Billboards in Tehran depict Iran's arsenal of weapons (ATTA KENARE/AFP via Getty Images)

April 21, 2024   10 mins

Analysts, journalists and strategists are all required to ignore the near-impossibility of truly understanding a war as it unfolds. Failing to do so would send us into a morass of self-doubt, and our work would become a useless succession of Zen-like shrugs. A pose of certainty is therefore necessary, even as recent history serves as a caution.

When Rwanda’s Tutsis were being slaughtered 30 years ago this month, it was anything but obvious that, just two years later, they’d be leading a semi-successful multinational campaign of conquest in neighbouring Zaire, then the second-largest country in Africa. The Syrian Civil War looked far different in July 2012, when a suicide bomber assassinated the country’s defence minister and Bashar al-Assad’s brother-in-law, than it did in September 2015, when Russian forces arrived to rescue Assad’s crumbling regime. And when the most recent Israeli campaign in Gaza concluded in May 2021, the country’s leading strategists, along with many in the US, believed Hamas wanted nothing more than a long stretch of quiet in order to consolidate its rule over the coastal strip. Operation Guardian of the Walls was the Israeli success that would finally allow the country to address bigger and more dangerous threats than those irritating Islamist militants in the south.

For both the Israelis and Palestinians, this proved to be a grave misunderstanding of reality. The Israelis believed they had reduced Hamas to strategic insignificance. Meanwhile, the people who turned out to be the most meaningful Palestinian decision-makers, namely Gaza-based Hamas leader Yahya Sinwar and his inner circle, were caught in the climax of what the political scientist Shany Mor has described as the “ecstasy-amnesia cycle”, convinced against all prior experience that the violent destruction of the Zionist entity was close at hand.

After six months of war, it makes less sense to assess who’s currently winning than it does to ask which current premises are in greatest danger of being exposed. Even identifying the next shattered certainty is difficult, as shown by the Iranian attack on Israel last weekend and Israel’s muted reply five days later.

Prior to last Sunday morning, any declared inter-state barrage of scores of armed drones and 130 ballistic missiles with a combined explosive payload of over 60 tons — the largest drone attack in history — enough to shut down much of the Middle East’s airspace and to mobilise a half-dozen militaries, would have been considered a reckless escalation, or even a history-making assault on global peace. Instead, by the logic of the current hostilities, the strike and its far limper Israeli sequel appear more like an American-managed climb-down, or a semiotic act of mutual face-saving after repeated Israeli successes against senior Iranian personnel in Syria. Or perhaps the episode was Tehran’s test of how much it can do without provoking a significant US-approved Israeli response, something more than a pro-forma, low-firepower strike on non-strategic targets. In any case, we can now retire the worn-out idea that an assault of scores of ballistic missiles can automatically be classed as a serious act of war.

Identifying the next assumption to crumble will require facing the often-ignored reality that much of what’s happened since October 7 is without any real precedent in this conflict. We are deep into the unknown, and were there long before this past week. The sides have notched accomplishments that are both novel and gruesome enough to demand real analytic humility, even and especially from those who, like myself, have covered the crisis on the ground.

Let’s begin with the Israelis, who pulled all but a single combat division out of the Gaza Strip just days after the IDF’s accidental bombing of a World Central Kitchen convoy earlier this month, a blunder that clinched the Biden administration’s growing opposition to the anti-Hamas campaign. On paper, and by the standards of nearly any other conflict, Israel’s war with Hamas looks like one of the most lopsided military engagements in modern history.

Israel has lost 665 security personnel since October 7, including a number of relatively senior combat officers. Still, most of Gaza City fell within two months of Israel’s invasion of Gaza; by contrast, the US-supported siege of Mosul, the Islamic State’s Iraqi redoubt, took well over a year. Within six months, Israel claimed to have killed 14,000 Hamas and Islamic Jihad operatives in Gaza and Israel, along with 420 terrorists in the West Bank and 330 in Lebanon. These numbers don’t have to be anywhere near accurate to be of historic proportions: By comparison, Palestinian militants groups lost a little under 2,000 fighters in the 2008, 2012, 2014, and 2021 Gaza wars combined, and around 1,200 fighters during the five-year period of the Second Intifada.

This time around, the Hamas dead include Saleh al-Arouri, the founding commander of the al-Qassam Brigades and deputy head of the Hamas political bureau; Marwan Issa, Hamas’s third-ranking Gaza-based military leader; Faik Mabhouh, the head of Hamas internal security in the Strip; and Murad abu Murad, the group’s aerial operations chief. Israel claims it has killed five Hamas brigade commanders, 20 battalion commanders, and roughly 100 company commanders. As of late January, between 20% and 40% of Hamas’s estimated 500 kilometres of tunnels had been destroyed or rendered inoperable. In the central Gaza stronghold of Khan Younis, the number might be as high as 85%.

It is conceivable that the sheer scope and seniority of the losses, along with the IDF’s ongoing destruction of tunnels, arms stocks and rocket facilities will have no long-term impact on Palestinian militancy, but it is just as possible that the armed resistance will spend years struggling to recover its prior capabilities. They will operate with far less freedom, and under a far more active Israeli threat, than before October 7, the former era of delusion in which most Israelis failed to view Hamas as an existential danger.

Hamas, meanwhile, have notched no battlefield victories against Israel in Gaza. Instead, they have lost nearly all of their ability to strike inside Israel and have also shown no real capacity to fight the IDF inside Gaza itself. Of the 260 Israeli soldiers killed in the Strip, 41 were killed in friendly fire incidents, while dozens of others fell outside of direct fighting, from tunnel bombs, booby-trapped structures, and other pre-set explosives. Actual frontal combat ended in overwhelming Israeli victories: IDF losses tallied in the low single-digits during a two-week operation at Shifa Hospital in March, an effort in which the Hamas commander in charge of recruitment and procurement, a member of the Palestinian Islamic Jihad political bureau, and 700 other alleged terrorists were captured or killed. Meanwhile the newly deployed Trophy system, an Israeli-developed countermeasure for anti-tank missiles and rocket-propelled grenades, has vied with Hamas’s tunnels as the major battlefield innovation of the war.

“Hamas, meanwhile, have notched no battlefield victories against Israel in Gaza.”

Just as Israel wagered that the horrors of October 7 gave them the legitimacy to finally go after Hamas positions inside of hospitals, mosques, and other sensitive civilian infrastructure, it has leapt over former guard-rails in Lebanon and Syria with equally significant results: the IDF killed 16 Iranian Revolutionary Guard personnel in a single March 26th attack in Syria. A week later, It eliminated Mohamed Reza Zehedi, the long-time Iranian commander in Syria and Lebanon, as well as two other IRGC generals in a strike on an Iranian diplomatic facility in Damascus. Hezbollah, meanwhile, has admitted more than 260 losses in its ranks since October 7 — which exceeds the acknowledged death toll during its 2006 war with Israel, an event that militia leader Hassan Nasrallah publicly regretted. This time around, the Hezbollah dead include several senior officers of its Radwan special operations unit, as well as the deputy commander of its rocket and missile forces. The attacks haven’t stopped Hezbollah from bombing northern Israel every day for months on end, but they haven’t triggered a regional war either, hinting that Tehran’s deterrence has frayed.

With Israel emboldened by its battlefield gains and newly aware of its true security needs, a Haaretz analysis in late March found that the IDF was attempting to establish buffer zones and long-term military corridors that amount to as much as 16% of Gaza’s territory. An extended Israeli presence anywhere inside the Strip would reverse decades of precedent: Since the early Nineties, Israel has unilaterally withdrawn from Gaza and southern Lebanon, ceded civil control over major cities in the West Bank to the previously Tunis-based Palestine Liberation Organisation, given up farmland on the eastern bank of the Jordan River, and conceded on many of Hezbollah’s demands in the demarcation of the Israel-Lebanon maritime border in 2022.

For over 30 years, Israeli policy has gone entirely in one direction, guided by a strategic concept in which the security benefits stemming from the actual control of territory isn’t worth the attendant costs in blood, treasure and international status. The creation of a buffer zone in Gaza, however small or narrow, would thus push against the current of the conflict. Much like the destruction of south Beirut, about which defence minister Yoav Gallant hypothesised in January, the Israeli reoccupation of some part of south Lebanon is far less unthinkable now than it was six months ago.

And yet, the near-term neutralisation of Hamas as a security threat, the massive numbers of enemy dead, and, crucially, Israel’s ability to sustain high-tempo military operations in several theaters without a crippling economic, political or social crisis, have not amounted to anything like victory. These developments do not mean Israeli policy since October 7 has been more effective than other alternatives. But their novelty will set the future parameters of the conflict, for better and worse.

Here, the Iranian attack presages other unknowable changes. For decades, a direct Islamic Republic strike on Israel was a regional doomsday scenario. But thanks to a multi-layered aerial defence system — whose performance so far may turn out to be another one of the war’s major developments — the help of allied militaries, and the dismal state of Iranian hardware, the Israelis, along with everyone else, have now discovered that even a barrage of hundreds of drones and missiles is perfectly manageable, or at least not an automatic spark for a wider war. At the same time, Iran now knows that if it lobs dozens of ballistic missiles at Israel, its adversary will still meekly obey American demands not to meaninfully respond. This knowledge could prove dangerous to the entire region: everything that’s happened since October 7 and after has stemmed from the mistaken belief that raising the threshold for acceptable chaos is a sign of strategic wisdom, or keeps anyone safe in the long run.

In the north of Israel, it’s clear the Iranians and their proxies have already dictated a major shift in what Israeli leaders — and their allies in Washington — have shown themselves willing to live with. Israel ordered the evacuation of all civilians within five kilometres of the Lebanese border shortly after October 7, out of fear Hezbollah would join the war at their full capability and duplicate Hamas’s slaughter. Prior Israeli planning had allowed for the short-term mass evacuation of civilians in order to free up infrastructure during a possible invasion of Lebanon. Ordering tens of thousands of people from their homes for months on end, creating an exclusion zone in which the state either can’t or won’t protect its citizens, was never a part of the country’s defence strategy. Wars have a momentum of their own, though: Hezbollah has fired over 3,100 rockets and missiles into northern Israel since October 7. Dozens of communities remain uninhabited.

This depopulation of the Israeli borderlands is the Iran-led resistance bloc’s major battlefield achievement over the past half year. Washington’s answer to the impasse has been special envoy Amos Hochstein’s shuttle diplomacy between Jerusalem and Beirut, relaying American demands that the parties refrain from expanding the scope of the war — something they’ve largely obeyed even after the Iranian strike. Israel must now choose between a costly invasion that will likely trigger a long and unknowably destructive barrage from Hezbollah and create a fresh set of crises with Washington, or accept that the Iran-led bloc now holds the power of life and death within the Jewish state’s own territory.

The latter scenario has proven remarkably durable, and it is not the only area where the Islamic Republic has inflicted a new status quo. Tehran has given its Yemeni proxy the arms and training needed to shut down shipping in the Red Sea, while, in yet another first, Iranian drones launched by Iraqi militants and missiles fired from Yemen have both made it into Israeli airspace. The Iranian attack last weekend resulted in a nationwide lockdown in Israel, a total airspace closure, and the resource-intensive use of scores of interceptors and fighter jets, something Tehran had never inflicted on the Jewish state before. (The Israeli reprisal was significantly less disruptive to life in Iran, but it did show that Israel could hit specific targets, some of them adjacent to the regime’s nuclear sites, without crossing into Iranian airspace or encountering any serious operational difficulties.)

Though Hamas has lost a generation of fighters in Gaza, their sacrifice was hardly in vain: in staving off a total collapse of their statelet, the Hamas dead bought their comrades enough time to shift diplomatic conditions in the terrorists’ favour. Negotiations over the fate of the 230 people Palestinian militants kidnapped on October 7 always advantaged Hamas: it put the US in the position of forcing additional concessions out of their Israeli allies in order to keep the Palestinians talking at all.

“Though Hamas has lost a generation of fighters in Gaza, their sacrifice was hardly in vain.”

When Hamas is simply too rejectionist for talks to take place, the Americans and the Israelis have instead negotiated with one another, with the US demanding a gradually more limited scope of Israeli operations against Hamas in exchange for continued support. In time, American conditions on an Israeli invasion of Rafah, the final Hamas stronghold in the Strip, have become so onerous and nonsensical that the US has emerged, intentionally or not, as Israel’s single greatest obstacle to the group’s destruction. Looming potential crises stemming from Iran’s new willingness to directly attack Israel have likely made a Rafah operation an even lower priority, and thus an even fainter prospect.

In late January, Axios reported that the US was “reviewing options” for the unilateral recognition of a Palestinian state, an entity that would almost certainly include Hamas members in its leadership, given the organisation’s popularity and the fecklessness of the Fatah apparatchiks who run the Palestinian Authority. Whether the US actually extends such recognition is less important than the introduction of a new source of leverage into the US-Israel relationship. In future moments of tension, an American administration merely has to raise the spectre of a Washington-approved State of Palestine to enforce more manageable Israeli behaviour.

Those cynics who claimed that an act of spectacular violence had vaulted Hamas to respectability and reframed the conflict around their hard-line grievances seem unfortunately vindicated. Hamas raped, murdered, and kidnapped its way to new heights, and it has now survived the largest military mobilisation in Israel’s history. They have proven that no amount of depravity can jeopardise their long-term existence, and with Iran’s help they have wheedled their way under the US protective umbrella despite having taken five American citizens hostage on October 7 — or maybe because of it. Their broader network of Iranian-supported allies have successfully battled the US military in the Red Sea, ejected tens of thousands of Israelis from their homes, and launched a major state-declared aerial assault without any immediate consequences. The Iranian navy’s capture of a Portuguese cargo ship last weekend is an act of brigandage now so routine, and so tolerated by all applicable international actors, that it barely registered.

Taken in their entirety, the post-October 7 catalogue of novelties raises unsettling questions about the very nature of war. In recent years, the prior, supposedly discredited concept of war as a struggle over resources, territory and human lives appeared to be making a comeback. Azerbaijan settled the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict by creating conditions under which all Armenians fled the besieged territory; Russia is gradually pushing its way forward in Ukraine due to old-fashioned advantages in manpower and ammunition.

Yet events since October 7 suggest that other conflicts are not won on the ground, but in the murkier realm of perception. A war in which one side has lost 670 fighters and the other has lost as many as 15,000, along with much of their pre-conflict safe haven and military infrastructure, should not invite abstract discussions about the nature and meaning of victory. That such debates are possible, and even necessary, marks another achievement for the resistance bloc.

In the absence of any real clarity, we are left facing an alarming new frontier, where both sides have discovered what they are capable of. Israel has shown that it can sustain a very long war, and pursue its enemies in places that were once considered off-limits. These enemies have shown that they can impose potentially ruinous strategic choices on the Jewish state even as their fighters and commanders suffer steep losses in the field, while also demonstrating that they enjoy near-limitless reserves of goodwill, moral legitimacy and diplomatic protection, including from Israel’s putative allies.

Perhaps the grim innovations of the past six months will threaten the full collapse of one or more of the conflict’s various parties, leading to a strategic stasis which will seed the conditions for a surprisingly durable period of calm. It is just as possible that everyone is gaining a new understanding of what they can achieve by force. Years of targeted strikes met with a predictable volume of rocket-fire, or the occasional drone and missile wave, are just as possible as a punctuated, world-changing regional war. Perhaps the most important reality of the post-October 7 conflict is that we may never know.

Armin Rosen is a staff writer at The Tablet.