Biden admin openly hammering Israel’s military strategy in Gaza

A parade of top officials has ratcheted up their criticism of Israel, signaling deep frustration with the country’s anti-Hamas campaign.

The Biden administration fears Israel is disastrously squandering its opportunity for victory against Hamas, losing its best chance to eliminate the group’s hold on Gaza and threat to the Israeli people.

Top officials are publicly calling Israel’s strategy in Gaza self-defeating and likely to open the door to Hamas’ return — a level of criticism of the Middle East ally not seen since the war began in October.

The officials say Israel’s government has failed to hold parts of Gaza after clearing them, has turned the civilian population and the rest of the world against it with widespread bombing and inadequate humanitarian aid, and enabled Hamas to recruit more fighters.

The U.S. for months kept any criticism private, quietly pushing Israel to shift how it retaliates against Hamas for its Oct. 7 attack that started the war. But the frustration of watching Israel refuse to change course has increasingly spilled into the open, each broadside a crowbar widening the rift between Washington and Jerusalem.

“We want to encourage a deeper focus on the connection between the ongoing military operations and, ultimately, the strategic endgame,” said a senior administration official, granted anonymity to discuss sensitive internal discussions. “We’re going to keep pressing on that point.”

The official added that national security adviser Jake Sullivan used his visit with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Israel last week to discuss how their operation can lead to an “achievable and durable” success against Hamas.

In a Tuesday interview with CNN, Netanyahu said “we have to get rid of Hamas. Otherwise, there’s no future for Gaza.” But recent U.S. intelligence is fueling a growing concern that such an outcome isn’t possible.

Although Hamas’ communications and military abilities have been degraded, only 30 to 35 percent of its fighters — those who were a part of Hamas before the Oct. 7 attack — have been killed and about 65 percent of its tunnels are still intact, U.S. intelligence indicates.

Biden officials have also become increasingly concerned that Hamas has been able to recruit during wartime — thousands over the last several months. That has allowed the group to withstand months of Israeli offensives, according to a person familiar with U.S. intelligence.

Those and other intelligence pieces have likely informed recent striking comments by senior administration officials.

Last week, Deputy Secretary of State Kurt Campbell said Israel’s “total victory” against Hamas was unlikely. Then on Monday, both Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and Gen. C.Q. Brown, the Joint Chiefs chair, chided Israel for failing to protect civilians in Gaza and to prevent Hamas from storming back to places it once controlled.

Both Pentagon leaders are well-known as quiet professionals who aren’t prone to airing their grievances.

“Not only do you have to actually go in and clear out whatever adversary you are up against, you have to go in, hold the territory and then you’ve got to stabilize it,” Brown told reporters. If that doesn’t happen, it “allows your adversary then to re-populate in areas if you’re not there, and so that does make it more challenging for them as far as being able to meet their objective of being able to militarily destroy and defeat Hamas.”

Those comments followed others by Secretary of State Antony Blinken who last week predicted the eventual withdrawal of Israeli forces could leave “a vacuum that’s likely to be filled by chaos, by anarchy, and ultimately by Hamas again.”

It’s a sentiment shared by former top officials with deep experience in similar campaigns.

“Everybody gets the fact that you have to destroy Hamas … but then what?” said retired Gen. Joseph Votel, who was the head of U.S. Central Command at the height of the fight against the Islamic State. “What’s the plan to take care of the 2.5 million Palestinians that are left behind? What’s the plan to deal with the remainder of the Hamas fighters? It seems incomplete and I just don’t think that they have communicated or have thought through that as well as I would’ve hoped they would’ve.”

Dana Stroul, a former top Middle East official in the Pentagon who stepped down in January, recently wrote that the U.S. shared lessons of its failures in Iraq with Israel — namely how an insurgency grew out of the botched American occupation — but that Israel has not heeded those warnings.

“Not only has Israel declined to learn from this body of knowledge and experience on the sequencing of activities to prevent worst outcomes for postconflict societies, but it also appears that Israel is on track to repeat the same mistakes,” she lamented in a Foreign Affairs essay published Monday.

Western officials believe that while Israel has degraded Hamas’ capabilities in Gaza, the militant group has been able to protect thousands of its fighters, many of whom operate and hide inside a sprawling tunnel network. Others are thought to be mixed in with the civilian population.

The upshot is that Hamas still holds ground and maintains significant capabilities, even after Israel’s all-out war over nearly eight months.

“Israel has a right and responsibility to defeat Hamas, but its current strategy of large-scale, conventional military operations will backfire and undermine that goal,” Rep. Jason Crow (D-Colo.) said in an interview. “The U.S. learned over decades that unless you center humanitarian needs and the protection of civilians in conflict that your military goals will fail. We are seeing this first hand as Hamas rapidly resurfaces after IDF operations and retains capabilities despite months of fighting.”

One reason is that not enough humanitarian aid has gotten into Gaza, spreading famine-like conditions throughout the enclave and angering Palestinians who have to consistently flee violence or risk getting killed like thousands of other civilians. Between worsening conditions and allegations that Israel has purposefully delayed assistance from getting assistance to people in need, the risk grows that Gaza residents will be driven into Hamas’ arms.

“This is part of the challenge, the operations and the conduct probably radicalized a lot more, certainly the youth are looking at this and wondering, ‘what’s going on?’” Votel said. The Israelis “are not helping their cause here.”

The Israel Defense Forces’ recent military activities have also confused Western officials. Israeli troops have moved into Rafah, forcing the evacuation of hundreds of thousands of people –– an operation it said it needed to conduct in order to target Hamas leaders in the tunnels there. But the IDF has also had to send troops northward to strike militant targets in the Jabalia neighborhood.

Retired Gen. Frank McKenzie, who led U.S. Central Command from 2019 to 2022, said Israel hasn’t deployed a large enough force to clear, capture and hold dense urban areas inside Gaza. In those insecure areas, “people are probably going to try to flow back in” and Hamas will then move in and reestablish a presence there.

“That’s classic guerilla strategy,” he said.

A key part of the U.S. plan to defeat ISIS in Iraq and Syria was relying on a partner force to secure areas after the military operation was complete, said Votel, the other retired general. “Unless you do that, you are going to find yourself going back into these areas and reclearing them and re-fighting them,” Votel said.

Finding a reliable partner force is not an easy feat, particularly in Gaza, but Votel criticized Israel for not reaching out to Arab nations to help with the “day after” scenario early on in the operation

“There should’ve been more deliberation upfront about how they were going to do that part of the campaign, and now they are where they are,” he said.

Check Also

How Corporations Are Fueling Geopolitical Tensions And Global Conflicts In The 21st Century – OpEd

Multinational corporations with global reach are increasingly getting entangled in conflicts and geopolitical rivalries by …