Policy Objectives for US and Israel – Gaza

Kevin Benson | 10.19.23

posted on the USM Modern War Institute website https://mwi.westpoint.edu/

“Tell me how this ends.”
This was what David Petraeus, then commanding general of the 101st Airborne Division, famously said to journalist Rick Atkinson in 2003. It was still early in the Iraq War, when the overwhelmingly superior US-led coalition had crushed its Iraqi adversaries fighting conventionally, but just as the country was beginning its descent into sectarian bloodletting and becoming a magnet for jihadists.

The same sentiment must surely be dominating conversations among policymakers and planners in Israel at this moment. Because war is an extension of policy through other means. A nation embarking upon execution of a war must have policy objectives in mind before starting the war. The government and its armed forces must also bear in mind that any operational plan will not be able to project with any degree of certainty how the campaign will proceed after making initial contact with its enemy’s main force or main line of resistance. These thoughts well and truly apply to the situation facing the Israeli government and the Israel Defense Forces (IDF).

Multiple statements issued by both IDF and Israeli government officials speak of the total destruction of Hamas. Emotions run high, understandably so, as Hamas’s actions on October 7 evoked images of pogrom. The word alone causes chills. All the more reason to have firm policy objectives in mind and recognize that as conditions on the battlefield and in the information domain change, the conduct of the campaign must adjust. Hamas’s brutality during its attacks against Israel and Israeli civilians may well have been savage, murderous, and criminal, but the Israeli government cannot afford to be viewed in the same light. This war, like any war conducted in the social media age, will be fought under constant observation. Images will sway opinion, and images can be altered for maximum effect. Information wars will tend to the Clausewitzian extreme faster than actual actions in combat.
A good start point for an analysis of Israeli strategic objectives, a tried and true method, is to first look at the war from the perspective of the enemy.

Net Assessment from the Hamas Viewpoint
The Hamas leadership’s ultimate war aims are the destruction of Israel and the retention of power in Gaza. Hamas will exert a total level of effort—diplomatically, economically, politically, and militarily—in order to win, or, more accurately, to not lose. Hamas obviously views its existence as vital; however, this view may not be held by the majority of the Gaza populace, which Hamas would gladly offer as human shields against attacking forces. Hamas exerts severe control of the Gaza population through its security and intelligence network. Hamas might not have the loyalty of Gaza’s people unless they see the defense of Hamas as their only option for survival. Because Hamas views the Israeli war aims as unlimited, with its complete destruction as Israel’s goal, it will try to convince the people of Gaza that this translates to their destruction as well.
So, Hamas will try to convince its Arab neighbors that any attack against Hamas is an attack against Islam and the Palestinian people. Hamas and its supporters will use the media to foster the image, especially when an Israeli ground offensive gets underway, of a merciless assault on the people of Gaza. Hamas will attempt to garner some civilian resistance to an attack, while concurrently trying to create a level of fear that results in refugee traffic and lines of communication blockage. Hamas would prefer to score some wins early, but as has been shown since Hamas took control of Gaza, the organization’s leadership remains committed to a long-term effort regardless of the negative impact on the people of Gaza.
Israel, Hamas believes, will be vulnerable to international measures to stop the war. As such, the group will use information and cyber means try to prevent widespread support for Israel because. Hamas perceives that the United States cannot politically withstand a portrayal of Israeli actions as ruthless assaults on innocent Palestinians and is counting on the notion that the the public in the United States, and in other countries whose governments support Israel, will not believe that the group’s removal has a high enough value to justify large numbers of casualties or the expenditure of vast resources. Hamas and its supporters, primarily Iran, are counting on the images of dead innocents in Gaza and the proposition of a long war to prevent or limit Israeli action over time. Ultimately, Hamas sees the US level of effort supporting Israel as limited because it does not believe full commitment of resources will be expended against Hamas due to competing resource requirements from other US operations.

US Policy Objectives
To a certain extent, Hamas is correct in viewing the specific level of US support for Israel as a critical variable. President Biden and the secretaries of state and defense have all reiterated America’s support, describing it as “rock solid” and “ironclad.” While the United States is not actually using force it is supplying the means of war to Israel. This form of using force must also bear in mind policy objectives. Based on both official US government statements and what a variety of US government officials have said during media appearance, the following set of assumed US policy objectives takes shape:
Support for Israel will reinforce the standing of the U.S. as a reliable and constant ally in the face of grave threats to peace.
Support for Israel will reaffirm the US determination to oppose the use of terrorism and the unjust use of force as a legitimate means of statecraft.
Successful conclusion of the war against Hamas will offers a means to restore the impending normalization of relations between the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and the state of Israel and a stepping stone to a wider, durable political solution for the region.

Israeli Policy
With this assessment of Hamas interests and specific US policy objectives in mind, it is possible to elucidate like Israeli objectives, both strategic and with respect to the looming military campaign. Given the stated goal of destroying Hamas, both the Israeli government and the IDF must consider how the war ends as well as how it is conducted. The Israeli government knows, or should know, what force can and cannot do. Its policy objectives will require a true whole-of-government effort. What are those objectives likely to be?
Policy/Strategic Objectives of Operations in Gaza
A stable Gaza, with a broad-based government that renounces the use of terrorism to threaten Israel or the Israeli people.
Outcomes in Gaza that can be leveraged to convince or compel other countries in the region to cease support to terrorists.
A restoration process to reach an agreement with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia to normalize relations with Israel, and an expansion of the Abraham Accords.
Because policy guides strategy and the conduct of operations, and bearing in mind what force can realistically accomplish, these policy objectives give shape to a set of IDF military objectives.
Military Objectives of Operations in Gaza
Destabilize, isolate, and destroy Hamas and provide support to a new, broad-based government in Gaza.
Destroy Hamas’s military capability and infrastructure.
Protect Israel from Gaza-based threats and attacks.
Destroy Hamas and supporting nations’ terrorist networks, gather intelligence on regional and global terrorism, capture or kill terrorists and war criminals, and free hostages unjustly detained under the Hamas regime.
Concluding the Campaign
Conducting this campaign as simply a punitive expedition, destroying Hamas and then leaving Gaza, will not serve the policy of either the United States or Israeli governments. The final result of this campaign must establish conditions for a better peace in the region. Removing Hamas must include providing a path to peace not only for Israel but for the Palestinians. There must be hope.

At the end of the campaign in Gaza the rebuilding effort should be under the control of the UN, through a civilian special representative of the secretary general. A security force will need to be put in place—placing it under the command of, for instance the Saudi armed forces (and encouraging the governments of other predominantly Sunni nations like Bangladesh and Malaysia to be the principal troop contributors) will enhance the prospects of building lasting peace. At a point to be determined by the UN special representative, a Gaza-wide open election must be held to produce a government that is truly representative of Gaza’s people and their interests.

These are just one person’s reflections on the policy that ought to guide what will undoubtedly be a brutal, hard-fought campaign. The IDF must fight in accordance with the laws of armed conflict, even as Hamas will not. Adherence to these laws is what distinguishes professional soldiers from barbarians. Above all, this campaign must be waged with the end state of a better peace in mind. It is the only way that it can conceivably end with sustainable political and security outcomes.

Kevin Benson, PhD, is a retired US Army colonel who commanded from company to battalion level and served as a general staff officer from corps to field army. He was the CFLCC J5 (Plans) at the start of Operation Iraqi Freedom and the director of the School of Advanced Military Studies.
The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of the United States Military Academy, Department of the Army, or Department of Defense.

The opinions Kevin expresses above are not those of Liberty Bristles. His article does serve as a great prompt for commentary on US policy toward Israel and the region. Have at it! Meanwhile, check out Kevin’s latest book, Expectation of Valor: Planning the Iraq War. It can be pre-ordered at Expectation of Valor – Casemate Publishers US and on Amazon.

Check the “books” page for a description of his book.

This entry was posted in Strategy, Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to Policy Objectives for US and Israel – Gaza

  1. Kevin Benson says:

    Superb comments and thank you for taking time to read and reply. Also, you do me much honor by your comments. I am on call to act as chauffeur for my mother-in-law, so please accept this short reply.
    On my one trip to Israel I has the opportunity to ask the Israeli serving as Sharon’s national security advisor about the fence being built around the state of Israel. He said it was to preserve to Jewish state. I think this is why there has to be a form of “two States” as the demographics of population growth favor the Palestinians. One state eventually means the Palestinian population and thus voters will become the majority.
    I picked the UN in my proposal because of the disfavor in which it is held. Put the ball squarely in the UN’s court and thus the world will see whether or not the body and its agents can follow through. Same rationale for proposing the Saudis to lead a security force in Gaza. It allows the Israelis to establish a security zone around Gaza while having the UN and Saudis responsible to total security.
    If the article came across as not accepting the complete demolition of Hamas this is my error. There is no room for these barbarians. I was trying to drive at the need for a complete strategy that takes into account the information domain on the part of the Israelis and the US.
    Have to run. My sincere thanks at taking time to read my article and comment.

    • Jeffery Lebowski says:


      Good point on the indispensability of the UN as the universally untrusted actor in the post conflict space. Its one of the better roles for the UN and one they could possibly if not likely achieve. Honestly, I’d even suggest that for the right money, some group like the African Union might work, and they’d be far more neutral-ish, if not neutral. I think its a good way to get the collective Africans into the international security space and start the divorce process from the UN as “Phase 6” actor in our defense planning.

      To the demographic element of the Two State Solution, I think it makes sense, as “demographics is destiny” is a tenet of strategic intel and Net Assessment. However, the Two State Solution was an element of the more liberal wing of Israeli domestic politics, and that wing is all but dead, and in security matters post October 7th, I think pretty much dead. I’m not an expert on internal Israeli politics, but friends I trust and a recent interview by Michael Oren* suggest that the Israelis are coming to internal consensus on the means to chart a far more independent and right leaning security policy. I bet this is the conversation in Israeli policy circles and the meat thrown to their SAMS/JAWS equivalents to what the security policy after Two State would be, precisely. I don’t know, either.

      Perhaps, breaking Gaza into 10 smaller neighborhoods? Breaking apart Germany certainly kept it from being a threat to greater European stability. Gaza has the unique characteristic that neither of its neighbors wants to rule it. If we really knew the human terrain within Gaza, perhaps breaking the place into a collection of mutually antagonistic but highly interdependent elements (I have the power production, you have the coast, someone else the border crossings, etc.) would create at least multiple equities within Gaza vs. population-> HAMAS-> Iran.

      Obviously just thinking out loud here. I’m sure there are plenty of minefields we just aren’t aware of in this discussion.

      *[highly recommended] https://www.econtalk.org/should-israel-depend-on-the-us-with-michael-oren

  2. Carlos Arenas says:

    Kevin, you are in fact one of the few American military thinkers out there who have actually devised successful military strategy, so I want to aim at you carefully and only with an airsoft. That said, here are some overall, global concerns I wish you would consider regarding your views on the Hamas war.

    1. The UN is not a global ally of the United States. It is not democratic. It is not incorrupt. It is not led by good people. It is not neutral in the Israeli-Hamas conflict. Because of this, your “the rebuilding effort should be under the control of the UN” seems a bit, well, …I dunno.
    2. Your arguments logic seems to proceed as follows:
    Hamas leaders are evil; those evil leaders think they can survive only if they can portray the Israelis as equally evil before the Israelis have time to kill them; the Hamas leaders are right because the US administration is not all-in for the Israelis; therefore the Israelis should stop trying to kill the Hamas leaders. I ask you, why not instead advise that the United States government change its policy, go all-in with the Israelis and help them kill the evil Hamas leaders? Why do you assume that, once the Hamas leaders were dead and gone, that the Saudis would be less likely to make peace with the Israelis? Seems to me that they would be impressed as well as relieved.
    3. You seem to suggest that the Israelis don’t have a clear objective in mind or that the objective is emotional rather than realistic. Why is killing Hamas not realistic. Let’s go full Godwin’s Law for a sec and think about the Hitler regime. Sure, there were leftovers, but the goal was to wipe it out and for all practical purposes we did. First Gulf War? Sadam’s family took quite a hit. The goal of wiping them out is not impracticable. It probably does need US help.
    4. Why presuppose that there has to be a separate Palestine with a people in it called Palestinians? All of the Israelis now live in Palestine. Why not simply reduce Gaza, reincorporate it into Israel proper, and go on a path of ending the false and deceptive goal of two states? If people who today call themselves Palestinian mean by that label that they do not accept the idea that the Israelis have a right to live in Israel peacefully as Jews n a Jewish state, then why not invite (even force) them to seek refuge in a neighboring country? If you say because the neighboring country does not want them, doesn’t that say an awful lot about those countries?
    5. You seem to slip past the elephant, Iran. Iran’s leaders are as evil as Hamas’. They support Hamas wholeheartedly. The US government has in turn been quite supportive of the Iranian regime. My question would be – will the Iranian regime be more likely to use a weapon of mass destruction against the Jews if the Israeli government kills Hamas? I don’t think so. I think the Iranian leaders are already murderous enough. I think deterring them depends on the Unted States government’s willingness to support Israel fully.
    6. Might it not be better to avoid citing American generals when it comes to the Middle East and Southwest Asia? In the strategic run of things, did they do well? I don’t see how we can claim victory in Afghanistan or Iraq or Libya or Syria.
    Allow me the same disclaimer as you use – just one man’s reflections.

  3. Kevin Benson says:

    Brilliant. Thanks very much for taking time to think about what I wrote and offered well reasoned points. This is exactly what Geoff is looking for, I am certain, the reasoned discourse that is somewhat (to say the least) lacking in public discussion of important topics.

    • Jeffery Lebowski says:

      Of course, its brilliant, Kevin. You were one of my better instructors and I likely one of your more unmemorable students!

  4. Jeffery Lebowski says:

    While I always enjoy Kevin’s analysis, I’d leave a couple of points that I’ll try to expand upon later. I’ll try to work backwards through his analysis….

    First, there is an existential problem of fighting in Westphalian terms against a non-Westphalian state actor. If there is one thing that Hamas, ISIS, the IRGC (and a slew of other actors, most certainly the Chinese and likely the Indians) would agree upon, its the end of the Westphalian system. Will they use Westphalian mechanisms like the UNGA or ICJ to push narratives and conduct lawfare? Absolutely. Does this translate into greater adherence to norms in the furtherance of some stable and generally agreeable global order? No.

    Governance in Gaza did have a UN nexus, and it was UNRWA (a highly unique element of the UN system in its own right) and the fact that UNRWA was highly complicit in the October 7th attack creates its own issues with the UN’s post conflict role.

    Regarding Israeli goals, I’d imagine they consist of rendering ineffective HAMAS combat power (IQB), which was publicly assessed at 5 BDEs, with subordinate elements of 24 Battalions and 140 companies. Together with intelligence, log, Recon/SOF and other enablers, its a large target. The facts that HAMAS could like generate more ground combat power than most of NATO and that UNRWA enables this at its most charitably, indirectly, aside for the moment, this is a tremendous asset for the IRGC. What the greater Israeli goal likely is in my estimate is the reduction of an Iranian controlled/influenced entity on its border. I would guess in this, its a goal shared by the Egyptian and Jordanian governments (hence the irony that the “Arab Street” in this conflict is more likely seen in New York or London vice Amman or Cairo.)

    Taking us to US policy, if we accept that most actors (other than the US) seem to knowledge the Iranian/HAMAS nexus, it would nest that our support to the Israelis (already decidedly different from the earliest pronouncements of the Administration, certainly in the eyes of the Israelis themselves) would be part of strategic interest to reduce Iranian malign influence. That the Administration seems to allow that groups like the Houthis and Iraqi PMF are distinct from their Iranian sponsorship creates a gap in our policy and deterrence calculus of what our current leadership views as “Iranian” “malign” and “influence.” The decided multitrack position of the Administration on Iran is whole discussion, and likely not one that the Israelis are going to wait for its resolution.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

The maximum upload file size: 512 MB. You can upload: image, audio, video, document, spreadsheet, interactive, text, archive, code, other. Links to YouTube, Facebook, Twitter and other services inserted in the comment text will be automatically embedded. Drop file here