Soon after Hamas’s Oct. 7 attacks on Israel, a narrative took hold in Western media: that the acts of terrorism were so gruesome that Israel would have almost unlimited moral legitimacy to respond. Hamas, and perhaps the entire “Palestinian project,” would be utterly wiped out. As predicted, Israel began an air campaign that has killed thousands of Palestinians and displaced around one million.
But just under two weeks into the war, events are moving in the opposite direction. The Israeli military is delaying a ground invasion and even allowing humanitarian aid into Gaza, supposedly in response to a visit by U.S. President Joe Biden.
The turnaround has less to do with the West’s moral compass and more to do with facts on the ground. The Israeli war effort is running into real limits: opposition from friendly Arab states, threats that Iran will open a second front, and the capacity of the Israeli military itself.
Biden’s qualms are a convenient way for Israel to save face. Whatever decision Israeli leaders end up making, they can pretend for the moment that they have voluntarily shown restraint after some friendly American nudging, rather than freezing in the face of Arab and Iranian opposition.
Israel’s first preference seems to have been fighting Hamas in an empty city. In the first few days after the Hamas attack, Israeli leaders immediately began making Gaza unlivable, while U.S. officials began negotiating for a “humanitarian corridor” out of the city. Israeli minister Gideon Saar publicly threw around the idea of “shrinking” Gaza.
Biden’s qualms are a convenient way for Israel to save face. They can pretend for the moment that they have voluntarily shown restraint after some friendly American nudging, rather than freezing in the face of Arab and Iranian opposition.
But Egypt, which controls Gaza’s external border, immediately dismissed the idea as ethnic cleansing by another name. Even Jordan, which is in a much more vulnerable position than Egypt, declared this week that “any attempt to expel the Palestinians means war.” Those states made peace with Israel under the impression that the Palestinian issue would be resolved on Palestinian land. A mass Palestinian exodus like the ones that took place in 1948 and 1967 would be a threat to Egyptian and Jordanian stability, rendering the treaties almost worthless.
While friendly Arab states warned Israel to uphold its end of the deal, Iran attempted to impose its own red lines by force. Although the Iranian government denied any involvement in the initial Hamas assault, the Iranian-backed militia Hezbollah launched probing attacks from Lebanon immediately afterwards. Since then, Iran has warned publicly and privately that a ground invasion of Gaza would provoke an Iranian response.
The two dynamics came together during the bombardment of the Ahli hospital on Wednesday, which sparked anti-Israel protests across the region. Although Israel has denied bombing the hospital, and the physical evidence leaves open the possibility that the hospital was hit by an errant Palestinian rocket, the sheer amount of contradictory bullsh*t from Israeli and U.S. spokespeople has convinced regional states that Israel was behind the attack.
Rather than playing off Iran and the Arab states against each other, Israel now faces a Middle East united in rage. No Arab ruler can be seen protecting Israeli interests now. Jordan, which was planning to host Biden at a diplomatic summit, immediately canceled the visit after the Ahli hospital attack. It is doubtful whether, at this point, any Arab states would participate in a U.S. campaign against Iran on Israel’s behalf.
Despite its fearsome reputation, the Israeli army is not in any shape to fight a multifront war on its own. Hamas seems to have wiped out a chunk of the Israeli officer corps responsible for Gaza in the Oct. 7 attack. Most of the 300,000 Israeli troops now massed outside Gaza are poorly-trained conscripts. And the Iranian bloc can unleash far more firepower than Hamas ever could. Israel does not have an infinite number of fighting-age citizens, let alone skilled warfighters.
A large chunk of those troops has been stuck babysitting Israeli settlements in the West Bank, a factor that some Israeli critics have blamed for the failure to stop the Oct. 7 attack. Since the war in Gaza began, the West Bank’s security situation has only deteriorated further. Two forces that Israel relied on for internal security — settler vigilantes and the Palestinian Authority — have become wartime liabilities. The settler vigilantes have murdered dozens of Palestinians since the war began, and Palestinians have begun rioting against the Palestinian Authority.
Even an Israeli victory in Gaza would be pyrrhic. Israel initially pulled troops and settlers out of Gaza in 2005 because it could not — and did not want to try to — rule over two million Palestinians there. Israeli leaders reportedly have no plan for how to handle a full reoccupation of Gaza. Again, Israeli troop numbers are limited and occupying the West Bank has been enough of a challenge.
As the limits on Israeli action became more clear, Israeli leaders began to hedge on their earlier promises to destroy Hamas. In the words of one former Israeli official on Monday, the “sober” voices were “not talking about demolishing Hamas — but rather depriving Hamas of their ability to threaten us.”
Instead of a decisive battle, the Israeli cabinet is now discussing the current campaign as one part of a years-long struggle.
By allowing some humanitarian aid to enter Gaza, the Israeli government also seems to be admitting that it could not strong-arm Egypt into helping expel or starve Palestinians en masse. Israel can either push even harder and run into harder Egyptian opposition, or it can step aside for now and look at least a little gracious. Because of Biden’s visit, Israel can pretend to soften its line because of benevolent advice about human rights.
Although the violence since Oct. 7 has been unprecedented, the basic equation of power has not changed. Israel can still inflict more damage on Palestinians than vice versa. But it isn’t omnipotent.
None of this means that Israel is going to step down from its goal of revenge. The Israeli public is feeling (quite understandably) traumatized from the Oct. 7 attacks, and it craves a reassuring military victory. Israeli leaders may still attempt a ground invasion of Gaza, or show their strength by punishing Palestinian civilians across the territories. The air campaign against Gaza has already been the deadliest week of violence for Palestinians in history.
Outside actors can still escalate the conflict. The Iranian-led bloc could overplay its hand by pushing too hard on Israel and provoking a U.S. response. Iran may also be tempted to step over other Israeli red lines, such as building a nuclear weapon, while Israel is distracted. Hawkish politicians in the United States itself may try to force an escalation despite Biden’s reluctance and Israel’s inability to fight this war.
Although the violence since Oct. 7 has been unprecedented, the basic equation of power has not changed. Israel can still inflict more damage on Palestinians than vice versa. However, the Israeli government is not omnipotent. It cannot suppress Palestinians and ensure absolute security for Israeli citizens. Nor can Israel stand against the entire region at once.
These facts, more than any moral hand-wringing in Western capitals, will determine the shape of things in the weeks and months to come.