reuters. But Iran’s wholly owned subsidiaries—Shiite militias in Iraq, Hezbollah in Lebanon, the Houthis in Yemen—have all treated the Gaza war as a lucky break for Tehran. And they have volunteered their services as its proxies on other fronts in the decades-long Iranian war against Israel.

The tempo of cross-border attacks, a tit-for-tat exchange of rockets between Hezbollah and Israel, had remained steady since October 7. But last Wednesday, Hezbollah kicked it up, with more rockets than on any other day since the war began. These rockets from Hezbollah should be understood as a duet sung with the Houthis, which have shut down the shipping lane through the Red Sea by attacking random commercial vessels. These actions signal a desire to escalate. And Israel’s deterrence strategy, which relies on its enemies knowing that Israel will inflict more damage than it takes, will make ignoring this escalation difficult.

Moreover, Israel’s new security paradigm, which is still being formed, seems to demand that it reply to Hezbollah with immense force. Since October 7, it has shifted from focusing on what its enemies intend to do to what they can do. When it withdrew its settlers and soldiers from Gaza in 2005, Israel bet that when left with responsibility for their own fate, Gazans would prefer to build up the society they had, rather than attack Israel and risk losing it. That bet turned out to be wrong. “We had a dinosaur in our backyard,” a senior Israeli officer told me, “and our mistake was to feed it.” So now Israel is developing a new doctrine, whereby no terror group on its borders can commit mass rape and murder—whether or not it wishes to.

And that suggests that Israel would regard Hezbollah’s capabilities as intolerable even if the group exercised more restraint in its rocket attacks. Hezbollah, in addition to being much more heavily armed than Hamas, is better prepared and more experienced, because of Iranian investment and on-the-job-training as auxiliaries of Bashar al-Assad during the Syrian civil war. Israel’s last war with Hezbollah, in 2006, began with small Hezbollah raids on Israel and escalated from there. Hezbollah hides its weapons among civilians, and fires them at civilians. A new war might start with an exchange of rockets more lethal to Israeli citizens than any previous attack.

“Lebanon is very sick,” the senior Israeli officer told me, and Hezbollah “is its cancer.” A war between Israel and Hezbollah would probably destroy Lebanon. One of the products of the last big war with Hezbollah was the “Dahiya doctrine,” named for the Beirut neighborhood that served as Hezbollah’s headquarters, which Israel leveled. The doctrine was conceived of by former IDF Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot, who now serves in Israel’s war cabinet (and whose son, a 25-year-old army reservist, was killed in Gaza last month). The doctrine holds that in an asymmetric conflict, where guerrillas hide among civilians, Israel will exercise its right to pursue the guerrillas, and destroy civilian infrastructure in the process.

But Israel knows that Lebanon’s death would “influence not only the region but also the globe,” as the senior Israeli officer put it. And to avoid that, he said, Israel might exempt Hezbollah from its new security paradigm. Instead of hunting it to extinction like Hamas, the Israelis might enlist the help of outside parties to apply diplomatic or back-channel leverage and avoid catastrophes that would displease them, to say nothing of the Lebanese. Other than Gazans, relatively few people depend on the continued existence of Gaza as a functional statelet. But Lebanon is a cosmopolitan cultural and financial center in whose fate many Saudis, Syrians, Brazilians, Canadians, and others have large stakes.

The other site of potential disaster is the West Bank. The Palestinian Authority’s finance minister, Shoukry Bishara, told me last month that his accounts are heading toward zero. Israel has hamstrung the PA’s finances by depriving it of revenue sources, chiefly the power to tax. He said the PA would be starved completely in no less than six months. At that point, he warned, the PA would be ready for a “coup de grâce,” finally finished off by Israel. Axios’s Barak Ravid reported that tax revenue was a key issue in President Joe Biden’s most recent call with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Even if Bishara’s doomsday predictions were exaggerated for effect, it is undeniable that Israel has, since even before October 7, been undermining the PA’s ability to operate where it has supposed authority. Money is not the only issue. Palestinian security forces are prevented from traveling freely to respond to security threats to the PA, or to Israel. And Israel’s incursions into Palestinian territory for arrests and raids have been constant since October 7. On a typical night, dozens of Palestinians are arrested and a few killed. Many of these raids have targeted Hamas or aimed to preempt upheaval, but the cumulative effect is to make Palestinian institutions irrelevant, with only Israel left responsible. If the West Bank erupts, despite or because of these efforts, it’s unclear whether Israel will be capable of containing the results.

The world is watching Gaza, for good reason. But the war is, as everyone knowledgeable keeps saying, just getting started. “It’s going to be a long war with many phases,” the senior Israeli officer told me. He said he hoped the Gaza invasion would be its most intense. “After that, maybe we will have a condition [where we can] reduce power in order to achieve goals without as much military kinetic effort.” But that condition depends on Iran, Hezbollah, and the West Bank remaining deterrable and manageable. And because they are looking less interested in being deterred and managed, respectively, the chances that the war escalates and expands are increasing fast.

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