Al-Aqsa Flood: The Collapse of Israeli Deterrence and Attempts to Restore It

The Palestinian resistance dealt a significant blow to the Israeli occupation, leading Israel to retaliate by launching an aggressive campaign on Gaza with full Western support. The objective was to eradicate Hamas and establish a pro-Israel authority in Gaza. However, several factors may impede this outcome, as seen in comparable conflicts.
While Israel enjoys clear military superiority, Palestinian fighters are better prepared than they were in 2014, exploiting the advantages of asymmetric warfare. [AP]

The war between the Palestinian resistance and Israel began on 7 October 2023 with a large-scale attack by Hamas’ Izz al-Din al-Qassam Brigades on Israeli military camps and settlements adjoining the Gaza Strip. Although the success of the operation likely exceeded expectations, it was, by any possible military measure, limited. Israel nevertheless deemed it an existential threat, immediately initiating a campaign of indiscriminate bombing across the Gaza Strip that, within a month, had killed 10,000 Palestinians, half of them women and children.

Israel’s declared objectives of the war are uprooting Hamas and destroying its military capabilities, and retrieving captives taken by Qassam forces. It was clear from the outset that these goals could not be achieved without a ground invasion, which commenced after substantial hesitation. But in the face of stubborn resistance from Palestinian forces, Israeli ground forces have made little progress, failing to free a single captive or destroy any resistance weapons caches or command centres.

This suggests that achieving its declared war objectives will require sustained fighting and may lead to heavy Israeli losses. While Israel enjoys clear military superiority, Palestinian fighters are better prepared than they were in 2014, exploiting the advantages of asymmetric warfare.

Equally important are Israel’s undeclared objectives, most significantly the desire to push the people of the Gaza Strip into Egypt, which would solve both a security and demographic problem for Israel. If successful, it will be a prelude to another displacement in the West Bank.

Palestinian resistance leaders clearly hoped to trigger a national uprising in the West Bank, but the tacit security alliance between the Palestinian Authority and Israel has prevented solidarity activities in the West Bank from escalating beyond demonstrations and strikes.

The situation differed little in most neighbouring Arab countries. Both Egypt and Jordan have acted to contain protests while taking diplomatic measures to absorb popular anger. In Lebanon, Hezbollah has engaged in border skirmishes; but in a speech delivered four weeks into the war, the organisation’s secretary-general issued only a vague threat of wider involvement in the war in the event of broader Israeli attacks on Lebanon or the deterioration of the Palestinian resistance in Gaza.

Nevertheless, the relative calm prevailing thus far does not preclude an expansion of the war. The longer the war drags on, the more likely it is to slip out of control. It may become difficult for neighbouring countries to control border security, even if they want to avoid friction with the Israelis.

Internationally, the war has laid bare a clear divide between the West and the rest. Western countries, especially the United States, immediately embraced Israel’s narrative of existential threat; and Western leaders flocked to Tel Aviv to express unreserved support for Israel. Faced with massive civilian casualties in Gaza, this unconditional support began to waver a month in, prompting US officials to press for the entry of humanitarian aid to the Gaza Strip. But the United States, along with most European states, continues to reject calls for a ceasefire.

This position stood in stark contrast to that of Russia and China. Seeing the opportunity to strengthen their influence in the Middle East and shore up the multipolar world order, both states explicitly called for an end to the war. Turkey has been vocal in its support for Palestinians as well, though it has stopped short of severing diplomatic relations with Israel.

Given the multiplicity of players and contingencies, no predictions can be made about the temporal or spatial limits of this war. Its horizons will be determined by several interconnected factors, including Israeli casualties, Israel’s realisation of its objectives, mounting public pressure to stop the genocide in the Gaza Strip, and the potential for broader regional conflict.

Pending the war’s end, the current debate revolves around visions for the future of Gaza. Arab states and Turkey insist that the people of Gaza remain in their country and are calling for a serious peace process to culminate in an independent Palestinian state. A transitional period in Gaza has been suggested, to be overseen by a multinational regional force or the Palestinian Authority. While the United States seems open to this idea, it is predicated on Israel’s defeat of Hamas, which is not a certainty. Moreover, there are growing indications that the Israeli government seeks to partially or totally displace the Gazan population and restore its direct control over the territory.

On a broader regional and international level, the war’s impact will exceed the wars of 1948 and 1967. Regional and Arab powers will see their stature and influence shift depending on their position on the war, and Western political and cultural influence will significantly decline in the coming years. If anyone comes out on top in this war, it will be China and Russia.

*This is a summary of a policy brief originally written in Arabic available here.