The End of Israel’s Gaza Illusions80 views
This War Is Unlike Any Other—and Must Begin at Home – By Assaf Orion
In the nearly four weeks since Hamas’s heinous October 7 attacks, Israel has begun a deep transformation that will be felt for years to come. As Israeli forces embark on the more difficult stages of a ground campaign to defeat Hamas, two themes have become particularly important. First, it is crucial to understand that this is not just another round of conflict in Gaza. To be successful, the country must countenance a war of exceptional scope and difficulty that could last for many months.
Israel will have to deploy military strategies drawn from long-war paradigms alongside a multiyear counterinsurgency campaign that also leverages diplomatic, informational, and economic tools. In this comprehensive mission, Israeli forces can learn much from prior campaigns, including some from earlier eras in the country’s history. But they will also need to be resolute, patient, and nimble in fighting a war that in many ways will be different from any previous one Israel has fought.
The second insight is that the horrific massacre of at least 1,200 Israelis by Hamas death squads marked a catastrophic collapse of Israel’s existing security strategy. The failure of Israeli intelligence and security forces and of their overseers in the government cannot be overstated. The old deterrence model—which assumed that Hamas could be contained through defensive technology and occasional limited and indecisive deterrence operations in Gaza—is dead. The Israeli defense establishment will have to consider bold new approaches at every level to prevent such disasters in the future. Never again.
In this regard, Israel’s political and security leadership has much to answer for. Although the full details have yet to be uncovered, stark findings have already come to light. Potential warning signs were ignored, dismissed, or downplayed, and misguided security priorities may have made the attack more deadly. In addition to a comprehensive postwar inquiry about what went wrong, the Israeli public will demand a full accounting from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu about his own role in the debacle.
Much will depend on how well Israel can achieve its difficult war goals against Hamas and how quickly it can create a new and effective security paradigm in the conflict’s wake. Beyond Gaza, Israel will need to address the broader network of threats and armed groups backed by Iran now menacing the country on multiple fronts. These include threats from Iraq, Lebanon, Syria, and Yemen, as well as from within the Palestinian population in the West Bank.
THE DETERRENCE DELUSION
The deterrence model that previously guided Israeli security policies toward Gaza took shape over many years. After Israel disengaged from Gaza in 2005 and Hamas forcefully took control of the strip in 2007, the Israeli government sought to contain Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ), relying on intelligence early warnings, strong border defenses, and the occasional use of force to deter further aggression. Fairly frequently, flare-ups would arise that escalated to larger military conflicts, as was the case in 2006, 2008, 2012, 2014, 2021, 2022, and May 2023. In each of these operations, it became clear that Hamas was acquiring stronger and better weapons, including longer-range rockets with larger warheads, along with drones that could pose aerial and naval threats.
It was also apparent that Hamas was building a large and increasingly sophisticated network of underground tunnels. During each conflict, Hamas did its best to punch through Israel’s defenses and reach the communities around Gaza’s border. But Israel’s antirocket defenses also improved, as did its antitunnel defenses, and these Hamas operations mostly failed—on the ground, underground, in the air, and at sea.
Despite Hamas’s growing capabilities, these failures convinced Israel that its defense strategy was working: Hamas was unable to effectively strike Israel’s population; and it faced significant retribution for attempting such strikes and could be rewarded with material support for keeping calm. Israeli officials also concluded that trying to destroy Hamas’s forces outright would be too costly and might create dangerous new problems. That assumption was widely shared by Western officials: toppling Hamas, they feared, would result in a power vacuum that Israel would have to fill by directly ruling Gaza—a prospect that Israel has long shunned.
Limiting conflict with Hamas served Netanyahu’s goal of splitting the Palestinians.
Thus, the Israeli government kept conflicts with Hamas limited in scope and generally fairly short. Each flare-up lasted between several days and a few weeks—the 2014 conflict lasted almost two months—and usually ended with some kind of cease-fire arrangement mediated by Egypt and combined with economic measures. This limited-conflict concept, combined with Israel’s tacit acceptance of Hamas rule in Gaza, also served Netanyahu’s goal of splitting the Palestinian system: by allowing Hamas to maintain control of the strip, Israel could weaken the Palestinian Authority (PA) in the West Bank and sidestep a political dialogue with it.
But this approach also allowed Hamas, supported by Qatar, to acquire the resources it needed to transform its military into a highly capable army of terror. Despite the growing threat of Hamas’s rocket arsenal, for example, Israel chose not to forcefully disrupt Hamas’s weapons programs except during these intermittent, short-lived conflicts. In between, Hamas continued to develop new strategies to challenge Israel without crossing the threshold into a wider escalation. For example, beginning in 2018, Hamas began organizing the so-called Marches of Return—encouraging large numbers of Palestinians to gather near the border fence with Israel. Viewed in the West as demonstrations against Israel’s blockade of Gaza, these marches provided a way for Hamas to cover up its military activities. Hamas embedded its armed fighters in the crowds, using them as a cover to reach the border fence and try to launch attacks against units of the Israel Defense Forces and Israeli communities near Gaza.
The IDF was able to repel these attackers and prevent a border breach by dispersing the crowds with nonlethal weapons and targeting the leaders, killing hundreds over many months. Yet the marches also provided a way for Hamas fighters to prepare for its October 7 offensive. Thus, in the weeks before the October massacre, there were again large gatherings of people near the border fence. Six Gazans died when an explosive device blew up on September 13 in what was very likely part of the preparations for the attack. Also in the weeks before the October 7, tractors were brought to the border area under the pretext of agricultural work and to prepare for the border protests. Later, these tractors would be used to tear down the fence and open the way for Hamas’s death squads.
A DOUBLE RECKONING
On the morning of October 7, the last day of Sukkot, the Feast of Tabernacles, Israel woke up to a double catastrophe. The attack by about 3,000 Hamas terrorists against Israel’s southern communities and defense forces was utterly devastating for the Israeli population, leaving at least 1,200 Israelis dead and more than 240 kidnapped in Gaza. But it was also devastating for Israeli defense policy.
The government and security establishment had failed to prevent a well-known extremist group—one that it had been closely monitoring for many years—from carrying out horrific atrocities against Israeli civilians. The terrorists rampaged for hours through dozens of communities, shattering Israelis’ sense of security across the country. First responders heroically fought the attackers, many paying with their lives, but several hours passed before a more organized military response was able to reach the attacked communities. For many victims, it was too late.
Almost instantly, the concepts, policies, and beliefs that had for so long governed Israeli security doctrine came crashing down. Among them were the assumptions that the Palestinian conflict could be contained, that Hamas had put its own governance and the economic well-being of the Gaza Strip ahead of its jihadi ideology and its genocidal plans for Israel, and that simply having a far stronger military than Hamas’s was sufficient. It had become almost axiomatic that simply employing advanced ground and air defense technologies, such as the border fence and Iron Dome, with occasional recourse to airstrikes from the outside, could prevent major attacks, allowing Israelis to contain Hamas with moderate costs and relatively limited manpower.
Israelis know there is no going back to the old model. On November 1, the Hamas politburo member Ghazi Hamad said that Hamas will repeat such attacks until Israel is annihilated. Unless Hamas is neutralized, the horrors of October 7 could be visited upon every home in the country. Therefore, unlike in any previous Gaza campaign, Israeli forces must not just reestablish deterrence but eliminate the Hamas threat entirely.
Since the attacks, this campaign has steadily advanced, step by step. In the days after the attacks, Israel’s Southern Command closed the Gaza border, preventing additional attacks into Israel and capturing or killing any terrorists remaining on Israeli land. Central Command began arresting hundreds of Hamas members in the West Bank, where Hamas seeks to undermine the PA and promote terror against Israel, and foiling active threats from Palestinian cities and refugee camps. Meanwhile, the Israeli air force has been hitting thousands of Hamas targets in the Gaza Strip. Finally, on October 27, Israeli ground forces entered Gaza and began slowly advancing toward Gaza City, the center of Hamas’s political organization and terror army.
At the same time, Israel continues to face rocket and missile fire from Gaza, Lebanon, Syria, and even Yemen. The IDF’s Northern Command is engaged in continuous exchanges with Hezbollah on the northern border with Lebanon, where Hezbollah has been launching rockets missiles, drones, and deploying snipers at Israeli forces, positions, aircraft, and occasionally civilian communities, in an effort to divert Israeli defense resources away from Gaza. Since October 7, more than 50 Hezbollah fighters have been killed, as well as about a dozen Hamas and PIJ fighters who had been attacking alongside Hezbollah. Meanwhile, Yemen’s Houthis have fired drones and cruise and ballistic missiles, most of which have been intercepted by Israel, Saudi Arabia, and the United States. Israeli border communities have been evacuated, and sirens frequently send people into shelters and safe rooms across the country. These threats will continue for the foreseeable future.
MONTHS, NOT WEEKS
As Israel begins large-scale ground operations in Gaza, it is crucial to recognize that it will be impossible to defeat Hamas quickly. In contrast to most previous Israeli operations since the First Lebanon War in 1982, a long campaign will be necessary to degrade, isolate, and, over time, eradicate Hamas from Gaza, just as it took years for the U.S.-led coalition to deliver an enduring defeat of the Islamic State (or ISIS) in Syria and Iraq. To achieve lasting results, moreover, a long war cannot rely exclusively on force. It must include diplomatic, informational, legal, and economic efforts, supported by both regional and international partners.
Israel, then, will not be able to model its current campaign against Hamas on previous operations in Gaza. Instead, Israeli strategists will need to draw inspiration from the longer conflicts in Israeli history, including the 1948–49 War of Independence, the 1967–70 War of Attrition, and Operation Defensive Shield in 2002, which sought to uproot the threat of terrorism from the West Bank, after hundreds of Israelis were killed in the second intifada.
These long wars provide relevant lessons in how to conduct such a campaign. This is a model of war that involves continuous, full-mobilization and whole-of-society efforts in which military actions of varied intensity are conducted across multiple fronts and results are delivered not immediately but over a longer time span. These earlier wars also underscore the high costs and potential risks of long campaigns, including the exceptional resources needed for the war effort and war economy and the deep national resolve necessary to stay the course over months and even years.
Operation Defensive Shield, which ran from March to May 2002, for instance, was a focused operation to eradicate Hamas and PA terror cells, employing five IDF divisions in West Bank towns and cities. Effectively breaking the second intifada, this larger operation became a turning point that, along with continuing counterterrorism efforts, reduced the number of terror attacks and victims. But in contrast to what Israel faced in the West Bank in 2002, the current threat from Hamas in Gaza is much more complicated, with a heavily-armed enemy that is hidden in dense urban areas amid a very large civilian population. Thus it is necessary to bring a more powerful use of force, alongside efforts to avoid a humanitarian crisis and informational efforts to counter intense Hamas propaganda in the fight for world opinion.
To achieve lasting results, a long war cannot rely exclusively on force.
Specific aspects of the current war can also draw on special operations from earlier decades. For example, according to reports, the Shin Bet, Israel’s security agency, has established an operations room to hunt down the perpetrators of the October 7 massacre, echoing Israel’s campaign to eliminate the Black September terrorists who murdered 11 Israeli athletes in the 1972 Munich Olympics. That effort required ongoing intelligence and operational efforts across the globe and political backing in a multiyear campaign; it resulted in some mishaps, but it established the firm understanding that Israel will not accept any such attacks on its people. Hamas leaders are naturally high on Israel’s target list, and several Hamas military leaders, some of whom were involved in the October 7 offensive, have already been killed during the fighting in Gaza.
Of course, the long-war paradigm has pitfalls of its own. Israel’s drawn-out campaign in Lebanon offers a cautionary tale. Beginning in 1982 with the successful eradication of armed Palestinian organizations in Lebanon and the deportation of the Palestinian leader Yasir Arafat from Beirut, the operation dragged Israel into Lebanon’s quagmire and devolved into a protracted war with Hezbollah, which effectively lasted until the Israeli withdrawal in 2000. This legacy explains much of Israel’s reluctance over the past two decades to wage large and decisive ground operations, contributing to the rationale for the limited conflict approach to Gaza.
It is thus realistic to expect that the unfolding war against Hamas in Gaza will not be limited to a single, finite offensive. Instead, it will probably take shape around an extended series of military operations, each degrading specific Hamas capabilities, until the group can be defeated. As has already become clear, the war effort is now focused on an intense offensive in Gaza, combining heavily armored ground units with extensive firepower from air, land, and sea and supported by a large array of intelligence. The ground forces are facing well-prepared enemies above and below ground, who are using civilians and sensitive locations, such as hospitals, both as human shields and as fodder for anti-Israel propaganda. Israel will need to defeat Hamas in the open and in urban areas, in the tunnels, on the beaches, in the air, and in the international media.
But Israel cannot neglect other fronts in the meantime. In parallel to the Gaza operation, a strong defensive strategy has to be maintained to thwart all incoming threats. And given the critical support of the United States in this war, Israel also has to draw some lessons from coalition warfare, which is unusual for its military and strategic culture. Recalling British Prime Minister Winston Churchill’s words, Israel would do well to remember that the only thing worse than having allies is not having them, and it must make a continual effort to communicate and coordinate with its partners in the world and in the region.
Defining what it means to defeat Hamas is also important. Beyond a military defeat and ending Hamas rule in Gaza, the war needs to address Hamas’s power elsewhere and in other dimensions. Uprooting the group as an ideological and social movement, one that now has deep reach in Palestinian society, will demand more than just crushing it on the battlefield. Hamas’s radical ideology and narratives, which are a threat to moderate Arab states as well as to Israel, must be countered by local and regional voices. Having Qatar’s Al Jazeera on Hamas’s side gives Hamas an important advantage among Arab populations across the region, which are stirred by constant visuals of destruction and suffering in Gaza. Initial Israeli military wins must be followed by continuous efforts to prevent Hamas’s resurgence and to allow the ascendance of a moderate alternative. In other words, Israel must find ways to rally Palestinian and regional parties to bring about a sustainable solution.
THE HUMAN STAIN
The unprecedented nature of the October 7 attacks has also left Israel with difficult humanitarian dilemmas. One is the mounting numbers of Palestinian fatalities, which the Hamas Health Ministry reports has exceeded 9,000, along with many more injured. This number does not differentiate between combatants and civilians. To uphold international law and maintain legitimacy for its necessary war in Gaza, Israel warned north Gaza residents to evacuate to the southern part of the strip, decreasing the risk of their becoming collateral damage in Israeli strikes on Hamas targets. Hamas, however, urged residents to stay put and has continued to use them as human shields.
Crucial for Israel is the question of the more than 240 hostages being held by Hamas in Gaza, including both Israelis and foreign nationals. Alongside its military operations, Israel, with the help of international and regional partners and mediators, will need to do everything it can to secure the hostages’ safe release. In this context, military operations cut both ways. On the one hand, they can serve to raise pressure on Hamas to release the hostages and they may increase the possibility of rescue operations—as was demonstrated by the rescue of one hostage by Israeli forces three days after the ground offensive began.
But military operations also raise the risk to the hostages themselves, who are used by Hamas as human shields. Hostage release deals may be conducted before the fighting ends by holding humanitarian pauses or opening safe corridors, and Hamas will do its best to exploit any suspension in fighting to unhinge Israel’s military operations and heighten the tensions between the Israeli public, the government, the armed forces, and foreign countries whose citizens are among the hostages.
At the same time, the Israeli government has had to evacuate dozens of Israeli communities from the southern border area around Gaza and the northern border with Lebanon. Currently, about 130,000 Israelis—more than one percent of the populace—are internally displaced. Israel must care for this large displaced population and guarantee its security from cross-border threats in Gaza and Lebanon before the residents are able to return. This will demand not only adopting a new and robust defense posture but also convincing Israelis that they will not find themselves in another October 7 ordeal, or worse. Some voices have already called for the IDF to establish security zones to push enemy threats away from Israel’s southern and northern borders—deep into Gaza and Lebanon.
Although Israel can do much in its current offensive in Gaza, Lebanon remains a major problem. After the 2006 war, Hezbollah blatantly crushed the concept of a buffer zone with Israel, which had been mandated by UN Security Council Resolution 1701. The growing numbers of dead Hezbollah combatants are proving both that Hezbollah’s elite Radwan units are deployed on Israel’s border and that Hezbollah poses an imminent threat to Israel’s northern communities, which are now evacuated. If diplomacy and economic tools, along with limited force, fail to remove the threat, other much more costly options will have to be considered.
NEW GAZA, NEW ISRAEL
Once Israel has achieved its military objectives against Hamas, it will need to deal with larger questions. The first is how to stabilize Gaza. Israel cannot be responsible for Gaza’s governance, but the Israeli government will have to act responsibly and allow interested parties and partners to provide for the needs of the Palestinian civilian population there and prevent the resurgence of terrorist threats. Global and regional partners, including the Gulf states, as well as the members of the Abraham Accords and Israel’s older regional partners, Egypt and Jordan, will be critical in supporting a moderate, legitimate, and responsible Palestinian administration; providing political backing and financial support; and helping it face the daunting task of reconstruction, governance, deradicalization, and stabilization.
The effort to normalize ties between Israel and Saudi Arabia, until recently the focus of much attention by the U.S. and Israeli governments, took a major hit by the Hamas attack, which aimed to derail it. Although it is less likely to make significant and formal progress while the war is unfolding, Saudi Arabia remains a relevant player in helping shape Gaza’s future and Israeli-Palestinian relations, perhaps even more so now. The role of Qatar, however, must be limited. It has funneled billions of dollars to Gaza, furnishing Hamas with resources it has used for building its terror army, supporting its cause through the powerful reach of Al Jazeera across the Arab world, and hosting Hamas’s political leadership in Doha.
In essence, Gaza must ultimately be governed by capable Gazans and Palestinians, who are provided with regional and international support, as well as careful oversight to prevent the resurgence of terrorism. The PA could have a potential leadership role there if it can pull its act together and rally popular, regional, and international support, commit to preventing terrorism, and overcome likely violent counterefforts by Hamas, which will surely try to regroup after the major Israeli operations end. Delegating security and basic governance to moderate Palestinian groups would be in line with the approach taken by Israel’s defense establishment toward the West Bank, where Palestinian security forces share Israel’s goals of countering Hamas and other extremist groups. But it is much less in line with the current Israeli government’s right-wing members, who see the PA as an agent of terror that is no better than Hamas.
Sooner or later, the Israeli public will demand accountability and change.
Although U.S. President Joe Biden has expressed his hope for a two-state solution, the current circumstances have made that vision seem beyond reach. Preserving the two-state option for the future was already a challenge, given the PA’s abysmal situation and Israel’s increasingly polarized politics in the years and months before October 7. Since then, it has become even more far-fetched. Yet Arab and Western leaders insist that the PA has to be part of the Gaza endgame. The PA itself, while unenthusiastic about actually governing Gaza, already links its role there with a wider framework addressing the Palestinian theater as a whole. One may assume that the aftermath of the war will include some political process with PA and regional participation, perhaps as part of wider integration efforts.
Most important for Israel will be devising a new security approach to protect its borders and keep its population safe. Ultimately, Israel’s national security begins at home. After the Netanyahu government was established in December 2022, political turmoil about the government’s judicial overhaul and protests swept the country for months, weakening its resilience, defense, and deterrence and contributing to its enemies’ sense that it was ripe for attack. West Bank strife drew forces and attention there, at the expense of the Gaza border, while maintaining understandings with Hamas about economic measures deepened the common belief that escalation was unlikely. All these factors contributed to the disastrous intelligence, military, and policy failures that allowed October 7 to happen.
Israel’s chiefs of defense and intelligence have already accepted responsibility for their part, and they will surely resign after the war ends. Netanyahu has so far declined to take responsibility for the catastrophe occurring under his leadership and continues to maneuver between deflection and denial, promising “answers after the war.” The long-war concept, so far indefinite in duration, could allow the current government to stay in power despite the unprecedented crisis in Israel. Yet although the timeline is still unknown, the Israeli public, currently mobilized for the war effort, will sooner or later demand accountability and change.
THE WAR AT HOME
Almost a month since the October massacre, the war in Gaza has just begun. Waging it, Israel will need to attain its goals and continue fighting for Hamas’s enduring defeat over years to come. Even if a wider war is avoided now, including in the north and with Iran, Tehran’s ring of terror armies around Israel will still need to be melted sooner or later, and surely before Iran attempts to become a nuclear-armed power. Israel’s next defense leadership will need to rebuild and rebolster its intelligence and early warning capability, its decisive military power, its defense forces, its civil defense and first-response capability, its border defenses, and its community protection arrangements.
Given that Iran is waging a multifront warfare against Israel and the threat of its proxy terror armies is increasing, Israel will need to make countering Iran’s “axis of resistance,” a highest national priority for years to come. At the same time, Israel must avoid triggering a “lost decade” in its economy, as occurred in the mid-1970s following the strategic surprise of the 1973 Yom Kippur War. Beyond flexing its military muscle, Israel will need to cultivate and strengthen its relations with regional and global partners, advance the U.S.-led security architecture in the Middle East, and seek bold new paths to break out of the dead-end conflict with the Palestinians.
Israel will require a long and painful healing to regain its balance, its defense posture, and its composure. But first and foremost, it will need to come to terms with the fact that this war is different from any it has fought in many years and that it must transform its approach to security. Both will take a long time and extraordinary effort. But unless Israel commits unwaveringly to these fundamental tasks, it could soon find itself in another terrible crisis. The unifying energy that has brought the country together since the attacks gives hope that it can rise to the challenge.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
ASSAF ORION is Liz and Mony Rueven International Fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. He was formerly the head of strategic planning on the Israel Defense Forces General Staff.