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Netanyahu wants 'total victory' over Hamas. What would that even look like?

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

As this week comes to a close, it has been another several days of dire developments in the war between Israel and Hamas. The agency that tracks food security throughout the world warned that famine is imminent in northern Gaza. Cease-fire talks at this point, the best hope for getting more aid into Gaza, stalled yet again - this as the Biden administration's support for Israel's war with Hamas is faltering. But Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said in an address last month that, without total destruction of Hamas, Israel will continue to fight.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRIME MINISTER BENJAMIN NETANYAHU: Our security and the prospects of peace in the Middle East depend on one thing - total victory over Hamas.

CHANG: Which, in that same address, Netanyahu said, was close.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

NETANYAHU: Total victory over Hamas will not take years. It will take months. Victory is within reach. And when people talk about the day after, let's be clear about one thing. It's the day after all of Hamas is destroyed.

SACHA PFEIFFER, HOST:

Next week representatives of the Israeli government are scheduled to fly to Washington, D.C. When they arrive, they'll head to the White House, where they'll meet with representatives of the U.S. government. On the agenda - the next steps in Israel's war against Hamas. Those steps could include the Israeli military invading Rafah, a move that could result in intense fighting and more civilian casualties. It's part of Netanyahu's plan to destroy Hamas and achieve, as he said, total victory. But what does that mean? And how close is Israel to achieving that? Those were questions I put to Daniel Byman. He's a professor at Georgetown University and a senior fellow at the center for Strategic and International Studies. Professor Byman, thanks for your time.

DANIEL BYMAN: My pleasure.

PFEIFFER: Starting with a very big-picture question, we just heard Prime Minister Netanyahu say that Israel is months away from victory. How believable is that?

BYMAN: A lot depends on how Israel defines victory. Destroying Hamas is an exceptionally ambitious and difficult target, and that's not going to happen in a few months. But Israel has inflicted a lot of damage not just on Gaza but on Hamas. So if Israel is willing to lower its sights and say that it's hit Hamas hard, then it can declare victory and at least reduce the scale of its attacks.

PFEIFFER: So ultimately, will it become difficult to determine whether total victory has been achieved?

BYMAN: Total victory is going to be measured, really, in several years by how strong is Hamas in Gaza. If a year from now, two years from now, Hamas resumes power in Gaza, then Israel has not come close to total victory. On the other hand, if there's a new government in Gaza that is keeping Hamas out or at least reduced, then Israel can claim that Hamas is much weaker and unable to do an attack comparable to what it did on October 7.

PFEIFFER: U.S. intelligence officials doubt that the IDF has achieved the gains it claims it has achieved. What is your sense of whether the war is going as well as Netanyahu says it is?

BYMAN: I think you can measure the war in four dimensions. The first is how many Hamas fighters have been killed, and here, Israel's made progress. We don't know exact numbers, but roughly a third of Hamas' military seems to have been taken out. That's progress, but that means there are a lot of fighters left. Another is to look at Hamas leadership, and Israel has killed some senior commanders. But two of the most important figures behind October 7 remain at large. And then the third is Hamas' military infrastructure, including tunnels. And here, Israel has done a lot of damage, but that can be rebuilt. Probably the most important, though, is the support Hamas has in Gaza and who might take its place. And there doesn't seem to be an alternative to Hamas being developed right now for the next few years.

PFEIFFER: And who might take Hamas' place?

BYMAN: We don't have good answers to this. The Biden administration proposes the Palestinian Authority, which rules in the West Bank. This, in many ways, is the best option, but it's the best of a bunch of bad options. The Palestinian Authority is weak. It's corrupt. It lacks legitimacy in Gaza. And on a day-to-day basis, it would depend on Israeli military forces to ensure security. But other alternatives are an indefinite Israeli occupation - and that is costly to Israel and not something that is sustainable politically as well as something intolerable to all Gazans - and an international force. And there's no appetite of Arab states or the United States or other international partners to have forces in Gaza. So we end up with a bunch of bad options.

PFEIFFER: I want to get your thoughts on the upcoming meetings that we mentioned in Washington, D.C., between Israeli and U.S. officials. A big issue there will be Israel's plans to cross into Rafah. So a two-part question for you - crossing into Rafah would mean intense ground-level combat. How big a task would that be for Israel?

BYMAN: The ground combat in Rafah would be fierce. In addition, there are huge numbers of ordinary Palestinians in Rafah. And there's a real question of, where would they go? They've been slowly pushed or actually quickly pushed to places like Rafah, away from their homes. And is there a safe place for them to go? And could they go there without Hamas fighters hiding in their midst? So it's a double question for Israel. There's the inherent military difficulty, and then there's the question of trying to ensure that civilian casualties are minimized. And both are quite difficult.

PFEIFFER: And what do you think the answer is? Is there a safe place for civilians to go?

BYMAN: There could be safer places created, but that would have military tradeoffs. It would allow - at least potentially allow Hamas fighters to mix with civilians and to make their escape. And we've seen this in past conflicts. The United States faced similar things in Iraq, for example. And we haven't seen much evidence that Israel is preparing these safe corridors and areas for large numbers of Palestinians who are facing severe health and nutrition challenges to go to. So it is certainly a possibility, but it's a difficult one, and I don't see much preparation for it.

PFEIFFER: Part two, a question about the meeting in Washington coming up - and this deals with comments from the U.S. intelligence community, which has said that even if Netanyahu can bring about an end to the war - and this is a quote - "Israel probably will face lingering armed resistance from Hamas for years to come, and the military will struggle to neutralize Hamas' underground infrastructure." What did you think when you heard that?

BYMAN: That is, I would say, an accurate assessment. And the question, though, is, how severe are the lingering attacks? But the real question then becomes, how strong is Hamas going to be, and where can it attack? And a lot of the attacks are going to be on the Israeli military presence, especially in Gaza. So this, to me, suggests the difficulty of going after an organization like Hamas, which has, you know, thousands of people working for it, thousands of fighters and, you know, of course, far many more supporters. And so this sort of thing doesn't simply happen by turning off a group. You have to replace it with something else. And to me, that's the biggest flaw of Israeli policy - is they're not thinking about what replaces Hamas. And how can that entity, which has to be Palestinian to have legitimacy - how can that entity become strong over time? And Israel should be prioritizing that.

PFEIFFER: That's Daniel Byman. He's a professor at Georgetown University and a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Thank you for your insights.

BYMAN: Thank you for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF MELANIE MARTINEZ SONG, "VOID") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Sacha Pfeiffer is a correspondent for NPR's Investigations team and an occasional guest host for some of NPR's national shows.
Courtney Dorning has been a Senior Editor for NPR's All Things Considered since November 2018. In that role, she's the lead editor for the daily show. Dorning is responsible for newsmaker interviews, lead news segments and the small, quirky features that are a hallmark of the network's flagship afternoon magazine program.
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