Israeli military says Hamas can’t be destroyed, escalating feud with Netanyahu

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. (File Photo: Reuters)
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. (File Photo: Reuters)

Summary

The Israeli armed forces’ top spokesman questioned the viability of the goal of “total victory” in a rare public challenge to the prime minister.

A rift between Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the country’s military leadership is spilling increasingly into the open after the armed forces’ top spokesman said Netanyahu’s aim of destroying Hamas in Gaza is unachievable.

Military spokesman Daniel Hagari told Israeli television on Wednesday night, “The idea that we can destroy Hamas or make Hamas disappear is misleading to the public."

The comment was a rare direct rebuke from the military of how Netanyahu has delineated the main aim of the war in Gaza, which he says is “total victory" over Hamas and returning Israeli hostages held by the group. The prime minister has said repeatedly that he won’t accept an end to the war without the group’s eradication as a military and governing power.

The Prime Minister’s Office pushed back on Hagari’s comments. “The security cabinet headed by Prime Minister Netanyahu defined the destruction of Hamas’ military and governmental capabilities as one of the goals of the war. The IDF is of course committed to this," it said, referring to the Israel Defense Forces.

The exchange was an illustration of months of mounting tensions between Netanyahu and the country’s military leadership, who argue that Hamas could only be defeated if Israel were to replace it with another governing authority in Gaza. During more than eight months of war, the Israeli military has invaded swaths of the Gaza Strip, only to see Hamas reconstitute itself in areas when Israeli forces withdraw.

“What we can do is grow something different, something to replace it," Hagari said Wednesday. “The politicians will decide" who should replace Hamas, he said.

Netanyahu has rejected a series of proposals for possible alternatives to Hamas, including an American plan to bring in the Palestinian Authority and Arab calls for a Palestinian unity government that would include Hamas. Some military analysts and former Israeli officials have questioned whether installing a new government in Gaza was ever possible, given that Hamas has managed to survive the Israeli military assault.

The widening rift with the military leadership comes as Netanyahu is also under pressure from the Biden administration to accept a cease-fire proposal that President Biden said would lead to an end to the war. This week, Netanyahu opened a new dispute with the administration, accusing the U.S. of withholding weapons and ammunition from Israel. The White House dismissed the claims, saying it paused only one shipment of bombs over concerns about the potential killing of civilians in Israel’s operation in the city of Rafah, southern Gaza.

More than 37,000 people have been killed in Gaza since the start of the war, most of them civilians, Palestinian officials say. The figure doesn’t specify how many were combatants. Israeli bombing has also reduced much of the strip to rubble and uprooted more than a million people from their homes.

The Hamas-led assault on southern Israel on Oct. 7 left about 1,200 people dead—most of them civilians—according to Israeli authorities. Hamas also took about 250 hostages, dozens of whom remain in captivity in Gaza.

The war has also pushed the Middle East to the brink of a wider regional conflict, with increasing concerns that Israel could enter a full-scale war with Lebanon’s Hezbollah, an Islamist group aligned with both Iran and Hamas, after months of cross-border fire that has displaced tens of thousands of civilians in both Lebanon and Israel. Hezbollah has refused to stop fighting without a cease-fire in Gaza.

In Gaza, after months of fleeing bombing, living without regular electricity and with limited supplies of food and water, ordinary Palestinians are also losing hope that the war will end soon.

“Everyone here lives waiting for the day they’ll be killed," said Hazar Ghanem, a 22-year-old who is sheltering in Al-Bureij refugee camp in central Gaza. “People here are frustrated."

The tensions between Netanyahu and the military are coming to a boil after the military launched an operation in May in Rafah, where more than a million Palestinian civilians had been sheltering at the time.

Netanyahu argued for months that the Rafah invasion was central to his vision of achieving total victory. The military has been signaling that the Rafah operation will soon come to an end, saying this week that it had dismantled two of Hamas’s four battalions in the region and seized most of the Rafah area.

Israel Ziv, a retired Israeli general and veteran of multiple wars, said tensions between the Israeli military and security establishment and Netanyahu are at an all-time high.

“The IDF feels and the security echelon feels that we exhausted the purpose of the war. We reached the maximum tactical peak that we can achieve," he said. “As long as Rafah was there, they could say finish the job. OK it’s finished now."

The friction between Netanyahu and the military establishment had burst into public view earlier in the war. In May, Defense Minister Yoav Gallant delivered a speech calling on the government to decide who should replace Hamas in Gaza. The lack of a decision, he said, left Israel with only two choices: Hamas rule or a complete Israeli military takeover of the strip.

“We need to make a decision," said Ziv. “Even a bad decision, that’s OK. Let’s say [we] occupy Gaza in the next few years because we need to clear up the last few terrorists. OK, it’s a bad decision, but it’s a decision. The military needs to know."

The dispute between Netanyahu and the military centers in part on how officials define a defeat of Hamas. An Israeli military official said the army considers a battalion “dismantled" not when all its fighters are killed, but when its command structure and ability to carry out organized attacks are eliminated.

“We are getting close to finishing the job defined by the government and we’ll reach a point when we’re just fighting guerrilla warfare, and that could take years," the military official said.

Military analysts say that Hamas’s militia forces are likely to survive the Israeli military operation even in Rafah, in part because the Israeli army’s approach leaves many lower-ranking Hamas fighters in place. Hamas’s top leadership in the enclave, including its leader, Yahya Sinwar, have also eluded Israeli forces throughout the war.

“Hamas is preserving its forces in Rafah rather than engaging the Israel Defense Forces, likely because Hamas does not believe Israel’s Rafah operation will be decisive," said an assessment this week from the Critical Threats Project of the Institute for the Study of War and the American Enterprise Institute.

Dov Lieber and Abeer Ayyoub contributed to this article.

Write to Jared Malsin at jared.malsin@wsj.com and Anat Peled at anat.peled@wsj.com

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