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Opinion: There’s a smarter way to eliminate Hamas

Opinion by Robert A. Pape

(CNN) — Israel’s strategy for defeating Hamas — destroying its military and political capabilities to the point where the terrorist group can never again launch major attacks against Israeli civilians — is unlikely to work.

Indeed, Israel is likely already producing more terrorists than it’s killing.

To defeat terrorist groups like Hamas, it is important to separate the terrorists from the local population from which they emerge. Otherwise, the current generation of terrorists can be killed, only to be replaced by a new, larger generation of terrorists in the future. (This is described by experts as “counterinsurgency mathematics.” )

Although the principle — of separating the terror group from the broader population — is simple, it is incredibly difficult to achieve in practice.

This is why Israel and the United States have waged major military operations that killed large numbers of existing terrorists in the near term — but ultimately led to the rise of many more terrorists, often in a matter of months.

Exactly this pattern happened in the past when:

1.)  Israel invaded Southern Lebanon with some 78,000 combat troops and almost 3,000 tanks and armored vehicles in June 1982.

The goal was to smash PLO terrorists, and Israel achieved significant near-term success. However, this military operation caused the creation of Hezbollah in July 1982, led to vast local support for Hezbollah and waves of suicide attacks and ultimately led to the withdrawal of Israel’s army from much of southern Lebanon in 1985 and the growth of Hezbollah ever since.

2.)  Israel maintained a heavy military occupation of Gaza and the West Bank from the early 1990s to 2005.

These operations succeeded in killing many terrorists from Hamas and other Palestinian groups, but also triggered vast local support for the terrorist groups and massive campaigns of suicide attacks against Israelis that stopped only when the heavy Israeli military forces left. Far from defeated, Hamas won the 2006 Palestinian elections.

3.)  Israel launched a ground offensive into Lebanon in July-August 2006.

Although the goal was to completely destroy Hezbollah’s leaders and fighters so that it could never again kidnap Israeli soldiers and launch missiles at Israeli cities, the Israeli offensive failed, and Hezbollah is vastly stronger today as a result.

4.)  The United States invaded and occupied Iraq in 2003 with 150,000 combat troops.

American forces completely defeated Saddam Hussein’s army within 6 weeks. However, these heavy military operations led to the largest suicide terrorist campaign in modern times, a major civil war in Iraq and ultimately, the rise of ISIS.

Is history repeating in Gaza 2023?

In Gaza, this tragic pattern is probably already happening. Right now, we are witnessing not the separation of Hamas and the local population, but the growing integration of the two, with likely growing recruitment for Hamas.

The Israeli order for 1.1 million Palestinians — the population of northern Gaza — to move south is not going to create meaningful separation between the terrorists and the population.

Many thousands cannot move because they are too young, too old, or too sick or injured and dependent on specialized care and hospitals. Hence, evacuating the entire civilian population of northern Gaza is not possible. Even if the civilian population did move, many Hamas fighters would simply go with them.

Moreover, Hamas has ordered civilians not to evacuate. Since Hamas and the civilian population remain tightly integrated, it is no surprise that Israeli operations to kill Hamas terrorists has led to the death of over 8,000 civilians, according to the Palestinian Ministry of Health in Ramallah, citing sources from Hamas-controlled Gaza. Virtually all have family members who are already likely being recruited by Hamas in large numbers.

We should expect that Hamas is thus growing stronger, not weaker, with every passing day.

So, what does work?

To defeat terrorist groups, it is crucial to engage in long campaigns of selective pressure, over years, not simply a month (or two, or three) of heavy ground operations, and to combine military operations with political solutions from early on.

Indeed, the very effort to finish off the terrorists in just a month or two militarily with little idea of the political outcome — as Israel appears to be doing now — is what ends up producing more terrorists than it kills.

The only way to create lasting damage to terrorists is to combine, typically in a long campaign of years, sustained selective attacks against identified terrorists with political operations that drive wedges between the terrorists and the local populations from which they come.

Israel is drawing comparisons with the defeat of ISIS, but it is important to remember that Muslim ground forces made an enormous difference by applying military pressure against ISIS in Iraq and Syria, over years, in ways that did not galvanize the local population to replace them, by allowing the local populations to effectively govern the area cleansed of terrorists.

The campaign that defeated ISIS joined military and political operations together practically from the beginning.

Going forward, Israel needs a new strategic conception for defeating Hamas. The only viable way to separate Hamas from the local population is politically.

Israel’s strategic vision has been to go in heavily militarily first and then figure out the political process later. But this is likely to integrate Hamas and the local population together more and more and to produce more terrorists than it kills.

Furthermore, Israel doesn’t appear to have a political plan for the period after eliminating Hamas. Since 2006, Hamas has been the only government in Gaza. Israel claims it does not want to govern Gaza, but Gaza will need to be governed, and Israel has yet to explain what a post-Hamas Gaza will look like.

What will prevent Hamas 2.0 from filling the power vacuum? Given the absence of serious political alternatives to Hamas, why should Palestinians abandon Hamas?

There is an alternative: now, not later, start the political process toward a pathway to a Palestinian state, and create a viable political alternative for Palestinians to Hamas.

This could, over time, separate Hamas from the local population more and more, and so lead to significant success. It must be the Palestinians who decide who leads Gaza.

This new strategic conception is the best way to defeat Hamas, secure Israel’s population and advance America’s interests in the region.

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