No end in sight: Israel’s search for a Gaza strategy

At times of war the art of strategy is to align military means with political ends. However competent the armed forces and brilliant their tactics, if they cannot reach the desired objective then something has to give: the objective must be made more realistic or more means must be found. If neither is possible the result will be frustration, disillusion or even worse. 

At the start of a war, objectives may be set without obvious limit, especially by an aggrieved party seeking to regain what is rightfully theirs or determined to punish a cruel enemy. But what can be achieved depends also on the aims of that enemy and what they can bring to the fight. This challenge of military strategy has become painfully apparent as Israel responds to last weekend’s horrific attacks. It can see no way of negotiating with Hamas and so now wants to defeat it by force of arms, but if it cannot find a way to do so then the cycle of violence will continue.

This need to align ends with means can be seen in the various wars fought by western armed forces in the decades following the end of the cold war, a period in which they enjoyed relative superiority. The US and its allies successfully liberated Kuwait from Iraqi occupation in 1991, carefully avoiding driving to Baghdad to overthrow Saddam Hussein, although leaving him in power meant that he continued to cause trouble. The humanitarian interventions in the former Yugoslavia by western forces were simpler. They were acting in support of a beleaguered people and seeking to deal with the militias that had been oppressing them. In Kosovo in 1999 they confined themselves to using air power. 

But then at the start of the century there were the quick operations to effect regime change in Afghanistan, removing the Taliban to get at al-Qaeda, and then in Iraq, to topple Hussein. In both cases the conventional battles were relatively straightforward, but then these were followed by long and bruising counter-insurgency campaigns, in which coalition forces were stuck because the governments they helped form were unable to cope without continuing western assistance.

Palestinians cross the Gaza-Israel border fence in Khan Yunis in to southern Israel on Saturday October 7 © Yusef Mohammed/Zuma Press/Eyevine

The forms of warfare involved in these operations varied enormously, in their intensity and human costs. The core lessons were that it was extremely difficult to fight in places where you were not welcome and that if conditions are against you, perseverance is not enough. You have to get the politics right. This question of the relationship between military means and political ends is posed daily in the Russo-Ukraine war, as Vladimir Putin refuses to abandon a war that he can no longer win, while Ukraine believes that it has no choice but to continue to fight to liberate all its territory, even as the war becomes more attritional and exhausting.  

And now, over this past week, since the Hamas assault on southern Israel, this question is posed again, in a place where it has been posed many times before. What is it that either side can hope to achieve in this current bout of fighting when every previous bout has left the underlying conflict unresolved? 

Suppose that last Saturday Hamas had contented itself with attacking Israeli border posts, killing those that resisted and taking as many army personnel as possible back into Gaza as hostages. From spectators there would have been grudging admiration for its audacity, the ability to maintain operational security and deceive Israeli intelligence, and orchestrating rocket attacks with troop infiltration. The Israeli government would have been left embarrassed because it had been caught by surprise, and because a fixation with the West Bank and Jerusalem meant that it was unprepared to cope with Hamas’s fighters as they poured through breaches in the fence. The Gazan people would have faced air strikes, as they often do, but Israel would have had limited international support. 

The story would have been one of an underdog fighting back and showing up the weakness of its oppressor. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu might have had to hand the problem over to mediators, ending up agreeing to swap Palestinians held in Israeli prisons to get back IDF personnel seized by Hamas’s troops. 

But that is not how it worked out. One Hamas official claimed that when they got into southern Israel they were surprised by the IDF’s weak response: “We were planning to make some gains and take prisoners to exchange them. This army was a paper tiger.” It would be granting too much to Hamas to assume that it had no interest in murdering local civilians and no plans to do so. But with the IDF absent there was nothing to prevent them going on a rampage, moving into nearby towns and villages, shooting whoever they found and breaking into houses to kill residents.

The greatest carnage took place at an outdoor festival where 3,500 young people were dancing. The slaughtered civilians, and those taken hostage, were not only Israelis but people of many nations, and all age groups, from pensioners to young children. Appalled at the terrible scenes, those that would have simply blamed Israel for its neglect of Palestinian suffering now condemned Hamas for its brutality. Little was said internationally as the inevitable air strikes pounded targets in Gaza. 

Even as Hamas’s leadership celebrated the success of its plan, developed over many months, and the hurt it had caused its enemy, it found that it had no strategy for its next step for it had gone too far with its first. The hostages provided its only leverage but to what purpose? It threatened executions to get the Israelis to hold back its air strikes, but that so far has made no difference. Posting images of more helpless people being executed is not going to soften its image. 

The alternative is to make a deal. Plenty of countries may offer themselves as mediators, but what might Hamas want in return for the release of the hostages? Release of its own prisoners and the cessation of military action? The most that is on offer is restoring electricity, fuel and water. No Israeli government could agree to anything that appeared to reward Hamas.  

More seriously, while Hamas has agreed in the past to ceasefires and to accepting the possibility of a two-state solution if Israel returned to its pre-1967 borders, it refuses to acknowledge the permanence of the “Zionist entity”. Its aim is the elimination of the Israeli state. It may appreciate Israel’s durability and resilience more now than it did in the past, and be ready, through intermediaries, to make side deals, but it lacks a political strategy for addressing the conflict over the long term. It already controls its own territory. Its problem is not that its land is occupied but that Israel, and for that matter Egypt, exercise tight and restrictive control over what goes in and out.

Israeli soldiers survey the surrounding landscape during the six-day war in June 1967 © Corbis/Getty

Gaza is one of two distinct Palestinian territories, with different histories and political structures, which are not linked geographically. Both were acquired by Israel in June 1967 despite neither being an objective when that war started — an unusual example of the gains of a war exceeding expectations. From the start it was unclear why Israel would want to be in charge of a territory largely consisting of refugee camps. The Israeli presence in Gaza was always difficult to sustain and it ended altogether in 2005 when the settlers were told to leave and Israel put up a fence instead. 

The move into the West Bank of Jordan and East Jerusalem in 1967 was also unplanned. Israel had hoped to persuade King Hussein of Jordan not to join the war in support of Egypt. An early post-1967 peace deal might have returned the West Bank to Jordan but by then Israel wanted control of some of it as a first line of defence and the idea of settling some of the territory had taken hold. Later, the Rabat Arab summit of 1974 pushed aside Jordan’s claim to the West Bank in favour of the Palestine Liberation Organisation. For a while the PLO, as an umbrella organisation, spoke for both the West Bank and Gaza. 

When in October 1973 Anwar Sadat surprised Israel, almost exactly 50 years before the latest surprise, his war aim was to demonstrate that Arabs could fight effectively and in doing so create the conditions for the return of the Sinai, also taken in 1967. His army was defeated but his point had been made and by the end of the decade he had a peace deal that saw the return of the Sinai in 1982. He did not want Gaza, and the fact that he got little for the Palestinians was one reason for Arab anger at his unilateral abandonment of the principle of no negotiations with Israel, and his eventual assassination. 

When the US led the liberation of Kuwait from Iraqi occupation, the PLO was left weakened because it had supported Hussein. The Bush administration felt strong enough to embark on serious negotiations about a lasting peace, despite Israeli opposition. Sensing the way things were going, PLO leader Yasser Arafat agreed to acknowledge the right of Israel to exist. This led the way to the apparent breakthroughs of the early 1990s, which opened the possibility of a two-state solution. 

Leaders sign maps as part of the Oslo Accords in 1995 at the White House. Second from left: Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Rabin, Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak, US president Bill Clinton, King Hussein of Jordan and Palestinian National Authority chairman Yasser Arafat © Polaris/Eyevine

Hamas, as an Islamist group, was never aligned with the secular PLO and was then opposing any talks with Israel, to the point of mounting terrorist campaigns in Israel to disrupt negotiations. In late 2000 Bill Clinton engaged in an energetic set of negotiations to rescue the process. When these collapsed they were followed by the bombs and crackdowns of the second intifada. Thereafter there was no “peace process” worthy of the name. The “road map” devised by Tony Blair and George W Bush in 2003 was never followed. By 2007 Hamas controlled Gaza, after first winning elections, and then a short civil war with Fatah, the dominant faction with the PLO. This left Hamas and the PLO each in charge of their own proto-state and going their separate ways, despite occasional attempts to broker a Hamas-PLO reconciliation. 

In the West Bank and East Jerusalem, the long-serving president of the Palestinian Authority, Mahmoud Abbas, now in his late eighties, who took over when Arafat died, has been trying to resist further Israeli encroachments. Here there are many flashpoints, especially as extremist settler groups have become more active. This so preoccupied Netanyahu’s government that it paid little attention to Gaza. It assumed that Hamas could live with the status quo so long as the impact of the blockade was reduced, through injections of economic assistance from Qatar and permissions for more Gazans to enter Israel for work. It now seems that Hamas encouraged the comforting assumption that its leadership was concentrating on the economic plight of its people and not on a futile quest to defeat the Israeli state. 

This assumption turned out to be desperately wrong. Hamas was not satisfied with the status quo. The blockade remained intense, whatever improvements at the margins. Meanwhile, the natural supporters of Hamas in the Arab world, particularly in the Gulf, were dropping away, enticed by access to Israel’s economy and technology, under the heading of the “Abraham Accords”. Even the Saudis were getting closer to the “normalisation” of relations with Israel. Increasingly isolated, Hamas saw a dramatic strike of its own as a way to gain international attention and put itself back at the heart of the Palestinian struggle. 

The deterrent effect of the Israeli air force and the border fence, with all of its detection capabilities, proved insufficient. Having left Hamas largely alone, Netanyahu is now expected to at best remove Hamas from power or at least render it incapable of future attacks, and he has done nothing to damp down expectations. With every revelation of the atrocities committed, anger grows, and so does the ambition for future military operations. 

Reservists have been called up and the army is gathering outside Gaza, possibly ready to move in. Already the siege is being intensified with electricity, water and the internet turned off. Combined with the bombing, life in Gaza is becoming progressively more miserable. Israel’s calculation is presumably that this will either coerce the leadership into big concessions (at least the return of hostages) or else make operations easier should the army go in. Ministers talk about not only destroying the military capabilities of Hamas and Islamic Jihad but also eliminating its capacity to govern. 

This is where the challenge of aligning military means with political ends comes in. Israel has moved into hostile Palestinian territory a number of times in the past but it is hard to think of any that brought it anything more than a temporary respite and usually saw international sympathy soon dissipate because of the misery inflicted on the Palestinian population. When it invaded Lebanon in 1982 and besieged Beirut the results were catastrophic. Its local allies — the Christian Phalangists — ended up massacring Palestinians in refugee camps as Hizbollah emerged as a formidable enemy to Israel backed by Iran. 

Israeli soldiers gather in an assembly area near Gaza last Sunday © New York Times/Redux/Eyevine

Pushing into the heart of Gaza risks tough battles with prepared fighters. The Hamas leadership can disperse and hide. And even if they are found and removed from power, who can take their place? Just as many Israelis are cross with their government for its complacency, many Gazans are annoyed with Hamas for its recklessness in breaking a ceasefire, but anyone imposed by the Israelis would have no legitimacy. Occupying Gaza for an indefinite period would be more than the IDF could manage and then, once they left, Hamas would regenerate. Israeli war aims risk getting disconnected from available means.  

And this assumes that the Gazan problem can be kept contained. Can anger and unrest in the West Bank be contained? Most seriously, can Israel avoid a two-front war? There have already been exchanges of fire on the Israeli/Lebanese border with Hizbollah. Hamas officials have claimed that Hizbollah will join the battle if they are threatened with a “war of annihilation”. Behind both is Iran, providing rhetorical as well as material support.

There are no good options for Israel. If there were good options they would already have been tried. Israel is trying to develop a military strategy to deal with the Hamas threat while it lacks a political strategy. For the moment it is impossible to identify a future modus vivendi with Gaza. No deals with Hamas will be trusted but nor is there a certain route to eliminate Hamas.

Where there might be possibilities is with the West Bank. It makes sense anyway in the current circumstances to avoid further aggravation and with a serious effort there might be a way to demonstrate that improved relations are not impossible. This is not a high bar, although for the current government it might be. As Israel comes up against the limits of military power, it may need at least to explore the possibilities of political initiatives.

Lawrence Freedman is emeritus professor of war studies at King’s College London. His most recent book is ‘Command: The Politics of Military Operations from Korea to Ukraine’ (OUP)

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