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Transnational Thursday for January 11, 2024

Transnational Thursday is a thread for people to discuss international news, foreign policy or international relations history. Feel free as well to drop in with coverage of countries you’re interested in, talk about ongoing dynamics like the wars in Israel or Ukraine, or even just whatever you’re reading.

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What are Israel's goals in Gaza at this point, and what have they achieved towards them at this point? I've sort of lost track and would like to catch up.

All signs point to Israel continuing the war until at least the middle of 2024. Eg. the budget that was approved last week includes an additional 50bn shekels (on top of the 30 bn approved for the war in a previous 2023-24 war budget), which most folk assume mean 4-6 more months of war. Israel is debating and negotiating, this week, what that means in terms of goals and how the rest of the war will be fought. Updates likely to come this weekend or sometime next week, after Blinken completes his tour and finishes speaking with all the local leaders

Their stated objective is to eradicate all traces and operational capabilities for Hamas. That's a very nebulous goal - the armed portion of Hamas has somewhere around 20-25k members according to CIA's factbook. The organization is fragmented, though - and the political arm may have hundreds of thousands of supporters. Support for the palestinian side of the war, if not explicitly Hamas, has spread into the West bank, and there have been some brutal IDF operations there too. Especially the younger population in the west bank is becoming more and more restless, so there's a chance there will be further operations and escalation. Some estimates for the number of small arms and other weapons in the Gaza strip are as high as 400-500k, with many other tribes or armed groups potentially supporting Hamas, and participating in the war. So it seems like the IDF has enough plausible deniability, budget, and rope, to continue for an arbitrarily long period of time and with a wide range of potential activities. It will likely take a significant amount of combined internal and international pressure comes to bear before they are forced to call the war over and stop.

As far as specific goals - at the very least, there seems to be a systematic search for and dismantling of large underground facilities and tunnels, that Hamas and other organizations have built up over 20+ years. The IDF seems to be following a pattern of brutal bomb, drone attack, underground and urban combat, killing thousands of soldiers (most recent estimates are at 10000+ dead or captured combatants, and with close to 2000 of those listed as captured). It's impossible to estimate what percentage of the underground facilities have been destroyed so far, or how many are left - no one seems to know for sure how many there are or where to find them all. It seems likely that Israel is leaning heavily on captives and on its intelligence resources to, in real time, systematically scan each area, find and then eradicate the operational and military facilities - including any in the west bank. Estimates have something like 30-40% of all above ground buildings in Gaza destroyed, so far.

As far as political pressure to stop - conservative estimates are at a minimum of around 15000 palestinian civilians dead, with more than half the fatalities being under 18. There seems to be recent, rapidly increasing pressure on Israel to stop the ground offensive. While the US and others are not calling for an explicit cease fire, they are more and more aggressively calling for a stop to the civilian death toll. EU based pressure is complex, but follows similar broad strokes as US pressure - initially starting as pressure towards a ceasefire or end to civilian casualties. For the last 10-15 years, EU has been the primary source of aid to cover the cost of housing and infrastructure in Gaza (including significant funding for Israeli owned construction firms and companies to do the work). Billions of dollars' worth of infrastructure, built via primarily EU provided foreign aid, is being levelled by the IDF, and that part of the narrative seems to be getting more air time in the EU than in the US. Also, with Turkey/Israel relations worsening and attacks from Hezbollah/Lebanon in the north of Israel intensifying, news in the EU is seeing more talk about avoiding an escalation of the conflict than what's coming from the US. For context, Turkey could have been a candidate for brokering some sort of peace or path towards an end of the war, after the Egyptian led negotiations collapsed - but that seems less likely to happen now.

Also related to political pressure - Israel is aggressively preventing any kind of aid from going into the region, when it thinks it might be used in support of the war. They have been using an algorithm I think of as "detain on first transgression" at the border. At the first sign that a truck carries something that could theoretically be used to manufacture weapons or support war infrastructure (eg a single large pipe that could be an ingredient in a rocket, or a solar panel stored on the roof of the truck), the entire truck is sidelined or detained. This approach is extremely unpopular internationally and there has been constant pressure on the Israeli government to allow more aid in.

While there is overwhelming support, internally, for Israel to continue the war until the destruction of Hamas (polling at close to 90%), it's unclear what that means in practice, and internal pressure to stop the civilian casualties is mounting. Pre-war protests included slogans demanding a stop to the subjugation of the palestinian people; some are starting to question whether the war is just about destroying Hamas in the current format and at this point.

Israel's government is debating how to respond to all of this pressure, both internally and with foreign diplomats, this week. Blinken and others are in the region right now, meeting and acting as messengers and go betweens between all involved. The initial Israeli position seems to be that they've mostly achieved their objectives in the North, and aid and reconstruction can start there. In the south, their initial pitch seems to be to continue for as long as necessary, implicitly attempting to do the same thing(s) as in the North, but potentially slower, more methodically, and with fewer casualties and brutality. Specifics and final details are still up in the air and likely won't be updated publicly until, at the earliest, this weekend, but probably next week.

Related - South Africa presented it's case that Israel is engaged in genocide against Palestinians today, with rebuttals scheduled for tomorrow. While very visible and having a lot of public attention and interest, it's unclear what, if anything, directly practical can come of this lawsuit. ICJ lawsuits are not enforceable, and any consequent political pressure is likely to come after some of the decision making has finished.

For additional context - Israel was at a turning point internally before the war started, with some calling the state close to civil war. PM Netaniahu is facing criminal charges, and the trial is on hold while the war is going on. Support for him to keep his job post war is polling at around 15%. Many government decision makers, including the PM, are seen have a vested interest in continuing the war for as long as possible

Israel is aggressively preventing any kind of aid from going into the region

This is obviously false, there are numerous photos and videos of hundreds of aid trucks rolling into Gaza (and Hamas taking over them and shooting at residents trying to get to them before Hamas does), and there are Jordanians doing air supply drops (obviously with Israel approval). It is true that Israel limits the amount of supplies and the kind of supplies, because they know (and it is true) that Hamas is going to control and benefit from them, but it is absolutely false that Israel is preventing "any kind of aid" from going into Gaza.

The original statement was:

Israel is aggressively preventing any kind of aid from going into the region, when it thinks it might be used in support of the war

So I think both my original, and your take are 100% true - I don't believe there is a contradiction. Even if I steelman your point, I don't see a contradiction. Say, for the sake of exercise (this extremely simplified and abstracted, so don't take cheap shots against the simplification; I think is close enough to reality get my point across though):

  • Assume 90% of all trucks are allowed to pass and 10% are held back since they might be used to support the war. I'm trying to steelman your point - daily numbers vary widely, and seem to average 20% held back (again, I'm steelmanning your point here so using IDF numbers for 80 trucks through on average, when 100 are required)
  • Assume that the algorithm for holding them back is correct (there are multiple eye witness accounts, including eg. the BBC interviewed US senators visiting the crossing). That is, a truck that is held back is held for a while, and not allowed to return to its origin or be reusedd
  • The war has been going 100 days
  • It takes around 100 trucks a day to supply gaza

Assuming (for illustration; this is a model of what's going on that helps make the problem visible. The truth is different, but not in ways which invalidate this logic) 100 trucks try to cross each day, that's 10 held back each day, and held back trucks are never released - that would be around 1000 trucks stuck at the border by now. 1000 trucks is more than 50% of the entire trucking capacity for Egypt. Looks like Egypt has ballpark 1850 trucks available for all transportation needs in the country

Now try doing something like the above with the real numbers and estimates, and the more complicated truth of what's actually happening with trucks @ border. You should be able to more easily see the problem

So I think that all of the following statements could (trivially) be all be true at the same time (exercise for the reader to figure out if they are):

  • occasionally a significant number of trucks pass (maybe hundreds in total are allowed in at a time, every once in a while, possibly after they've had time to be more thoroughly inspected and risky materials have been removed or something)
  • only a relatively small % of trucks are stopped each day, on the chance they carry weaponisable material. Average 20%
  • the aggregate # of trucks making it through is high, but not nearly enough to prevent catastrophe
  • truck access is lumpy enough to cause catastrophe even if both the average and aggregate numbers are significantly increased ("on average, sufficient fuel is available to operate a hospital generator" is not exactly the same as "sufficient fuel makes it through each day")
  • the algorithm used to decide how many trucks pass aggressively prevents access
  • No need for anyone to (intentionally) be doing anything cruel or evil. None of this requires bad actors, on either side of the fence - it's sufficient to assume moloch

If you assume this is Moloch at work, you'll quickly see that the issue can be addressed as a coordination problem. So there are multiple very very easy ways to make the algorithm less aggressive or more effectively work within its limits - for example:

  • the "Berlin Algorithm": trucks which are denied entry could be sent back to origin (instead of detained, creating bottlenecks), where dangerous materials can be removed
  • more clear information, in advance, about what might cause a truck to be turned around
  • more conservative decisions on the side of the folk loading the trucks. Or more consistency - eg. put all the solar panels on one truck, that way only solar panels get turned around (and not, say, a truck full of food that also carries a solar panel)
  • completely unload the trucks that have been denied, near the border. That way they can go back for more materials (and not be a bottle neck). Once certain materials are accepted in, re-load them into trucks

Also, with Turkey/Israel relations worsening and attacks from Hezbollah/Lebanon in the north of Israel intensifying, news in the EU is seeing more talk about avoiding an escalation of the conflict than what's coming from the US.

Turkey - Israel relations are complex but Turkey is one of the most staunch supporters of Hamas in the region, much moreso than Egypt or the Gulf powers. Turkey and Iran have a strained relationship over the Azerbaijan / Armenia conflict (in which it and Israel are mostly on the same side) but it’s not really that simple there either.

The most important dynamic is that neither Turkey nor any Arab state’s leaders want war with Israel, but a substantial portion, perhaps the majority, of the Arab public do and more generally they’re extremely hostile to Israel.

I don't mean to scare you with the sudden appearance of a notification from a moderator in your inbox.

I would actually like to laud your comment, and especially contrast it to this particular one:

Which happened to be warned (very politely) by @netstack, and would have warranted one from me if he hadn't been first to the punch.

Said ignoble comment included:

Right now is a balancing game in how far they can go without critical consequences, with a heavy experimental lean towards killing as many men, women, and children as possible, while maximizing destabilization.

And hence (and for other reasons) met with:

Please be proactive when making an inflammatory claim. That means providing stronger evidence.

I consider your comment here to be a sterling representation of how to go about that, and hope that @SoonToBeBanned takes heed, presuming he doesn't intend his username to end up a self-fulfilling prophecy one day.

And this is coming from someone who is profoundly unsympathetic to the Gazan cause, not that I try and let that affect my moderation decisions. But if someone wishes to go about making such claims, then I point to your comment as how to do that. The AAQC this garnered already (hence why it was a "report" in the mod queue) seems well warranted to me. I will supplement it with my own.

(On an unrelated note, I prefer to be the kind of mod who offers carrots as well as sticks, if the odd person finds my positive feedback heartening. Especially for relatively new members here, I think they deserve recognition for grokking how this place works, or ought to work, without anyone needing to hit them on the head first haha)

Thanks! Any comments on the general style of the post? I was aiming for more conversational, and leaving the references in the links. Though I'm considering switching in general to more of @Soriek's style and including direct quotes from the references (eg from an npr link above )

Domestic politics may play a role in how Netanyahu wages the war in Gaza.

Israel's military has appointed a team to investigate the security failures that resulted in the Oct. 7 Hamas attack, and Netanyahu is expected to face questions about his own responsibility. Netanyahu's corruption trial will convene at a quicker pace beginning this month, and polls show his government has lost between a third and a fourth of its public support during the war.

"If it was up to Netanyahu, this would continue for quite some time," says Reuven Hazan, who teaches politics at Hebrew University in Jerusalem. "For Netanyahu to end the war in Gaza, even with a victory, means he has to start dealing with the political issues at home and the legal issues, which he does not want to."

I like your style! No need for everyone to sound like me. Honestly I partially include more direct quotes because I'm extremely busy these days. If I had more time I would do more personalized writeups for each country, which I still try to do where I can or for the countries I know more about.

I like the direct quotes; it feels a bit more honest - reporting on the source separately from the analysis, or something like that

I think your style is entirely fine! @Soriek seems to prefer a more neutral, judgment free style to his reporting, but that is by no means a necessity. You are more than welcome to present both the facts and the value judgements/hypothesis you ascribe to them, all we ask is that if the latter can be deemed inflammatory (sorry that there's no objective standard, but we mods do try our best), then the former backs it up in proportion.

Which you did, very well, so any further changes in your style are yours to choose.

Netanyahu is trying to deliver on part of the "Greater Israel" plan by killing or expelling the Palestinians, esp. from Gaza. You're repeating "Israeli" propaganda about things like impeding aid due to weapons and fighting Hamas, when in reality it's clear from things like the evidence presented in the genocide case, it's about killing the Palestinians.

There is not much evidence for those 10K+ dead or captured being actual combatants, and you can see "Israel" hasn't captured many more hostages (not that they actually care about them, recently it was admitted they applied the hannibal directive on Oct 7th). "Israel" needs to flaunt these #'s to make it look like they're succeeding.

"Israel" is trying to escalate with Hezbollah and cause a wider war bringing in the US. It's been unsuccessful so far but tensions continue to rise.

What I keep asking for the crowd which claims Israel wants to get rid of the Gazans and doesn’t care how it does so, ergo genocide- why are civilian casualty figures in the Gaza campaign so much closer to US military operations than to Russian ones? Russia kills more Ukrainian civilians it theoretically wants to incorporate into its citizen body by accident than Israel is doing to Palestinians it wants rid of entirely(and I’m entirely willing to believe reports like Israel negotiating to deport them all to the Congo, even if I think the evidence is in short supply). Why? Israel is going to get about the same amount of condemnation from about the same people no matter what it does short of opening up another Auschwitz, so the balance of evidence is in favor of Israel not trying to commit a genocide and putting at least some effort into avoiding civilian casualties.

I'm broadly sympathetic to this point of view. For example, Mearsheimer has an essay about it, with a bunch of footnotes to back him up:

It is rather disturbing to see children singing "within a year we will annihilate everyone and then we will return to plough our fields" in a well-made, high-value music production. Even Snopes couldn't find any way to fact check it into the ground.

Why is "Israel" in scare quotes? Whether you believe that the Israeli government should be destroyed or not, it clearly currently exists and clearly currently controls territory.

Some people have their own facts, and denying the existence of Israel is, unfortunately, only a small part of a myriad of falsities from which their worldview is composed. Pretty much everything they know and say about Israel is false, but they can't help themselves and reveal it by denying even the most obvious of facts - such as the very existence of the state of Israel. It is actually a good thing - it clearly indicates people that are not going to be open to reasonable argument.