"The ceasefire will allow Hamas to reorganize"

Meir Ben-Shabbat credit: Noam Moskowitz Knesset Spokesperson
Meir Ben-Shabbat credit: Noam Moskowitz Knesset Spokesperson

Former National Security Advisor Meir Ben-Shabbat says the government has an enormous commitment to release every hostage possible, while understanding the risks of a pause in fighting.

In efforts to understand the implications of the hostage deal on the continued fighting and Israel's situation in northern and southern Gaza, we spoke to Meir Ben-Shabbat, who served as National Security Advisor from 2017 to 2021.

Will the several days of ceasefire for the hostage deal allow us to resume the war?

"Hamas's immediate aim is to bring about a halt in the fighting by Israel, while creating a track that will allow it to produce the maximum gain from the hostages it holds. It is pinning its hopes on negotiations for an exchange deal, on internal pressure in Israel on this issue and pressure that the international community will exert on Israel on the humanitarian issue.

"As expected, with the assistance of Qatar, whose main interest is to ensure its survival, Hamas officials have laid out the temptation and started using the hostages to achieve their aims. Along the way, they will try to erase a little of the stain that stuck to them from their inhuman barbarism, and also intensify the disputes and internal pressures in Israel.

"I don't envy the government ministers and the heads of the security services, in deciding on the deal to release babies and their mothers, in exchange for the release of terrorists and the pause in fighting for several days. On the one hand, the enormous commitment to release everyone possible, and the understanding that any delay in doing so could be fateful for them, while on the other hand, the heavy price of the release, putting our soldiers at risk. The ceasefire will allow Hamas to assess the situation, reorganize, identify weak points on the Israeli side, protect itself, set traps, and strike. The fuel that will be put into the Strip will also help it greatly. Hamas will begin the next phase of the fighting from a much improved position compared with its current situation.

"One way or another, Israel must not end the war in the Gaza Strip without toppling Hamas from power and destroying its capabilities. The difficult opening conditions in which we entered the war, leave us no other choice. If we do not achieve this, it will have consequences for the balance of deterrence against its other enemies as well, in a way that may expose us to an existential threat."

To say goodbye to the surgical concept

Ben-Shabbat, who is currently Head of the Misgav Institute for National Security and Zionist Strategy in Jerusalem, published an op-ed piece in "Globes," several days after the massacres in the south, in which he said that the only statistic that matters is the number of dead terrorists. We asked him if that is still the parameter that must be examined.

Ben-Shabbat says, "Indeed these were the words I wrote immediately after the cruel surprise attack on October 7 and in those words I sought to stress two messages. Firstly, the circumstances required us to say goodbye to the surgical concept that had characterized our operations in Gaza in recent years. Targeted strikes on senior Hamas officials are not sufficient or attacks concentrating on targets in order to offset the damage to Israel's deterrence image. We need a massive, broad and deeper damage.

"The second emphasis was the need to inflict irreversible damage on Hamas. From Hamas's perspective, the damage to its military and governmental infrastructure is indeed painful, but it is reversible. For them, everything can be restored, even if it takes time and requires resources. The only thing that cannot be restored is the killing of its commanders and fighters. In order to defeat the Hamas organization, it is not enough to deprive it of its military capabilities, it is necessary to severely damage its most important infrastructure: its people."

How is the IDF progressing? What is it doing well and what not so well?

"The IDF's operations are continuing to achieve its military targets. The fighting of our forces in Gaza exudes power. As far as one can get an impression through the veil of ambiguity that the IDF employs, and rightly so - it is being well managed. The conduct of the forces demonstrates professionalism. Cooperation between the different branches and services is broad, close and precise. While fighting there is also a process of learning, rapid transfer of knowledge and drawing initial conclusions, between the forces and in the different regions.

"All of this multiplies the strength and increases effectiveness of the forces in offense and defense. They are also important vis-à-vis Israel's other enemies, who monitor and examine its conduct, as part of the assessment of the situation and as a basis for their decisions. If the thought crossed Hezbollah's mind to wait until the IDF is exhausted in Gaza and then initiate a military move against Israel, now they will have to assume that they will meet a ready, trained and well-practiced army, much more so than it was before the Gaza war."

"And yet," stresses Ben-Shabbat, "The road to achieving the aims of the war in Gaza is still long. The goals that the political echelon has set are aimed at fatally damaging the enemy's government and military capabilities. Not just to exact a price or merely deter. Achieving these aims takes time. This is a process that requires systematic, broad and prolonged activity. Not a campaign restricted in time and scope.

"The enemy's aim is to survive, and as far as possible to also strike by forays from tunnel shafts, to strike and escape, or set traps for the forces. It does go for head-on confrontation with the forces. For this end it has prepared an extensive network of tunnels, and will use any person, facility or means in the Gaza Strip, hospitals, schools, mosques, humanitarian convoys and anything it can use. This is very challenging for the fighters on the ground.

"I remind you that our forces are operating within a hostile population, a large part of which supports Hamas and actions against Israel. I believe that in this reality of the Gaza Strip, we must back up an approach that reduces as much as possible the risks to our forces, even at the cost of severely harming the humanitarian matters."

The unique reality of Gaza

What is your opinion on the cabinet decision to allow fuel into the Gaza Strip?

"Letting fuel into the Gaza Strip will help Hamas," Ben-Shabbat says unequivocally. "I assume that this is also understood in the cabinet and the defense establishment. If this was done for humanitarian reasons, I do not think it was right to prioritize these considerations over the operational considerations against Hamas. If this was done because of US pressure, the operational significance of the matter should have been clarified with them. They should understand that allowing in fuel will probably not significantly improve the situation of the population, while on the other hand it will most likely prolong the duration of the fighting and increase the risks to our forces and indirectly to the population as well.

"In general, the discussion about fuel should be used to talk about the principles of fighting in the unique reality of the Gaza Strip. My impression is that the US position assumes that in the Gaza Strip, enemy fighters can be separated from the population, and that the fighting is carried out against the enemy separately from the state apparatus. These two assumptions are not the reality."

How do you propose coping on the northern front?

"Israel has the ability to act simultaneously on several fronts, but the principle of concentration of effort requires that resources be focused on the main effort at the moment - the Gaza Strip. In the meantime, Israel's policy towards Hezbollah is the one defined by the Minister of Defense as 'active defense,' meaning working to disrupt and to thwart the enemy's activity, reinforcing defenses and also take advantage of every event to exact a price, even in places where the enemy does not expect us to operate. I believe that this approach is correct. Of course, this is a temporary reality, and it needs to be examined all the time, even during the fighting in Gaza."

What do you think about the Houthis? Is this not a sign that the Iranians are involved in every detail of the war?

"The Houthi movement is indeed a local organization but at the same time it is also one of the leading organizations in the Shiite militias that are operated or supported by Iran, with a pan-regional orientation. Iran perceives the Houthis as a bargaining chip in its struggle against Israel and against Saudi Arabia. Influenced by the war in Iraq, there was a radicalization of their attitude towards the US and Israel and a strengthening of their pro-Palestinian position. I remind you that the motto of the Houthis is 'death to America, death to Israel, curse the Jews and victory to Islam.'

"Indeed, their attacks against Israel during the war are part of Iran's support for Hamas, but also an expression of the Houthis' own commitment to the Palestinians and the struggle against Israel, and also an expression of their desire to demonstrate strength against the Gulf countries and the Arabian Peninsula. As mentioned, this is an expression of Iranian support, but that does not mean that they are involved in every detail of the campaign."

Does negotiations through Qatar not lend legitimacy to a country that supports a terrorist organization?

"Qatar is not a neutral mediator," says Ben-Shabbat about the country that mainly deals with mediation efforts in the deal for the release of the hostages. "It sponsors Hamas. Its first interest is to protect Hamas from Israel. In order to promote the return of the hostages it is necessary to increase the pressure, both through the IDF's activities in the field and through Qatar.

"The time has come to change the policy towards Qatar. To demand that the US uses 'sticks' and not just 'carrots' towards it, and that it reexamines its relations with it, including the cancelation or reduction of economic, diplomatic and military ties (one of the most important US military bases) in the Middle East is less than 20 kilometers from where Hamas leaders hold their meetings) and imposing sanctions on all Qatari entities involved in providing support to Hamas. Qatar should be made to immediately deport the Hamas leaders in its territory and see them as targets for a surgical attack by Israel."

A revised vision is needed

Ben-Shabbat concludes by saying that Israel after October 7 will not be the same country as it was before. The basic assumptions, structures and concepts in all fields will undergo a change. Israel will need a revised vision that will appeal to the vast majority of the people and draw up lines for the image of the state and its conduct in the coming decades. In this darkness of October 7, we saw quite a few sparks of heroism, leadership, sacrifice and mutual support.

"Society in Israel must take the good things that happened in this war that was imposed on us, and embrace them strongly in our routine times. One of the most prominent of them is the unity, solidarity, and rapprochement that we have seen between the parts of society as a whole, after a not-short period in which we were immersed in fights and disputes that were unbearable.

"The enemy wanted to see us fall apart. Instead, it finds us united and mobilized to help each other, willing to sacrifice, full of faith and determined to win. These qualities are not new. They have been ingrained in us since time immemorial. The war only removed the thin layer that covered them and reminded us of our true character."

Published by Globes, Israel business news - en.globes.co.il - on November 22, 2023.

© Copyright of Globes Publisher Itonut (1983) Ltd., 2023.

Meir Ben-Shabbat credit: Noam Moskowitz Knesset Spokesperson
Meir Ben-Shabbat credit: Noam Moskowitz Knesset Spokesperson
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