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The War in Gaza: Israel Will Win Militarily But Not Politically

20 Nov 2023
By Ian Dudgeon
Gilad Erdan, Permanent Representative of Israel to the United Nations, addresses the Security Council meeting on the situation in the Middle East, including the Palestinian question. Source: UN Photo/Loey Felipe /

Israel is expected to win its military war against Hamas in Gaza, but it will not win politically. The challenge for Israel and other key stakeholders is to find a political solution that creates post-war stability and shapes a long-term peace settlement that is a win-win for both Israel and Palestine.

Israel will continue to ruthlessly prosecute its war against Hamas, (and other minority like-organisations in Gaza such as the Palestinian Islamic Jihad – PIJ), until it’s confident Hamas has been destroyed militarily, and, to the maximum extent possible, institutionally. When this will be is difficult to say.

How Israel has prosecuted the war to-date in one of the world’s most densely populated urban environments has been vividly transmitted across the international media during the past six weeks. The toll: some 12,000 Palestinians killed, a majority of whom were non-combatant women and children; the massive destruction of residential areas and other essential humanitarian infrastructure, including hospitals, schools, and other refuges; the displacement of over one million Palestinians from northern Gaza (“evacuate or bear the consequences”); and very restricted access by Gaza’s 2.2 million population to desperately needed food, water, medicine, fuel, and other critical international aid.

The horror of Hamas’ 7 October attack, including the very large number of civilians targeted and killed, and hostages taken, and Israel’s right to defend itself, is not in question. What is not known is Hamas’s endgame. Was it to provoke an Israeli response inclusive of an excessive use of force, through the inevitable overlay of revenge, and to surface long-standing allegations of Israeli “collective punishment” of Palestinians generally? Was it to precipitate the abandonment of plans to widen diplomatic relations between Israel and its Arab neighbours, especially Saudi Arabia? Was Hamas hoping that Israel’s response would precipitate a regional conflagration involving other anti-Israeli states and non-state organisations such as Iran and Hezbollah?

The decision by the US to protect Israel’s back by rapidly supplementing US regionally-based military forces with two Mediterranean-based carrier fleets and a nuclear submarine makes escalation of the war from “minor” skirmishes on the Lebanese and West Bank borders to full conflagration very unlikely. Iran, and other regional anti-Israeli actors, will certainly have been told very bluntly, but indirectly, of anticipated US responses to any escalation.

But whatever Hamas’ intent, the international community generally has responded very critically to what is widely seen as Israel’s lack of proportionality in its use of force, acknowledgement of collective punishment of the Palestinian people, and control of Gaza through siege-equivalent conditions.

Across the Islamic world, for example, leaders and delegates of 57 Islamic countries representing the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) and the Arab League attended a joint meeting in Saudi Arabia on 11 November at which the OIC Secretary General issued a statement demanding an immediate cessation of ongoing Israeli aggression against the Palestinian people, the opening of sustainable humanitarian corridors, rejected the forced displacement of Palestinians, and sought a solution to the “Palestinian cause” based on a two-state solution. The OIC Secretary General did not condemn Hamas or other Islamic movements for acts of terrorism.

Earlier, following a meeting in Japan on 8 November, the G7 foreign ministers (US, UK, Canada, France, Italy, Germany, Japan and the EU) issued a statement calling for compliance with international law, unimpeded access to international humanitarian aid, and a peace process based on a two-state solution. Also importantly, it condemned Hamas’ terrorist attacks against Israel, but also  “extremist violence” by Israeli settlers against Palestinians. This attempt at “balance” also foreshadows the very significant obstacle of illegal Israeli West Bank settlements, comprising over 500,000 settlers, in negotiating any two-state solution.

More broadly, UN General Assembly and Security Council debates about Gaza since 7 October have aired not only specific humanitarian concerns by UN officials, especially the UNRWA (Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees), UNICEF (Children’s Fund), UNOCHA (Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs) and WHO (Health) due to Israel’s war with Hamas, but surfaced deep tensions between the UN and Israel over the latter’s policies in Gaza and the West Bank, going back decades. UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres referred to the latter during a fiery Security Council debate on 24 October. This prompted Israel’s UN ambassador to demand Guterres’s resignation, a call repeated by Israel’s foreign minister in Geneva on 10 November.

The impact among Western countries especially, which are generally pro-Israel and until recently have been largely uncritical of Israel’s actions, has been profound. Their responses are no longer unconditional. They are now focused on insisting Israeli military and civil actions comply with international law, that sustainable humanitarian corridors allowing all forms of aid be urgently reestablished, and that military “pauses” occur enabling this.  Two other issues of key stakeholder outreach are who administers and rebuilds Gaza once the war is over, and in the longer term, how to reshape a two-state solution that provides genuine security and independence to both Israel and Palestine.

Israel’s response to this shift has been unequivocal: it will not agree to any “ceasefire” until Hamas has been destroyed, although it has agreed to allow for “pauses” for humanitarian purposes. But in a media interview on 12 November, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu expressed no vision for Gaza’s future beyond finding a “civilian government” to run the “enclave” and Israel maintaining responsibility for Gaza’s security indefinitely.

And the scorecard today? Militarily, Israel can be expected to “destroy” Hamas. But politically, at best, there has only ever been a stalemate regionally, and by adhering to current policies and tactics, Israel has lost significant international standing, including among traditional allies and friends.

Reversing that trend will be a major challenge. According to former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak, part of that solution must be the removal of Netanyahu as prime minister and his ultra-right coalition government.

Finding a civilian government to effectively run Gaza after the war will be very difficult. Expanding the mandate of the Palestinian Authority (PA) is one suggested solution, but the down-side is it’s widely seen as hopelessly corrupt and inefficient. What about a UN-mandated mission? Given the poor state of UN/Israeli relations, would Israel agree to this? Which states would make up such a mission: regional states only, something like the Regional Assistance Mission to the Solomon Islands (RAMSI), or those from a broader field? But which states don’t you include? Where would Iran fit, or could it fit given its current policy towards Israel? Who would head such a mission? Saudi Arabia? Also, would the mission have responsibility for the security of Gaza? Would any situation be viable where Israel retained ultimate responsibility for security and the right of its security forces to enter any time to prosecute a perceived threat? The US is now exploring these options with regional states and others.

Finding a viable formula for a credible two-state solution will be a bigger challenge. Success among key stakeholders with Gaza would be a vital prerequisite.

Ian Dudgeon is a senior international affairs analyst and former president of the ACT branch of the Australian Institute of International Affairs (AIIA)

This article is published under a Creative Commons License and may be republished with attribution.