Analysis & Opinions - Foreign Policy

Israel Could Win This Gaza Battle and Lose the War

| Oct. 09, 2023

An all-out effort is again underway to maintain an unsustainable regional status quo.

Another bloodletting is underway between Israel and Hamas. Hamas started the latest round by launching a well-coordinated missile and ground attack on Israel, including the kidnapping of some number of Israeli soldiers and civilians and the temporary seizure of several border communities. To say Israel was caught off guard is an understatement, but Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has declared that Israel is now "at war," and the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) are retaliating, just as they have done on previous occasions.

Predictably, each side blames the other. Israel and its supporters portray Hamas as nothing but a brutal gang of Iranian-backed terrorists who have deliberately attacked civilians in particularly disturbing ways. Palestinians and their supporters acknowledge that attacking civilians is wrong but blame Israel for imposing an apartheid regime over its Palestinian subjects and subjecting them to systematic and disproportionate violence over many decades. They also point out that international law permits oppressed peoples to resist unlawful occupation, even if the methods Hamas has chosen are illegitimate.

What are we to make of this shocking event? Unlike Paul Poast, I don't see the fighting as further evidence that the global security order is deteriorating. Why not? Because this is hardly the first time that large-scale violence has erupted between Israel and Hamas. Israel pummeled the Gaza Strip during Operation Cast Lead in December 2008, did it again in Operation Protective Edge in 2014, and then did so once more (on a smaller scale) in May 2021. These attacks killed several thousand civilians (perhaps a quarter of them children) and further impoverished the trapped population of Gaza, but they didn't bring us any closer to a lasting and just solution. It was, as some Israelis commented, just a case of "mowing the lawn."

The novel feature of this latest round of fighting is that Hamas achieved near-total surprise (much as Egypt and Syria did 50 years ago, during the 1973 Arab-Israeli War) and has demonstrated unexpected combat capabilities. The attack inflicted more harm on Israel than any of its previous operations; more than 700 Israelis have reportedly been killed, with the death toll expected to rise, and an unknown number have been captured, including some IDF soldiers.

The attack has clearly shocked Israeli society. The government's failure to detect or prevent the attack may eventually mark the end of Netanyahu's political career, and like the intelligence failure back in 1973, it is likely to lead to recriminations inside Israel that will reverberate for years. But Hamas is still much weaker than Israel, and the fighting is not going to shift the overall balance of power between them. Israel will almost certainly retaliate harshly, and Palestinian civilians in Gaza and elsewhere—including many who do not support Hamas—will pay a high price....

For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Walt, Stephen M.“Israel Could Win This Gaza Battle and Lose the War.” Foreign Policy, October 9, 2023.

The Author

Stephen Walt