đź”’ Marc Champion: Israel-Gaza war is becoming existential

In the evolving conflict between Israel and Gaza, Israel claims to adopt a more targeted approach against Hamas to reduce civilian casualties. Despite diplomatic efforts to prevent escalation, the war remains challenging to control. Israel’s shift towards targeting Hamas leaders outside Gaza raises concerns of further spread. The recent killing of Hezbollah and Hamas commanders escalates tensions, risking broader regional conflict. Former Australian general Mick Ryan warns of a changing global landscape, emphasising the need for leaders to prepare for new, possibly existential, conflicts. The challenge lies in navigating this volatile situation and avoiding potential long-term consequences.

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Wars Are Becoming Existential, Like It or Not: Marc Champion

By Marc Champion

Israel says it’s changing the way it wages war in Gaza to a more surgical destruction of Hamas, which could lower civilian casualties. That will come as a relief to US Secretary of State Antony Blinken as he tours capitals warning against regional escalation, but don’t be misled. This war will be long and hard to control because many Israelis — with good reason, but also with blinding levels of rage — see it as existential.

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There isn’t much sign of a falling civilian death toll yet, if figures provided by the Hamas-run health authority in Gaza are anything to go by. Easing Palestinian suffering would be an unalloyed good, but the lasting ceasefire required to end it may be a distant prospect. As Israel shifts focus to targeting Hamas leaders, including outside Gaza, that could even precipitate the war’s further spread.

In theory, Blinken’s job should be a simple task. It’s clear by now that none of the major players — neither Iran, Hezbollah, Turkey or Israel, nor the Arab states that fought Israel in the 1960s and 70s — want an all-out war. Yet the perception of an existential threat puts everybody’s fingers on triggers, meaning they may yet get one.

On Monday, a presumed Israeli missile strike killed a top Hezbollah commander in Lebanon. A week ago, it was the turn of a senior Hamas leader and his entourage, living in Beirut, the Lebanese capital. Hezbollah retaliated with volleys of missiles. Each such strike raises the risk of regional escalation, and Shin Bet intelligence chief Ronen Bar has promised more of the same. He said on TV last month that his agency would pursue Hamas leaders everywhere, including in Qatar and Turkey, and this policy may well be non-negotiable, no matter Israel’s leadership or what US pressure is applied.

The perception that what Hamas did on Oct. 7 wasn’t just another terrorist attack, but rather marked the return of an absolute threat to the existence of both Palestinians and Israelis, has been evident to anyone who has visited since. The implications will affect not just the two populations, or even just the wider region. On the heels of another total war in Ukraine, they will also impact militaries and governments globally.

I was persuaded of this after speaking with Mick Ryan, a former general in the Australian army, an astute commentator on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. He just returned from a fact-finding mission in Israel, where he spoke with senior military and political officials. His three-part analysis of the Israeli side of the conflict is well worth reading. Ryan, however, also came away with the particular view of a soldier who spends lots of time analyzing how his own country should prepare for the future, painting a sobering picture.

Beyond Israel, Ryan says politicians everywhere “need to understand themselves and explain to their citizens that the next half century will be different from the last half century, and that they are going to have to prepare” for new kinds of wars, including existential ones. That means “different levels of taxes, defense spending and mobilization.” The relatively brief, post-Vietnam War age of being able to rely on all-volunteer armies is probably over.

The appetite to take on US interests and allies is growing in a multi-polar world where countries such as China, Iran and Russia now have greater means to do so, at least in their own back yards. And unlike the US misadventures in Afghanistan and Iraq, these wars would be fought if not among peers, then at least by foes with substantial asymmetric capabilities.

Hamas, Hezbollah, the Houthis of Yemen and other Iranian proxy militias aren’t cell-based terrorist groups, in the sense of al-Qaeda or, say, the IRA that terrorized the UK for decades. These newer organizations are instead “terror armies,” says Ryan. They’re quasi states, providing governance and services, while also building substantial armed forces, with large arsenals of missiles and combat-capable troops that number in the tens of thousands. Al-Qaeda reached the peak of its capabilities when it struck New York on Sept. 11, 2001, with the goal of scaring the US out of the Middle East. But Osama bin Laden had no army to command and never posed an existential threat to the US itself. 



All this matters because nations think and fight differently when they face this kind of threat. Their tolerance for casualties, among their own troops or in-theater civilians, is much higher. Deterrence becomes in a sense simpler — the stakes are clear — but also harder to calibrate and maintain. That’s because deterrence relies on your enemies being, in fact, deterred. Yet you can never be certain they are, as Israel found in tragic fashion on Oct. 7. Everyone is more hypervigilant as they seek to prove their willingness to make good on threats. The steps of faith needed to back away grow harder to take.

The demand for levelheaded, clear-sighted leaders to navigate all this change has never been greater, and that worries me the most. A dreadful Israeli government is using popular rage and fears to justify bad decisions that raise escalation risks further. Blundering into Gaza after Oct. 7 with no political strategy to separate Hamas from its population was one such act. Allowing settlers free rein to attack Palestinians in the West Bank was another. The continuing refusal of Israel’s Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich to hand over tax money to the Palestinian Authority that the Israeli government collects from Gaza on its behalf is yet another; this is the PA’s main source of income, on which it relies to pay security forces on the West Bank.

“This is not an extremist position,” Smotrich said in a statement at the end of December. “This is a position which desires life, and which is required by the situation.” It is in fact extremist, and like so many of this government’s poor decisions, it’s also counterproductive.

It’s easy for outsiders to scoff at the Israelis’ belief in the severity of the threats they face, given the disproportionate destruction they’re inflicting in Gaza and the contribution right-wing government policy failures played in getting here. Yet those fears are well-founded. The psychopathic savagery of Hamas’ original attack unmistakably signaled what its dedication to the eradication of Israel could mean — “from the river to the sea.”  

There are also more subtle levers for destroying a country. Areas along the borders with Lebanon and Gaza have been emptied due to security concerns. The economy has taken serious hits as farm fields lie fallow and tech-boom workers fight at the front. Israel is tiny, and if investors stop coming and substantial numbers of people emigrate due to insecurity, Hamas can achieve its goals that way.

It will take a vast feat of imagination and statesmanship, inconceivable for the current Israeli and Palestinian leaderships, to upend this violent cycle. A change of tactics in Gaza to genuinely spare civilians would be just the first — if most vital — step.

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