The Outlook for Israel’s Military Campaign against Hamas

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This transcript is from a CSIS event hosted on October 23, 2023. Watch the full video here.

Seth G. Jones: Welcome to the Center for Strategic and International Studies. We have a great panel to discuss the ongoing situation in Israel and Gaza, and the broader – the concerns in the broader region.

I have Jon Alterman. Jon is the senior vice president, Zbigniew Brzezinski chair in global security and geostrategy, and director of the Middle East Program at CSIS. He previously served as a member of the policy planning staff at the U.S. State Department, and as special assistant to the assistant secretary for near-eastern affairs. Great to have you, Jon.

Jon B. Alterman: Thank you, Seth.

Dr. Jones: We also have Emily Harding. Emily is the director of the Intelligence, National Security, and Technology Project at CSIS, and deputy director of the International Security Program. She’s got 20 years of government service. She was at the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence. She also served in the CIA, with expertise in cybersecurity, counterintelligence, and the Middle East – including counterterrorism in the Middle East.

And then Dan Byman is a senior fellow with the Transnational Threats Project of CSIS. He’s also a professor at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service. And is the author of nine books, including one that’s directly relevant to our conversation today, “A High Price: the Triumphs and Failures of Israeli Counterterrorism.” Dan, it’s great to have you, and Emily, and Jon with us.

Let me just start off with Jon. Fast-moving situation right now. Based on where Israel is right now, what is your sense about the desired end state of the Israelis, the government, and how do they think they can get there?

Dr. Alterman: As far as I can tell, the desired end state really doesn’t go beyond eliminating Hamas’ leadership from Gaza. I think from a U.S. perspective, one of the things that U.S. officials have been saying is, look, we’ve been fighting counterinsurgencies in the Middle East for decades now. You have to have a more discrete end state. You have to think about how do you separate populations from the current leadership? How do you think about reconstituting some sort of governance structure in the region? I don’t sense the Israelis are very receptive to that right now. They are still so shocked, stung by Hamas’ terror that it inflicted on October 7th, that they say we will eliminate Hamas. And everything else is commentary on that. And I think what we’re seeing Americans all up and down saying is: Look, we’ve been doing this for decades. You have to think more deeply.

Dr. Jones: So, Jon, let me – just one follow up question, I’m going to open up to others too. The Israelis have used terms like “destroy” or “eliminate” Hamas, including in Gaza. Is that an achievable end state? And the reason I ask is, you know, we heard U.S. politicians say in the days and weeks after 9/11 that we were going to destroy al-Qaeda. That organization, of course, still exists today, 2023. So how achievable – or, how should we think about what’s possible in Gaza?

Dr. Alterman: It seems to me that a lot of the structure you can probably destroy. A lot of the capabilities you can destroy. A lot of the leadership you can kill. But in terms of the ideology, in terms of the idea, I mean, Hamas’ support is partly because they represent resistance to what Palestinians see as Israeli domination. Unless there’s a more acceptable avenue for that sentiment, unless there’s a sense that Palestinians feel there’s a political horizon, whether it’s a political horizon that is Gaza-specific, whether it’s a broader Palestinian political horizon that involves the West Bank, all that, I think, is yet to be determined.

But I think one of the most important lessons the United States determined is it’s absolutely vital to split this organization from the population that supports it, partly out of fear, partly out of affiliation or affection. You have to split off the population from the leadership, from the organization. And I haven’t seen very many signs at all the Israelis are even contemplating that. They’re talking about crushing, crushing, crushing, without giving Palestinians a more desirable course to take. And I’m afraid that what that means is that you don’t get to the desired end state. You get to an extended war, because people are cornered and they absolutely feel they’re fighting for their very survival.

Dr. Jones: Dan, Emily, do want to comment on your thoughts about eliminating Hamas as an organization and how to – how we should be thinking about it?

Daniel Byman: So, going back to your earlier point that the U.S. pledged to do this against al-Qaeda after 9/11, Hamas in many ways is a much harder target. As Jon said, it represents an idea of Palestinian resistance that’s been deeply embedded in broader Palestinian society. But it also has networks through social networks, religious networks, educational networks. And al-Qaeda in many ways was a very small organization. The U.S. at times kind of grossly exaggerated its size. But in terms of sheer numbers, much smaller than Hamas. And as a result, really uprooting Hamas is, I think, going to be far harder. And to the point where I think Israel needs to think more realistically.

Dr. Jones: So I do want to come back to the military campaign in a moment, but, Emily, I do want to turn to you to see if you had any thoughts on sort of the verbs that have been thrown around. But, second, you know, the intelligence picture really, which I know you’ve looked at. I mean, what is your sense about how serious of an intelligence challenge, maybe even failure, this entire Hamas activity was, not necessarily just for the Israelis but for the U.S. and other countries? Should they or could they have seen this coming? What were some of the challenges?

Emily Harding: Right. Well, first of all, on the idea of destroying Hamas, I think Jon’s absolutely right. You can’t destroy an idea. An idea has more sticking power than any person, any organization. It’s the most dangerous thing, the idea.

And I fear that as the Israelis pursue this goal of destroying Hamas, they’re going to make it harder to create the thing that you need as an alternative, and that is going to be the support of some of the other players in the region to try to create an alternative to Hamas. They’re going to need the Jordanians on their side. They’re going to need the Egyptians on their side.

Ideally, they would have at least not opposition from a bunch of the Gulfies to be able to say, OK, if Hamas is not an option, there needs to be another governing mechanism, another support mechanism, for the Palestinians. And the Israelis are going to have a very difficult short-term, long-term balance there. They need to stem the threat. They have to push back. But in the long term, they’re going to need the support of those other regional governments to create an alternative to Hamas.

I know that these gentlemen are going to have more to say about that too, so I look forward to that discussion.

On the intel piece, I don’t – I don’t want to dime out my colleagues in the Israeli intelligence community. They are among the best of the best. I think it’s very hard to call this anything other than an intelligence failure, however. And at the moment, you know, now is perhaps not the right time to be digging in really deep on what they knew and when they knew it. But in the future that’s going to need to be done. It’s important to go back and look, in a cold, hard, calculating way, at the mistakes that were made so you can never make them again.

Right now it looks like we have three basic buckets of an intelligence failure. Number one, we have a collection failure. It seems like the items that the Israeli intelligence services were collecting were not enough to give them an indication that this massive attack was underway.

Some of my colleagues have suggested that they have let some of their human networks in Gaza atrophy over the years, and that may have blinded them. There also seems to have been an overreliance on technical collection. The Israelis are the best in the world at some of the technical collection that they do. And they may have assumed that that collection would provide them the information they needed to see this attack coming. Hamas may have used excellent tradecraft in the run-up to this to prevent them from seeing those indications.

Second, there’s an analytical failure. So even if you have little pieces here and there that indicate something’s up and you don’t put those pieces together, that’s a failure of analysis, something that we in the U.S. intelligence community are painfully familiar with from past experiences.

And then, finally, there’s a tactical-warning failure. There are some indications that in the day of the attack there were sensors picking up movement and that Hamas in particular took advantage of a single point of failure in the Israeli system to take out cell towers so that Israel was both blind to what was going on right along the border fence and then also could not retaliate with some of, like, the remote-controlled weapons that were right there on the border, and then couldn’t organize themselves for a rapid response. And the three of those things put together led to a real disaster in the first hours.

Dr. Jones: Yeah.

Dr. Alterman: Can I just comment on this analytical point? I mean, some people have said it’s a failure of imagination. But I think there’s an extent to which the Israelis convinced themselves that they understood the Palestinians and they had this contained. Israelis have talked for years about mowing the grass. You just have to go in and teach them a lesson, but it’s totally sustainable.

And there was a sense, you know, when Americans would talk about the need to actually move on an Arab-Israeli peace process, on Palestinian-Israeli peace, on some notion of Palestinian statehood, Israelis would brush it off and say you don’t understand. We live with these guys. We understand them, and this is the best.

The Israeli sense is the Americans delude themselves by thinking every problem has a solution. I think the jury is still out. Are the Americans deluding themselves that every problem has a solution, that there’s a different way to deal with Palestinian national aspirations, which leads to greater peace for Israel? But certainly it feels like the Israeli self-confidence, that they understood Palestinian limits, they understood how to manipulate Palestinians, they understood how to keep Hamas’s ambitions limited, that was clearly a failure.

Dr. Jones: Thanks, Jon.

There are a couple of things there that I want to look at in a little more detail in a moment. But I do want to turn to the military terrain for a moment. This is a difficult environment.

Dan, I’m going to come to you. But if we can pull up the images. I just want to walk through a little bit of what the Israeli Defense Forces are going to have to deal with. So this is a photograph here of an IDF soldier in one of the tunnels that is underneath Gaza right now, obviously from a previous campaign.

Here are a series of images that give us a sense of what the Israelis will face in Gaza itself. So concrete areas, so it’s difficult if they’re going after Hamas or Islamic Jihad or other operatives; in some cases, narrow alleyways.

And then, more broadly, if we see what the Israelis have been up to thanks to ACLED here we’ve got IDF, air, drone, and some artillery strikes mostly in northern parts of Gaza but also, as you could see, areas of central Gaza and then some south all the way to the Egyptian border.

So, Dan, turning to you first, on the military campaign what is your sense of how challenging this is likely to be for the IDF and in what ways?

Dr. Byman: So every military hates to fight in cities and many of the advantages of very good militaries are negated in cities. So good militaries have better reconnaissance and surveillance. Good militaries have better long-range firepower. Good militaries can maneuver lots of units across vast areas. And you can’t really do any of that as effectively, I should say, in a built-up urban environment and it makes it much easier for small groups of fighters, as Hamas may employ, to mount a pretty effective resistance against Israeli forces.

And there are two more things that make it particularly difficult in Gaza. So in addition to everything being built up Hamas has these tunnels, as were shown throughout the Strip, and this enables them to hide their leaders, to hide weapons caches, but also to move people rapidly and at times probably surprise Israeli forces and this will lead to ambushes, really, behind Israeli lines if they advance and also possibly capturing more soldiers, creating more hostages. And they keep updating the numbers but the last figure I saw was 222 hostages in Gaza now and that creates two different kinds of military problems.

The first is that when you’re advancing you have to worry that if you attack a building or try to blow up a tunnel that you’re going to kill your own people, that there’ll be hostages there. But the second one is should Israel have military success, should it be killing lots of Hamas leaders, should it be advancing and seizing territory, Hamas can threaten to execute hostages and they’ve already made threats.

So far, thankfully, they haven’t made good on these. But that’s a constant concern and it’s a concern for Israel about its own people but also for the people of many allied countries including the United States.

Dr. Jones: So one follow-up, Dan, before going to Emily, on the hospital bombing is what is your – the Israelis have already indicated, and they did this a week or so ago, that they wanted Palestinians in Gaza to head south. They’re going to focus some of their military operations on the north.

Clearly, if you’re Hamas I think you’re probably going to send people down south as well to hide among the local population. So, I mean, where do you assess the areas of combat are likely to be? Can you focus on certain areas like the northern part of Gaza or should we expect to see some of the destruction occurring across the Gaza Strip?

Dr. Byman: Well, we’re already seeing pretty massive destruction across the Strip. It’s bigger in the north from the air campaign but we’re certainly seeing it throughout the Strip. Right now Israel seems to be signaling that it’s going to focus on the northern part and that seems – that’s where Hamas historically has had, you know, its strongest presence.

But Hamas is going to move its people to wherever Israel is weakest and it’s going to, of course, try to avoid having its leadership killed. So it’s going to be a game of cat and mouse and wherever Israel concentrates heavily Hamas is going to try to avoid that and focus on weak points.

In addition to conventional military operations we’re going to see a lot of special forces raids where, as Israel detects where Hamas leaders are or hostages are, it’s going to do quick raids hoping to get its people in and out in order to inflict casualties and rescue people.

Dr. Jones: So we’ll probably come back to a few of those things in more detail in a moment.

But, Emily, one of the controversial activities has been the attack against the hospital in Gaza. So if we can pull up the image. This is – this is the image actually of the attack itself. The hospital actually got pretty limited damage to it. Most of the damage looks like it was in the parking lot area. You can’t even see a bomb crater here. And then I’m just going to move over briefly to what the Israelis argued, which is identifying an area where there was a rocket launched by another group, potentially Islamic Jihad.

What is your sense about – the best that we can assess – what happened as of now, and what does this tell us about media and open source information in today’s age? So you might want to start with this, actually, what the Israelis are arguing.

Ms. Harding: Right. So this whole story is an exceptionally sad and tragic tale, I think, on several levels, both on a deeply personal level for the people who were at that hospital, and then also on a geopolitical level. So let me take those two things apart.

Right now, what it looks like is that this was in fact a misfire by a Palestinian Islamic Jihad rocket fired from what the Israelis are pointing to as a rocket launch site over there close to the coast. It came out a few days after the strike that there were several pieces of information that pointed to a Palestinian misfired rocket, as opposed to an Israeli strike. One piece of information – this was released by the Israelis. These are radar tracks of, they said, 10 rockets that were launched about the same time from about the same place, overflew the hospital, and headed for Israel. Now, with the hospital itself that was struck, there is some video footage that we don’t have here out on the internet of what looks like a streak across the sky and then an additional flare and then a twist to the rocket where it descends, and that, according to people who understand rockets better than I do, suggests that there was a misfire in air and then a redirect when it came down.

If you go to the other picture, as well, of the actual site: Again, folks who understand battle-damage assessments quite well can point to a lot of things here that don’t fit with an Israeli strike and do fit with a Palestinian misfired rocket. And one, as you point out, is the crater – there’s a very small crater sort of over to the side; and number two, the way that things burned as opposed to exploded matches much more with burning rocket fuel than it does with a missile strike. The hospital building itself was not hit but the parking lot was, where there were nothing but civilians sheltering. And some of the scorch marks that you see around matches much better with something that was a misfired rocket than an Israeli strike.

Israel also released some SIGINT they had of two Hamas fighters talking where they seem to be comparing notes and talking about it as a Palestinian misfire, but we don’t really know who those guys are or whether they had any insider knowledge or whether they were just talking. That to me is one of the least dispositive indicators. But the images that we have coming out of the actual strike site I think show the depth of this tragedy.

Now let’s look at the geopolitical piece. What we saw was that Joe Biden got on a plane and went to the region to try to make a terrible situation slightly less terrible. His goal was to take off from Andrews, to land in Israel and have meetings there to talk with the Israelis about their planned ground offensive, and also to show support. He was then going to go and have a summit with leaders from Jordan and Egypt and the Palestinian Authority, during which, I have to assume, his plan was to talk about relief for the Palestinian people and then also ways to perhaps let some of the dual citizens out of the strip, maybe let some other Palestinians out of the strip as well to save some lives. Before his plane got off the tarmac, news of this strike hit and the machine kicked in and the world suddenly was just assuming this was an Israeli strike, and that summit got canceled. So what we may have seen here is that mis- and disinformation that spread around the world very quickly, to match some people’s preferred narrative, derailed a summit that the American president was going to have with some Arab leaders who could have in fact made the situation less of a tragedy than it already is.

I think in today’s world we’re seeing images like this come out of Ukraine. We’re seeing an open source battlefield in a way that we’ve never seen before. If you want information about the conflict to fit a certain narrative, you can get it any time, any day, and you can spread it around the world before the truth really has a chance to take on. I think it’s beholden on the news media in particular, but then also all of us as we’re talking about these situations and, you know, posting and reposting, to be responsible and to ask questions before we just assume the current narrative is true.

Dr. Jones: Yeah, if I could just push open the video here – or the imagery, we’ve got demonstrations in Oman, which highlight exactly, Emily, what you’re talking about here; these images were, you know, just as notable in Beirut and in Baghdad and a number of other cities as they were in Amman.

So, Jon, you were going to come in on this.

Dr. Alterman: And the remarkable thing is the Israelis didn’t do this, right? And when you have a large-scale ground invasion of Gaza, you are likely to see things the Israelis actually did do, which is going to produce this over and over. What it did is it pushed Arab governments to get off the dime and to criticize Israel. The government of the UAE, the government of Saudi Arabia, who are deeply hostile to Hamas as armed groups espousing political Islam that are supported by the Iranians – exactly the folks they are most worried about, they hate the most. They had to go and criticize Israel, with whom they have a total strategic alignment, because the public saw these images, the public heard the narrative, and got engaged.

And it disproves what a lot of people had come to believe in the Middle East was, the Palestine issue has run its course. A lot of Arabs, and especially young Arabs simply don’t care. They care about education. They care about jobs. They care about entertainment. They don’t care about the Palestinians anymore. And what I think this strike in particular – and, as Emily says, the ability to get the message out and really engage people almost instantly – suggests that the Palestine issue has a salience that virtually everybody, including a lot of Arab leaders that I’ve spoken to, said, I think that issue – that no longer matters. And clearly we’ve seen in last week, and we will see in the weeks to come, that issue actually matters a lot.

Dr. Jones: So, Jon, I want to follow up with your, you know, broader assessment of the role of Arab states in the future of Gaza. But before we do that, Emily, if I could just go back to you. We talked a little bit about including in the map of what the Israelis put out about the rocket, but the U.S. government came out with its own assessment. So can you just briefly note – you know, your background is in intelligence, including you spent a number of years at the CIA as an analyst – for the U.S. to come out with that, I suspect that the U.S. conducted its own assessment. So how much of that would have relied on the Israelis? How much of that was likely done independently? And how important is it for the U.S. to publicly come out with its own assessment of it?

Ms. Harding: Yeah. I think it is important for the U.S. to come out with a public assessment of it, and have our own analysis presented as well. It would have been a combination of what the Israelis shared and then also independent sources that we could have looked at ourselves. Any time you receive information from a close ally, you want to trust but verify, in a sense. You want to say to them, like, yes, we’ll take your analysis of the information you’re providing, but we want to see the raw take itself as well.

So that you can examine it and make your own analysis based on it. So we would have asked the Israelis for the information underlying that radar track. We would have used our own overhead imagery to look at things like overhead persistent infrared to see where we thought that the tracks of those rockets were coming from. We would have called on our own SIGINT resources and HUMINT resources, if we had them, to try to get a hold of any information that could confirm one way or another.

And you’ll note that the U.S. did take a couple days before it said, actually, we think that this was – as, I believe Biden put it, the other team, not the Israelis. And then just today, the Brits came out and said the same thing, that they had done their own evaluation as well. Rishi Sunak said that it looks like it was a Palestinian misfire as opposed to an Israeli rocket. So you see – you see states trying to do the responsible thing and evaluate the information carefully, and then make a decision. But now we’re several days in, and the public narrative has already moved on. And that’s a dangerous dynamic.

Dr. Alterman: The summit was cancelled, right? I mean, there’s a perception that that Biden is totally on the side of the Israelis, despite all the things that the Israelis do. As Emily says, the conversation we’re having now versus the conversation before the hospital explosion is a totally different conversation. One of the other things happening is what Hamas did to Israel is no longer news, right? The world has moved on. And the narrative’s changed not only with the hospital explosion, but the narrative’s change to 95 percent this is what’s happening to Palestinians and 5 percent this is what is what Israelis suffered through.

Dr. Jones: So on the broader region, what is your general – well, two questions? One is, do you expect any government that has come out with – that came out critical of Israel for participation in the hospital bombing, which we’ve just talked about was likely not the Israelis – do you expect anybody to come out publicly or even privately and apologize for mis-assessing – maybe a more of a rhetorical question, but I think your answer is important. And second, what’s the broader role of countries in the region about Gaza, including the future of Gaza? The Egyptians played a major role. The Qataris are involved in hostages negotiations. The Jordanians, as you’ve already said, are right there. And there are others. What do you assess to be the role of some of these governments in the region?

Dr. Alterman: So I think for a lot of governments the issue is it’s not specifically true, but it’s generally true. I mean, King Abdullah of Jordan came out and said, you know, people perceive Palestinian lives to be not as valuable as other people’s lives. I think that narrative is deeply true. And the hospital bombing, whether it was caused by the Israelis or is in the general context of this ongoing Israeli assault, people say it might not be specifically true but it is generally true so I don’t have to walk back because Israelis have to understand the sanctity of Arab lives as much as Israeli lives. And, by the way, a lot of things the Israelis have said – Israeli officials have said over the last couple of weeks suggest that Israelis do have to think about their language and think about the way that they portray this.

But I think, you know, there’s a broader question of once we get past this, what’s the role for Arab states. Arab states have an absolutely vital role giving cover to whatever political environment emerges in Gaza, supporting in some way the Palestinian Authority that many have given up on, partly because Mahmoud Abbas is president 14 years after the expiry of his term, and is widely perceived to be illegitimate, ineffective, and corrupt.

I think the Saudis have a role sort of blessing this. The Saudis have a bunch of cash, but they also have the two holy mosques in Mecca and Medina. They chair the Organization of the Islamic Conference. There’s a way in which – the same reason Israelis cared about official recognition by Saudi Arabia, there’s a way in which a Saudi blessing really matters. I think the Qataris will play a role, but the Qataris can’t play a central role because they have a long and difficult – I would say a little bit too positive cooperative relationship with Hamas.

The Jordanians will play a role, but the Jordanians are a little bit further away. I think the Egyptians have to play a really significant role. And then I just wrote something over the weekend. Egypt has a border. Egypt has more than 100 million people. Egypt has an effective bureaucracy that can execute. Egypt has long security ties with Gaza, has an interest in the security of Gaza.

I think when all the dust settles, A, you’re going to have to have a joint Arab effort and there’s going to have to be a central role for Egypt, and Egypt will be making some calls about how much Hamas has to be completely uprooted and how many all of these organizations that Dan rightly pointed to are going to be allowed to be reformed but are still going to be there and still going to have some of the same people and some of the same connections that they’ve had over the last 30 years.

Dr. Jones: So Dan, I wonder – we’re talking about the region. If we can pull up the map here, one of the things, as we look over the last couple of days, is we’ve seen – I’m going to use my pen here – we’ve seen in Syria the U.S. get hit at two different bases up in the Conoco oilfields and then down at al-Tanf, where the U.S. has some soldiers near the Syrian-Jordanian border.

Lebanon here, we’ve got activity along the Israel-Lebanon border. We see – I’m going to circle Yemen because the Houthis – allegedly the Houthis shot land-attack cruise missiles and drones, sent drones toward Israel up the Red Sea that the U.S. shot down. And in Iraq, we’ve also seen U.S. targeted at two separate bases from drones.

Dr. Alterman: The embassy just went on ordered departure. They’re getting Americans out of Iraq out of fear of attack.

Dr. Jones: So we have – there are broader security concerns about tensions rising in the region. The U.S. secretary of defense came out publicly about this within the last 48 hours. What is your sense about the security situation in the region? Where might it be headed? And how should the U.S. be thinking about it?

Dr. Byman: So this potential for a greater regional conflict takes a situation that’s already horrible and could turn it into a complete nightmare. So right now we are seeing, as you indicate on the map, relatively limited incidents of violence, but throughout the Middle East. And each one, in isolation, would be a concern. But together, it’s something that I think is a top priority for the United States, and also something that is weighing on Israeli decision making. There is two explanations. One is simply that Israel is weak and various regional actors want to be showing solidarity with Hamas. And being part of this, but perhaps limiting their role. Trying to say, we’re going to fight – send a few missiles in solidarity, but not much more. But the other is that Iran and other hostile actors are trying to stir the pot even more to send a message to the United States as well as to Israel that Iran can hit and hit hard.

And one concern is that as the tension we’ve all been talking about grows with the ground invasion, with greater Palestinian casualties, that we’ll see pressure on a number of these actors to go forth. Now, I also think there’s good reason to think Hezbollah and some of the others have reasons not to fight, that they have a lot of equities that Israel could put in jeopardy. But this is something that I think could go in multiple directions. I don’t think that there is necessarily a decision made by some of these actors.

And to take this further for the United States, I think a lot of what the Biden administration has been doing when it’s been deploying aircraft carrier strike groups, when it’s been sending Marines, when it’s otherwise been trying to ramp up its presence in the region, is to send a message not just of support for Israel, but also to Hezbollah and especially to Iran that the United States is deeply engaged in this and wants to limit the extent that this is going to spiral.

Dr. Jones: So, a follow up question and I want to go to Jon, who wants to come in on this. If we can pull up the map here, I want to show folks the cross-border violence along the Israel-Lebanon border. So there’s been a lot of activity firing across the Israel-Lebanon border. Actually, it wasn’t that long ago that Jon and I were there, coming down from Beirut. Probably would not want to go there today, Jon. But so for you, Dan, what is your sense about how much – since you raised Iran – how much, from your perspective, does Iran control some of these groups? Whether it’s Hezbollah, Hamas, Houthis in Yemen, or others? How much do they independently operate? So, I mean, what is your sense about how to think about this collectively?

Dr. Byman: So I think there’s not a single answer to it. It’s going to depend on the particular group. Iran has had a very close relationship with the Lebanese Hezbollah since its founding, and provides hundreds of millions of dollars, training. But there’s also a strong ideological bond there. When we talk about Hamas, we talked about the Houthis, there there’s more distance. Now the Houthis in particular have been getting closer to Iran in recent years, but still not the same as Hezbollah. Hamas has received money from Iran, weapons from Iran, training from Iran, but has always tried to maintain considerable independence.

I’m going to add one more group, Islamic Jihad, which is also active in Gaza. That’s actually very close to Iran, in part because they ran out of money at a certain point and the Iranians simply moved in as their main funder. So there’s a lot of different answers to this. On this particular attack, we’ve had conflicting reports in the open about Iran’s role with some of what’s been leaked saying that Iran was very involved and others saying the Iranians were completely surprised. So, at least from my point of view, Iran’s complicity in the specifics is still a question mark. But clearly, Iran was behind making Hamas far more formidable, and that’s had disastrous consequences.

Dr. Alterman: And the Iran challenge is partly a challenge of calculation and partly a challenge of miscalculation. I think the Iranians want to remind people that they can reach out and touch Americans in the region. They want all of their proxies, who they’ve been supporting for years and years, to demonstrate that when things go moving, Iran is there. But there’s the possibility that something goes wrong, there’s a mistake. You have somebody acting independently, American soldiers get killed. This can go very, very bad, very, very quickly, and you can find yourself in another situation.

One other thing I want to talk about, and it’s not Iran but it’s the West Bank. And we haven’t talked at all about the West Bank. But violence is increasing in the West Bank. You have vigilante settler movements that are arguing they need to protect Jews in the West Bank from the depredations of Palestinians. This also could very, very quickly spiral way out of control. There are a lot of Americans who are living – dual citizens – living on the West Bank as well. I think this issue, should the West Bank really erupt in internal conflict, would be a very, very difficult issue for the U.S. government.

Dr. Jones: Yeah. And it’s probably worth noting as well the issue within Israel itself. Israel’s got Arab populations within the country. Hamas has already –

Dr. Alterman: So it’s about 20 percent of the population and the estimates I’ve heard is maybe 5 percent of those people are radicalized. But that still gives you 50,000 radicalized Palestinian Arabs who are citizens of Israel.

Dr. Jones: Yeah. And when I was in Israel in – over the summer the Israelis were conducting operations in Jenin in the northern part of the West Bank against Hamas operatives.


Ms. Harding: Right. So on the Iranian question, trying to get in the heads of the Iranian leadership is a very dangerous thing to try to do and their calculation in this particular circumstance is going to be very complicated.

I want to add one more factor that we haven’t talked about yet and that’s the internal unrest inside Iran. The demonstrations over the death of Mahsa Amini for not wearing her headscarf properly has been ongoing for a long time now, longer than any other protest movement in Iran.

Dr. Alterman: More than a year.

Ms. Harding: Yeah, more than a year. And then in addition it was just yesterday when another young woman was declared brain dead after she was attacked by Iranian security forces I think on the metro for, again, not covering her hair properly.

So this – they have stuff to deal with at home just like the Israelis have stuff to deal with at home.

Dr. Alterman: And the economy is miserable.

Ms. Harding: And the economy is miserable. So they have a very complicated calculation on whether or not they would want to get involved in something bigger. There’s a, you know, rally around the flag sort of effect if you are fighting against Israel, but at the same time I’m not sure their domestic population has the appetite for anything right now.

Dr. Alterman: I’m not sure the domestic population is really enthusiastic about sending money to guys fighting overseas when they’re suffering at home. I mean, the economy is a mess. Inflation is high. Water shortages, all kinds of things. I think there’s a sense that this is an extracurricular activity that actually they should do less of and it’s time to make Iran great again.

Dr. Jones: So with all these challenges out there, Emily, what is your sense about what Israeli intelligence officers are doing right now other than probably not sleeping much? What are they looking for – hostages, for example. What are they collecting on right now? What do they – as they look outside of just Gaza and, perhaps, the West Bank what are they looking at? What does the picture look like?

Ms. Harding: We’re a couple of weeks in now so this is the point in the national security crisis when your analysts are well and truly exhausted and you have to send some of them home to get some sleep. Otherwise, they’re just not going to be functional when you need them to be functional.

This is about the time when you start to say, OK, this is going to be a marathon, not a sprint. We’re going to split up into teams. You’re going to go home, you’re going to sleep, and you’re going to come back in tomorrow hopefully a little bit refreshed.

But the challenges on their plate are massive. The very first thing has to be locating the hostages. They know that there are probably upwards of 200 now still in Gaza somewhere. Trying to find them so that you don’t have the tragic situation where an Israeli raid ends up in the death of hostages and ideally where you can find them and bring them back.

I wouldn’t be at all surprised if Israel was conducting some of these raids in order to prompt Hamas to move so they can catch indications of those movements through various collection techniques.

The second is that they are looking all around them. Israel lives in a dangerous neighborhood. They’re going to be looking north to the Lebanon border. They’re going to be trying to pick up any indication that Hezbollah is thinking about getting deeply involved in this fight.

They’re going to be looking to Iran to see if they have any indication of what the Iranians are planning. They’re going to be looking at the Egyptians and the Jordanians trying to figure out, you know, can they draw on some long-standing relationships and can they also kind of triangulate to figure out what those guys are going to do when it comes to supporting the Palestinians or also backing Israel on the things that they need to do as well.

It’s a very busy time for these folks in the Israeli intelligence services and I know that they are working very hard to try to save the lives they can.

Dr. Jones: So one aspect that Israeli intelligence officers, Dan, that I’m sure are doing – they’ve said they’re doing – is to identify not just where hostages are but also where – potentially where the civilians are.

And so, you know, this whole war – if we can bring up one of the images here – this was a strike over the weekend, an Israeli strike in Gaza. I think we should expect to see destruction in Gaza because of airstrikes like this from fixed-wing aircraft. The Israelis have F-15s, F-16s. They’ve got drones. And then once the ground war starts artillery and other weapons systems used.

Dan, I mean, when you look at Hamas, I mean, they clearly violated any definition of human rights in killing civilians to start off this whole conflict. So, first of all, you know, what’s your general sense of Hamas along these lines? And second of all, if you’re looking at this from an Israeli perspective, or even a U.S. perspective trying to influence the way this war is fought, what is your sense about how – the challenges for Israel or what the broader international community’s going to be looking at on targeting, on the impact of civilians? I mean, there has been a lot of discussion, including the Europeans raising questions about closing the border, turning off electricity or water. What are the humanitarian challenges for the Israelis here?

Dr. Byman: So, starting with Hamas, there are kind of three I would say very criminal areas.

One, as we saw on October 7th, is simply attacking civilians randomly, trying to kill them simply because of who they are, with no military value.

The second is Hamas co-locates military and civilian facilities in Gaza. And as a result, if Israel goes after military facilities, at times it’s going to destroy civilian infrastructure.

And the third is when Hamas did this attack, it knew that Israel was going to respond and respond exceptionally harshly. So it was willing to put the lives, the security, the well-being of ordinary Gazans at stake for its attack, and bears responsibility for that.

In Israel’s response, though, it’s exceptionally difficult to avoid significant civilian death and significant displacement. In terms of built-up areas, in terms of co-location, things we’ve talked about, that’s going to involve the deaths of civilians. Even if many leave, some won’t, and civilians will inevitably be – inevitably be caught as damage in the military operations. And that’s going to be – we’re already seeing significant death, and that’s just going to grow. It's going to be almost impossible for Israel to avoid this if it does a major ground operation just because of the nature of terrain and because of the Hamas co-location. And so that’s something that’s going to be a price that’s going to be paid.

And there’s no magical answer to this. For Israel to go after and try to uproot Hamas as much as possible, it’s going to have to do a sustained, very difficult operation in Gaza. And a sustained, very difficult operation in Gaza is going to have a very heavy cost.

I do think there are things Israel can do to make things better for ordinary civilians. Fuel and electricity are very important, and that should be allowed. I think that’s a mistake. To go further, I would say that Israel – efforts to step up the supplies going into Gaza are also very important. So those are some areas to begin with, but I do worry deeply as this military campaign grows.

Dr. Jones: So you’ve looked at terrorist groups, Dan – and then I want to go to Emily – you’ve looked at terrorist groups for decades. Will the way this war is fought impact recruitment for Palestinian groups?

Dr. Byman: Absolutely. So we’re already seeing calls by groups like al-Qaeda and the Islamic State saying people should be attacking Israel. This is something that has captured the attention of the world, really, but also especially the Arab world and the Muslim world. So global terrorist groups are already using it in their propaganda.

But a lot of the Palestinian narrative is a narrative of constant Israeli aggression. And we talked about the hospital bombing, but even if you exclude that the media coverage in much of the world, especially the Arab world, is about the destructiveness of the Israeli campaign. It’s families that are dead. It is destroyed buildings. And this is something that groups of all sorts will use to show that Israel is a hostile, really evil power as part of their narrative. So there’s no question this will be a continued part of recruitment and will be, I think, a major piece of propaganda in the years to come.

Dr. Jones: Emily?

Ms. Harding: I think that’s absolutely right. And I mean, we should say that a lot of that is true. Like, the people are – people are dying. Families are losing loved ones. It’s a horrific situation. But none of that coverage is counterbalanced by the Israeli efforts to minimize those casualties and the great care that the Israeli military has taken to try to avoid civilian casualties.

In addition, one thing that really bothers me about the narrative that’s out there right now is there’s a lot of calls for Israel to stand down – you know, Israel, there’s no need for a ground invasion; you can’t put the Palestinian people through this – but where are the calls for Hamas to stand down? Where are the calls for Hamas to give up all of the hostages immediately and turn themselves in or declare a ceasefire? They also have the power, I think, to protect Palestinian civilians, and they are doing quite the opposite, as you point out, Dan. Instead, they’re, you know, asking Gazans to stay in the line of fire up north. They’re trying to co-locate with, you know, things like mosques in order to make it much more difficult and provide that kind of propaganda win for the Israelis. It’s a no-win situation for the Israelis in so many ways and I worry that in some ways they’re going to use that as a “well, we can’t win either way so what we’re going to do is do what we had to do to protect our people” and move forward with consequences.

Dr. Jones: So, Jon, we’re right at the end of our time. I have a tough question for you, although everybody else can jump in – is, how does this end, or what is your sense about where this is likely to be headed? I mean, at the very least, if what Emily and Dan are saying ends up being true, there’s large-scale destruction in Gaza, and potentially other areas, then that’s going to raise this prospect of reconstruction, rebuilding, aid into Palestinian areas. You raised at the beginning of this this issue of broader governance, what happens next, including to Gaza. I mean, what is your sense about what we need to be thinking through after this military phase, which is about to start, is over?

Dr. Alterman: It seems to me, when Dan talked about all the Hamas institutions, it raises a really important point: The Israelis are very focused on what they want to destroy. I think there needs to be a talk on what do you want to preserve? What do you need to be focused on preserving? Partly ties with other Arab states. I don’t know if they’re talking with Arab intelligence services. They should be. They need to be talking with folks not just about “don’t give us your international human rights stuff, we’re going to fight a war,” but talk, as Emily said, about “here’s what we’re doing.” I think to me the Israelis have to be beginning to ensure they leave a pathway out as much as they’re constructing the pathway in.

Ultimately, the success of this is not going to be determined on the battlefield. The success is going to be determined by what the political environment in Gaza is after this is over. The military stuff gives you leverage, it helps you set the table; it doesn’t give you victory or defeat. And the Israelis certainly can be very successful militarily, although, as you say, it’s going to be very, very hard. You can be successful militarily but unless you can get that political outcome, it’s all for naught. And it seems to me that the fundamental thing is to think not only about the targets you want to destroy but start cordoning off the things you actually think you’re going to need to protect, because when the bullets stop flying, those are the things that ultimately you’re going to have to build from to give Israelis security into the future.

Dr. Jones: Well, it reminds me of the primacy that Clausewitz talks about when he talks about politics as being of predominant importance in warfare, so this brings us back to that issue.

Well, Jon, thank you; thank you, Emily; and thank you, Dan, for spending time with us to talk through what is clearly a complicated issue and hope you come back again soon and we’re able to have another substantive discussion on what is a very important issue. Thanks. Thanks to all three of you.