Too much of the commentary on the war in Gaza begins with tactics, which are concerned with achieving small, concrete military objectives, such as taking a hill or launching an ambush. Tactics and operations (the combination of a number of tactical engagements) in turn support strategy, the matching of military and other means to political objectives. It is with strategy that an understanding of this conflict should begin. War is horrifying. But if we wish to understand its likely course, we should not start by focusing on the grimness of urban warfare, the particular hellishness of battles in tunnels, or the difficulties of separating civilians and combatants in an urban setting. Instead, we must ask how both sides conceive their objectives and the broadest ways in which they intend to use force to achieve them.
Both sides are driven by total objectives. For Hamas, this is nothing new: In its 1988 covenant, it committed itself to the annihilation of the state of Israel, and then and since, to the extermination of as many of its citizens as possible. Like most extreme Islamist movements, it distinguishes only loosely, or not at all, between Jews and Israelis. This objective justifies in its view the ultimate in violence, all of which was horrifically on display in the October 7 massacre, accompanied by the murder of children, rape, torture, beheading, and kidnapping. Behind its strategy is a long-term theory of victory: that such attacks, coupled perhaps with strikes by Hezbollah and Iran, or the risings of Palestinians in the West Bank, will cause Israel to collapse. In Hamas’s view, Israeli counterattacks on Gaza, which will inevitably kill many civilians, contribute to its objectives because they undermine support for Israel abroad, and inflame its many enemies.
Hamas is not, like Anwar Sadat’s Egypt in 1973, using war to break a negotiating deadlock. It does not appear to care about the harms inflicted on Palestinian civilians—indeed, it gives every indication that it welcomes them. Its eschatological ambitions means that any compromise or ceasefire is temporary and purely instrumental. “Israel, Judaism and Jews challenge Islam and the Moslem people,” its founding charter proclaimed, and only Israel’s utter destruction can meet that challenge. All of this was always the case. One of Israel’s numerous failures ahead of this war was the inability of some Israeli leaders, and the majority of international political leaders, to fully understand Hamas’s worldview and its implications. There is no excuse for anyone continuing to do so.
Until October 7, the objectives of the current Israeli government with regard to Hamas were limited: to contain the movement, deter it from launching major attacks, use it as a foil against the Palestinian Authority, and punish its more egregious behaviors. After October 7, the Israeli objective became—had to become—the destruction of Hamas. With that, Israeli strategy has been transformed, and that is why so many analogies, including the 1982 Israeli attack on the Palestine Liberation Organization in Lebanon and the American invasion of Iraq, miss the point. Everything changes when your strategic purpose, like that of your enemy, is annihilation.
An Israel that tolerated or merely absorbed October 7 could expect more and worse such attacks from other quarters, particularly from the far better armed and trained Hezbollah. Israel’s population, including workers in its most productive and advanced industries, could lose faith in the ability of their country to defend itself and simply leave. A Hamas left intact, moreover, would undoubtedly try to launch equally bloody attacks on civilians again.
The shift in Israeli strategic objectives will shape the military operations now under way. International public opinion has turned on Israel many times in the past, and is doing so again. But given that the issue is now, for Israeli planners, existential, they will care much less than ever before. They will also act with much less restraint than in the past. Israel’s own legal and moral inhibitions, though rarely acknowledged in Western media, have in the past restricted its use of force. Israel, for example, developed the practice of “knocking” on an apartment building with a nonexplosive bomb to get the inhabitants to leave before the real thing hit. Israelis, like their American counterparts in Iraq, would usually wait until an enemy leader was away from women and children before firing a guided missile at them.
During World War II, another existential conflict, the Anglo-American alliance employed a very different set of rules. Britain’s Bomber Command and the United States Army Air Forces alike deliberately targeted enemy civilian infrastructure and population centers. During the planning of air operations in advance of the D-Day landings, Winston Churchill went a step further, approving attacks against French railroad yards that he believed would kill up to 10,000 French civilians. Those are not the examples Israel follows today, and if Israel now exercises less restraint than it once did, it nonetheless remains a long way from these precedents.
The stunning Israeli failures that led up to the October 7 massacre will, in due time, be examined in excruciating detail by an investigative commission like that of the Agranat Commission following the 1973 Yom Kippur War. The senior leaders of the national-security establishment will undoubtedly resign or be forced from office after the immediate crisis is over. But the magnitude of their failure should not obscure the fact that the Israel Defense Forces is not merely an extremely large force (its mobilized ground forces today are roughly the same size as the United States Army) but one that is well equipped and in most cases well trained.
Assertions that Israel will find operating above and underground in Gaza impossibly difficult are questionable. Even assuming that those who make them fully understand the IDF’s capabilities (and most do not), the recent record of urban combat, including America’s conquest of Fallujah and the Iraqi retaking of Mosul, suggest otherwise. These battles may be very costly for attacker and defender alike, but one should not assume that Gaza is impregnable. It is not.
Israeli ground incursions into Gaza will work from intelligence about physical structures that has been collected over many years; they will be supported by information from numerous sensors, including new ones brought into the strip by ground forces as well as others activated from the outside. The IDF has the initiative, and Hamas will have to react, which is considerably more difficult than planning even the extremely complex and ambitious attack of October 7. As landlines are severed, Hamas leaders will have to communicate by phone or radio; as prisoners are taken and documents and computers are captured, they will reveal secrets; and there will undoubtedly be Palestinian civilians willing to share information about the terrorists whose raid brought this terror upon them.
Israel may not attempt to annihilate Hamas all at once. A pause may even occur for some kind of prisoners-for-hostages swap, although Israel’s new strategic objective means that if it is forced to choose between the lives of the hostages and the destruction of Hamas, it will, with bitter grief, choose the latter.
What will ensue will be a set of relentless incremental operations of the kind that, in microcosm, led to the neutralization of Yasir Arafat in 2002–2003 in his headquarters, the Mukataa. Again, because the strategy is different, the rules will be different. Henceforth, any Hamas unit training in the open will probably be attacked; so too will Hamas leaders or gatherings, whether or not civilians are present. The campaign will be bloody, and it will go on a long while—months, possibly years. If there is a plausible alternative, given the strategic realities on both sides, someone should suggest it. No one, including those most deeply anguished by the suffering of Palestinian civilians, yet has.
The IDF’s image has long been shaped by the Six-Day War and daring raids like Entebbe in 1976. But its long-term strategic successes, and most notably the peace treaties with Egypt and Jordan, were the result of protracted conflict. This war will also last a long time, until the Israelis have satisfied themselves that Hamas is, if not utterly annihilated, reduced to near-complete ineffectiveness. It will be bloody on both sides, and it may eventuate in a larger Middle East conflict. But it is not going to be like Israel’s Lebanon War, or America’s Iraq War. Ameliorating the bitter, generations-long struggle between Arab and Jew for Israel and Palestine remains vital. Every war must end and may even end, after a long time, with some kind of reconciliation—after all, there is an Israeli embassy in Berlin, and a German embassy in Tel Aviv.
First, however, there will be—and alas, there must be—a war of an intensity and violence that we have not seen in a very long time.