The costs of Israel’s war in Gaza are astronomical. Could Benjamin Netanyahu end it even if he wanted to?

The costs of Israel’s war in Gaza are astronomical. Could Benjamin Netanyahu end it even if he wanted to?
  • PublishedMay 11, 2024

Seven months of war in Gaza, more than 36,000 people confirmed dead, 1.7 million displaced, an alleged famine and a public health catastrophe — those are the results of Hamas’ October 7 attack and Israel’s retaliation.

In Gaza, there are 80,000 injured people, many with horrific, life-long wounds.

Around 130 Israelis remain held hostage by Hamas, with many believed to have died.

Gaza has been smashed, whole neighbourhoods flattened, most of its infrastructure destroyed.

The United Nations Mine Action Services says there are 37 million tonnes of rubble in Gaza, amounting to 300 kilos per square metre of surface.

The toxic pollution — including an estimated 800,000 tonnes of disturbed asbestos — is an even bigger problem, as is the likely amount of unexploded ordnance.

The United Nations estimates it could take 80 years to rebuild the housing destroyed by Israel’s military in Gaza.

Children with pots stand around a huge pot of soup
Human rights groups say those in Gaza are facing acute food insecurity. (Reuters: Hatem Khaled)

While most of the damage is in Gaza, the costs are mounting for Israel where an extended call-up of army reservists, loss of investor confidence and ballooning military expenditure are sparking fears of an economic crisis. 

And for all it has spent — and lost — in this war, Israel has not achieved its aims.

“I don’t believe that there are any winners here,” former Israeli hostage negotiator Gershon Baskin, who spent years dealing with Hamas, told the ABC. 

“There’s only been losers and we need to cut our losses and end this war sooner rather than later.

“Bring home the hostages as soon as possible.”

The brutal truth for Israel’s government

In October last year, Hamas-led militants stormed across the border into southern Israel, killing hundreds of civilians and taking hostages back into Gaza. 

Israel formally declared war on Hamas the next day, with the government vowing to eliminate the militant group. 

But seven months later, it has not destroyed Hamas — something a growing number of Israelis now think might be impossible.

It has not rescued all of the hostages held by Hamas in Gaza and many have died in captivity since October. 

It has not restored security. If anything, Israelis are less safe.

Troops walking between parked tanks
Some experts say Israel will not be able to achieve its stated aim of “eliminating” Hamas. (Reuters: Dylan Martinez)

More than 100,000 remain displaced from their homes and threats to them, particularly from the Lebanese group Hezbollah in the north, are ongoing.

The whole country is now facing attacks from emboldened regional enemies, including the first ever direct attack against Israeli soil by Iran.

The conduct of Israel’s invasion of Gaza has led to an unprecedented erosion in international support for the Jewish state and a deepening rift with its closest partner, the United States.

Now, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu faces a new, international push for something he previously took credit for stopping: a Palestinian state.

Even if Israel’s offensive in Rafah, launched this week, is a military success, it will only compound these particular problems and create new ones.

Hamas is far from defeated

In breaking out of Gaza and terrorising Israeli communities, Hamas achieved its aims of shattering Israel’s illusion of security without peace, ending Israel’s sidelining of the Palestinian national cause and derailing its attempts to normalise relations with Arab states.

A family pushes a rickshaw stacked with children past a coastline
Civilians were forced to Rafah after Israeli forces launched a ground and air operation in the eastern part of the city. (Reuters: Mohammed Salem)

Hamas remains active and appears positioned to be the strongest player in Gaza if Israel withdraws.

The Israeli government says it has severely degraded Hamas’ military capabilities.

But the Israeli Defense Forces’ (IDF) own assessment is that it has killed around 14,000 Hamas fighters — less than half Hamas’ estimated strength of 30,000 prior to October 7.

Hamas also remains active in other parts of Gaza, where the Israeli military already has control, though its combat capabilities have been reduced.

This week, Israeli ordered tens of thousands of civilians to begin evacuating nearby eastern parts of Rafah city, ahead of what it called a “limited” operation to eliminate Hamas there. 

It also took “operational control” of the Palestinian side of the Rafah border crossing between Gaza and Egypt — a key entry point for aid into the strip.

Israel’s government says taking Rafah will allow it to destroy four Hamas battalions there, estimated to include 4,000 fighters. 

But there are reports some Hamas fighters have already moved from Rafah to the neighbouring city of Khan Younis.

The Israeli government credits the Rafah offensive with convincing Hamas to agree to a new ceasefire proposal, although Israel argues the deal Hamas accepted is vastly different to the one it proposed some weeks ago.

Will Israel swallow a bitter pill? 

A full takeover of Rafah will, according to the United Nations, be devastating. 

It could displace 1.4 million people, destroy southern Gaza’s remaining aid distribution systems and health facilities, and increase the difficulty of sustaining the Gazan civilian population — something for which Israel, as the occupying power under international law, is solely responsible.

The increased suffering of Palestinians could force more countries to reduce their support for Israel. 

And the IDF — already reliant on the extended call-up of reservists — will face the prospect of a prolonged occupation with a likely ongoing insurgency.

Israel must choose between this and the bitter pill of a ceasefire that leaves Hamas alive and arguably strong.

The Islamist group’s acceptance of a ceasefire proposal this week appeared to catch Israel off-guard.

A house with the roof blown off so you can see inside
Israeli authorities say they want to remove about 4,000 Hamas militants from Rafah. (Reuters: Hatem Khaled)

There is more support for a deal amongst the Israeli public than an attack of Rafah.

Many Israelis now doubt the government’s claims that military pressure will force the return of the remaining hostages.

Some experts in the Arab world say they believe that Israel’s offensive might be a limited move to satisfy domestic political concerns.

The theory goes that Netanyahu, the far-right elements in his cabinet and the Israeli military, need something they can call a victory.

Once they are done in Rafah, Israel then can agree to a ceasefire.

“Netanyahu can claim victory by saying it was the military pressure and it brought Hamas down on its knees,” Mr Baskin said. 

But Israel’s security and political establishment still believes that Hamas can — and must — be eliminated by military means.

“Because Netanyahu refuses to have any political endgame to the war, ending the war leaves Hamas in control of Gaza,” Mr Baskin said.

“So Netanyahu’s choice is no agreement, no return of Israeli hostages, occupation of Gaza and endless war.

“Is that what we really want?”

What comes after war?

One of the biggest unanswered questions of this war is: Who will govern Gaza? 

Israel’s government has never fully answered this, probably because it finds all the options unpalatable.

This lack of clarity has been broadly criticised from within Israel, with everyone from former military leaders to peace negotiators, saying clear political goals should have been set from the start.

Pulitzer-prize winning author and analyst Nathan Thrall, an experienced observer of Israel-Palestine, said keeping Israeli troops inside Gaza will create the kind of dangerous, dysfunctional, lawless mess now prevalent in northern Gaza.

In the strip’s north, 300,000 Palestinians rely on air-dropped aid, without basic services, in conditions described by the head of the World Food Program as “full-blown famine”.

If Israeli troops withdraw without a plan for local governance, there will be a dangerous power vacuum.

The US wants the West Bank-based Palestinian Authority (PA), derided by Israel and despised by Palestinians, to take over.

But the PA does not want the job and Hamas is likely to remain a power in Gaza in some form.

One Hamas leader has said the group is willing to be part of a unity government and would give up armed struggle if a Palestinian state was created, a significant concession for an outfit literally named “the Islamic Resistance”.

Hamas leaders have also indicated they think returning to outright rule of Gaza will be impossible, not least because they will be targeted by Israel stressing that “the movement will not return to the rule of the Gaza Strip, and certainly not able to do so because of the Israeli targeting”.

“Any kind of stable outcome in Israel-Palestine is going to require Hamas to be a part of it,” Mr Thrall said.

“Hamas is going to have to be a part of any Palestinian governing structure. They’re a big part of Palestinian society, they now have more legitimacy than they’ve ever had.

“That is completely unacceptable to Israel. But it’s the only realistic way that you could have a stable Palestinian state, living side by side with Israel.”

A small girl cries in a woman's arms
Experts say Israel does not appear to have a clear goal for its war in Gaza. (Reuters: Mohammed Salem)

That means both the Israeli government and public will have to change their expectations.

“It is about really managing the losses that Israel has already suffered, rather than this talk of a total victory, which they want to achieve,” he said. 

Others in Israel, including former military leaders, are starting to reach the same conclusion, hoping that Israel’s government changes its approach.

Israel-American security studies academic Boaz Atzili put it most bluntly last month.


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