It’s been one month since Hamas-led militants staged a brutal attack on civilian communities and military bases in southern Israel. Since then, Israel has inflicted unprecedented devastation on the occupied and blockaded Gaza Strip. More than 10,000 people have been killed, entire neighbourhoods turned into rubble, and a population of 2.3 million people—including one million children—subjected to a medieval siege. As Israeli ground forces enter Gaza in larger numbers, and regional tensions build, Jamie Stern-Weiner asked two leading experts on the Israel-Palestine conflict where things now stand.
Since October 7, you’ve both identified three critical factors determining the scope of Israel’s offensive in Gaza. First, Israel’s traditional reluctance to undertake a full-scale ground invasion on account of the military casualties that would attend this. Second, the threat of intervention by Hezbollah. Third, the level of international and especially US pressure for a ceasefire. Let’s examine where things now stand in relation to each of these factors.
Israeli ground troops have made limited incursions into Gaza and reportedly bisected the northern sector from the south. But a full-scale invasion aimed at territorial occupation has not yet been initiated. Are we likely to see one?
Mouin Rabbani (MR): It’s certainly conceivable but my view from the outset has been that Israel will ultimately refrain from a comprehensive ground invasion. In previous confrontations the Israeli military demonstrated that, while it’s a very effective killing machine, it’s much less effective as a fighting force, particularly when it comes to ground combat. We have evidence of this not only from the Gaza Strip but also Lebanon and to some extent even the West Bank, where repeated Israeli incursions into very modestly armed Palestinian refugee camps and towns and cities have failed to eliminate the militias operating there.
We have now seen in Gaza an entire month of what several military analysts have described as most intensive bombing campaign in the history of the Middle East. What has Israel been doing? Razing entire neighbourhoods to ground, systematically destroying civilian infrastructure, imposing a medieval siege—in short, assaulting an entire society by targeting first and foremost the civilian population. Indeed, if you take Israeli press reports at face value, Israel has now killed more United Nations staff in Gaza than it has Palestinian field commanders.
This doesn’t look to me like a military campaign guided by military objectives. It appears to be an expedition to inflict severe mass punishment on an entire society to satisfy Israel’s objective of extracting an unbearable price from the Palestinians for the attacks of October 7. I therefore see this devastation not as a prelude to a comprehensive ground invasion but an alternative to one.
Norman G. Finkelstein (NGF): There are three components of Israel’s genocidal campaign in Gaza. The first, which shouldn’t be underestimated in my opinion, is pure vengeful bloodlust. I was recently reading about the Nat Turner slave rebellion of 1831 in which 60 Whites were killed in quite brutal ways. In the aftermath, the White population in the American South went on a rampage. They killed about 120 African-Americans at random and another 80 were sentenced to death in what were technically “trials”. In the present case, the bloodlust is driven also by sheer bewilderment and shock that the people of Gaza were able to so totally humiliate Israel’s military and intelligence.
Israel’s second objective in Gaza is to restore its “deterrence capacity”, i.e., the Arab world’s fear of it. Israel did suffer a major and humiliating blow on October 7. This could have conveyed to the Arab world that Israel is not so daunting a foe as once thought. Of course, Hezbollah already delivered that message in the year 2000 and then 2006. But when even a tiny, seemingly rinky-dink army like Hamas proved able to inflict such a blow, Israel’s perceived necessity to restore its deterrence capacity was significantly increased. And because Israel is unable to wage a ground war, the way it restores its deterrence capacity is to wreak as much death and devastation as it can from the air.
The third component is Israel’s attempt to seize the opportunity to impose a final solution to the Gaza question. This has plagued Israel since at least 1992, when then-Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin expressed his desire that Gaza “sink into the sea”. It seems pretty clear now that Israeli planners initially hoped to expel Gaza’s population into the Sinai. But that possibility was squashed by the president of Egypt. At present, I think there’s still a lot of uncertainty among Israeli ruling elites as to what exactly they want to do with Gaza long-term.
In the meantime, Israel might not need to undertake a comprehensive ground invasion in order to defeat Hamas. There’s talk of simply collapsing the tunnels connecting the northern and southern sectors and waiting for Hamas fighters underground to run out of air and food.
Turning to the second critical variable, what do you make of last week’s speech by Hezbollah leader Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah?
NGF: Many regarded it as a disappointment—and it was a disappointment—but Nasrallah said the maximum he could have said. One statement he did make was, they wouldn’t let Hamas be defeated. Nasrallah tends to be a person of his word, so I have to assume one should attach value to that statement. Hezbollah won’t do anything dramatic now, but if the utter defeat of Hamas looms, they might do something.
MR: I think it’s clear that Nasrallah didn’t announce a major speech just to declare that Hamas and Gaza are on their own and that’s he’s not going to intervene more than he already has. Similarly, I think it would have been entirely unrealistic to expect that Nasrallah would use the speech to unilaterally issue a declaration of war against Israel. He has to weigh all kinds of factors, not least the situation inside Lebanon.
What Nasrallah effectively stated in the speech was that all options are open and, in addition to the points Norman made, that Hezbollah’s future moves will be determined by how Israel conducts itself. A number of observers and analysts have concluded on this basis that it is only a matter of time before the continuing incremental escalation transforms into a full-scale confrontation. That strikes me as an entirely plausible analysis, which doesn’t make it inevitable.
Let’s zoom out to the international picture. What’s your assessment of the US posture?
MR: The US was shocked by the attack on October 7, which it saw as directed against not only Israel but also itself and its international role. It has responded by providing Israel unconditional military, political, and diplomatic support. The US has been very clear that it is for Israel to decide how it “defends itself” without restrictions from Washington.
At the outset, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken fully embraced and sought to market Israel’s aspiration to ethnically cleanse the Gaza Strip. Perhaps there was a view in the Washington echo chamber that Egyptian President Sisi is under pressure because of the Menendez scandal, because he needs an IMF loan, because he has upcoming presidential elections; that Arabs don’t care about the Palestinians; and, therefore, that Blinken need only suggest the transfer of Gaza’s population into Sinai and pro-Western Arab governments would respond, “great idea, how can we help you make this happen?”
Then Blinken hit reality. Since the 1970s, it has been a central Egyptian national security principle not to assume responsibility for the Gaza Strip under any circumstances. This means that even if Sisi had been prepared to entertain the Sinai proposal, he wouldn’t have been able to impose it on other Egyptian institutions and power centres.
More recently we’ve seen Blinken returning to the region and talking about a “humanitarian pause” as if the main purpose of his trip is to ensure that aid enters Gaza. I really think this is all a diversionary charade. I think the main purpose of Blinken’s current mission is to buy time for Israel so that it can achieve at least some objective that can be held up as an Israeli-American achievement in this confrontation.
We have also seen a growing US role in Israeli decision-making. There were already longstanding problems between the Biden administration and the Netanyahu government. Since October 7, I think the White House, National Security Council, State Department, and Pentagon have looked at Israel and seen a leadership in chaos and disarray. A leadership that is incapable of formulating a clear strategy with achievable objectives in Gaza. And so the Americans have, to a certain extent, taken custody of Israeli decision-making to try to knock some sense and order into the Israeli approach.
CIA director William Burns arrived in the region this week. I think it’s plausible to speculate that he is there not to complement Blinken’s efforts but to replace them. That is, that there are other elements in the US administration which view Biden, Blinken and National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan’s response to this crisis as doing enormous damage to US interests and influence in the Middle East.
What might be Burns’ message to Israel? That we are on the cusp of a significant regional escalation that has the potential to draw the US directly into this conflict. We don’t want this, particularly not in an election year. We have expended significant political capital with our electoral base through our unqualified support for you. It is now time to define clear and attainable objectives, set a clear timeline for achieving them, and begin to formulate an exit strategy if you fail in doing so.
NGF: One supplemental comment. It’s been suggested that the US wants a “humanitarian pause” but Israel says no. I find this completely implausible to the point of being ridiculous. The US sent two aircraft carriers to the Mediterranean, it just gave $14 billion more to Israel, it’s blocking any kind of international action which might inhibit Israel. It’s very easy for President Biden to instruct Israel: If I tell you do something, you’re doing it. But each party garners in the public arena a certain advantage from this pretence of the US wanting a “humanitarian pause”. As international outrage builds over what Israel is doing, the US gets to pretend it wants to help. Meanwhile, Netanyahu gets to play the strongman defying the US to pursue Israeli national interests.
MR: Indeed. The crisis also revealed from the very outset how utterly dependent Israel is on the US militarily, politically, and diplomatically. The Reagan administration liked to refer to Israel as an unsinkable US aircraft carrier in the Middle East. It’s been shown, I think, to be a rather leaky tugboat that now needs genuine US aircraft carriers to remain afloat. This is going to have significant long-term consequences for the image of omniscience and omnipotence that Israel has so successfully constructed in Washington in recent decades.
Norman G. Finkelstein is a leading scholar of the Israel-Palestine conflict. He has written many books including Gaza: An Inquest into Its Martyrdom (University of California Press, 2018).
Mouin Rabbani is co-editor of Jadaliyya, an independent ezine produced by the Arab Studies Institute. He was senior Middle East analyst with the International Crisis Group and head of political affairs with the Office of the UN Special Envoy for Syria.
Jamie Stern-Weiner is associate editor at OR Books. His edited collection on the Israel-Palestine conflict, Moment of Truth, was published in 2018.