(This is the second part of a two-part article on Israel’s looming defeat. Part 1 can be read here.)
Israel is vulnerable to military defeat
After the devastating attacks of October 7, many Israelis fled the country. Of those who remained within Israel, tens of thousands became internally displaced after Israel’s government evacuated dozens of towns and villages bordering on Lebanon or Gaza.
Israel’s northernmost city of Kiryat Shmona, where 23,000 Israelis once resided, has become a ghost town. Kiryat Shmona was established in 1949 on the site of a Palestinian village, al-Khalisa. During the 1948 Arab–Israeli War, al-Khalisa’s inhabitants fled the village as the terrorists of the Zionist Haganah advanced toward it.
In many ways, the events of the past month have confirmed Israelis’ worst fears.
Within historic Palestine (consisting of Israel, the West Bank and Gaza), Palestinians constitute a demographic majority, with an estimated population of 7.5 million, or 51.16% of all inhabitants. Jews constitute about 47% of all inhabitants. As for Israel itself, approximately 21% of its population is Palestinian.
Faced with this demographic reality, Israel has had to resort to increasingly brutal methods to deprive Palestinians of their fundamental rights. Those methods inevitably provoke violence from some factions of Palestinian society. Israel then invokes that violence as justification for resorting to even worse brutality.
This vicious cycle has endured for decades. Until now, Israeli and Western leaders seemed to have had a reasonably accurate sense of how many Palestinian deaths the international community would tolerate, but their ‘restraint’ (if one can call it that) has now evaporated. Now, they openly declare that there is no limit to the number of Palestinians whom Israel may massacre.
In states bordering Israel, there are millions more Palestinians. In Lebanon, there are roughly 500,000 Palestinian refugees. In Jordan and Egypt, there are roughly 2.2 million and 100,000, respectively.
Many of those refugees long to return to their homeland. Under international law, they have the right to do so, but Israel has flouted that right for decades. As a result, some Palestinian refugees are prepared to employ force to realize their right of return.
In such circumstances, the security of Israel’s Jewish population depends critically on the dominance of Israel’s military and security services.
The attacks launched on October 7, however, have demolished the belief that Israel’s military continues to hold a position of dominance.
As reported by the Washington Post:
The massive, complex attack on Israel on [October 7] by militants from Gaza Strip stunned Israelis, who watched in horror as fighters easily bypassed one of the world’s most advanced security systems…
The“smart fence” that separates Israel from Gaza is equipped with cutting-edge technology, designed to detect any security breach…An ‘iron wall’
In 2021 Israel announced the completion of its “smart fence,” a 40-mile-long barricade along the Gaza Strip that included an underground concrete barrier… [T]hen-Defense Minister Benny Gantz said the barrier placed an “iron wall” between Hamas and southern Israel.
But on Saturday, a surprise series of coordinated efforts enabled Hamas to get past the wall. The fence was breached at 29 points, according to the Israel Defense Forces. Though there were Israeli guard towers positioned every 500 feet along the perimeter of the wall at some points, the fighters appeared to encounter little resistance.
The border was minimally staffed, it soon became apparent, with much of Israel’s military diverted to focus on unrest in the West Bank.
Within minutes of Israel’s “iron wall” being breached, lightly armed Palestinian militants used grenades to clear the nearest machine gun posts.
At sea, simple motorboats carried Hamas commandos to Zikim, an Israeli coastal town just north of the Gaza Strip that hosts the Bahad 4 base. There, new IDF recruits were undergoing basic training.
The Israeli navy managed to cut off at least one of the boats, but by 7 am, the Zikim base had been overrun by land.
Palestinian militants even managed to seize temporary control of several Israeli towns near Gaza.
Throughout the day, militants in Gaza rained rockets down on Israel, many of which inflicted extensive damage, despite their relatively unsophisticated design. This raised serious questions about the efficacy of Israel’s “Iron Dome” air defence system.
Now, after four weeks of fighting, Israel’s army has reported casualties that are well beyond the bounds of its recent (and limited) combat experience.
On October 8, Israel published the names of 346 soldiers, officers, and reservists, many of whom were local security officers, who had been killed since October 7. The dead included a commander of the ‘Nahal Brigade’ and another commander of the ‘Ghost’ Unit.
As of November 4, Israel reported that an additional 25 of its soldiers had been killed in its ground invasion of Gaza, which has yet to enter its bloodiest phase. Dozens more Israeli soldiers are held as hostages in Gaza by Hamas.
Israel has also suffered casualties (including senior Israeli officers) in combat with Hezbollah forces on the Lebanon border. On November 2, Hezbollah claimed that it had killed or wounded 120 Israeli soldiers in fighting since October 7.
In any ongoing military conflict, all sides have an incentive to under-state their own casualties while exaggerating those of the enemy. Thus, any casualty figures released by Israel’s military should be viewed as a floor, and might well under-state Israel’s true casualties.
Israel’s last major war against a formidable opponent occurred in 2006. In that 34-day war, up to 30,000 Israeli soldiers invaded south Lebanon. They were forced back across the border by no more than 1,000 Hezbollah fighters. According to Israel, 121 Israeli soldiers lost their lives in that war.
When the 2006 Lebanon war began, Hezbollah possessed an estimated 15,000 missiles. By 2016, Hezbollah was estimated to possess a missile arsenal that was ten times larger, and that consisted of far more sophisticated missiles than it had in 2006.
If Israel’s air defence systems cannot protect Israel from large volleys of Hamas’s relatively primitive rockets, surely Israel would suffer far greater damage if Hezbollah saturated Israel with large-scale missile attacks.
Moreover, after the 2006 Lebanon war, Hezbollah’s forces acquired extensive combat experience in the Syrian war. By contrast, the vast majority of Israel’s active-duty soldiers have experienced nothing like the brutal and protracted Syrian conflict.
Scott Ritter, a former U.S. Marine intelligence officer and U.N. weapons inspector, has commented extensively on the state of Israel’s military today. His criticisms have been withering:
Military professionals have to put aside politics and study military events with a professional eye. And what Hamas did [on October 7] is one of the most remarkable military feats in modern history…
There are many Russians right now who have learned the hard lessons of war over the last 600 plus days in Ukraine who are looking at the imagery of the Israeli military response saying ‘these are the most amateurish people we have ever seen in our lives’. Their tactics, their approach, the timid nature of these soldiers is shocking.
I think the Israeli army has lost the ability to destroy the enemy through firepower and manoeuvre… They’re very good at beating up women, beating up children, beating up villagers, beating up old men, old women, but they’re not very good at fighting people who stand up and fight back… There’s a lot of incompetence on Israel right now. There’s a tremendous amount of military incompetence…
Israel conducted a major military exercise earlier this year that tested this very scenario: what would happen if an uprising in the West Bank, an uprising in Gaza, Hezbollah intervenes in the north, Iran intervenes?… And it turned out that Israel lost. Israel can’t win that war.
No matter how many Palestinian civilians Israel’s military massacres in Gaza, and no matter how many Hamas fighters it kills, Palestinians will continue to resort to armed resistance (as is their right) until Israel’s government respects their rights.
Moreover, sympathetic militant groups from neighbouring countries will continue to support Palestinians, either by attacking U.S. military bases in the Middle East, or by attacking Israel itself.
In all likelihood, current and prospective citizens of Israel are now more cognizant of these realities than they have ever been.
Israel has long marketed itself as the global sanctuary of the Jewish people. Its ability to maintain a manageable demographic balance with the Palestinian population depends critically upon Israel’s ability to persuade Jewish residents of Israel to remain, and to attract Jewish immigration to Israel from abroad.
How can Israel continue to achieve that strategic goal after the traumatic events of the past several weeks?
Geopolitically, Israel is a lightweight
If Israel were a city, its population of 9.2 million would rank it sixth on the list of the Middle East’s largest cities, behind Cairo, Tehran, Istanbul, Baghdad and Riyadh. Its population is less than 10% of the population of Egypt (the Middle East’s most populous country), and less than 12% of that of Iran (the Middle East’s third most populous country).
Similarly, Israel’s GDP is modest relative to those of the Middle East’s largest economies. Its nominal GDP of US$527 billion is 52% of Saudi Arabia’s GDP, 62% of Turkey’s GDP, and is roughly on par with the UAE’s GDP.
On a nominal basis, Israel’s GDP is substantially larger than that of Iran (US$368 billion), but on a purchasing power parity (PPP) basis, which many economists believe to be a more reliable indicator of national wealth, Iran’s economy is far larger than that of Israel (US$1.6 trillion vs US$473 billion: World Bank).
In the month that has elapsed since the attacks of October 7, the vast majority of the death and destruction has been visited upon Gaza, yet Israel’s economy is already reeling.
Reuters reports that the costs to Israel’s economy “will be unlike anything it has experienced in decades”. Foreign Policy says Israel’s “massive military mobilization has created serious economic strain.” According to the Financial Times, “Israeli businesses buckle as war hits economy”.
Territorially, Israel is a pipsqueak. It encompasses a mere 21,937 square km, making it the 11th largest (or 7th smallest) state in the Middle East.
What about military spending?
Here, Israel fares better relative to other regional powers. The Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) ranks Israel’s military budget as the 15th largest in the world and the second largest in the Middle East. Israel’s military spending is far behind that of Saudi Arabia (US$75 billion), but well ahead of Turkish military spending of $10.6 billion and Iranian military spending of US$6.8 billion.
When it comes to military spending, however, several caveats are in order.
First, as a percentage of GDP, SIPRI ranks Israel as the 5th highest military spender in the world, at 4.6% of GDP. Iran’s, by contrast, is 2.6% of GDP. This raises a question as to whether Israel’s current level of military spending is sustainable in the long-run.
Second, Israel purchases its weapons overwhelmingly from for-profit, Western arms manufacturers rather than from state-owned, domestic manufacturers. SIPRI estimates that, from 2009-2020, Israel purchased 70% of its weaponry from the United States.
This matters for several reasons.
First, state-owned enterprises do not seek to maximize profits from sales to the states that control them. A military that produces its armaments through enterprises it owns and controls generally receives more bang for its buck than militaries that rely on privately-owned, profit-maximizing enterprises.
Whereas Israel’s military relies overwhelmingly on for-profit, Western arms manufacturers, its principal rival in the Middle East, Iran, relies primarily on domestic, state-owned arms producers. During the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s, Iran’s military-industrial base was enormously expanded under the control of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps and Iran’s Ministry of Defence. By 2006, Iran had created a powerful military-industrial complex, which employed more than 200,000 engineers, technicians and skilled workers.
Second, the Ukraine war has revealed to the world that Western-made weapons are grossly over-rated. Russia’s military has destroyed stunning quantities of Western-supplied ‘wonder-weapons’ – including Patriot and NASAMS air defence systems and Leopard and Challenger tanks.
Third, U.S. arms manufacturers take their orders from the United States government, not from Israel. This means that those manufacturers will develop and sell to Israel only those weapons systems and military technologies that the U.S. government allows them to develop and sell.
Because Iran’s military obtains its weapons from domestic arms manufacturers that are under its control, it has unfettered access to those manufacturers’ best weapons technologies, and can redirect their research and production priorities to meet the specific needs of Iran’s military.
Ultimately, there is only one respect in which Israel has a clear advantage over other Middle Eastern powers, and that is nuclear weapons.
Although no one should discount the willingness of Israel’s fanatical government to use nuclear weapons, doing so would unquestionably render Israel an international pariah. Israel’s Heritage Minister just threatened to nuke Gaza. The world’s reaction was one of near-universal denunciation.
Moreover, Israel’s use of nuclear weapons would force other regional powers to develop their own nuclear arsenals, with potentially catastrophic consequences for Israel.
Israel’s government has fallen into a trap of its own making
In response to the attacks of October 7, Netanyahu’s government has established a maximalist standard of victory: it has declared repeatedly that it seeks the complete destruction of Hamas.
It is highly doubtful that Israel can achieve that objective. To do so, it must engage in the bloodiest form of warfare – close combat in a densely built urban environment – against an enemy who knows the urban terrain far better than Israel’s soldiers.
Moreover, the fighters of Hamas and other militant groups in Gaza are highly motivated and accustomed to hardship, whereas Israel’s army is comprised substantially of inexperienced reservists who are accustomed to a more comfortable life.
One month after the October 7 attacks, Israel’s military has inflicted upon Gaza astonishing levels of death and destruction.
Until now, Israel’s deadliest assault on Gaza occurred in the summer of 2014. In that eight-week operation, Israel killed 2,310 Palestinians, of whom 526 were children. In the current operation, Israel has killed eight times as many children in half the time.
Already, the level of destruction in Gaza is apocalyptic. At the urging of dozens of Israeli doctors and rabbis, Israel’s military has attacked hospitals. It has destroyed mosques and churches, U.N.-run schools, university facilities, ambulances, civilian convoys, Gaza’s water network, solar panels and nearly 200,000 housing units. Israel has also massacred at least 34 journalists and 89 employees of the U.N. Relief Works Agency.
As of October 26, the U.N. estimated that 1.4 million people – about two-thirds of Gaza’s population – were internally displaced. The number has surely grown since then.
The diplomatic consequences of Israel’s savagery have been severe.
On November 6, South Africa joined a growing diplomatic boycott of Israel. Saudi Arabia has suspended normalization talks with the apartheid state. Numerous leaders – including Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, Colombian President Gustavo Pedro, and Spain’s Minister for Social Rights Ione Belarra – have accused Israel of genocide.
On October 26, the U.N. General Assembly overwhelmingly adopted a resolution demanding an “immediate, durable and sustained humanitarian truce”. Only 14 states voted against the resolution. Predictably, those states consisted of Israel, the United States, and a handful of tiny, U.S.-dominated countries.
Inevitably, Israel thumbed its nose at the UNGA’s resolution. Its government won’t even agree to a U.S.-sponsored “humanitarian pause”, which Professor Norman Finkelstein rightly derides as ‘fattening the turkey before you kill it’.
Israel has spared nothing and no one. Its barbarism seems limitless. Its cruelty, unimaginable.
And yet, Hamas has not been destroyed.
Given Israel’s intransigence and its stated goal of destroying Hamas completely, there surely will be many more horrors to come.
On the current trajectory of Israel’s campaign of terror (calling it a “war” is rather charitable), there are at least five possible outcomes.
Outcome #1: Israel’s external enemies intervene militarily
Hezbollah has acknowledged that, since October 7, 63 of its soldiers have been killed in combat on the Lebanon border.
On November 5, an Israeli airstrike killed a woman and three children in south Lebanon. Hezbollah is likely to retaliate for that atrocity.
Al Jazeera reported on October 30 that, in recent days, Hezbollah and Israel had launched attacks deeper into each other’s territory, an escalation from previous skirmishes confined to the Israel-Lebanon border region.
On October 18, I travelled to Lebanon and remained there for eight days. While there, I reported from the Lebanon-Israel border. In south Lebanon, I spoke to members of the Christian and Shi’a Muslim communities. The Lebanese Christians with whom I spoke expressed a preference for dialogue to end the attacks on Gaza and prevent a full-scale war between Hezbollah and Israel. By contrast, the Shi’a Muslims with whom I spoke stated that, while they do not seek war, Lebanon cannot stand idly by as Israel commits a massacre in Gaza. Defending Palestinians, they said, is a matter of honour.
On November 3, Hezbollah Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah spoke publicly for the first time since the attacks of October 7. Although he did not declare all-out war on Israel, he emphasized that Hezbollah has already engaged Israel in combat and that “all options” remain open.
As Israel pushes deeper into Gaza and the death and destruction escalate, pressure will grow for Hezbollah to employ its formidable array of missiles and impose a heavy price on Israel. There is no doubt that Lebanon would pay dearly for such an attack, but it is equally certain that Hezbollah has the capacity to inflict unprecedented damage on Israel, and to shatter what remains of Israelis’ belief in their security.
Should Iran and Syria enter the war on Hezbollah’s side, there is a substantial risk that Israel will suffer outright military defeat.
Moreover, the effects of a regional war on the global economy would be dire. Given the scale of Israel’s barbarism in Gaza, and its refusal to agree even to a “humanitarian pause”, most governments and people would blame Israel for the widespread economic suffering resulting from such a war.
Outcome #2: Gulf States use economic coercion against the West
Given their history of betraying the Palestinian cause, the leaders of the Gulf States seem unlikely to pursue that option, but that possibility ought not to be excluded altogether.
The Saudi Crown prince was on bad terms with the Biden administration even before the violence exploded in Israel on October 7. Since then, Mohammed bin Salman humiliated Antony Blinken, Biden’s Secretary of State, during one of Blinken’s recent trips to the Middle East. Every one of those trips has been a diplomatic train-wreck for the United States.
The Crown Prince also joined with the leader of Iran – until recently, an implacable foe of the Saudis – to discuss Israel’s “war crimes against Palestine“.
Meanwhile, Bahrain has joined the diplomatic boycott of Israel.
Thus, in the current geopolitical climate, there is a non-trivial chance that the Gulf States will pull the economic trigger, and thereby force the West to choose between severe economic consequences and its ongoing support of Israel’s criminal regime. With an election one year away in the United States, the pressure on the Biden administration to rein in Netanyahu would then be overwhelming.
Outcome #3: Israel negotiates a ceasefire and an exchange of hostages after failing to destroy Hamas
Given Israel’s maximalist goals and the enormous advantages it enjoys in military hardware, the survival of Hamas and an exchange of hostages would constitute a crushing blow to the prestige of Israel’s military.
Moreover, the global reaction would be extremely harsh. If Hamas survives, Israel will have slaughtered thousands (and perhaps tens of thousands) of innocent Palestinians, and will have turned Gaza into a wasteland, for no durable benefit to its national security.
Outcome #4: Israel is forced by popular outrage to negotiate a ceasefire and an exchange of hostages
On November 4, something remarkable happened in Washington. Over 300,000 people gathered at Freedom Plaza for the National March on Washington for Palestine. The march was the largest in support of Palestine in the history of the United States.
All over the world, popular outrage is growing. Unprecedented government efforts to restrain Palestinian solidarity protests have proved ineffectual. In France and Germany, masses of protesters have taken to the streets repeatedly despite government-imposed protest bans. These bans reek of desperation and have served only to fuel popular outrage.
At some point, the pressure on Western governments to intervene may well become irresistible.
Outcome #5: Israel wins the battle but loses the war
For the sake of argument, let us imagine that Israel succeeds in destroying Hamas and in freeing the hostages that it has not already killed in its relentless bombardment of Gaza. What then?
For Israel to achieve that outcome, it would have to inflict vastly more destruction on Gaza than it has inflicted thus far. Already, Israel’s brutality has caused severe damage to its international standing. The violence required to destroy Hamas will do irreparable harm to Israel’s international relations.
Moreover, Gaza will lie in smoking ruins. The humanitarian catastrophe occasioned by its destruction will be a constant reminder to the world of Israel’s unbridled criminality. It will also be a massive economic and security burden for the Israeli government and military.
Finally, the rage occasioned by the destruction of Gaza is liable to generate far more violence against Israel and its citizens. Francesca Albanese, the U.N. Special Rapporteur for the Occupied Palestinian Territories, just told the Guardian that Israel’s attempt to wipe out Hamas is likely to breed further radicalization:
“Even if it was possible to eradicate Hamas, if [Israel] was to exterminate everyone, everyone, so not just the militants, but anyone who works for Hamas including service providers, even if that was possible, but Israel’s occupation remained in place, all the grievances would continue to grow and another resistance will emerge. It’s natural, it’s almost a law of physics. History confirms that.”
All roads lead to Israel’s strategic defeat
Israeli leaders have long been wedded to the notion that inflicting disproportionate casualties on the enemy deters further attacks. The events of October 7 have proven that theory of deterrence to be nonsense. Palestinians have sustained grossly disproportionate casualties for decades, but that did not deter their attacks of October 7, which was their deadliest attack on Israel by far.
The world now sees that slaughtering Palestinian children is a sign of Israel’s weakness, not of its strength. Israel has made life so miserable for Palestinians, and has crushed so decisively any hope for their dignified future, that many Palestinians would rather die than submit to the constant and interminable humiliations inflicted upon them by an increasingly rabid regime.
Moreover, no objective observer seriously believes that Israel’s opposition parties offer a realistic path to peace. Every major faction in the Knesset supports Israel’s racist and genocidal policies. Racial hatred, violence and arrogance permeate the entire Israeli political elite. Peace and justice will not be achieved by replacing Benjamin Netanyahu with Yair Lapid, Naftali Bennett or Benny Gantz. All of them are unrepentant war criminals who support settlement expansion and apartheid.
Israel is sinking. The myths and injustices that kept it afloat have been exposed. Its diplomatic, military and economic vulnerabilities are palpable and worsening.
At this stage, the only question is: how long does Israel have before it suffers a strategic defeat? It might have weeks. It might have months. If Israel is lucky, it might even have a few years. Yet one thing is clear: the days of Israel’s apartheid regime are numbered.