On-Going Observations

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I wanted to share some thoughts on a miscellany of topics that have come up over the weekend in Israel/Palestine. Most aren’t the ‘big picture.’ Partly I’ve run out of things to say about the big picture and, to an extent, the emotional energy to say it.

These are just observations on topics just beneath the headlines.

The Axis of Resistance

For years Iran’s strategy toward Israel was not to defeat it in a conventional war but to surround it with a group of proxy militias and statelets that would harass it into un-livability, a strategic death of a thousand cuts. Israel faces Hamas to the south, Hezbullah to the north and then more distant militias in Syria, Iraq and Yemen. These militias have also been the clearest route to the regional war that has loomed over current crisis for the last month. But this seems to be a dog that is not barking. Israel has been skirmishing with Hezbullah for weeks. But the engagement has stayed within clear bounds. The Houthi in Yemen have fired a few easily-shot-down cruise missiles. But Hezbullah has the ability to make things much, much worse for Israel and it hasn’t done that. (The quickly shot down Houthi missiles mostly seem like signing up on a waiting list for a future Mossad targeted assassination.) And Hamas has noticed. Watch the news closely and there have been vitriolic complaints from Hamas and its supporters asking where Hezbullah is, and why Hamas is being left to face Israel alone. The leader of Hezbullah and Iran have both in the last several days issued vitriolic threats against Israel and claimed that Israel has already lost the conflict in strategic terms. But actions speak louder than words.

Of course this could all change. But it seems to suggest that while Iran and its regional proxies want to assist Hamas in every way they can, they are not willing to risk overwhelming damage on Hamas’ behalf. It may also point to the limits of Iran’s influence. No patron has true command and control power over its proxies. Then there’s the aircraft carriers. It’s been mostly absent from the US news conversation, but we should probably consider the possibly quite decisive impact of the US placing two carrier groups near the coast of Israel and Lebanon.

Each of these points are tied to areas of knowledge I know too little about. But there’s enough evidence to suggest that Hamas’ regional allies are leaving it to face Israel’s military might alone.

Netanyahu’s Continuance in Office

I’ve noted repeatedly that Israeli public confidence in Benjamin Netanyahu cratered on October 7th. Those who imagined there would be a rally-round-the-flag effect on his behalf were totally wrong. What’s surprised me is that there has not even been a mild stabilization of support for him. His support has continued to go down. Polls now consistently show that between 70% and 80% of the population wants him to resign now or immediately on the wars end.

And yet he’s still there, with no plausible short or even medium term reason to think that will change.

There are specific and clear political reasons why this is so. Netanyahu’s political fortunes started deteriorating long before Oct. 7th. He reacted to that decline by building narrower coalitions revved up by the extremism of forces he brought more explicitly into the electoral system. That government, with a narrow majority, immediately went for broke trying to change Israel’s de facto constitution in its favor. That spurred a crisis that paralyzed the government for almost a year until Oct. 7th. If Netanyahu falls, it almost certainly triggers new elections (after the war’s end) in which those parties will lose power. Many members will lose their seats. In other words, they have every incentive to keep him in power and they don’t need to call new elections until 2026. The very unpopularity of the government keeps it firmly fastened in place. There’s no obvious way for public opinion to break through that.

So despite all the unpopularity he is still there. He appears to be, by all accounts, a political dead man walking. Even he seems to recognize it. But he can keep walking as long as he’s Prime Minister. Several times over the last couple weeks he’s tried to shift the blame for his failure to others or cue up a future stab in the back narrative to explain it. But he’s so weak that he’s quickly been forced to recant and apologize.

This happened once when he tweeted in the middle of the night that the Army and intelligence services were at fault for the attacks. By the morning he’d been forced to publicly recant and apologize. His wife and family members appear to have been closely tied to the original decision to tweet (LOL). This weekend he said that a post-war investigation would have to examine whether protests by military reservists battling his judicial coup had signaled to Hamas that it was a propitious time to attack. He was quickly forced to deny he’d said it, then that he’d been misunderstood. In both cases, Benny Gantz, the retired general and opposition leader Netanyahu brought into the war cabinet, insisted he take it back and he did.

These factors have brought even more clearly to the surface Netanyahu’s total dependence on two far-right settler parties in his coalition. Feral settlers in outlying West Bank outposts have used the chaos of war to up their violence against Palestinian villagers — acts which, in addition to being wrong on the merits, threaten to ignite a third front in the war in the West Bank. Even the most diehard Israeli expansionist can see that at present such actions are dangerous and must be brought to heel. But Netanyahu has refused to do so. In part, that’s his own ideology but even more his dependence on parties that support those very settlers.

There’s no conclusion to these observations: He’s had a catastrophic loss of public support and yet remains in power. There are public debates about how much he’s even really calling the shots in his diminished condition. Whatever the truth of the matter, it lends an air of instability and volatility to the political situation in the country, as though the disconnect between his radically diminished public support and continued hold on power creates an unrelieved osmotic pressure that must give way somewhere and perhaps unpredictably.

On the Ground

For the last four weeks the public conversation about the war in Gaza has focused on the vast number of civilian casualties. We’re hearing much less about what Israel is actually trying to do (destroy Hamas’s militia and armaments) and whether they’re making much progress at that. One issue doesn’t negate the other. The progress of that effort — what the war is actually about for the Israeli army matters quite a bit for how long the war lasts and what happens after it. But it’s difficult to convey how little there is in the news about how that is going. That is probably in large part by design.

For the first two weeks of the war, news focused on a coming ground invasion in force. But perhaps under US pressure and counsel, Israel seems to be taking a different approach, focusing instead on first encircling and then launching commando type raids into the northern part of the Gaza Strip. Here and there there are hints of very intense combat in which large numbers of Hamas fighters are likely dying. But these are just hints. And other snippets can at least be interpreted in another direction entirely.

My point here is that there is a very central part of this conflict that remains very, very opaque in most reporting. You can search reporting in the US, Israel, the Arab world and Europe and find little more than hints.

As I noted above, credible reports — really more hints than reports — range from the Israeli army doing great to getting nowhere. Understanding the nature of the tunnel networks, mainly underground in northern part of the Gaza Strip, is key to making sense of any of this. These aren’t bunkers. It’s a network of tunnels, with some more than 100 meters underground, that allow rapid movement and safeguarding of fighters and weaponry. They allow fighters to emerge from the ground behind enemy lines or even out into the sea in amphibious operations. These tunnel networks were built with such a confrontation in mind. Their complexity and purported impregnability have also been built up for years by Hamas propagandists, western reporters and Israel itself. It appears to be the common assumption that Hamas is still holding the bulk of its manpower and weaponry underground in reserve.

But for all the talk of impregnability, there’s a duality to any system like this. As hard as you may be to get to, at the end of the day you’re trapped and underground. You need air and water. As the tunnel system grew larger it has been supported by an ever growing system of air exchange, which requires lots of fuel.

Here’s one paragraph from a (paywalled) article in the English language edition of Le Monde which gives some flavor of this:

However, the Israeli army may not be completely trapped. On the one hand, the network of tunnels, if partially damaged, may prevent coordination between the various Hamas groups. The ducts are equipped with means of communication, but the cross-section of cables running along their walls could isolate the fighters, breaking their coordination. Moreover, in a deep network, oxygen supply is vital. Without air renewal, the fighters holed up in the ducts would gradually suffocate. As the network expanded, so did the need for air renewal. Technically, engines are needed to operate this circulation, and therefore fuel to run them. Hamas has stockpiled large quantities of fuel in anticipation of this confrontation, but this capacity is not infinite. According to several sources, it gives the armed group and its allies an autonomy that could be counted in weeks. Should the fuel fail and the ventilation system shut down, the result would be simple: “The fighters would be forced to run like rabbits, and we’d be waiting for them,” assured an Israeli military source.

This is what this whole war seems to be leading to.

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