Israel-Hamas: "war is a severe teacher"

(To Germana Tappero Merlo)

“The most disastrous war is not the one lost but the one that disappoints”, goes a saying among historians, because there is no military victory in the field that can be defined as such if it has not achieved its political objective. And it is the concern that has loomed over Netanyahu since October 7th, for his political destiny already seriously compromised by personal events preceding that Jewish September 11th and by the failure, on that bloody Saturday, in his role recognized for years by his most loyal voters by “Mr Security”1.

In having underestimated or even ignored the alarms raised by his own internal and military intelligence regarding Hamas' intentions, Netanyahu has fallen squarely into that trap which, using a term specific to intelligence analysts, is the mirror imaging, that is, hypothesizing, in a sort of mirror image, that your opponents will think and act as you would. In practice, a mortal sin of political and strategic presumption, with the known consequences in terms of human and material costs, because it is to it that the failure of the entire Jewish intelligence has been traced back, with relative lack of adequate preparation, where a powerful State militarily, like Israel, it failed to discern the possibility that its non-state adversaries such as Hamas, until then the only emblem of irregular warfare, "were conventionalized in terms of operational tactics"2. And now, with waves of conquest of the southern Gazan territory and partial loss, or even just complex military control, of the northern one which was considered conquered ("denazified", according to Jewish terminology), where instead Hamas is restoring some of its capacity by taking over the management of humanitarian aid, it is precisely the concept of victory that the Israeli war government is questioning.

Netanyahu clarified his priorities, claiming that total victory over Hamas is "a short distance away", also promising the "eternal disarmament" of Gaza while, on the fate of the Palestinian terrorist resistance organisation, he added a metaphor so clear that it appears , and for some time, almost self-evident: “how you break glass into small pieces, and then you continue to break it into even smaller pieces and continue to hit them”3. So no hesitation. No backtracking on the belief that the military annihilation of Hamas is necessary, at any price, even of the civilian hostages, at least according to the fears of their relatives, willing to accept Israel's defeat in order to bring their relatives home4.

It is no longer time for just "mowing the grass" (from the Hebrew כיסוח דשא), a constant in Netanyahu's security policy, i.e. that military tactic of patient attrition, alongside the naval and economic blockade and missile defense systems, from limited objectives - such as decreasing adversaries' ability to harm Israel and thus achieving temporary deterrence - achieved through occasional large-scale operations. Tactic of "mowing the grass" seen with the three wars in Gaza and the second in Lebanon, and inherent in the Dahiya doctrine5 of former chief of staff Gadi Eizenkot, present in Netanyahu's war cabinet. In practice, a form of asymmetric warfare that endorses the use of disproportionate force compared to the enemy and involves the destruction of civilian infrastructure in order to put pressure on hostile regimes. However, it was Eizenkot himself who declared “anyone who talks about absolute defeat (of Hamas in Gaza) and his unwillingness or ability (to harm Israel), he's not telling the truth.".

Unlike Israel, final victory is certainly not a concern for Hamas. Its strengths lie inasymmetry but above all in his ambiguity. Using the population of Gaza as hostages, Hamas has long been able to threaten moral outrage if Israel actually pursues it where it lives. Furthermore, it has already achieved successes, such as diminishing the image of the reach of the much-vaunted Jewish military and intelligence machinery, thus highlighting a new balance of power previously unthinkable for Jewish political leaders. Furthermore, brought the Palestinian issue back to the international spotlight, at risk of oblivion because for years it has been hidden by the protective screen of a comfortable stalemate in relations between the political leadership, Israeli and Palestinian, with an ANP of an Abu Mazen not so displeased with a status quo, shaky and certainly more favorable to the Jewish side , about the precarious condition of his people and of his territory which he would like as a State of Palestine.

A victory for Hamas which is also and above all one of communication: having labeled the horrors of 7 October as "resistance", therefore using a word that shakes souls, especially Western ones, and having dominated informal war communication, between social platforms and well-managed media campaigns, have allowed Hamas to fuel the risk of oblivion if not of a real denialism of that violence of pure terror, in the operational and dissemination methods branded Islamic State, perpetrated by its tormentors against the civilians of kibbutzim and moshavs of southern Israel. All this then makes us forget that Hamas, and the other acolytes of the Axis of resistance to which it belongs, have a single objective in mind, namely the destruction and total elimination of Israel, and not - and it is worth highlighting - the war for the establishment of a state for the Palestinians.

But Hamas' successes don't end there; so far, in fact, there is a prosperous return of a militant and aggressive religious radicalism of non-state armed groups that goes far beyond that which bombs from the Lebanese borders (Hezbollah) or from the waters of the Red Sea (Houthis), because there is now a sort of call to arms for other extremist movements, from the Egyptian Tayyar al-Taghyir of the Muslim Brotherhood6 - also given the refugee emergency on the borders between Gaza and Egypt, precisely - up to that of individual subjects at risk of emulation, because they are sensitive to the appeal of global jihadism, long awaiting a sensational, disruptive event, such as it was October 7th that gave inspiration and the start to its umpteenth rebirth after the (partial, at the moment) defeat of the self-styled Islamic State. Not to mention the exponential increase in anti-Semitism throughout the world7. All facts witnessed and threats clearly perceived by analysts and which do not spare Italy and its internal security8.

But the greatest challenge of this war for all of Israel, and not just for Netanyahu's government, is to become aware of its having to deal with the basic concepts founding, on the one hand, the strategy of national security and, on the other, the doctrine of national security9. The first is, in fact, the vision of the strategic role of national security for the very survival of the Jewish nation, the foundations of which were defined by David Ben Gurion himself. In practice five components such as the conventional qualitative military advantage; the perception of nuclear deterrence; the special relationship with a superpower; technological and economic superiority and, ultimately, the national focus, i.e. the state, majoritarian democracy, the spirit of the Jewish people and the connection between Israel and the diaspora. In practice, a memorandum of eternal value because it is almost constitutional for a nation, Israel, without a written Constitution.

La doctrine security, however, is affected by the moment and reflects who is in power and manages the country, but which has always, for Israel, been characterized by deterrence, alarm Quick, defense e decision, all elements, however, strongly called into question by the events of 7 October and above all weakened by the behavior of the various Jewish executives of the last five years: it is no coincidence, in fact, that Hamas, the most feared among the nearby enemies, alongside Hezbollah, unleashed that war in perhaps the most divisive and fragmented moment in Israel's entire political history. Furthermore, and another point in favor of Hamas, Israel is at risk of extremism, with a sharp decrease in liberal and egalitarian attitudes in the face of greater ethnonationalism and a push towards a global conflict against all its enemies. And paradoxically it is precisely the military leaders of the IDF, with a clear vision of the real battlefield, who warn their prime minister against the risk of undermining the national security strategy in its entirety, in those founding principles written then by Ben Gurion.

Where, then, is the “short distance” victory for Israel acclaimed by Netanyahu? Perhaps in the destruction of Gaza, already reduced to a modern Dresden, in the attempt to eliminate or, better yet, totally eradicate Hamas, completing the Israeli Prime Minister's own cycle of "dividing (the Palestinians of Gaza from those of the West Bank) and conquering those lands”? Hamas, however, is an ideology and above all a project, even before being a criminal terrorist movement. It will be difficult to break down those ideologies and create political alternatives in the short term: his leadership may disappear, but there are alternations, and many, with different acronyms and perhaps the same sponsors. And then because the history of al-Qaeda and the Islamic State, in these long years of war on terror, are clear examples of a phoenix, and in an irregular war, between such different subjects (State vs. non-state actors) the success and failure are polymorphic, at multiple levels and on different time scales. And two decades of fighting against this type of asymmetric threat (Afghanistan and Iraq above all) should have taught us that victory means not only military success, but winning hearts and minds, isolating the violent and achieving lasting peace.

Ultimately, without a prospect of a political solution between Israel and the moderate and above all unarmed Palestinian groups, there will always be the risk of a flare-up of tensions and the re-emergence of armed factions, with the inevitable resumption of Jewish operations aimed at "mowing down the grass".

Here the greatest risk for this Israeli war government is precisely that of winning a disappointing victory because it is an orphan of the strategic political objective which, ultimately, has always been the same since 1948, namely the total security and survival of Israel.

Once again, without denial and in the words of Thucydides, “war is a severe teacher”.

5 The doctrine takes its name from the Dahieh (transliterated Dahiya) neighborhood of Beirut, where Hezbollah was based during the 2006 Lebanon war.