Israel’s assault on Rafah risks making victory against Hamas more elusive

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The prospect of a ceasefire agreement, which Hamas claimed it had been offered earlier this month, was a source of optimism for Gazans seeking respite from the war. That sense of jubilation was short-lived. According to mediators in Qatar, the talks have lost steam.

And with Israel pressing ahead with its new military offensive in the southern border city of Rafah and parts of northern Gaza where Hamas has regrouped, there is no indication that this conflict has an expiry date.

Israel’s offensive in Rafah, where more than 1 million displaced Palestinians are seeking refuge, is growing more intense. Israeli tanks have advanced further into the eastern part of the city, reaching some residential districts. An estimated 500,000 civilians have now fled this area of fighting, and the Palestinian death toll has topped 35,000 – a number that includes both civilians and fighters according to the Gaza health authority.

On May 14, as Israel celebrated its day of independence, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu addressed the country and warned that the war would not stop “until the Hamas monsters are eradicated”. His remarks are being met with frustration by even Israel’s staunchest of allies. The US, for example, has warned that the new offensive could lead it to suspend the transfer of some weapons to Israel.

Increased diplomatic pressure, rising military casualties and the continued problem of Israeli hostages in Gaza have not been enough to deter Netanyahu from ordering the new offensive. But there is a lot to lose by continuing with this strategy.

It not only risks perpetuating the conflict, but could also make an Israeli victory over Hamas more elusive. External pressure from the US and EU will continue, and may come to limit the extent to which Israel can pursue its military objectives.

This leads us to question the psychological conditions that govern Netanyahu’s war policy. We argue that Israel is locked in a “loss dilemma”. This concept describes a process where actions taken to overcome state anxiety by choosing to avoid one kind of loss (military failure in eradicating Hamas) creates a new anxiety about suffering another one (losing domestic political standing).

The result of this has probably influenced Netanyahu’s war cabinet to pursue its current policy, and perhaps explains the disregard for civilian casualties and Israel’s waning international reputation.

Internal pressures

The trauma of potentially losing the Israelis that are still held captive by Hamas is a reason to commit to a ceasefire, especially when Netanyahu has been pressured by the Israeli public to bring them home. Israel says 128 hostages remain unaccounted for in Gaza, at least 34 of whom are presumed dead. But the internal politics of Israel’s war coalition has prevented this.

Netanyahu has positioned himself as a leader that will “deliver security and retribution for Israel”. His grand claim of a military victory in Gaza places his political standing directly at risk of being undermined. Any sense of a U-turn on his pledge to secure Israel’s borders will make it difficult for him to remain in power.



This dilemma is further compounded by the pressures that are being put on him by the ultra-nationalist contingent of his political coalition, which he currently relies on for political power. Over the course of the war, national security minister, Itamar Ben-Gvir’s hardline position has drawn support from some on the right of Netanyahu’s Likud party.

At a recent rally, Ben-Gvir argued that Israel needs to “encourage the voluntary departure of Gaza’s residents” so that Israelis can resettle in the “holy land” of Gaza.

One of the fundamental dynamics at play here is the question of who may be at home in the “homeland”. Gazans, in being at home in the Gaza strip, are seen by Israel as constituting a fundamental security threat. This logic suggests that Palestinians inhabiting Gaza will always produce Hamas fighters, and therefore any Gazan represents a potential threat to the very existence of Israel.

Clearly, this is about loss, not least the historical loss of the Israeli settlements in Gaza in 2005. However, as tensions continue to rise within Israel about the conduct of the war, it is becoming harder and harder for Israel to maintain a singular image of who may be at home within that state. As plurality becomes politically poisonous, more primitive identities are used as the foundation for who is legitimately allowed to call Israel and the land it occupies home.

This loss dilemma, which underscores the internal dynamics of Israeli politics at present, has influenced Netanyahu to commit his army to not only rid Gaza of Hamas fighters but to pursue a policy that sees an expansion of Israel’s borders.

Time will tell whether Netanyahu ultimately acquiesces to such calls by the ultra-nationalist members of his coalition. But one thing that is certain is that the current strategy won’t lead to total victory for Israel and will instead ensure the conflict continues for years to come.

Palestinians will be firm on maintaining control of the Gaza Strip and will want to avoid their homeland being taken over by Israeli settlers.

The Conversation

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The authors do not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and have disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.

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