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Israel unlikely to achieve 'total victory' over Hamas, US official says

Deputy Secretary of State Kurt Campbell said the United States and Israel are “struggling over what the theory of victory is” in the Palestinian enclave.
An Israeli army battle tank takes a position in southern Israel near the border with the Gaza Strip on May 13, 2024, amid the ongoing conflict in the Palestinian territory between Israel and the Hamas movement.

WASHINGTON — The Biden administration does not believe Israel is likely to achieve “total victory” in its war against Hamas militants in the Gaza Strip, a senior State Department official said Monday. 

“We are struggling over what the theory of victory is,” Deputy Secretary of State Kurt Campbell said during the NATO Youth Summit in Miami, Florida. 

“Sometimes when we listen closely to Israeli leaders, they talk about mostly the idea of some sort of sweeping victory on the battlefield, total victory. I don’t think we believe that that is likely or possible,” he said. "Ultimately, I think we view that there has to be more of a political solution."

Campbell is the latest senior US official to question Israel’s approach in Gaza, where the local health authorities say more than 35,000 Palestinians have died in seven months of war, most of them women and children. 

The war was triggered by Hamas’ cross-border attack on Oct. 7, during which the militants killed some 1,200 people and took another 250 hostage. US-backed negotiations brokered by Qatar and Egypt aimed at securing a cease-fire and the release of the remaining hostages stalled last week. 

Secretary of State Antony Blinken warned Sunday that Israel would face a lasting insurgency should it launch a full-scale assault in the crowded city of Rafah, where more than one million people have sought refuge since the start of the war.

“They may go in and have some initial success,” Blinken told CBS’ Face the Nation. “But one that is not durable, one that's not sustainable. And they will be left holding the bag on an enduring insurgency because a lot of armed Hamas will be left no matter what they do in Rafah.”

Without a viable plan for governance and security in Gaza, Israel risks a “vacuum that’s likely to be filled by chaos, anarchy and ultimately by Hamas again,” Blinken said. 

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has publicly insisted that Israel must go into Rafah to destroy the remaining Hamas battalions, in what he described as the group’s last stronghold.  

Nearly 360,000 people have fled Rafah since Israel issued partial evacuation orders for the city’s eastern neighborhoods early last week, according to the United Nations’ agency for Palestinian refugees. 

White House national security advisor Jake Sullivan told reporters Monday that the United States was working with Israel on a “better way to ensure the defeat of Hamas,” including in Rafah.

Reflecting on the United States’ own “painful experience” with counterinsurgency campaigns in the Middle East, Sullivan called for Israel to devise a political plan for the coastal enclave, which Hamas has ruled since 2007. 

“Military pressure is necessary but not sufficient to fully defeat Hamas,” Sullivan said. “If Israel’s efforts are not accompanied by a political plan for the future of Gaza and the Palestinian people, the terrorists will keep coming back.”

The Palestinian militant group has already reemerged in parts of Gaza where Israel claimed to have dismantled its command structure months ago. The Israel Defense Forces dropped flyers over the Jabalia refugee camp in northern Gaza, as well as Zeitoun in central Gaza, and contacted residents by SMS on Saturday, telling them to evacuate to designated safe zones. Both areas were previously said to be cleared of Hamas militants.  

On Sunday, Sullivan and his Israeli counterpart, Tzachi Hanegbi, discussed “alternative courses of action to ensure the defeat of Hamas everywhere in Gaza,” according to a White House readout.