Is the Gaza War Over? Two Israeli National Security Experts Disagree.

(Amir Levy/Getty Images)
April 22, 2024

JERUSALEM—To defeat Hamas, the Israel Defense Forces must enter Rafah, the Palestinian terror group's last stronghold in Gaza.

But Israelis increasingly doubt whether the IDF will go ahead with a full-scale invasion of the city in the face of U.S. opposition. Motty Castel of Israel's Channel 14 news addressed viewers' concerns on air earlier this month.

"I'm being contacted by a lot of citizens [who ask]: 'Have we given up on Rafah?'" Castel reported.

"We will do it," he reassured the audience. "You can calm down. It will happen."

Really, though, nobody knows for sure. In separate interviews with the Washington Free Beacon last week, two of Israel's leading national security experts gave strikingly different accounts of the dynamics of the war. They disagreed about Rafah, who is calling the shots, and whether the war is even ongoing more than six months on.

Neither man believed that Iran's unprecedented April 13 strike on Israel—and the IDF's restrained counterattack on Friday—was likely to expand the war or fundamentally change the calculus.

Yaakov Amidror, a former national security adviser to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and a retired IDF major general, expressed confidence that the IDF will deliver on his former boss's promises of "complete victory" over Hamas. Amidror said Israel has no choice following Hamas's Oct. 7 terror attack on the Jewish state.

"The Americans don't like the invasion of Rafah, but they understand they cannot stop Israel because we have to finish the job of destroying Hamas," said Amidror, an analyst at the Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security. "I haven't heard from anyone—not here and not on the other side of the Atlantic or in Europe—who has a solution other than a big invasion."

Asked to account for statements from the Biden administration opposing an invasion of Rafah on humanitarian grounds, Amidror indicated that Israel takes Biden and his aides seriously but not literally.

"What the Americans are saying is, 'Don't go in before you move the population because the casualties will be enormous,' and they’re right about it," Amidror said. "They are preaching to the choir. We should move as many Palestinians from Rafah as possible."

According to Amidror, Israel has waged the Gaza war slowly more for tactical reasons than due to U.S. pressure. The IDF withdrew all but one battalion from Gaza earlier this month—down from more than 20 at the height of the war—to temporarily protect the troops and maximize preparedness amid Israel's multi-front conflict with Iran and its terror affiliates, he said. IDF top brass have given similar explanations for the move.

Amidror said an invasion of Rafah will have to wait at least three months for Israel to fulfill its commitment to evacuate civilians from the city. Israeli officials have estimated an evacuation of the more than one million Palestinians will take at least a month, while U.S. officials have said it will require up to four months, Axios reported.

A temporary ceasefire deal, which Hamas has so far rejected, could further delay Israel's plans for Rafah, where Hamas's senior leaders and four remaining battalions are believed to be hiding out in underground tunnels, shielded by the bodies of Israeli hostages.

"In the meantime, the IDF prefers not to leave tens of thousands of soldiers in Gaza as sitting ducks," Amidror said. "But the soldiers will return. There will be a full ground invasion, almost as big as what you Americans do."

Chuck Freilich, a former Israeli deputy national security adviser, said the Biden administration all but shut down the Gaza war at the end of last year—ending Israel's hopes of a full-scale invasion of Rafah and decisive defeat of Hamas.

"For reasons of international pressure, domestic pressure, and electoral reasons," Biden "wants to bring this war to an end," and Israel has little choice but to comply, explained Freilich, a senior researcher at the Institute for National Security Studies and an adjunct professor of political science at Tel Aviv and Columbia Universities.

"There were already signs of American frustration by the end of October. By November, certainly by December, it was very clear," Freilich added, referring to growing U.S. criticism of Israel's treatment of Gazan civilians. "We still claimed the war was going on, but I think in the last couple weeks, everybody has started to understand that that's not the case."

In mid-December, the Biden administration told Israel to wrap up its large-scale ground and air campaign in Gaza within weeks. Just over three weeks later, in early January, IDF spokesman Daniel Hagari announced to the New York Times that the war had entered a new, more targeted phase. By late February, the IDF had drawn down from five divisions in Gaza to two. "​​The Gaza War Is Essentially Over—But Israel Can Still Win the Campaign," the Times of Israel reported at the time.

Like other Israeli critics of Netanyahu, Freilich accused the unpopular prime minister of dragging out the fighting to avoid a legal and electoral reckoning that awaits him afterward. Netanyahu thereby unnecessarily stoked international outrage over the humanitarian situation in Gaza and squandered the "total American support" Israel enjoyed at the start of the war, according to Freilich.

Every Israeli Jew wishes the IDF could "go in and blow the shit out of" Hamas in Rafah "tomorrow," but "in the real world," Israel will have to hope the Biden administration signs off on a "much more limited" operation in Rafah "once the dust settles," Freilich said.

"With all due respect to the State of Israel, American national security is not contingent on Israeli national security," Freilich said. "But the opposite is true. Our very existence is contingent on the U.S. today, or largely so. Israel cannot afford to lose American military supplies. That and the U.S. veto in the [United Nations Security Council] are existential threats for us."

Spokesmen for the Israeli government and the IDF declined to comment.

While Freilich and Amidror differed in their analyses of the Gaza war, they both scoffed at the Biden administration's post-war plans.

Freilich noted that Biden has pushed for the Palestinian Authority, Hamas's Palestinian rival in the West Bank, to take over administration of Gaza after the war. But by restraining Israel militarily, the Biden administration has seemingly emboldened Hamas's leaders to take a hard line in ceasefire talks and called into question the possibility of a political transition.

"We've basically been forced to give up our negotiating cards against Hamas, which were the military pressure and the humanitarian situation," Freilich said. "I'm not sure what's worse: if we end up having to be in charge of Gaza or if Hamas is left in charge."

Under the circumstances, the Biden administration's talk of Palestinian statehood is "completely unrealistic," according to Freilich.

"I'm a lifelong supporter of the two-state solution, but it's not possible anymore, certainly not for the foreseeable future," he said.

According to Amidror, the question of who will govern Gaza after the war is "the Palestinians' problem, not ours."

"The well-being of the Palestinians in Gaza stopped being our concern after Oct. 7," he said. "I can only tell you who will not control Gaza. Hamas will not control Gaza. We won't allow it."