Is Israel on the brink of strategic defeat?

Photo credit: Samar Abu Elouf. From the NPP exhibition at Trade Unions in Communities, Craigmillar, as featured in ‘Craigmillar Stands with Gaza‘.

Even as the genocide continues, Israel faces the prospect of wider defeat of its strategic objectives and Zionism is on the back foot, writes Chris Sutherland.

For six months it feels like we’ve been witnessing the death of a society. 34,000 Gazans slaughtered and 76,770 wounded and injured at the time of writing.1 Relentless killing, month on month, since the 7th October Hamas raid into Israel, with Israeli forces destroying the North, cutting Gaza in two, then devastating the central belt and advancing on Rafah where 1.5 million Gazans are displaced in the Rafah ‘pocket’. 200,000-300,000 are trapped and starving in the north, with Gaza City and Khan Younis in ruins. No wonder the International Court of Justice says there is credible evidence of genocide based on the United Nations Genocide Convention of 9th December 1948. The evidence isn’t hiding. It can be seen from space. Satellite mapping has a record of every single day. It’s there for everyone to see – even for BBC journalists!2

The ‘war’ in Gaza isn’t really a war. There’s no symmetry between Israel as a military superpower and the small arms and home-made rockets of a besieged paramilitary force which can only launch hit and run attacks on a much stronger enemy. Israel has complete air, land and sea superiority and the kind of technology which enables it to kill remotely and anonymously, mostly at night when people are asleep, guided by the Lavender AI technology which assumes collateral damage (innocent civilians) of 10-30% for every missile strike.

The Israeli military strategy is based on the ‘Dahiya Doctrine’ on how to wage war in urban areas with high concentrations of civilians.3 Gaza is one of the highest urban densities in the world. Dahiya was adopted during the 2008-9 ‘Operation Cast Lead’ invasion of Gaza, particularly after the ‘Goldstone Report’ which criticised Israel for its conduct.

Dahiya has two strands. One was how to use propaganda to explain civilian casualties in the most sanitised way. The second was strategic – how to wage total war in civilian areas.  We see it all in the current war – establishing zonal areas of combat, leaflet drops warning civilians to move and anyone caught within the killing zones become legitimate targets (if they’re killed its their fault for being there); civilian deaths also being the fault of terrorists for using them as human shields; the strategy of destroying whole districts and infrastructure, bombing and bulldozing entire areas (including bodies to hide the evidence); creating free fire buffer zones (15% of Gazan territory has been destroyed for these zones); putting the population under siege by controlling the flow of food, water, fuel, power and medicines. Above all, making the civilian areas uninhabitable for future use.

Gaza is different from other ‘wars’ in that its civilian population cannot flee. In fact they’ve been trapped since Israeli’s illegal blockade in 2007. This followed the very ‘legal election’ of Hamas in January 2006 when they won 74 of the 132 seats in the Palestine National Authority covering Gaza and the West Bank.  Israel and the western Quartet then set about isolating and destabilising them even though they tried to form a unity administration. The rest is history.

In his book Gaza: Preparing for Dawn the Independent’s correspondent Donald Macintyre shows how Hamas’s isolation and demonisation led them down the military route. Macintyre quotes Tony Blair when he became the Quartet’s envoy, admitting how the west’s decision not to engage with Hamas had been a terrible mistake. Political Islam would have looked very different if it had.4

Now we have the events of 7/10 and Gaza in ruins and 34,000 dead, famine, disease and a looming genocide. Egypt has already constructed a buffer zone in the Sinai desert to receive 100,000 refugees and the new ‘sea corridor’ to Cyprus is as capable of transferring people out as getting food in.  Gaza’s main aid agency in UNWRA is being supplanted by private sector organisations like the World Central Kitchen (WCK). Nobody yet knows if Israel intends to expel the Palestinian population, whether they will withdraw or occupy, whether Gaza will simply be annexed into Israel as Smotrich and Ben Gvir have demanded, or whether they will rule through the Palestinian Authority. Gaza’s civil society has been shattered. Nobody is really explaining how the survivors can be expected to live there.

And now there is the spectre of a regional war.  Israel’s bombing of the Iranian Consulate in Damascus at the beginning of April killed 13 top officers. It was intended to wipe out Iran’s military command in Syria and Iran was always going to retaliate. Iran’s missile response of 13.4.24 was unexpectedly large, although carefully choreographed to give Israel and its western allies time to prepare their defence. The attack was more symbolic than destructive, designed to show their missile capacity and range of launching sites. One night’s attack cost $1.25bn to defend. A prolonged war would bankrupt Israel in a matter of months.

But the potential for miscalculation was always there as is the potential for escalation into a full-scale regional conflict, with Hezbollah in Lebanon and Syria, the Houthi’s attacking international shipping in the Red Sea, and a fragile middle east. Western imperialism has left a series of states shattered by wars, the Lebanese economy crippled, the regional rivalry between the Saudis and Iran, the deceptively peaceful Egypt and Jordan, held together by military force and repression. Not to mention the power of the Arab masses on the streets and bazaars with memories of the Arab Spring of 2011-12. Palestine is the spark that could ignite everything.

It also puts the US’s post 1945 world hegemony further into the spotlight with its failed wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, and Libya.  Empires are at their most dangerous when in decline. A war with Iran would be a quagmire complicated by regional rivalries, especially Saudi Arabia and Iran; competition for oil and gas in the East Mediterranean; rivalries between Turkey, Egypt and the Gulf States, with Israel, an apartheid, occupying state standing aloof as a quasi off-shore European power.

On 22nd September 2023 Netanyahu presented a map to the UN General Assembly with Gaza and West Bank edited out. This was the ‘Eretz’ of Zionist territorial dreams. Palestine had been written out from history. Israel also covets the Lebanese border to the Litani River, expanding Golan into Syria and parts of the East Bank as security buffer zones.

Before 7/10, Israel hoped the Abraham Accords would be the final part of Israel’s acceptance in the region with peace deals with the Saudis and Gulf States and UNWRA disbanded and delegitimised – no UNRWA, no refugees, no Palestinian statehood.

7/10 shattered all that and put Palestine back centre stage but at huge cost to Gaza, its society all but obliterated.5 Over the same six months Israel has conducted nightly raids in the West Bank. 470 killed and thousands injured and detained in prisons. West Bank Palestinians must be watching Gaza and wondering if they will be next. They know the world won’t help them. With US support Israel can more or less act with impunity.

For six months the world has also been watching the border exchanges with Hezbollah in the north. In 2006 Israel got a bloody nose which forced them to retreat. Now military analysts predict Israel might regard another war in Lebanon as necessary to secure its northern settlements. The bombing war with Lebanon has led to the population of Northern Israel being evacuated.  The rocket and missile fire on both sides has left 90,000 Lebanese displaced and 66 killed.6 A war with the much more potent Hezbollah, backed by Iran through its road bridge via Syria would be a much more challenging prospect than Gaza.

Iran has long been Israel’s public enemy number one. Their nuclear programme, peaceful or not, means the clock is ticking on any eventual conflict. Israel has always made it clear they will never allow a nuclear Iran. However they don’t share a land border so will need the US’s military capability to launch any kind of meaningful attack. Missiles, drones and air power can’t dislodge regimes, although they can degrade and delay. Moreover Iran bristles with missiles and rockets.7

A Long Term Strategic Defeat?

Israel could just have left Iran for another time but by bombing the Damascus Consulate, they knew it would trigger the US back into line, distracting them from urging caution in Gaza and deflecting their criticisms on humanitarian aid, famine and genocide. Yet even for Israel it was a step into the unknown. It committed the cardinal error of starting something with no clear end game or strategic plan.

It was this lack of direction, combined with declining international credibility  that led to the extraordinary front page declaration in Israel’s leading liberal newspaper, Haaretz, on 11th April:8 

‘Saying What Can’t Be Said: Israel has been Defeated – A Total Defeat’

The war’s aims won’t be achieved, the hostages won’t be returned through military pressure, security won’t be restored and Israel’s international ostracism won’t end. We’ve lost. Truth must be told. The inability to admit it encapsulates everything you need to know about Israel’s individual mass psychology. There’s a clear, sharp, predictable reality that we should begin to fathom, to process, to understand and draw conclusions for the future. It’s no fun to admit we’ve lost.

A number of commentators have written about Israel suffering a long-term strategic defeat over Gaza – David Hearst (Middle East Eye);9 Ali Abunimah (Electronic Intifada); the historian Ilan Pappe (who predicts the long term end of Zionism);10 Daniel Levy and Tony Karon (Nation);11 Prof Paul Rogers (Bradford University);12 Chas Freeman (ex Asst US Sec of State for Defence);13 Mondoweiss;14 Jonathan Cook (MEE);15 John Rees (MEE/Stop the War Coalition).16

Across the globe Israel has been haemorrhaging support because of its genocide in Gaza and its on-going settler colonial appropriation of the occupied West Bank. Whatever short term gains in levelling Gaza, making it uninhabitable, degrading Hamas’s military brigades and forcing it further and further into the Rafah pocket, the pro-Palestinian ceasefire marches around the world have been getting bigger and more vocal, with majorities calling for a permanent ceasefire and moves towards a permanent settlement to the Israel/Palestine question which has been unresolved for 76 years. Zionism looks to be on the back foot.

The old arguments of ‘self-defence’, ‘fighting the war on terror’ and smearing opponents with ‘anti-Semitism’ no longer carries the same force. Israel has lost ‘victim’ status. They are the ‘Terror State’, the ‘Apartheid State’ that oppresses and dispossesses Palestinians, its illegal settlers and settlements, barriers to peace and a permanent obstacle to any prospects of a ‘Two State Solution’ so beloved of western, liberal commentators.  Gaza is the most extreme solution of all – genocide and population displacement on a scale far worse than the 1948 Nakba. The mask has slipped irrevocably.

The rapprochement with Arab states and the Abraham Accords have been torn up. The Arab masses across the Middle East and North Africa are rumbling against their own repressive regimes from Turkey, Lebanon, Syria and Iran to the Sunni strongholds of the Gulf States, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Egypt. The spirit of 2011 haunts every bazaar and mosque in the Muslim world. Israel’s reputation across the globe has been trashed, its economy in severe trouble.  It only survives with support and arms from the US, Germany and the UK.

Biden’s Volte-face

Even in the US with its 6 million Jewish electorate, support has declined. Prominent Congressman, Chuck Schumer’s criticism of Israel for killing too many Palestinians, showed cracks in the once solid pro-Zionist (AIPAC) lobby and growing numbers of young Jewish people questioning Israeli apartheid, and now many calling for a halt to arms sales to Israel. Across the US and UK polls show 50-60% opposed to the war in Gaza and supporting calls for a ceasefire. A few years ago this would have been unthinkable.

Biden himself is in deep electoral trouble. Without the Muslim Democratic vote he can’t be elected. Not a single Muslim turned up for his specially invited annual Eid celebration dinner. Dozens of his own Congressmen, including Nancy Pelosi have called on him to halt arms sales, forcing Biden to talk tough publicly about aid and humanitarian assistance, and calls for a temporary ceasefire whilst backing Netanyahu in private and approving his huge arms subvention worth $2.5bn.17 

It is against this background of international pressure that the US abstained on the UN Security Council motion calling for a ceasefire (25.3.24), with the UK actually voting for it. The precious Veto which had protected Israel for decades suddenly wasn’t there and it sent shock-waves through the Israeli state. Israeli strategists knew they were in trouble.

It’s clear the US and its western allies have firmly told the Israelis that there is no possibility of them backing an all-out war with Iran. It could have triggered an escalation on the scale of August 1914, dragging in regional and global players.

Israel would have ended up fighting on too many fronts with vulnerable land borders. It would have seriously put in jeopardy Israel’s long-standing peace treaties with Egypt and Jordan.  MEE’s Editor, David Hearts warns of turning Jordan into another failed Arab state saying not even the late King Hussein would have dated commit Arab weapons for the Zionist state.18

However one factor is clear. The war in Gaza and the assault on Rafah will go on.

One effect of the spat with Iran has been Biden’s extraordinary volte-face on Gaza. In return for not attacking Iran Biden has apparently given the go ahead for Israel to attack Rafah. A nonplussed David Cameron emerged from a meeting with Netanyahu declaring: ‘I think he means it!’

Despite all the warnings of a strategic defeat Israel is just going to plough on with the most terrible savagery, revisiting the atrocities at Al-Shifa Hospital,19 the ‘Flour Massacres’ and WCK killings. There are dozens and dozens of these war crimes and. Rafah will be even worse.

And it’s not true that Israel lacks a plan altogether. Remember October 2023 and the leaking of the ‘Calcalist Plan’?20 Calcalist was authored by the Israeli Intelligence Ministry which outlined plans to transfer the Gazan population to a tented city in the south (the Philadelphia Corridor and Al-Mawasi strip), which they’ve broadly done.

The second part of the Calcalist Plan was to shift the population into what it described as a ‘Sterile Zone’ across the border into Sinai. That too is being done. Egypt has already constructed a 10km deep strip across the border in Sinai to cater for a displaced population, visible by satellite, although analysts say the strip won’t be large enough to cater for over 1.5 million people.

The third part of the plan is that the refugees won’t be allowed back! Another Nakba!

The ‘Misgrav Institute for National Security and Zionist Strategy’ produced a similar blueprint citing the ‘re-location and final resettlement of the entire Gaza population’. Misgrav notes ‘a moment of unique and rare opportunity to accomplish a long-held Zionist goal of moving Palestinians off the land of historic Palestine.’21 According to Misgrav (the original is in Hebrew) they were looking for countries willing to take refugees. Among those mentioned were Greece, Canada and North Africa.

Meanwhile famine stalks the North with 300,000 still trapped and firmly inside the IDF’s ‘killing zone’. Central Gaza and Khan Younis are in ruin.  The same Dahiya doctrine awaits Rafah. Gazan civil society has effectively been wiped out. Who knows the destiny of the 1.5 million trapped in the Rafah pocket or how much more savagery is to come.

If Israel is on the brink of a long term strategic defeat, it might not come soon enough for the people of Gaza, or for the people under occupation in the Occupied West Bank, or for Palestinians living inside Israel under apartheid. They must all be wondering what fate awaits them.

It’s therefore incumbent on us in the west, to keep taking to the streets shouting our opposition to genocide, boycotting, divesting and sanctioning, stopping the deadly trade in arms and calling for an immediate, permanent ceasefire and calling for a just peace in Palestine.

Chris Sutherland lives in St Andrews.

  1. Al Jazeera has a daily ‘Live Tracker’ on casualty figures via the Gaza Health Ministry who are regarded as reliable by international media. The 34,000 killed at the time of writing includes 14,000 children and 8,500 women. Figures do not include an estimated 10,000 missing presumed dead, buried under the rubble. 
  2. ‘Satellites show increasing damage across Gaza’ analysis of Copernicus Sentinel-1 satellite data, BBC, 31.1.24, compares 3 shots – 12.10.23, 29.11.23 and 29.1.24. Latest satellite analysis shows 55% of Khan Younis destroyed 9.4.24 (Corey Scher & James Van de Hock). 
  3. ‘Leaked documents expose: how Israeli war ministers created IDF policy of mass killing with US support’ by Nafeez Ahmed, The Byline Times, 11.4.24. Ahmed explains the origins and development of the Dahiya Doctrine. Dahiya was an area in Beirut destroyed by the Israelis in the 2006 invasion of Lebanon where there is no distinction between civilians and combatants. 
  4. Donald Macintyre ‘Gaza: preparing for Dawn’ pp 252-253 (OneWorld 2018). Macintyre was the Independent’s Jerusalem Bureau Chief 2004-12. His book is by far the fairest depiction of Gaza and the development of Hamas. The Quartet refers to the US, EU, Russia and the UN. How Blair could have been seen as an ‘envoy’ after the slaughter of Iraq is a mystery! 
  5. I feel Hamas still has to explain why it risked its population by attacking on 7 th October. Did they not anticipate the severity of Israeli retribution? Or did they consider this a price worth paying? 
  6. Al Jazeera’s Ali Hashem filmed the devastation: ‘Inside a destroyed southern Lebanese town’ 11.4.24, describing the town of Aita al-Shaab as ‘one of the most destroyed towns’. 
  7. Al Jazeera carries a chart showing Iran’s missile capability with ranges from 300-2,000 km: ‘Iran’s Ballistic and Cruise Missiles’ 14.4.24. 
  8. Haaretz ‘Saying What Can’t Be Said – Israel has been defeated – a total defeat’ Chaim Levinson, 11.4.24. 
  9. ‘Netanyahu wanted to collapse Hamas, the war could collapse Israel’ David Hearst (MEE 22.12.23) 
  10. ‘It is dark before the dawn but Israeli Settler Colonialism is at an end’ Ilan Pappe lecture to the IHRC, 1.2.24. 
  11. ‘Israel is losing this war’ Tony Karon and Daniel Levy, the Nation 8.12.23.  
  12. ‘Why Israel can’t win’ Prof Paul Rogers video discussion with Owen Jones 21.12.23. 
  13. ‘Senior retired US government official speaks out on Gaza’ Chas Freeman interviewed by Arnaud Bertrand on Twitter, reprinted by Jewish Voice for Labour, 7.1.24. 
  14. ‘Palestine awakens the revolution’ Nylah Burton, Mondoweiss, 20.1.24. 
  15. ‘The world court has put Israel and its allies on trial for genocide’ Jonathan Cook, MEE 27.1.24. 
  16. ‘A strategy of blunder to hasten US decline’ John Rees, Stop the War Coalition, MEE 6.2.24) 
  17. Washington Post ‘US signs off on more bombs’ by John Hudson, 29.3.24. 
  18. ‘How Iran attacks exposed Israel’s weakness’, David Hearst, Middle East Eye, 15.4.24. 
  19. Euro-Med carries eyewitness accounts of the Al-Shifa massacre: ‘Al-Shifa medical complex witnesses one of the largest massacres in Palestinian history’ 1.4.24, See also Mondoweiss ‘Come out you animals – how the massacre at Al-Shifa Hospital happened by Tareq S Hajjaj, 11.4.24. 
  20. Calcalist ‘The proposal of the Minister of Intelligence: transfer of Gaza residents to Sinai’ by Amitai Gazit, 24.10.23 ( 
  21. Mondoweiss ‘Israeli think tank lays out a blueprint for the complete ethnic cleansing of Gaza’ by Jonathan Ofir, 23.10.23.