Opinion by Peter Bergen
(CNN) — Editor’s note: Peter Bergen is CNN’s national security analyst, a vice president at New America, a professor of practice at Arizona State University, and the host of the Audible podcast “In the Room With Peter Bergen,” also on Apple and Spotify. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion at CNN.
Kobi Michael, a leading Israeli expert on Palestinian issues, says his country’s policymakers have misunderstood the aims of Hamas for the past several years. Michael also predicted that Israel’s military operations in Gaza might take months and that Hezbollah in Lebanon will probably avoid a full-scale war with Israel.
A senior researcher at the Tel Aviv-based Institute for National Security Studies, Michael has worked as an Israeli intelligence officer, government official and academic focused on Palestinian issues for around three decades.
Michael was an Arabic-speaking intelligence officer when he was appointed in 1994 as the first commander of the Israeli-Palestinian Security Coordination Apparatus in the Gaza Strip. Michael then served on Israel’s National Security Council as the head of the Palestinian Division and in a similar position as the deputy director-general in the Ministry of Strategic Affairs at the prime minister’s office between 2009 and 2013.
In a conversation Friday with Peter Bergen, he explained the likely goal of the Hamas attack and talked of how peace could ultimately be made between Israelis and Palestinians. Their conversation has been edited for clarity and length.
Peter Bergen: Who oversees Hamas’ military operations, and what is the role of Mohammed Deif?
Kobi Michael: Mohammed Deif is the commander of the Qassam Brigades.
Bergen: Was he in charge of this operation in Israel last weekend?
Michael: He certainly is deeply involved. He’s one of the planners, together with Marwan Issa. There is no doubt because both are senior commanders of the military establishment of Hamas.
Bergen: Can you tell us who Mohammed Deif is? What is his background?
Michael: Mohammed Deif, he’s a cat, not with seven lives but with nine lives. He’s a terrorist from the first days of al Qassam Brigades in the Gaza Strip. Israel tried to target him several times, and he was injured. He lost a hand, an eye and other organs, but he’s still alive.
He’s very wise, very determined and very charismatic. And he’s totally dedicated and determined about his mission on earth. He’s willing to die.
Deif has almost no connections with the outside world. He’s the most influential figure in Hamas from the military point of view, and he’s also influential with the political leadership of Hamas in the Gaza Strip.
But we have to understand that such an operation cannot be realized without two crucial abilities that Hamas is not capable of producing. The first is the intelligence factor, and the second ability is the technological factor. Only specific states can provide such abilities, and the only state that is capable and is willing to provide such capabilities to Hamas is Iran. And this is the reason that I do believe that Iran is deeply involved in this operation. (Iran’s government has praised the Hamas attack but denied that it was involved in it.)
The general strategy of Hamas — which is very similar to the broad strategy of Iran — is to launch a multifront war against Israel. And Hamas has worked in the last few years to realize this strategy — on the one hand, they kept things calm in the Gaza Strip, getting economic benefits from Israel, Qatar and Egypt to enable prosperity and the reconstruction of the Gaza Strip — but all of these were an umbrella for rebuilding their military capacities and preparing themselves for the big day, which was last Saturday (October 7), unfortunately.
Bergen: Why did Hamas launch this attack now?
Michael: What was the strategic aim of such an operation, considering that they knew for sure that the price tag would be very high and they were endangering their very existence? I’m sure that Hamas was sure that the shock and horror of this operation and the casualties that they would cause would be interpreted by all the Palestinians, that this was a sign from God that this was the time to open all the battlefronts and to fight Israel and this will be the end of the state of Israel. They were sure about it.
I believe this was the rationale behind this operation because we have to understand this operation was conducted by more than 2,000 terrorists from the special unit of Hamas, the Nukhba.
Do you know how long it takes to train and to prepare such a force? Now, all the Nukhba manpower is something around 3,000 to 4,000 people. (By comparison, the Israeli military, including reservists, is more than 600,000.)
This attack last weekend was not intended to release Hamas prisoners held in Israeli jails. The objective was much bigger, and I think this was to encourage the Palestinians in the West Bank and all over Israel to open other battlefronts against Israeli targets.
Hamas succeeded much more than they believed they would succeed because this was a huge catastrophe. We lost so many people. Hamas, with their brutality, became what we saw as an upgraded ISIS.
Bergen: You’re a former intelligence officer. Many people are saying this is an intelligence failure. Often policymakers say it’s an intelligence failure when it’s a policy failure because it’s hard for the intelligence agencies to publicly defend themselves. They work for the policymakers, and they deal in the classified realm. Was this an intelligence failure, a policy failure, or both?
Michael: This is a failure of the political echelon and the decision-makers because the decision-makers accepted the intelligence assessments about Hamas. They are responsible. They didn’t ask the right questions.
But the problem is not only intelligence. The problem is also policy. I was very critical of the Israeli policy in the last three years because I thought that we were providing Hamas with a comfortable zone and with too many degrees of freedom of action that enabled them to fortify themselves, to strengthen themselves militarily and at the same time to fuel Hamas’ terror campaign in the West Bank.
And we enabled them to continue doing that by providing Gaza with economic benefits that would supposedly make Hamas more moderate or more pragmatic, and they would lose their motivation to attack Israel; this was a mistake. I warned about this publicly in my writing in recent years.
We have to understand that Hamas are very religious people. They are very determined, radical and extreme, and therefore, it is very hard for Western people to understand that they believe that they will be able to collapse the state of Israel. But this is what they believe.
Bergen: How does their religious view affect how they see the world?
Michael: Hamas was established as a religious and social movement and is the Palestinian branch of the Muslim Brotherhood, which originated in Egypt. This is the basic essence of Hamas. The religious ideology is the most important component of their ideology, belief and existence.
Bergen: How does Hamas impact the more secular Palestinian Authority, which controlled Gaza until 2007 before Hamas violently pushed them aside?
Michael: We have to go back to 2007 to understand that Hamas came to be the essential challenge to the Palestinian Authority because Hamas’ endgame is to control the entire Palestinian system, which means the Palestinian Authority and the PLO. Hamas perceives the Palestinian Authority as a collaborator with Israel and wants to undermine it. They want to collapse the Palestinian Authority, and therefore, Hamas is the most severe threat to the survival of the Palestinian Authority.
Bergen: Palestinian Islamic Jihad is reportedly part of this attack on Israel, yet we don’t hear much about them. Were they part of this, and who are they?
Michael: Palestinian Islamic Jihad was established in 1982, whereas Hamas was established in 1987. But the Palestinian Islamic Jihad is a pure terror organization. All the raison d’etre of the Palestinian Islamic Jihad is to slaughter as many Jews as possible, and they don’t have any political aspirations.
They are much smaller than Hamas. The Palestinian Islamic Jihad participated in this operation, and they still have an arsenal of rockets, some thousands of rockets, and they still have some thousands of terrorists that are active in the Gaza Strip. But this is a much smaller and less sophisticated organization. They don’t have any other aims like Hamas because Hamas is a religious, social, political movement and terror organization at the same time. And they are the rulers of the Gaza Strip.
Bergen: You mentioned the social services Hamas provides. What are they?
Michael: Everything. They are a semi-state entity from education to garbage, energy, infrastructure, health, tax collection, industry, agriculture, everything. They have run the Gaza Strip since 2007, and they went through an institutionalization process because they knew that if they wanted to effectively rule the population, they had to use some practices of a state. They had to collect taxes. They had to provide people with education and health services.
Bergen: Hamas in Gaza now: They are well-armed. They are hiding in tunnels. They have hostages. They have human shields. They’ve had years to plan. Urban warfare is very difficult. Do you anticipate Israeli intelligence really understands Gaza well enough to conduct a successful operation?
Michael: Yes. This is a huge frustration. We have such intelligence control over the entire Gaza Strip, and how come we failed to get an early warning of the attack last weekend? We have very accurate intelligence. We know exactly where the tunnels are and where any Hamas facility is located. In a building of 15 stories, we know in each story where Hamas is sitting; there is no intelligence problem in this regard.
The problem is that to accomplish the mission of annihilating Hamas and denying all of its military capacities, we will need to have not only an air force war, but also a ground force operation, and we have to prepare it very well because Hamas is waiting for us, and they prepared traps, and they have more than a general idea of how the (Israel Defense Forces) is going to operate there. We have no illusion that the cost isn’t going to be high. And we are going to have casualties, but this is the price that we have to pay if we want to remain living here in this neighborhood.
Israel follows the laws of war and international law and is trying to evacuate all the northern parts of the Gaza Strip and mainly the area of Gaza City, because this is the most crucial center of gravity of Hamas. Most of their assets are located there, and Israel doesn’t intend to harm innocent people, and we don’t want to have collateral damage. And therefore, we are trying to convince the population to leave because the area is saturated with Hamas assets.
The reason that Israel must bomb and demolish so many buildings is because Hamas is everywhere where their basic organizing rationale is to use their people as human shields. They do it in the most cynical and brutal manner, and they wish to have many casualties to use the international media and international tribunals in order to demonize Israel and gain empathy and support. It is the ultimate absurdity when those barbarians who do not respect any international law or norms are using these platforms to make their case. We have to clear the area and prepare the best conditions for the ground forces to enter to accomplish the mission to deal with all the underground infrastructure and to finish the job.
Bergen: How long will that take?
Michael: It’ll take months.
Bergen: Do you think Hezbollah in Lebanon will stay on the sidelines during this war?
Michael: It looks like now they have an interest in staying out of a full-scale war, because Israel is on full alert in the north. And now Israel is a wounded lion. They know that the Israeli retaliation will be very aggressive if it comes to a full-scale war. I don’t think that they are interested now in a full-scale war.
Bergen: So, the day after the war is over in Gaza, what does that look like for Israel? In the past, Israel has chosen to withdraw from Gaza. Do you anticipate a permanent occupation of Gaza?
Michael: No. Israel does not intend to remain in Gaza and to rule the population there. It might begin with an international mission force or an Arab mission force, and it will end with the return of the Palestinian Authority to the Gaza Strip. I think the Palestinian Authority cannot return immediately to the Gaza Strip. Otherwise, it will be perceived by the Palestinian constituency as a traitor, as someone who collaborated with Israel to topple Hamas. But I think that after a while and with the right preparations, it might be a reasonable model that the Palestinian Authority will return to rule the Gaza Strip.
But I think that we have to be very sober and to understand that even if the Palestinian Authority will return to the Gaza Strip, it doesn’t mean that we will reach a final status agreement with the Palestinians. This is not the situation.
Bergen: Why would the Palestinians make a final deal with Israel without getting something in return, when the settlements are expanding on the West Bank?
Michael: The settlements were never the issue. Israel dismantled all the settlements in the Gaza Strip and North Samaria (in 2005).
Israel demonstrated twice that it is able and willing to evacuate settlements for peace. The Palestinians need to cross the Rubicon and to understand that the only way to live peacefully here in this region is to find a way to do it together with Israel and as part of the new regional architecture that will be based on the normalization process between Israel and the Arab countries with American support. And this new architecture will be able to defeat any efforts of the Iranians to be more influential or to reach hegemony in the broader Middle East.
There is a clash between the Iranian radical extreme resistance axis, which is led by Iran and is composed of Hamas, the Palestinian Islamic Jihad, Hezbollah and all the other Iranian proxies all over the Middle East, and the Arab Sunni pragmatic axis, which is led by Saudi Arabia and Egypt. The Palestinian Authority in Israel should be part of this camp, which is supported by the United States of America. If the Palestinians will be part of this camp, then we will be able to talk about peace between Israel and the Palestinians.
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