Jacob Dallal

Israel will likely lose this war

The possibility that Israel does not completely vanquish Hamas, that it becomes a military occupier of Gaza and faces an Iranian-funded terrorist insurgency, and that its strategic alliance with the US deteriorates over time is not a worst-case scenario. It is the likely scenario.

An AI image of a rebuilt Gaza: Victory can only be achieved if Hamas replaced with a decent, functioning, economically viable Gaza; the alternative is Israeli occupation and terrorist insurgency.

The war cabinet is making good decisions; the IDF is operating very well; morale of the soldiers as well as the nation is high; and the missions of the war – to bring home the hostages and dismantle Hamas – are perfectly clear.

But in this war, evil will likely prevail. It is not deterministic, simply the more probable scenario.

On the tactical level of the actual war/ military ground operation to dismantle Hamas, Israel will achieve close to, but not quite, its goal. It won’t wipe out or destroy Hamas entirely, but it will deal a very significant, to the Islamist terror group.

This is for the simple reason that it will be nearly impossible to fully destroy a local, well-armed, well-organized, well-funded, deeply-entrenched jihadi-indoctrinated terror organization which all locals fear and some admire that has been ruling Gaza for nearly two decades.

For Hamas leadership — currently hiding somewhere in southern Gaza amidst two million civilians – and its top fighters and the remaining hostages that they drag along with them, there will be always another tunnel, another hideaway, another house (or perhaps a dash into Egyptian-controlled Sinai) to escape to. If it took the IDF nearly two months to destroy half of Hamas’ force in an area almost empty of civilians in northern Gaza, it will take much longer in the south. But no matter how long this goes on for (even without accounting for international and US pressure to stop the fighting) there will always be a redoubt of Hamas members, possibly including its top leadership, that will elude the IDF for months, possibly years. This residual force could make for the core of an insurgency that might attack anyone who tries to rule Gaza in their stead.

Which bring us to the more worrying part: what happens the “day after”?

If the tactical war is for the most part a success, the longer-range strategic issue of what happens to Gaza after the main military operation is over remains much more opaque – and is the real consequential part.

The IDF likes to speak of the “image of victory.” That image is not going to be a destroyed Gaza or a dead Hamas leader. Terrorism isn’t won over only by brute force; it is won over by offering a viable alternative. The real victory in this war is a rebuilt Gaza without Hamas. If Hamas were to be replaced with a decent, functioning, economically viable Gaza, it would demonstrate there is a viable alternative to terror and would deal a huge blow to the Iranian-led axis. This is the victory Israel should have its eyes set on – not how many Hamas members it kills. This is also a paramount interest of moderate Arab states.

This large question about the day after can be condensed into a smaller, more critical question, which is the condition that will affect everything else that does or doesn’t happen in Gaza: who are the guys with the guns? By simple process of elimination, it is the IDF.

The oft-talked-about option of who might govern the Gaza Strip is the Palestinian Authority (especially touted by the supporters of the utopian “Oslo peace process”) which is corrupt, ineffectual, hugely unpopular and can barely rule the West Bank. It is far more unpopular than Hamas both there and in Gaza. Without the IDF conducting nightly operations in the West Bank over the last years, it would only have been a matter of time until Hamas had taken over the West Bank too. Even if the PA is willing to take over Gaza, and there is no indication that it is without a string of conditions attached, it simply cannot be trusted after October 7th with security along Israel’s borders.

Another, perhaps more viable but less likely, option is that Arab (or maybe even Western) countries will send armed troops to keep the peace in Gaza. Maybe some Arab leaders will have the courage to take responsibility and foment real positive change in the trajectory of the Middle East after 75 years. But then realpolitik and common sense meet wishful thinking. Enough to remember what happened to the US in the early 1980s in Lebanon or, more recently, what happened to Saudi Arabia in Yemen. After all is said and done, no country is going to want to insert their troops into the Gaza quagmire.

Which leaves us with the most likely scenario: a long-term Israeli military occupation of the Gaza Strip, for years – possibly a decade or two – accompanied by a growing Hamas-led, Iranian-financed, local insurgency.  And with occupation comes responsibility for everything else – utilities, sanitation, education, local governance. If some of these responsibilities can be managed (and funded) by Arab Abraham Accord countries that would be an important achievement.

Lastly, there is long-term bad news. This relates to Israel’s alliance with the United States, its lone, stalwart ally (and superpower). While Israel enjoys strong support in the US today during this war, there is one age group where that is an exception, and it is the age group that is the harbinger of the future: 18-34 year-olds. Consistently in poll after poll in this age group, support for Palestinians significantly higher and support for Israel significantly lower than average. Many things caused this trend, some of which have nothing to do with Israel or Jews, but that is neither here nor there. The point is this negative sentiment is going to have repercussion on Israel’s alliance perhaps not today but within 10 or, at most, 15 years, when this demographic hold the levers of power. The antipathy which this demographic feels towards Israel today are likely to harden as the bitter realities of an Israeli occupation of Gaza become entrenched.

Israel is nearly totally dependent on the US to conduct a war. Within weeks (or in some cases less) it could run out of vital munitions. Imagine even today if Joe Biden wasn’t president, and instead there was a more progressive democrat who harbored less goodwill to Israel and warned that if Israel didn’t end hostilities it wouldn’t receive further arms. With another president in power, that is a possibility today. Let alone in a decade or two.

The long-term strategic implications of the cooling of the alliance could not be more serious. It should prompt Israel to start a long-term process of decoupling its military dependency on – not its alliance with – the United States. But we all know how good Israel is for preparing for long-term, over-the-horizon contingencies…

In sum, the possibility that Israel does not completely vanquish Hamas, that it becomes a military occupier of Gaza and faces an Iranian-funded terrorist insurgency, and that its strategic alliance with the US deteriorates over time is not a worst-case scenario. It is the most likely scenario given the present situation and trends.

That is not to say these things need to come to fruition. But to start with, Israel had better be hard and honest with itself about what is likely to happen.

The only narrow path to victory for Israel is a stable, peaceful Gaza in the coming year, and the one after that, and the one after that.

It is going to take extraordinary vision and diplomacy to set up a situation in which, while Israel has overall security control, countries from the Abraham Accords and beyond shepherd, manage (and finance) civilian aspects of life. Instead of focusing on how to destroy Hamas, Israeli leadership should focus on building an (Arab) coalition that will rebuild and run Gaza the “day after.”

As Hamas reminds us all, destroying is the easy part. Building good governance that will enable a better future for Gazans and Israelis is the hard part. It is also a critical Israeli interest, especially assuming it retains security control: If Gazans are happy with the post-Hamas alternative, what is left of Hamas and the Islamic Jihad will remain sidelined. If Gazans are unhappy, they will join their ranks and an insurgency will swell.

If Israel doesn’t act with great vigor to put things on an alternative course, the default one has Israel, in the long run, losing this war.

About the Author
Jacob Dallal is an IDF reserve Major and was acting head of the IDF Spokesperson’s international press branch in the Second Lebanon War in 2006. The views expressed here are his own.