Israel is fighting a losing battle against Hamas in Gaza
In the past 116 days, Israel has turned Gaza into a land of terrifyingly grim statistics, killing more than 1% of the territory’s population, plunging the rest into an unprecedented humanitarian crisis, and levelling 33% of its buildings.
Nonetheless, Israeli officials continue to fan the flames and threaten to carry out more punitive measures against Palestinians in Gaza.
Ehud Barak, Israel’s former PM and IDF general, warned of Israel's inability to win the war while banked on undefined political goals. A similar opinion was voiced by Israel’s former military chief, Dan Halutz, who suggested that Israel has already lost the war against Hamas.
Israeli officials have admitted their army has failed to meet its goals, but still vowed repeatedly to continue the war, possibly relying on the element of time to (eventually) get the job done.
"Hamas and other resistance groups seem capable of operating headless, swiftly adapting and changing tactics, attacking in small groups, and inflicting heavy casualties on the Israeli army"
But does the situation on the ground match this premise?
Netanyahu would not pass on a chance to paint himself as the leader who will ‘destroy Hamas’, almost reminiscent of Olmert’s vows against Hezbollah in 2006 and Begin’s against the PLO during the 1982 Lebanon War.
On both accounts, Israel - with sheer destruction and firepower - secured fragile tactical wins, but failed to turn them into strategic achievements. The PLO remains and Hezbollah is now stronger than ever.
Israel assassinated most of Hamas’ frontline leaders in the past two decades, including the movement’s spiritual leader, Sheikh Ahmed Yassin in 2004. This was followed by four wars and several rounds of fighting, after which the resistance movement emerged unscathed.
Today, the official Israeli narrative is that Hamas was significantly weakened in northern Gaza and the army’s victory in southern Gaza would follow soon. At least five Qassam field commanders were killed in action, in addition to hundreds of tunnels discovered and destroyed across the Strip.
Some days ago, Tzipi Hotovely said ‘absolutely no’ when asked about the possibility of a two-state solution. @alxcroft offers a broader picture of this alternative & why it isn’t viable anymore⬇️ https://t.co/d2qfZyDatD— The New Arab (@The_NewArab) December 24, 2023
Nonetheless, Hamas and other resistance groups seem capable of operating headless, swiftly adapting and changing tactics, attacking in small groups, and inflicting heavy casualties on the Israeli army. They still publish well-edited battle footage and psyop material, which suggests they are far from collapse, if not in good control of the battlefield.
The US-based Institute for the Study of War estimates that out of 26 to 30 Qassam units that existed on 7 October, only three have been rendered inoperable. 80% of Hamas’ tunnel system remains intact, reported The Wall Street Journal.
To ‘destroy Hamas’ - taking Netanyahu’s ideal version - means physically occupying and fully controlling every square kilometre inside the Gaza Strip, destroying every tunnel and weapon system, and going on house-to-house raids.
Let’s, for a second, assume that this virtually impossible task is achieved, and that the suffering required to achieve it continues to be ignored and tolerated by the international community. Then what?
One scenario is that the Israeli army would face a bloody rebellion, not necessarily soon after the main hostilities have settled, but eventually. Everyone in Gaza is bereaved, and a rebellion driven by personal revenge - on top of the collective desire for self-determination and freedom - could make the First and Second Intifadas look like a picnic for Israel.
Even if Israel incapacitates Hamas, as Begin did with the PLO in Lebanon, eradicating its infrastructure will not sever its roots.
Hamas is a notion born out of decades of brutal occupation, injustice, and fruitless political processes, and is likely to persist among a population still experiencing those conditions. Israel has caused unprecedented grievances, on top of decades of occupation, land theft, and colonisation, and created a more infuriated generation of Palestinians.
There is a forming pattern. As Israel unleashed more destruction and death in Gaza, and as Hamas persevered, the more popular the movement became.
"It is not unprecedented for a military power to lose against a much weaker opponent: we saw it in Afghanistan and Iraq, and in other anti-colonial struggles"
Recent polls show that since October, Hamas’ popularity in the West Bank has witnessed a significant surge, especially as the movement successfully released hundreds of Palestinian women and children from Israeli prisons in exchange for Israeli hostages in November. The movement’s rising popularity in Arab countries is not less dramatic.
Linking Hamas’ decapacitation with the release of Israeli captives in Gaza is self-contradictory. Israel’s indiscriminate bombing and its army’s rescue attempts proved disastrous for the captives and Israeli troops alike.
Admittedly or not, Israel requires a functioning Hamas for any prisoner exchange. For negotiations to happen, the Israeli government will have, at least implicitly, to accept Hamas’ authority, if not terms, which include a ceasefire and troops’ withdrawal from Gaza, followed by the gradual release of Israelis in exchange for the thousands of Palestinian detainees.
The deal seems to be the growing view amongst key figures in Israel, including Ehud Olmert, who stated that the war reached an end and it was time to negotiate a prisoner deal with Hamas. Thousands of Israeli protesters across Israel share a similar view, adding additional pressure on the Netanyahu government.
What is more, Israel in Gaza does not have an unlimited time to achieve, if at all, its declared objectives. Neither its capacity to withstand a prolonged war nor the international community allow for open-ended hostilities.
The massacres against Palestinian civilians and the severe humanitarian crisis are causing Tel Aviv to steadily lose support amongst its traditional allies, even in Washington, which is losing its credibility as a normative international player and increasingly losing control of the situation in Yemen, Lebanon, and Iraq, upping the chances of a regional war.
More importantly, the ICJ’s ruling on Israel’s genocide in Gaza should make it harder for the Biden administration to look away and continue its soft handling of Netanyahu regarding the war’s phases and timeframe.
It is not unprecedented for a military power to lose against a much weaker opponent: we saw it in Afghanistan and Iraq, and in other anti-colonial struggles. Immense firepower can achieve tactical gains, but does not always decide the outcome in asymmetrical engagements.
Slow attrition and the accumulation of blows, as well as the weaker party’s ability to survive the stronger party’s bruising strikes, make the cost of the war much higher than its objectives.
Israel is already stuck in this tough situation, growingly labelled ‘the quagmire of Gaza’, unable to deliver a fatal blow to Palestinian resistance or justify as self-defence its massacres against Gaza’s civilians. Even a diplomatically brokered prisoner exchange and ceasefire will score more points for Hamas than it does for Israel.
If anything, Tel Aviv has already lost by engaging in a campaign of bloodthirsty revenge and genocide, with vague, mostly unachievable goals. It has lost by trying to pave a way toward more security by creating more severe security challenges rather than addressing the root cause of occupation.
And it has lost strategically by antagonising the majority of the world’s public opinion, bringing the Palestinian plight to the world’s stage once again and, with it, doing irreparable damage to its own narrative and reputation.
Dr Emad Moussa is a Palestinian-British researcher and writer specialising in the political psychology of intergroup and conflict dynamics, focusing on MENA with a special interest in Israel/Palestine. He has a background in human rights and journalism, and is currently a frequent contributor to multiple academic and media outlets, in addition to being a consultant for a US-based think tank.
Follow him on Twitter: @emadmoussa
Have questions or comments? Email us at: email@example.com
Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.