“Tell me how this ends.”
This was what David Petraeus, then commanding general of the 101st Airborne Division, famously said to journalist Rick Atkinson in 2003. It was still early in the Iraq War, when the overwhelmingly superior US-led coalition had crushed its Iraqi adversaries fighting conventionally, but just as the country was beginning its descent into sectarian bloodletting and becoming a magnet for jihadists.
The same sentiment must surely be dominating conversations among policymakers and planners in Israel at this moment. Because war is an extension of policy through other means. A nation embarking upon execution of a war must have policy objectives in mind before starting the war. The government and its armed forces must also bear in mind that any operational plan will not be able to project with any degree of certainty how the campaign will proceed after making initial contact with its enemy’s main force or main line of resistance. These thoughts well and truly apply to the situation facing the Israeli government and the Israel Defense Forces (IDF).
Multiple statements issued by both IDF and Israeli government officials speak of the total destruction of Hamas. Emotions run high, understandably so, as Hamas’s actions on October 7 evoked images of pogrom. The word alone causes chills. All the more reason to have firm policy objectives in mind and recognize that as conditions on the battlefield and in the information domain change, the conduct of the campaign must adjust. Hamas’s brutality during its attacks against Israel and Israeli civilians may well have been savage, murderous, and criminal, but the Israeli government cannot afford to be viewed in the same light. This war, like any war conducted in the social media age, will be fought under constant observation. Images will sway opinion, and images can be altered for maximum effect. Information wars will tend to the Clausewitzian extreme faster than actual actions in combat.
A good start point for an analysis of Israeli strategic objectives, a tried and true method, is to first look at the war from the perspective of the enemy.
Net Assessment from the Hamas Viewpoint
The Hamas leadership’s ultimate war aims are the destruction of Israel and the retention of power in Gaza. Hamas will exert a total level of effort—diplomatically, economically, politically, and militarily—in order to win, or, more accurately, to not lose. Hamas obviously views its existence as vital; however, this view may not be held by the majority of the Gaza populace, which Hamas would gladly offer as human shields against attacking forces. Hamas exerts severe control of the Gaza population through its security and intelligence network. Hamas might not have the loyalty of Gaza’s people unless they see the defense of Hamas as their only option for survival. Because Hamas views the Israeli war aims as unlimited, with its complete destruction as Israel’s goal, it will try to convince the people of Gaza that this translates to their destruction as well.
So, Hamas will try to convince its Arab neighbors that any attack against Hamas is an attack against Islam and the Palestinian people. Hamas and its supporters will use the media to foster the image, especially when an Israeli ground offensive gets underway, of a merciless assault on the people of Gaza. Hamas will attempt to garner some civilian resistance to an attack, while concurrently trying to create a level of fear that results in refugee traffic and lines of communication blockage. Hamas would prefer to score some wins early, but as has been shown since Hamas took control of Gaza, the organization’s leadership remains committed to a long-term effort regardless of the negative impact on the people of Gaza.
Israel, Hamas believes, will be vulnerable to international measures to stop the war. As such, the group will use information and cyber means try to prevent widespread support for Israel because. Hamas perceives that the United States cannot politically withstand a portrayal of Israeli actions as ruthless assaults on innocent Palestinians and is counting on the notion that the the public in the United States, and in other countries whose governments support Israel, will not believe that the group’s removal has a high enough value to justify large numbers of casualties or the expenditure of vast resources. Hamas and its supporters, primarily Iran, are counting on the images of dead innocents in Gaza and the proposition of a long war to prevent or limit Israeli action over time. Ultimately, Hamas sees the US level of effort supporting Israel as limited because it does not believe full commitment of resources will be expended against Hamas due to competing resource requirements from other US operations.
US Policy Objectives
To a certain extent, Hamas is correct in viewing the specific level of US support for Israel as a critical variable. President Biden and the secretaries of state and defense have all reiterated America’s support, describing it as “rock solid” and “ironclad.” While the United States is not actually using force it is supplying the means of war to Israel. This form of using force must also bear in mind policy objectives. Based on both official US government statements and what a variety of US government officials have said during media appearance, the following set of assumed US policy objectives takes shape:
- Support for Israel will reinforce the standing of the U.S. as a reliable and constant ally in the face of grave threats to peace.
- Support for Israel will reaffirm the US determination to oppose the use of terrorism and the unjust use of force as a legitimate means of statecraft.
- Successful conclusion of the war against Hamas will offers a means to restore the impending normalization of relations between the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and the state of Israel and a stepping stone to a wider, durable political solution for the region.
With this assessment of Hamas interests and specific US policy objectives in mind, it is possible to elucidate like Israeli objectives, both strategic and with respect to the looming military campaign. Given the stated goal of destroying Hamas, both the Israeli government and the IDF must consider how the war ends as well as how it is conducted. The Israeli government knows, or should know, what force can and cannot do. Its policy objectives will require a true whole-of-government effort. What are those objectives likely to be?
Policy/Strategic Objectives of Operations in Gaza
- A stable Gaza, with a broad-based government that renounces the use of terrorism to threaten Israel or the Israeli people.
- Outcomes in Gaza that can be leveraged to convince or compel other countries in the region to cease support to terrorists.
- A restoration process to reach an agreement with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia to normalize relations with Israel, and an expansion of the Abraham Accords.
Because policy guides strategy and the conduct of operations, and bearing in mind what force can realistically accomplish, these policy objectives give shape to a set of IDF military objectives.
Military Objectives of Operations in Gaza
- Destabilize, isolate, and destroy Hamas and provide support to a new, broad-based government in Gaza.
- Destroy Hamas’s military capability and infrastructure.
- Protect Israel from Gaza-based threats and attacks.
- Destroy Hamas and supporting nations’ terrorist networks, gather intelligence on regional and global terrorism, capture or kill terrorists and war criminals, and free hostages unjustly detained under the Hamas regime.
Concluding the Campaign
Conducting this campaign as simply a punitive expedition, destroying Hamas and then leaving Gaza, will not serve the policy of either the United States or Israeli governments. The final result of this campaign must establish conditions for a better peace in the region. Removing Hamas must include providing a path to peace not only for Israel but for the Palestinians. There must be hope.
At the end of the campaign in Gaza the rebuilding effort should be under the control of the UN, through a civilian special representative of the secretary general. A security force will need to be put in place—placing it under the command of, for instance the Saudi armed forces (and encouraging the governments of other predominantly Sunni nations like Bangladesh and Malaysia to be the principal troop contributors) will enhance the prospects of building lasting peace. At a point to be determined by the UN special representative, a Gaza-wide open election must be held to produce a government that is truly representative of Gaza’s people and their interests.
These are just one person’s reflections on the policy that ought to guide what will undoubtedly be a brutal, hard-fought campaign. The IDF must fight in accordance with the laws of armed conflict, even as Hamas will not. Adherence to these laws is what distinguishes professional soldiers from barbarians. Above all, this campaign must be waged with the end state of a better peace in mind. It is the only way that it can conceivably end with sustainable political and security outcomes.
Kevin Benson, PhD, is a retired US Army colonel who commanded from company to battalion level and served as a general staff officer from corps to field army. He was the CFLCC J5 (Plans) at the start of Operation Iraqi Freedom and the director of the School of Advanced Military Studies.
The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of the United States Military Academy, Department of the Army, or Department of Defense.