Commentary on Political Economy

Sunday 10 March 2024



Hamas’s ‘Operation Ramadan’—and Ours


For more than a month, the Biden administration has set the start of Ramadan as the deadline for a deal to release Israeli hostages and stop the war. “There’s got to be a cease-fire because Ramadan,” the president said Tuesday. “If we get into circumstances where this continues to Ramadan, Israel and Jerusalem could be very, very dangerous.” The danger, in his formulation, is all on the Israeli side, so Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had better cut a deal.

Israel’s leaders lamented privately that every day in February and early March seemed to bring a new U.S. shot across Israel’s bow—an unprecedented sanctions regime; new strings attached to weapons transfers; Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s call for a “timebound, irreversible path to a Palestinian state”; a turn against the war effort, which Mr. Biden called “over the top”; loud opposition to an offensive in Rafah, now termed a “red line”; a new policy deeming all settlements illegal; blame pinned on Israel for humanitarian aid problems; calls for an “immediate cease-fire”; and leaks that the U.S. could demand its weapons not be used in Rafah.

Meanwhile, the president no longer speaks about defeating Hamas, let alone destroying it. Victory is off his list of priorities—and Israelis worry that Mr. Biden is the most pro-Israel member of his administration. Where American words gave Israelis succor after Oct. 7, they now confound and demoralize the country. According to a senior Israeli official, Mr. Blinken “says it right in your face: ‘You can’t win.’ ”


This was America’s Operation Ramadan: Spook and threaten Israel into accepting a hostage deal that would end the war much sooner than Mr. Netanyahu wants, because victory is unattainable anyway.

The administration misread Israel. Its pressure tactics have allowed Mr. Netanyahu to rally even his rivals around his positions on Rafah and against unilateral U.S. recognition of a Palestinian state, an idea Israelis find criminally insane right now. The prime minister’s chief opponent, Benny Gantz, has publicly agreed with him on both, and reportedly told U.S. officials that “finishing the war without demilitarizing Rafah is like sending in firefighters to put out 80% of a fire.” As retired Brig. Gen. Amir Avivi, head of the Israel Defense and Security Forum, tells me, “All the Hamas leaders are there. All the hostages are there. The fighters, the munitions—they’re in Rafah.”

Micah Goodman, perhaps Israel’s leading public intellectual, says in an interview, “America is speaking about its own traumas in Iraq and Afghanistan when it says that asymmetric wars are unwinnable. We have a different experience.” He cites 2002’s Operation Defensive Shield, which broke the Second Intifada and helped end suicide bombings. That, too, had been deemed impossible.

“We have the determination and capacity to win,” he says. “The only resource we don’t have is time, which depends on continued U.S. support.”


Amit Segal, Israel’s most influential political columnist, points out in an interview the irony of Vice President Kamala Harris’s Friday statement that one must “distinguish” the views of the Netanyahu government from those of the Israeli people. “She doesn’t realize,” Mr. Segal says, “that the people are far more hawkish than their government.” Whoever they vote for will be tasked with implementing a more right-wing policy.

But if the Biden administration doesn’t understand Israel, its costlier error was to forget that Israel’s enemies also have a say in the matter. Whenever Israel signaled agreement with a hostage deal in the past few weeks, Hamas said no, hardened its negotiating position, and took the Biden strategy down in flames. Messrs. Biden and Blinken have lately had to admit that Hamas, not Israel, is the barrier to a deal.

Mr. Netanyahu already faced backbreaking pressure from Israelis to bring the hostages home, and according to senior Israeli officials, an operation against Rafah was always unlikely during Ramadan. Israel needs time to prepare a plan to evacuate civilians and to muster the necessary ammunition. (A senior political official says, “Israel has enough ammo for victory but not for comfort.”) So why not dodge Ramadan entirely with a hostage deal while that preparation continues?

This was Israel’s Operation Ramadan. The plan hinged, however, on a credible threat of invading Rafah, which the Biden administration does everything it can to undermine. Why would Hamas call time out and give up its hostages when it sees the political winds finally shifting in its favor? Mr. Biden’s political turn and defense of Rafah has so far pushed a hostage deal off the table.


“Hamas had two options,” a senior Israeli official says. “It could have taken the deal and hoped that Israel wouldn’t be able to restart the war after a six-week pause” under pressure from Mr. Biden. “Or it could roll the dice with Ramadan.” Hamas chose its own Operation Ramadan.

Hamas’s idea, Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant says, is to “take Ramadan, with an emphasis on the Temple Mount and Jerusalem, and turn it into the second phase of its plan that began on Oct. 7.” It styled that day’s atrocities “the Al-Aqsa Flood,” invoking the Islamic holy site that has been used to incite Arab violence against Jews at least since 1929. Now, against the backdrop of Ramadan, Ismail Haniyeh, the terrorist group’s political chief, has called on Jerusalem Arabs and West Bank Palestinians to march on Al-Aqsa.

As in years past, the idea is to provoke a confrontation at the mosque by smuggling weapons and rioting on the Temple Mount, Judaism’s holiest site, on which Al-Aqsa stands. Israel is taking countermeasures because it knows that Hamas will use any provocation to try to expand the fight. Its goal is to set off internal Israeli disorder—the Arabs of East Jerusalem have come to define themselves as defenders of the mosque—or shame Hezbollah into military escalation. Either could distract Israel from its slow, systematic destruction of Hamas, city by city, battalion by battalion, tunnel by tunnel.

All the world sees through Hamas’s plan, yet all the world would fall for it. Israel will be blamed if Hamas brings violence to Al-Aqsa.

If Hamas can’t light the fuse, however, or if it does and its allies again decide not to get burned, the terrorist group’s days in power are numbered. Israel is planning for Rafah and seeking and producing ammunition. Mr. Segal doesn’t buy the Ramadan threat anyway, “as if Palestinians needed an excuse to kill Jews.”

Israel has promised to show the U.S. its plan to evacuate civilians from Rafah, but a senior official says Israel doesn’t need a “green light.” Probably Israel should have taken Rafah at the start, “when the world was still in shock,” as one military official puts it. But the country is united on the questions that matter, and it has the will to outlast the Biden administration. For Hamas, it’s Operation Ramadan or bust.

Mr. Kaufman is the Journal’s letters editor.

Wonder Land: Iran, Russia and China know that both Joe Biden and Donald Trump are weak adversaries, not least because they have failed to raise U.S. defense capacity to the level of an unmistakable deterrent. Images: AP/Shutterstock Composite: Mark Kelly


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Appeared in the March 11, 2024, print edition as 'Hamas’s ‘Operation Ramadan’—and Ours'.

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