The past week in Israel and the Palestinian territories has been horrific, and the next few weeks promise only more misery and pain.
Every shooting war is also a war between competing narratives—each side has its preferred way of framing the conflict—and few have been as fiercely contested in this regard as the war between Israel and the Palestinians. A week in, we should pause to interrogate some of what we have heard combatants and pundits say.
Hamas is ISIS.
In the aftermath of the attacks on Israel, which included atrocities such as the murder of children and the elderly, Israel and its defenders have likened Hamas to the Islamic State, the violent Islamist movement that briefly took over large swaths of Iraq and Syria before its defeat by local forces.
The comparison is at once understandable and misguided. I served as the senior Pentagon official responsible for the Middle East when we created the campaign plan that eventually defeated ISIS, and I remember the reporting—both open-source and classified—that clearly outlined the group’s ruthless nature. Hamas is certainly guilty of ISIS-like crimes, and it is responsible for all of the atrocities that took place on Israeli soil. But some of those crimes—including the murder of innocent civilians—appear to reflect Hamas’s disorganization, relative to ISIS, as much as its brutality.
The pictures and videos we have seen from Israel seem to support the assertion, made by Hamas and others, that the initial incursion into Israel became a mass breakout; other Palestinians, seemingly not under the direct command and control of Hamas, appear to have piled into Israel, murdering and kidnapping Israelis at will. The idea that some of the worst atrocities might have been the result of disorganized, animalistic impulse is somehow even less comforting than the assumption that they were part of an explicit strategy.
Yet I heard from one well-informed observer that Hamas was initially unsure precisely how many Israelis had been kidnapped. Indeed, whether an Israeli mother or child was met with indifference or slaughter might have been determined as much by chance as by plan. Hamas seems to have been surprised by its own success —the helmet-cam-style videos Hamas has released do not portray a world-beating force, making the Israel Defense Forces’ initial reversals all the more embarrassing—and to have had no plan whatsoever for how it should deal with innocent lives. All too often, brutality appears to have triumphed over mercy.
The war in Gaza, though, does resemble the last phases of the war against ISIS in several unfortunate ways. By late 2016, the U.S.-led coalition, which included Syrian Kurds and Iraqi soldiers on the front lines, had pushed ISIS out of its more recently captured territories and into Raqqa and Mosul, its last two urban redoubts. The human costs of recapturing Raqqa and Mosul were staggering. Unlike in, say, Ramadi or Manbij, where locals were more ambivalent about ISIS rule, ISIS had strong local support in both Raqqa and Mosul, much as Hamas does in Gaza. Like Gaza, too, Raqqa and Mosul are large urban areas: Avoiding large-scale civilian casualties was impossible.
Israel now marches into Gaza, where Hamas has ruled with an iron fist but where most residents prefer even Hamas rule to Israeli occupation. As in the campaign to defeat ISIS, finding and killing Hamas’s leaders will result in the deaths of thousands of innocents as well.
Iran is behind it all.
The supreme leader of Iran and Benjamin Netanyahu have one thing in common: They are, at their core, risk averse and, in the eyes of their domestic critics, cowardly. Bibi has forever avoided the kind of fight he now faces in Gaza, preferring to talk tough when abroad and snipe away with the occasional air strike. He has never wanted to commit troops on the ground or make concessions in the name of peace that might anger his right wing.
In the same way, Iran has always been willing to fight Israel down to the last Palestinian or Lebanese. Iran works through proxies and affiliates, such as Hamas, and studiously avoids direct confrontation. Tehran, I feel certain, does not want this war to escalate. Should the war turn into a conventional conflict, and should Iran, say, threaten the sea lanes around the Arabian Peninsula, its navy will find itself at the bottom of the Persian Gulf in a matter of days.
But Iran is rarely a unitary actor. Reports that Iran knew about Hamas’s operation should therefore be met with skepticism. Who in Iran knew? What, precisely, did they know? The fact that Hamas was able to pull off last week’s operation is not just a black eye for Israeli intelligence but also a triumph of operational security for Hamas. I seriously doubt that many people in either Iran or Hezbollah knew about this operation, and I suspect that those who did lacked precise details of the operation’s timing.
A cottage industry of well-funded think-tank experts has been pushing the United States and its allies toward war with Iran for decades. These experts are not wrong about the despotic nature of the regime in Tehran, but we should be cautious about careless rhetoric that pushes the United Stares into a broader conflict.
The war will soon spread to Lebanon.
We have already seen shelling and rocket fire exchanged between Israel and Lebanon. But we have not yet seen a full-fledged war between Israel and Hezbollah, and I remain skeptical—optimistically so—that we will.
Some within Hezbollah must surely rue the chance they have missed: Given Hezbollah’s superior capabilities, had it attacked at the same time as Hamas, it might have seized large tracts of Israeli territory—perhaps pushing as far south as the West Bank—before Israel was able to mount a counterattack.
That opportunity, though, has now passed. The Israel Defense Forces—indeed, the Israeli people—are on as high an alert as they will ever be, and fighting on the offensive, something Hezbollah has never done against the Israelis, would be much harder than defending Lebanese territory. In addition, the Israeli air force—which has already dropped 6,000 bombs on Gaza, more in a week than the United States ever dropped on ISIS in a month—will surely soon turn its attention to deterring threats from the northern border, its job in Gaza basically done.
But more than anything, Hezbollah and its constituents—indeed, everyone in Lebanon—are tired. Hezbollah is exhausted from a decade-long war in Syria, and the Lebanese people, including Hezbollah’s Shiite base, are on their knees after an economically disastrous decade. Hezbollah and its Iranian supporters claim that Lebanon’s woes will not influence a decision to intervene in the conflict to the south. But what would that intervention look like? Would they really risk the kind of escalation that might lead Israel to level Beirut’s southern suburbs, as it has threatened to do since 2008?
For the time being, I expect Hezbollah to continue providing cover for Palestinian militant groups in Lebanon to lob rockets across the border, and maybe even throw across a few anti-tank rounds themselves, without getting directly involved on any large scale. Should they decide to commit either ground forces or their stockpiles of advanced rocketry at a later date, meanwhile, they may discover that once again, their window of opportunity has passed.
This conflict demonstrates U.S. weakness.
I have a theory, which is that a certain breed of pundit feels the need to weigh in on any global development and, lacking a compelling local angle or expertise, grasp for Big Theories to explain things. How else to explain the popular refrain that the war in Israel reflects a new, multipolar world?
Were these people, I want to ask, not around for 1996’s “Grapes of Wrath” campaign in southern Lebanon? Or for the Second Intifada, which began in 2000? Or for the July War of 2006? All of those conflicts between Israel and its local adversaries took place when America’s power was at its apex, and, like the war unfolding today, they were precipitated by local drivers of conflict.
Disregard pundits searching for any deeper geopolitical meaning in this war. You will not find any. The conflict is unfortunately just the latest in a sad, never-ending cycle of violence, and as soon as it ends, we can begin counting down the days until the next one begins.