Opinion: A military expert on why the US view on Israel’s fight against Hamas is a turning point for the world

Since Hamas’ attack on southern Israel on October 7, military expert John Spencer has been carefully observing the Israel Defense Forces’ war against the terror organization, including on two trips he made to the Gaza Strip as an embed with the IDF over the winter.

Spencer tells CNN Opinion that he sees a military with the capability to rapidly eviscerate Hamas’ army being held back by the international community. He feels that the US bears some of the responsibility for the devastation in Gaza because of how it’s slowed down and limited Israel’s ability to win the war. It’s a restraint that he says the US hasn’t imposed on its own military campaigns, and it has the effect of increasing Palestinian casualties and suffering by dragging out the fighting.

John Spencer - Courtesy John Spencer
John Spencer - Courtesy John Spencer

Spencer makes these assessments after 25 years of service as an infantry soldier, including two combat tours in Iraq. He’s now the chair of urban warfare studies with the Modern War Institute at West Point, and his personal experience and research has been key to his perspective on Israel’s campaign and how it compares to American military operations.

The US pressure on Israel has come to a head in Rafah, the southern Gaza city believed to be Hamas’ last major stronghold and a key point for weapons smuggling across the Egyptian border. But the US is withholding some types of arms that it fears could be used by Israel in Rafah as part of a bid to prevent a major IDF offensive there, even as it is reportedly readying a significant sale of other weapons. The US is warning that a large-scale ground incursion is sure to cause more death and suffering among Gaza civilians, hundreds of thousands of whom have been taking refuge in the city.

Spencer argues that, by taking this approach, the US is inadvertently paving the way for a Hamas victory. “War is hell,” Spencer affirms. But, he notes, war is also deeply engrained in human nature. When democracies are attacked, as they inevitably will be, they must conduct wars in ways that quickly bring victory in order to achieve lasting peace.

The views in this commentary are Spencer’s, and they have been edited and condensed for clarity. 

CNN: Do you think that Israel can defeat Hamas without conducting a ground invasion in Rafah?

Spencer: From October 8 on, there have been senior US officials signaling that a ground invasion wouldn’t achieve the goals of destroying Hamas, bringing the hostages home and securing the border. As a scholar of urban combat, I strongly disagree with that. The fact is that Rafah’s where the hostages and remaining Hamas military power and leadership are believed to be, their rockets and weapons production and other capabilities, everything. The IDF would have to go in on the ground because these things are deeply buried underground in the tunnels Hamas has built.

An Israeli soldier is pictured inside a tunnel that the Israeli military claimed is a "Hamas command tunnel" under a compound of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA) in Gaza City. - JACK GUEZ/AFP/Getty Images/File
An Israeli soldier is pictured inside a tunnel that the Israeli military claimed is a "Hamas command tunnel" under a compound of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA) in Gaza City. - JACK GUEZ/AFP/Getty Images/File

If Hamas survives in Rafah, they win. It doesn’t matter if they’ve been pushed into the smallest corner of Gaza. If the Hamas leadership survives, they’ve won the war, because they can say they attacked Israel and survived, and then they can rebuild, continue to fight off any other future governing force that would come in to Gaza and launch future attacks against Israel. Iran and its proxies would also have validated their strategy to attack Israel, weaken Israel’s position with its allies and then repeat.

CNN: The US previously endorsed the mission of defeating Hamas. Are you saying that the US is now conceding that Hamas can stay in Gaza — win the war, per your terms — because the cost, in terms of death and destruction to Palestinian civilians, is too high?

Spencer: They may not be saying that directly, but their actions don’t provide for a feasible alternative other than accepting that Hamas stays in power for now. This is a really big turning point in our history, I think in the history of who we are, Western societies that follow the rule of law, if we’re really saying Hamas can use human shields to survive because the costs are too much to achieve victory. The most likely way to continue the violence and the lack of peace in Israel and Palestine is to leave Hamas in power.

Of course, it’s difficult to see the path to peace from here, but I can tell you with strong certainty that the surest way to continue the violence in the Middle East is to let Hamas survive this war.

CNN: But even in parts of Gaza where Israel has gone in on the ground and cleared out Hamas, for instance in northern Gaza, you have seen that Hamas has regrouped and continued fighting. So doesn’t that raise some question marks about whether Israel can be successful against Hamas regardless of constraints the US places on it? 

Spencer: No, for me, it doesn’t. If you’re going to measure whether Israel has had any success in its approach, you measure it against what Hamas was on October 7, not what it is now. The IDF’s approach, in my opinion, has been very effective at destroying Hamas as a military organization by every definition: the number of enemy formations broken and not able to reconstitute themselves as effective units to do their assigned mission like attack or defend, the amount of ground the enemy is controlling, the lower number of hostages they’re holding. The IDF does not need to kill every one of the 40,000-plus card-carrying Hamas members to succeed. It has to break its organized military formations, remove its capabilities and destroy its leadership.

The fact that there are still fractured Hamas entities in Northern Gaza is a clear warning that the day after is going to be very difficult because there’s still going to be a lot of fires left in the environment. I was part of the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Once we destroyed enough of Iraq’s military capability, much of the military took off their uniforms and walked away before the US disbanded it. Later, they became part of the insurgency when things didn’t go well, of course, but it didn’t mean that we weren’t effective at taking the ruling power out or the military itself out.

CNN: Couldn’t Israel’s offensive still have the effect of creating more militants who are going to join Hamas and fight against Israel? Couldn’t it be counterproductive?

Spencer: It could. Absolutely. And this is where I agree with Gen. David Petraeus. Petraeus says you could be creating more terrorists 10 or 20 years later. In the now, of course, you have to destroy Hamas. But what you do the day after absolutely matters. The lack of success in Afghanistan wasn’t because of the war to remove the Taliban, but because the strategy that came after destroying the terrorists and their government structure didn’t provide a better outcome for Afghans. What Israel does the day after could ultimately mean that it loses a very long game against an ideology.

Wars create people who aren’t happy if their side loses, and that can actually radicalize them. But in the present when you face an existential threat or a world war, it isn’t a consideration. You have to destroy the other military who’s currently trying to hurt you in real time. Because this really gets into, I should just let that enemy force on my border keep attacking me because its population won’t agree with me destroying it.

A good comparison is Nazism. The US couldn’t worry about further radicalizing Germans during World War II. It had to prioritize defeating them. Afterward it could work to deradicalize them. Of course, the ideology of Nazism still lives on, because ideologies can’t be eradicated. But it has been defanged. That was only possible because first there was a military victory over the Nazi regime.

CNN: So you think this is a winnable war for the IDF?

Spencer: One hundred percent. But it’s also a very winnable war for Hamas at this point because wars are not determined just by military capability. They’re a battle of wills. And if Hamas can survive, it achieves its war strategy and has more political power than it did on October 7. Hamas will be viewed as the great actor who figured out a way to conduct a massive, brutal attack on Israel, survive and still achieve political victories, including weakening Israel’s alliances in the Western World, especially with the United States. Hamas would then use this added power to rebuild and attack as it tries to achieve its stated grand strategy — the destruction of Israel and the death of all Jewish people.

CNN: You’ve said elsewhere that the IDF has been successful at moving large numbers of Palestinian civilians out of harm’s way. But civilians have been killed trying to get away and they say they have nowhere safe to go. So how is it correct to say that Israel can be effective at moving civilians out of Rafah?

Spencer: Civilians have been put in harm’s way while evacuating because of Hamas. There has been combat near designated safe areas because of Hamas. The Al-Mawasi humanitarian zone was chosen because it was on the coastline away from the defenses Hamas has built in tunnels and urban areas, but Hamas still fired rockets from there and other humanitarian areas. So then people say there’s nowhere safe to go. This is the complexity of the challenge.

That the civilians don’t have somewhere completely safe to go, this is the history of war. And the fact is, Egypt said, I’m paraphrasing here, not on my watch will refugees from Gaza cross the border. It’s complicated, of course, why Egypt doesn’t want to let Palestinians even enter a humanitarian camp in the Sinai, and it includes its own history with Islamist terrorist groups, costs to the society and economy, and being seen as supportive of Israel’s objectives in the war in Gaza.

The Shiva Hospital, pictured here, was raided by the Israeli army, after number of mass graves found in the hospital in Gaza City, Gaza on May 11, 2024. - Dawoud Abo Alkas/Anadolu/Getty Images/File
The Shiva Hospital, pictured here, was raided by the Israeli army, after number of mass graves found in the hospital in Gaza City, Gaza on May 11, 2024. - Dawoud Abo Alkas/Anadolu/Getty Images/File

You can judge Israel for not allowing them to cross into southern Israel, but that’s a unique challenge because they are part of the enemy polity that just razed southern Israel and displaced the Israeli population there. If the enemy is conducting operations in the safe zone, like they do in hospitals and schools, and I hope we get to talk about that, the best you can do is to create as safe an area as possible for the civilians in the given context.

CNN: You said you wanted to talk about Hamas using hospitals and schools?

Spencer: Yes. It is a great example of good intentions leading to bad outcomes. It is of course the right thing to do to tell warring parties that hospitals should not be used in war, that they need to be protected. But that has driven combatants who do not follow the laws of war into every protected facility. Hamas took every law of war and reverse-engineered it to build an environment in which Hamas has occupied facilities because of their legal protections. So fighting an enemy that’s an avowed terror organization puts a conventional military at a big disadvantage, especially if the world is watching.

Hamas is the first combatant I’ve seen do this at an industrial level. The US military bombed complete hospitals to the ground because of battles against ISIS in hospitals. But what Hamas has done is engineered every protected site as a military facility because they knew not only would Israel have to restrict its use of force against those sites, but the world would condemn Israel for even thinking about going to those places. Of course, Israel doesn’t want to be considered on a par with Hamas by the international community, so predictably Hamas is trying to take advantage of that.

I used to say that Hamas built their tunnels underneath every school, UN facility and hospital, but what we’re finding out is that no, they also built their tunnels and then built the schools on top of them. It is literally a byproduct of our pursuit to protect that has put more people at risk. 

CNN: How do you know that about Hamas’ construction under hospitals and the schools? There have been a lot of questions about the information the IDF has put out there and the numbers they use. So how can you be confidant about this information?

Spencer: I go into this trusting the IDF’s information more than I do Hamas’, but I have also been on the ground in Gaza during this war near mosques and schools with tunnels. I was with the IDF as they uncovered a tunnel running out of a mosque, for instance, and it’s been documented that Hamas uses mosques for storing weapons and other military purposes. So I’m relying on personal research as well as a belief in a law-abiding and very moral society and military.

CNN: You mentioned your participation in the Iraq war. How would you compare Israel’s conduct — whether it’s been upholding international law or committing war crimes — to the US fighting, say, al-Qaida in Afghanistan or ISIS in Mosul, Iraq?

Spencer: If you want to talk about the tactics to prevent civilian harm in war, the US military uses speed, force and overwhelming power. That’s what we did in Panama, Afghanistan, Iraq, you name the war where we want to take out the power and destroy its military; we do it quickly so it doesn’t prolong the war. The problem is that the international community pushed Israel into this framework of going slower, going methodically, evacuating every area beforehand.

I can say with very strong confidence that Israel has done everything the US military has ever done in the history of urban combat and things that we’ve never done, implementing every civilian harm mitigation technique that has been developed in the last 30 years despite Hamas’ tactics.

CNN: There are people who say that, even if Israel is generally upholding the same standards for protecting civilians as the US, what happened in Iraq and Afghanistan were horrors and the US didn’t succeed in protecting civilians there. And so using that as the standard is giving Israel a pass for perpetrating its own horrors.

Spencer: War is hell, so I agree. People say, look at what’s being done. How can that be legal? And even if it is legal, it should stop. I’m saying, as a scholar of war in history, that war is hell. And that if you don’t move forward and finish the mission, you actually lead to much more human suffering than is the product of the war. This gets to almost a philosophy of war, that there should never be war, right? There should never be war, but that’s not the history of mankind.

I strongly want the laws of war upheld as a warrior. I want war contained. I do not want civilians targeted. There is no evidence that the US military in Iraq and Afghanistan ever targeted civilians, period, but have we done it in the past? Absolutely. Firebombing Tokyo, for instance. Our calculations about collateral damage are much different now, and we shouldn’t go back.

So I want the laws upheld, but the problem is that this is the really dangerous part of the accusations and perceptions and the byproduct of Israel’s war against Gaza: what it means to the future of democracies like the United States if in the next war — and God forbid if it’s a war of survival against some great power that has risen — we’re going to say there should be no civilian suffering. Had there been social media during World War II, we might not be living in the world we currently live in. The Japanese and Germans might have won if their democratic adversaries believed the cost of resisting them was too high to be worth it.

I think this is where people aren’t seeing the ramifications of what they’re saying about Israel. You have the camp saying, they’re not following the law, which is just not proven. Then you have the camp saying, I don’t care if they’re following the law or not, the human suffering is too much, they need to stop. I think what that means is, the cost is too much so you have to let Hamas win. And I’m saying that your very good intentions are going to lead to greater suffering. You are actually advocating for more war by trying to stop this war.

CNN: In a similar scenario, what do you think the United States would have done?

Spencer: I believe strongly it would’ve been an overwhelming, immediate response to end the war as quickly as possible, and to achieve those goals of bringing our people home, making the rockets stop and making sure it never happened again. The history of the United States, and the history of war shows that we would’ve responded overwhelmingly.

It would’ve caused an immense amount of destruction, and there would’ve been calculations on what is the value to protecting our nation. But I’m arguing that the approach the US has demanded for Israel’s war has prolonged and caused more destruction then if they had gone in with more overwhelming force and speed. And that is a risk with the more limited operation that the US might push Israel to conduct instead of a ground invasion of Rafah.

By going slowly, I can argue through history and through metrics, it gives your enemy more time to defend, more time to prevent your plans, more time to prevent you from achieving surprise. We, as in the world, are also responsible for some of the destruction that’s happened in Gaza. 

CNN: How’s that?

Spencer: Because the world said to Israel at the beginning of the ground invasion, that what you’re doing, I don’t care if it’s legal or not, cannot continue. You got to find another way. The United States with its influence said, look, I know what you’re doing is achieving results, but you have to find a different way.

So the IDF shifted their tactics, they reduced the number of forces, they reduced the number of strikes on military targets, and they went more methodically and slowed down. They did more tactical pauses, they avoided more areas if they had any civilian population in them, and it became a very house-to-house, block-by-block, tunnel-by-tunnel fight, which has prolonged the war.

That has increased the humanitarian suffering and the strain on humanitarian supplies in Gaza. It has increased the duration of the violence and the continued existence of Hamas. So we are at fault for some of the destruction in Gaza because of that. We own some of the responsibility.

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