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Opinion: The crux of Israel’s challenge

Opinion by Frida Ghitis

(CNN) — More than four months after Hamas, the Iran-backed Islamist group that rules Gaza, launched a brutal attack on Israel, triggering a ferocious response, diplomats met in Cairo this week aiming to reach a temporary ceasefire.

Despite the participation of CIA Director William Burns, Mossad chief David Barnea, and other heavyweights, the talks did not succeed and there’s some question about whether they will continue.

In the meantime, prominent figures across the globe are urging Israel not to launch an offensive in Rafah, the Gaza city on the border with Egypt which remains a stronghold of Hamas brigades, and where more than a million civilians, most of them displaced by the fighting, have taken shelter amid widespread devastation across the strip.

Rafah encapsulates the perverse genius of the Hamas strategy, and the unwinnable moral dilemmas it created with the war it deliberately provoked.

By launching a brutal attack on Israel, committing large scale sexual violence, and taking hundreds of hostages, it ensured that Israel would counteract with overwhelming force. By embedding itself in the population, it guaranteed that Israel’s response would bring enormous suffering to Palestinians, knowing that Israel would take the blame and Hamas’s support would surge, particularly in the West Bank, where Fatah, its Palestinian rival, dominates.

The crux of the matter remains how to make Hamas relinquish power in Gaza. If Hamas leaders leave, surrender, or lay down their arms, the war could end.

Israel’s critics demanding an immediate ceasefire may believe Israel should accept Hamas’s continuing control of Gaza, but Israelis, divided on political and social issues, are convinced of the justness of their cause.

Hamas leaders vow that massacres like they committed on October 7 will happen “again and again,” that Israel cannot be allowed to exist. Its political leaders, in comfortable exile, acknowledge the tactics will prove costly, but dismiss the casualties among their own people saying “We are proud to sacrifice martyrs.”

With every passing day, however, with every Israeli bomb, with every death and injury among the besieged Palestinians, the pressure on Israel grows, even as Hamas remains defiant, hoping to survive the war as a power in Gaza.

Hamas, classified as a terrorist group by many countries, not only rejects the existence of Israel. It is a repressive, fundamentalist, homophobic, dictatorial power in the Gaza strip. It was elected in 2006, but then brutalized its foes and became a dictatorship, funneling foreign aid to boost its financial empire and build tunnels and rockets.

This conflict may be creating more terrorists than it is eliminating, but it is clear that it cannot end with Hamas still in control of Gaza. That would ensure that there’s no peace for Israel or Palestinians on either side of the border, a perpetual war.

The diplomats’ immediate goal is to craft a formula for a temporary ceasefire and a release of some of the more than 130 Israeli hostages — an unknown number of them already dead — that Hamas is still holding after its October 7 rampage, when they brutalized families, women and children, children killing some 1,200 and kidnapping some 240 people in Israel, most of them civilians. The hostages would be exchanged for Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails.

But the larger goal, beyond this short-term objective, is to leverage the deal to build a permanent ceasefire; to end the war so that the region, and the world, can move to the even more complicated matter, the most crucial of all, of what happens the “day after,” when the war ends.

Among those raising alarms about a Rafah operation is President Joe Biden, who has become increasingly critical of Israel’s conduct of the war, calling it “over the top” and is demanding that Israel provide a credible plan for protecting the civilian population before it goes into Rafah.

Israel is putting together controversial plans to temporarily relocate civilians to 15 tent cities along the coast, according to the Wall Street Journal. However, no official evacuation plan has been announced.

Israelis see the situation in stark terms.

Traveling to The Hague to file war crimes complaints against Hamas, Ofri Bibas, whose brother, his wife and two children — one of them a nine- month-old baby — were kidnapped and have not been released, called Hamas “the successors of Hitler, Eichmann and Goebbels…”

Seeking a solution, Biden is exasperated with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who is also profoundly unpopular in Israel and remains in power only because of support from extreme right-wingers in his coalition. Biden is publicly demanding that Israel take more care to protect civilians.

Standing with Jordan’s King Abdullah, Biden correctly described October 7 as “the deadliest day for the Jewish people since the Holocaust.” He added, also correctly, that “the Palestinian people have also suffered unimaginable pain and loss.” The Hamas-controlled Health Ministry in Gaza says 27,000 have died in the war. It doesn’t distinguish combatants from non-combatants, but it’s beyond doubt that thousands of civilians have been killed, including large numbers of children. And the living are enduring excruciating conditions.

It may seem that the administration is sending mixed signals, but a closer look shows a nuanced position that not only maintains strong support for Israel, but also continues to endorse the uprooting of Hamas, including in Rafah.

National Security spokesman John Kirby said this week, “We never said that they can’t go into Rafah and remove Hamas,” arguing that Hamas remains a threat and Israel will continue to go after its leadership and infrastructure, “as they should.”

In the meantime, talks about what should happen in Gaza the “day after” are moving forward quietly, out of the spotlight.

The New York Times reported that officials from six Arab countries recently met in Saudi Arabia to discuss the prospects.

Even though Arab leaders are publicly critical of Israel, there’s little doubt that many of them wish fervently to see Hamas, which is backed by their regional foe Iran, removed from power. Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan, the United Arab Emirates and others, would like to see Hamas soundly defeated.

One post-war scenario said to be gaining support among Sunni leaders is the formation of a new Palestinian administration, replacing the unpopular Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, to run Gaza backed by Arab troops from countries like the United Arab Emirates and perhaps Saudi Arabia, which is reportedly willing to establish diplomatic relations with Israel if it agrees to a path toward the creation of a Palestinian state.

For now, Israelis — still smarting from the trauma of October 7, with hostages still in Hamas’s hands, and with surveys showing most Palestinians approved of Hamas’s decision to launch its onslaught — are in no mood to endorse a Palestinian state.

Netanyahu has called the idea “delusional.” But if Hamas is uprooted – a prerequisite for genuine progress — the government of Israel could change. Polls predict Netanyahu would be crushed in another election.

The sentiment in Israel could also change if the hostages return and if Arab countries offer steady reassurance. But before the war can end, before the wounds can begin to heal on both sides, Hamas has to be removed from power.

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