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Gaza Is Not Entebbe

There will be no lightening rescues as Israel faces no good options for rooting out Hamas

5 mins read
Members of an Israeli family reunite at Ben Gurion International Airport after the Israeli raid on a hijacked Air France plane that had been flown to Entebbe, Uganda, in 1976. (Reuters)

For those of us who’ve long despised Benjamin Netanyahu for so many things, from his odious corruption to his opportunistic alliance with far right extremists (and many things in between), his brutal assault on Gaza to destroy Hamas for all time has been particularly frustrating. More than 11,100 Palestinians have been killed, thousands more wounded and more than two thirds of the population displaced, according to a Reuters report Monday. The stomach-churning reports and videos of dead and bleeding Palestinians, mostly women and children, have had the astonishing and deeply upsetting effect of prompting hundreds of thousands of young people in the West to embrace the cause of Hamas, the Islamist suicide cult to which the only good Jew is a dead one.

The leaders of Hamas expected—indeed, wished for—exactly the brutal scale of bombings Israel has unleashed on Gaza. That was the whole point of  its Oct. 7  attacks, which included the murders of some 1,200 unarmed civilians and the rapes and beheadings of women and children. 

“Will we have to pay a price? Yes, and we are ready to pay it,” Ghazi Hamad, a member of the Hamas politburo, told Beirut’s LCBI television in an interview aired on Oct. 24, according to The Washington Post.  “We are called a nation of martyrs, and we are proud to sacrifice martyrs,” another Hamas official, Basem Naim, asserted in an interview Friday with The Post. 

“The fight is brutal and Hamas wants it to be brutal,” retired former Special Forces officer Jason Amerine, who led one of the first Green Beret teams into Afghanistan to rout the Taliban, observed for SpyTalk. “When a civilian dies, Hamas wins. When an Israeli dies, Hamas wins.”

Hamas hoped for mass uprisings that would help fuel a “second wave” of assaults, and more massacres of Jews, we can assume.

One wonders how many Palestinians in Gaza signed up to be “martyrs” to the barbarity of Hamas—ISIS by any other name. No doubt many Gazans, if not most, would’ve preferred that the cruel and corrupt group go away years ago, no matter the indignities Israel visited upon them. In effect, they’ve been hostages of the extreme Islamist militants as well, and far longer, than the Israelis and others hauled away early last month.

No Good Options

Decades ago, Israeli operatives pulled off a spectacular hostage rescue, at the Entebbe airport in Uganda.  Now, after years of largely fawning movies and TV series on Israeli intelligence and military operations, it’s not at all surprising that many people—including Israelis themselves—wonder why the campaign to root out Hamas in Gaza couldn’t have spared mass Palestinian casualties and be over by now.

“Everyone, not least in Israel, hoped for another ‘Entebbe moment’ when the brilliance and daring of the IDF and Israel’s intelligence could achieve the impossible—in this case freeing the 240 or so hostages and destroying Hamas without reducing Gaza to rubble and by avoiding large numbers of civilian casualties,”  Bruce Hoffman, the venerable terrorism expert and professor at Georgetown University’s Center for Jewish Civilization & Center for Security Studies, told SpyTalk.

The problem is, Gaza is nothing like Entebbe, catch word for the astonishing 1976 raid in which Israel flew a hundred commandos 2,500 miles to Uganda and rescued 102  hostages held by Palestinian terrorists and German radicals after they hijacked an Air France flight between Athens and Tel Aviv. The Israeli commandos killed all of the hijackers and 45 supporting Ugandan soldiers, and blew up 11 Soviet-supplied MiG-17s and MiG-21s on the way out, with losses of only five wounded and one killed (who happened to be Benjamin Netanyahu’s older brother).  A 2018 thriller celebrated the operation.

At Entebbe, the commandos needed only light assault weapons to subdue the terrorists. By contrast, in Gaza, it faces thousands of Hamas fighters entrenched in a vast network of subterranean redoubts, including under hospitals, assert Israeli officials, backed by U.S. intelligence.

Under Al Shifa hospital in particular, they say, “the militants…have spent the better part of 16 years building a vast command complex,” according to the New York Times. “The hospital, Israeli officials said, was spared in past Israeli operations out of concern for civilian life, but at the cost of leaving whatever may be underneath it intact. It is a mistake that Israel will not repeat this time, the officials said.“

Entebbe-syle assaults on Al Shifa and tunnels elsewhere would be great, “but there is no way around attacking the 300 km of underground tunnels that are Hamas’ nerve center and life lines, except the way that it is, has been, and continues to be done,” Hoffman said in an email. Which is to say, with devastating air and artillery bombardments and tank assaults backed by infantry and sappers.  All of which has created gruesome casualties and horrific videos that have ignited mass anti-Israel demonstrations, not to mention raw antisemitic passions that had been unacceptable, at least in the West, since the Nazi Holocaust. 

Opinion Swings

In the immediate aftermath of Hamas’s Oct. 7 rampage, a large majority of Israelis were out for blood, with 65 percent in favor of a ground offensive in Gaza, according to an Oct. 19 poll reported by Reuters.  A little over a week later, as the likely costs of an offensive sunk in, almost half (49 percent) said  “it would be better to wait” and “22% were undecided,” the poll said. The fate of the Israeli and other hostages in a ground offensive, not the lives of Palestinians, was surely uppermost in Israeli minds. But the Biden administration was soon alarmed by the mounting casualties, not to mention the stigma it had earned by its initial full throated backing for Israel. 

Virtually everyone—outside of Israel’s rabid Arab-hating extremists and useful idiots of the West’s pro-Palestinian left—wishes the destruction of Hamas could be achieved without mass civilian casualties. But Hamas itself, proud of its goal of wiping out Israel “from the river to the sea,” is content to fight from underground to the last Palestinian family. 

“Bunker buster” bombs that can crush the tunnels look to be Israel’s only tactical option for snuffing out Hamas, “and that inevitably impacts the structures above and people who are living and working there,” Hoffman says. “If there is another option, I haven’t seen [it] and special operations are no answer to tunnel warfare.”

But that’s intolerable, much of the world has decided. Most Israelis, and those of us who support their right to exist, are pinching their noses, if not stifling despair, as Netanyahu presses his bloody campaign in Gaza. We are outraged and nauseated by having our sympathy for Israel poisoned by the serpentine prime minister. The problem is that, for many outsiders, Netanyahu is Israel, even though 76 percent of its citizens want him to resign, according to a Nov. 3 poll.  

“Benjamin Netanyahu cannot stay even one more day on the chair of the prime minister,” retired IDF Major General Noam Tibon said over the weekend, reflecting the long held views of many military and intelligence leaders even before Oct. 7, when Hamas fooled Netanyahu into believing it had been emasculated. “He is a failure and he must go.”

But that’s not coming anytime soon in Israel’s so-called wartime unity government. They are stuck with Netanyahu as he leads Israel into a dark tunnel of its own making in Gaza. 

“What concerns me is how quickly everyone turned on Israel…,” Amerine said. “Netanyahu has zero credibility with anyone so he can’t even make a good case for the war. Israel is already losing because of this. Someone with better political standing needs to explain why this fight is necessary”—particularly Biden, he said, who has failed to do so.

“The Israeli public won’t get the immediate results it craves. There will be no repeat of the 1976 famed rescue of hijacked Israeli passengers at Entebbe in Uganda,” Janine Zacharia, a former Washington Post Jerusalem bureau chief wrote last week.  

“By now, the Israeli hostages are surely dispersed,” she added. “Heartbreaking videos of their appeals for rescue will undoubtedly supplant the nauseating videos of their capture soon, further traumatizing a fully devastated nation.”

Jeff Stein

Jeff Stein is the editor-in-chief of SpyTalk, a newsletter covering U.S. intelligence, defense and foreign policy, on the Substack platform. Previously, he was the SpyTalk columnist (and national security correspondent) at Newsweek, and before that, the SpyTalk blogger at The Washington Post.

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