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Former CENTCOM leader says Hamas maintains significant military and political power

Retired Gen. Frank McKenzie also dismissed the idea that Israel could effectively defeat Hamas with targeted special operations raids, as some on Capitol Hill have encouraged

Ahmad Seir/AP

Marine Gen. Frank McKenzie, the head of U.S. Central Command, attends at a ceremony where Gen. Scott Miller, who has served as America's top commander in Afghanistan since 2018, handed over command, at Resolute Support headquarters, in Kabul, Afghanistan, July 12, 2021.

Retired Gen. Frank McKenzie, the former leader of United States Central Command, which oversees operations in the Middle East, said on Thursday that he believes Hamas maintains significant military and political power nearly eight months into the war in Gaza, even if it may lack the capacity to carry out another attack on the scale of Oct. 7.

McKenzie, speaking at the Center for a New American Security, further emphasized that Israel “has not had significant success, in my judgment anyway,” at eliminating Hamas’ political and military leadership.

McKenzie’s comments provide a counterpoint to the Biden administration’s recent talking point that because Hamas can no longer carry out an attack on the scale of Oct. 7, Israel has effectively accomplished one of its key goals for the war.

“The fact that Israel has had significant success in treating the foot soldiers, if you will, is a little bit misleading, because there’s still, I think, a fairly effective residual combat power,” McKenzie said. “Maybe not enough to replicate what happened on 7 October, but still, there’s significant combat power left inside, inside Gaza.”

He predicted that there are “still, I think, some hard days in this campaign ahead of us” because Hamas has stuck to “maximalist” demands that “have not actually changed from day one.”

Speaking minutes before McKenzie at the CNAS conference, Jon Finer, the White House’s deputy national security advisor, didn’t directly answer a question about whether he believes Israel can fully destroy Hamas as a political and military force in Gaza. 

Finer said instead that Hamas has been “degraded to a point” where it cannot conduct another Oct. 7 attack and that Israel “should not have to tolerate a government on its border that perpetrated the sort of attack that took place on Oct. 7.”

McKenzie dismissed the idea, pushed by some including congressional lawmakers, that Israel could shift to a more limited operation focused on special operations raids inside Gaza, saying that the closest likely parallel would be the U.S.’ costly special operations in Mogadishu, Somalia, in 1993.

“The further you are away from the battlefield, the more attractive that becomes. I have some experience in this,” McKenzie said. “People talk about, ‘Well, we can do pinprick strikes.’ No, you can’t… It truly is a vicious, brutal environment that is very difficult to describe to someone who hasn’t experienced it.”

He also said Israel has “tried very hard to achieve proportionality” in its strikes on Gaza, in spite of Hamas’ extensive use of human shields, and “sometimes they’ve succeeded, sometimes they have failed.”

McKenzie criticized Israel for failing to outline an endgame for the operation and post-war Gaza, though he acknowledged that Israel’s struggles in eliminating Hamas leadership have made it difficult to outline the end of the current campaign.

“It’s just not clear to me how it actually ends,” McKenzie said. “I’m unapologetic about this, I think the future end state has got to be some form of a two-state solution.”

Without a “reasonable quality of life” for Palestinians in Gaza and “some form of ultimate sovereignty,” McKenzie argued that there will be “eternal fighting.”

He said that, in the nearer term, there will need to be an occupation force operating in Gaza, from Arab neighbors in the region or other countries willing to send in troops. He argued that it might be in the Arab states’ interest to assist in Gaza because they’re focused on the threat from Iran and want to align themselves more closely with Israel and the U.S., in order to benefit from its military and air defense capabilities.

The post-war situation in Gaza, McKenzie continued, is likely to require thousands of both combat and policing forces, as well as plans for food and medical care and billions of dollars in investments.

The retired general offered a somewhat heterodox view of Iran’s nuclear program, arguing that the regime “actually doesn’t intend to possess a nuclear weapon,” but instead to reach breakout level to achieve greater leverage over the U.S. and Europe for political benefit, sanctions relief and money.

He said that Iran could develop a large nuclear weapon in three months, and that it would need a year to develop a missile with sufficient range to hit Tel Aviv. He said he believes Iran views its missile force as ultimately the “crown jewel” of its arsenal.

McKenzie described Iran’s April attack on Israel as a bid to “escalate to de-escalate,” a dramatic attack to make Israel more wary of Iran. He said he believes the attack was intended to destroy Israel’s Nevatim Air Base, home of its F-35 fleet, adding that claims the attack was not intended to cause significant damage are “nonsense.”

But he said the Iranian effort had failed, leaving Iran “gravely weakened” because it demonstrated Israel’s capability to intercept its weaponry. He described the ultimate Israeli response as “tactically brilliant” — both confusing and conveying a strong threat to Iran without alienating Arab nations.

McKenzie warned, though, that deterrence may have “a short half-life.” At the same time, he said he’s skeptical that Iran has the capacity to force Hezbollah to join the fight against Israel.

He predicted that Hezbollah won’t launch a full-scale attack unless it sees “the opportunity for strategic victory,” meaning the destruction of Israel. Conditions that could precipitate that attack include Israel decreasing its northern defenses to focus on Gaza, a serious political fracture in the government or “complete international isolation of Israel” including by the U.S. McKenzie said the third condition “has been partially met.”

He said that Hezbollah poses a serious threat that would stress Israel’s air- and missile-defense system, but also is weaker than it has been in years.

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