Georgia Tech Experts Shed Light on Israel-Hamas War
In the month following Hamas' attacks in Israel, the war between the two sides has continued to escalate. As casualties increase, humanitarian concerns grow, and calls for a cease-fire mount, the situation remains volatile.
Since the war began with the killing of an estimated 1,200 Israelis and the taking of more than 200 hostages by Hamas, the Gazan death toll is estimated to have surpassed 11,000, and over 1.6 million residents have been displaced. Israel has rejected cease-fire calls to this point, but a deal with Hamas resulted in a four-day pause in fighting in exchange for the release of 50 hostages. Israel has begun to release about 150 Palestinian prisoners — primarily women and children — and is allowing up to 300 aid trucks into Gaza. An additional two-day pause was also brokered, including the release of an additional 20 Israeli hostages.
The deal offers hope that “there are lines of communication open, which, as we've just seen in the U.S.-China context, is important in and of itself between hostile or adversarial actors,” said Rachel Whitlark, political scientist and associate professor of international affairs in the Ivan Allen College of Liberal Arts.
“It's not clear that the current developments signal anything about what might happen with the additional hostages being held by Hamas or those being held by Palestinian Islamic Jihad. And the deal will likely allow Israel to continue its military campaign to rid itself of a neighbor committed to its destruction, perhaps more aggressively given that these hostages have been released.”
Identifying an End Goal
The temporary peace will be welcomed in the region that has seen nonstop violence since Oct. 7, but when the fighting resumes, the pressure on Israel to identify an end goal will increase, explains Lawrence Rubin, associate professor in the Sam Nunn School of International Affairs.
"What happens the day after you topple Hamas? But also, what happens if Israel doesn’t eliminate Hamas?" said Rubin, who recently traveled to the Middle East for the IISS Manama Dialogue. “Another sticking point is that many Arab leaders are publicly unwilling to discuss any post-conflict scenario until the fighting stops. Leaders in Egypt and Jordan, for example, face populations who would view discussions about their countries’ participation in a post-conflict Gaza as allowing Israel to complete its destruction of Gaza. Arab leaders don’t want to be held responsible for cleaning up Israel’s military operation.”
Hamas' relationship with the Jewish state complicates any large-scale political compromise with the organization.
"Hamas is not an entity that even believes in a two-state solution. It is bent on Israel’s destruction and is unlikely to relinquish power. Israel has vowed to eliminate Hamas. A long-term political compromise at this stage seems highly unlikely,” Rubin said.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu recently reiterated the intent to "destroy Hamas," and said Israel would maintain “overall military responsibility” in Gaza until it can ensure that there is no resurgence of terrorism in the region. U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken affirmed the administration's position that Gaza cannot continue to be run by Hamas following the war. He also shared that conversations took place prior to the hostage deal, directing Israeli leaders to minimize harm to Palestinian civilians and increasing aid into Gaza.
Whitlark explains that the U.S. has effectively used its modest tools of persuasion and diplomatic pressure to attempt to modify behavior in the war, yet faces additional challenges in its handling of multiple conflicts around the globe.
"The Biden administration is juggling tensions both within the Democratic Party and with the Israeli government,” she said. “They are trying to manage the mounting civilian casualties in the conflict and the divisions in Congress, and among Democrats in particular, over U.S. support for Israel. This aid to Israel is also tied up with aid to Ukraine, another democracy that was attacked by a neighbor, that the U.S. is working hard to assist in its military campaign. Further, the administration had been putting significant pressure on Netanyahu to try to gain additional humanitarian aid, humanitarian pauses, and accept a deal to get some of the hostages released. Meanwhile, as we understand from the president's Washington Post op-ed last week, he is working for the longer-term future for a lasting peace, protecting democracies from encroaching aggression, and regional and global stability."
In an interview with a Lebanese television outlet, Ghazi Hamad, a Hamas leader, stated the group's intention to repeatedly attack Israel "a second, a third, a fourth time" while expressing the organization's belief that their actions are justified as victims of occupation. Along with the targeted attack on perceived military infrastructure, the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) claimed to have killed dozens of Hamas commanders, according to The Guardian. Israel's ground operation began in northern Gaza in late October, and in addition to the mounting pressure to reduce civilian casualties, there could be major economic ramifications of a drawn-out war.
“Israel’s operational time has lasted longer than many would have expected, but it is still working on borrowed time. As international pressure on Israel mounts, U.S. leaders will continue to push harder for ways to reduce a rising civilian death toll,” Rubin said.
A Second Battle: Misinformation
As Israeli forces operate in Gaza City, the IDF recently gained control of Al-Shifa Hospital, which it asserts was being used to house a Hamas command center in underground tunnels. An initial raid of the compound revealed duffel bags filled with weapons, ammunition, and other military equipment, but Hamas continues to deny claims that the hospital is being used as a front and asserts that the IDF planted the evidence.
With many claims unable to be independently verified, Rubin says a "misinformation problem" exists as the war goes on, and the world is watching it play out through social media and the internet. “It's almost to the extent that it doesn't even matter that we've seen the truth when it comes out because people won't believe it, and there's denial about it," he said.
He also noted that Hamas understands the value of disinformation and its ability to pit the U.S. against itself. The unfolding hostage deal will not end this conflict, Rubin says, predicting the information battle will continue until the physical fighting resumes.
In terms of further escalation in the region, Rubin observed that Iran does not seem eager to jump into the fray. Hezbollah, a terrorist group based in Lebanon, has launched several attacks, but to this point, no second front has been opened in Northern Israel. That said, Whitlark notes that a recent meeting between an Iranian leader and Hezbollah's leadership reminds the international community that a broader conflict remains a possibility if the war between Israel and Hamas continues to escalate.
*The below story was originally posted Oct. 17, 2023.
Attacks carried out by Hamas in Israel, along with subsequent strikes in Gaza and a declaration of war from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, have resulted in global unrest. Georgia Tech experts offer their thoughts on the conflict, what comes next, and what role the United States will play.
On the Jewish Sabbath, which coincided with the holiday of Simchat Torah, 3,000 Hamas militants crossed into Israel and executed a coordinated attack on Israeli civilians and military personnel by land, sea, and air, killing an estimated 1,400.
At the latest count, nearly 200 hostages were taken, including Americans and people from other countries. The attacks caught Israel Defense Forces (IDF) by surprise in what Lawrence Rubin, associate professor in the Sam Nunn School of International Affairs, described as one of the biggest intelligence failures since the 1973 Arab-Israeli War.
"It is too early to make a definitive assessment as to why this intelligence failure occurred. However, it’s clear that there was a heavy reliance on technology and a certain amount of complacency in thinking that the threat from Hamas was contained and the greater Palestinian threat was in the West Bank. Israel had also been much more focused on the Iranian nuclear threat," said Rubin, author of Islam in the Balance: Ideational Threat in Arab Politics.
Following Netanyahu's vow to "avenge this dark day" and win the ensuing war despite an inevitable "unbearable price," Israel quickly launched counterstrikes in Gaza, which have killed and wounded thousands. The conflict has escalated to a level not seen in the region in decades.
As Israel contemplates its next strategic move, Jenna Jordan, associate professor and associate chair of the Nunn School, said a ground invasion into Gaza could play into Hamas' goals of undermining diplomatic efforts in the Middle East and gaining support among the Palestinian people and the broader international community.
"A ground invasion could result in major civilian casualties in Gaza, creating a humanitarian crisis. Hamas anticipated that a massive retaliatory response would change the tide of sentiment to their favor, mobilizing new recruits, support, and allies. Hamas seeks to appear as the most committed group fighting for and protecting the Palestinian people. These highly visible operations are a way for the group to demonstrate that they are more resolved and a stronger advocate for the Palestinian cause than Fatah and the Palestinian Authority," she said.
Jordan, author of Leadership Decapitation: Strategic Targeting of Terrorist Organizations, explained that Hamas, which rose to power in Gaza and the West Bank in 2006 after winning 44.5% of the seats in the Palestinian Legislative Council, has already achieved an important strategic objective by seizing the attention of the international community and placing Israel in a strategic conundrum.
"Israel is under pressure to respond with force given the scale of the attack, as is every nation in the wake of a major terrorist attack," she said. "The U.S. faced a similar decision in the aftermath of 9/11 and launched a very long and costly ground invasion into Iraq starting in 2003. This fueled the rise of Al Qaeda in Iraq, and eventually ISIS. It is imperative that Israel considers whether its counter operations will backlash and create more support for extremism in the region.”
The possibility that Iran will intervene is the biggest wild card and could carry the greatest risk for regional conflict and escalation, according to Rubin. An Axios report states that Iran plans to intervene should a ground operation in Gaza occur and this could take the form of supporting Hezbollah operations against Israel if it opens a second front. Rubin warns this would bring the conflict to an entirely different level.
The United States has offered its unwavering support for Israel, but President Joe Biden warned that invading Gaza would be a "big mistake." He announced plans to visit Israel before traveling to Jordan to meet with his Majesty King Abdullah, Egyptian President Sisi, and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.
Following the attacks on Oct. 7, the U.S. positioned an aircraft carrier, the USS Ford, in the eastern Mediterranean Sea as a deterrent, and a second carrier was deployed to the region on Oct. 15.
As the U.S. continues to support the Ukrainian war effort against Russia, Rubin explained that the new conflict could shift the nation's focus further away from China. Should this conflict continue, it may erode previous efforts at bringing the Saudis and Israelis together to normalize relations, which already had plenty of challenges to begin with, Rubin said.
National Trauma and Negotiations
An IDF spokesperson called the Hamas attacks Israel's 9/11. Rubin speculated that it might be worse than that for Israel because the attacks have conjured images of pogroms and the Holocaust. He said Israel's small population exacerbates the sense of national trauma and could decrease the likelihood of a non-military response.
“Almost everyone in Israel, particularly Jewish Israelis, knows someone who was killed, wounded, or kidnapped. Combined with the effect of having women and children held hostage, with reports of rape circulating on social media, this will reduce Israel’s willingness to compromise,” Rubin said.
Whether Hamas can withstand Israel's efforts to restrict the flow of resources into Gaza and likely attacks on its leadership remains to be seen, explained Jordan. President Biden said on 60 Minutes that he supports the elimination of Hamas entirely, but Jordan noted that organizations such as Hamas — with popular support, a bureaucratized organizational structure, and a strong ideological foundation — are extraordinarily resilient.
“It’s important to remember that ideology can become more entrenched in the face of violence and heavy-handed counterreactions on the part of the state fighting that particular group," she said.
Jordan and Rubin, along with Associate Professor Rachel Whitlark and Lawrence Silverman, U.S. ambassador to Kuwait from 2016 to 2019, will host a virtual discussion titled Israel and Hamas at War on Wednesday, Oct. 18, at noon.
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