The easiest way to lose a war is to set impossible or contradictory goals.
For example, remaking the Middle East by invading and remaking Iraq into a democratic state aligned with the United States was a delusional goal – one whose failure can be seen in massive protests in front of the US embassy in Baghdad, and the targeting of US personnel there. As Von Clausewitz noted so long ago, “War is the continuation of policy with other means.” If the policy goals are not achieved, all military victory is hollow. The US military won every military conflict during the longest modern war it has ever conducted in Afghanistan, but it left the Taliban in control when it left.
Israel has set three goals in its current war, two explicit, and one implicit, and it is unlikely to achieve them despite comprehensive military, economic, and diplomatic superiority.
The two explicit goals are the release of civilian hostages and military prisoners of war (POWs) captured by Hamas in its October 7 attacks, and the elimination of Hamas itself.
The implicit goal is to reinforce deterrence against any future attacks, so that its population feels secure after the single largest slaughter of Israeli civilians in the history of the state.
The goal of releasing civilians and POWs is explicitly at odds with the elimination of Hamas.
The only hostages to be released have been four civilians after negotiations with Hamas led by Qatar. By definition, any further releases would require negotiations with Hamas, and thus the survival of the militant group itself. But if Israel is committed to eliminating Hamas, why should Hamas release hostages? What incentive is there? One way that Israel seems to be approaching squaring this circle is by offering cash and security rewards to residents of the Gaza Strip to give information about the civilians and POWs kept by Hamas. Maybe Israel believes that the incentive, along with the immense misery that it has inflicted on the Gaza Strip will be enough for people to turn against Hamas.
Again, though, these approaches are at odds with each other. The residents of the Gaza Strip may blame Hamas for triggering off the latest round of violence, but the bombs killing them are Israeli ones. And Hamas has already stated that Israel’s intense bombing campaign has led to the death of almost 50 of the 224 civilians and POWs it captured, as well as over 7,000 Palestinians, overwhelmingly civilians, that have been killed. This claim cannot be verified, but given that the Israeli Defence Forces spokesperson, Daniel Hagari, explicitly stated that the emphasis of the IDF bombing campaign was “on damage and not on accuracy”, it is highly likely that at least some of the 224 will not have survived the bombing.
Mounting challenges for Israel
The intense bombing campaign has also made the challenge of eliminating Hamas much more difficult. To some degree, the scale of Israel’s military superiority works against it. The IDF has over 150,000 regular troops, with an additional 400,000 reservists. It has total air superiority and controls all routes in and out of the Gaza Strip – except the Rafah crossing which is managed by Egypt in cooperation with Israel and the US. It has one of the most sophisticated militaries on the planet. In contrast, Hamas militants number somewhere between 10,000-40,000 largely armed with assault rifles and rockets either smuggled in or fabricated in the Gaza Strip. As fighting forces, there is no comparison.
But given Israel’s attack on the Gaza Strip has included attacks on everything including mosques, churches and allegedly even hospitals – the precise cause of the horrific blast at Al Ahli hospital remains unclear – the vast majority of the thousands killed are civilians. And since almost half the population of the Gaza Strip is under the age of 18, almost half of the dead are children.
The scale of the suffering is such that Turkish President Erdogan, who had been trying to normalise relations with Israel as recently as a meeting at the sidelines of the UN General Assembly in end September, has now called Hamas a “liberation organisation”, not a terrorist organisation. And a Hamas delegation has just arrived in Russia for talks. Despite the childish idea floated by the French President Emmanuel Macron that the anti-ISIS coalition (which does not have Israel as a member, but does have Jordan, Egypt and Lebanon – all of whom have condemned Israel’s heavy-handed response to the October 7 attacks by Hamas) be expanded to take on Hamas, the scale of Israel’s response has legitimised Hamas, rather than isolating it despite the gruesome scale of attacks on civilians by Hamas.
Israel’s internal dynamics
For the Israeli public, which understands the creation of the state as the embodiment of the promise that they would not suffer the pogroms and genocide they had seen in Europe, the failure to save POWs and civilian hostages will be difficult to swallow. Even harder will be to accept the continued survival of Hamas, even in exile.
But the biggest failure of the war will be that the status quo that Israel has maintained – of suppressing and ignoring Palestinian demands for statehood – is no longer feasible. This was evident when the UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres stated bluntly that, “The Palestinian people have been subjected to 56 years of suffocating occupation… But the grievances of the Palestinian people cannot justify the appalling attacks by Hamas. And those appalling attacks cannot justify the collective punishment of the Palestinian people.”
This was intolerable for Israel – governed as it is by the most extreme government it has ever had – and it quickly called for Guterres to resign. Strikingly, not one other country, not even the United States, sided with Israel. In fact, US President Joe Biden renewed his call for a Two State solution, something he has largely avoided addressing during his presidency. Given how often the US, Europe, and even the Arab dictatorships have paid only lip service to the idea of Palestinian statehood, Israel may feel that this too, will pass. This would be a mistake.
How many deaths does it take?
As the war grinds on, and casualties mount, the intolerable scenes of civilians suffering and dying in the Gaza Strip will highlight the question Bassem Youssef recently asked, “What is the new exchange rate for killings between Palestinians and Israelis?”
Israel is fighting a losing war not because it does not have the military capability, or the wealth, or diplomatic heft, but because the war’s aims are based on a failed politics, on the idea that Israel can make the Palestinians irrelevant and invisible to the world. That is a political goal no military can deliver.
The only question is how much death and damage must take place before Israelis and their allies accept the truth of this failure.
Omair Ahmad is an author and journalist.