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War on Gaza: All signs point to a strategic defeat for Israel

Tel Aviv is coming up against myriad obstacles, from the loss of western public opinion to the nervousness of its key backers
An Israeli soldier stands at a position along the border between southern Israel and the Gaza Strip on 31 January 2024 (AFP)
An Israeli soldier stands at a position along the frontier between southern Israel and the Gaza Strip, on 31 January 2024 (AFP)

The little boy spoke with the matter-of-factness of an adult. 

Faisal al-Khaldi talked of the moment Israeli soldiers entered his family’s home in the Sheikh Radwan neighbourhood of Gaza City, as he was preparing to go to school.

“My mum was pregnant,” he told an Alaraby TV reporter who was interviewing him. “When we were going to school they (Israeli soldiers) came into the living room and then shot my mother in her stomach. She was pregnant in the seventh month.”

“Where was your father?” 

“He was asleep,” the boy said.

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“And then he woke up?”

“He was killed with my mother in the same week.”

“On the same day?


“In front of you? Did you see it happen?”

“Yes, in front of me.”

“What did you see? What happened?

“They took them to the corridor and shot them in front of me. When we went to the corridor, they brought them and shot them in front of us.”

The world is watching

Perhaps these soldiers were following the instructions of Rabbi Eliyahu Mali, the head of a Jewish school in Yaffa: “The basic principle that we have is that when we live through the ‘holy war of the mitzvah’, in this case in Gaza, according to the voice of the judge, you will not let every soul live. The meaning is very clear. If you don’t kill them first, they will kill you.

“The terrorists of today and the children of the past, who have remained in their lives. And in reality, it’s the women who create these terrorists. What this means is that the definition ‘not every soul shall live’ is very clear in the scriptures. It’s either you or them.” So the Torah is clear about the need to kill women and children. 

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But what about old men? The rabbi was asked by a member in the audience. “There are no innocent people. It is the same with the elderly person who is able to carry a weapon,” he said. “The Torah is also very clear in the book. In Gaza, according to all estimates of the security forces, 95-98 percent want to destroy us. That is the majority. It is the same thing [with children]. If you save him, don’t try and outsmart the Torah.” 

Perhaps this is why other soldiers recently congratulated their comrade who killed an unarmed, elderly man with hearing and speech difficulties who had his hands up in his bedroom.

“We opened the door. He fluttered. Came in my direction and did like this (waves his hands). I killed him with four bullets,” the soldier said.

For 75 years, the western world was indifferent. But this war is forcing Israel's western backers to see the full horrors of the crimes being committed

“He was the only one?” a colleague asked in a video clip posted to X

“I don’t know. We didn’t have time. There could be more. There was another room. We did not have time.”

“And he said, ‘no, no?'”

“Yes, ‘no, no.’” 

“And you took him down? Excellent!”

Later in the clip, the soldier was asked: “What without a weapon? He had something on him?”

“No, no, he hid beside the bed.”

“All respect!”

The clips show Israeli soldiers talking amongst themselves. They appear largely contemptuous of what the rest of the world might think, and wholly ignorant of the effect these clips are having around the globe. 

But the world is watching.

Contradiction in terms

For 75 years, the western world was indifferent. But this war is forcing Israel’s western backers to see the full horrors of the crimes being committed in a campaign they described five months ago as just. Even a progressive critic of Israel like US Senator Bernie Sanders said five months ago that the war against Hamas was just. 

The degree of brutality and glee shown by Israeli soldiers as they go on their daily killing sprees; starving Gaza, and then dropping leaflets in Arabic telling Palestinians to feed the needy; killing 400 people waiting for aid, and then vowing to flood Gaza with aid; all of this is too much to sweep under the carpet when this war stops.

Displaced Palestinians are pictured in a makeshift tent at a camp in Rafah, Gaza, on 13 March 2024 (Mohammed Abed/AFP)
Displaced Palestinians are pictured in a makeshift tent at a camp in Rafah, Gaza, on 13 March 2024 (Mohammed Abed/AFP)

A rubicon has been crossed. With this war, Israel has entered the elite rank of pariah states. It is now the ugliest of the ugly. It’s impossible to forgive. It cannot be justified, nor can it be put into context. The entire operation in Gaza is an atrocity.

Liberal Zionism has become a contradiction in terms. It’s too much of a stretch.

Acting like this, Israel has become not the home of a beleaguered people persecuted around the world for millennia, but the Fort Knox of Jewish supremacism, the natural heir to white supremacists.

This is having a transformational effect on Jewish people worldwide, in whose name and common past these crimes are being committed. 

'Not in our name'

The short cri de coeur of Jonathan Glazer, the British director of The Zone of Interest, did not come out of the blue when he said during his Oscar acceptance speech: “We stand here as men who refute their Jewishness and the Holocaust being hijacked by an occupation which has led to conflict, for so many innocent people.”

The same cry of “not in my name” is coming from the thousands of young Jews who are marching every weekend in London to stop the war in Gaza.

Emily, a Jewish activist with the group Na’amod UK, recently said: “I think there has been a quiet reckoning in our community, and you can see this because the bloc keeps growing, the movement keeps growing, the constituency organisations keep getting bigger and bigger. I have never been so sure that I will see a free Palestine.” 

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Asked what she thought of her government’s attempts to brand these marches as the work of extremists, she said: “I am very tired of being told how to feel as a Jewish person by people who are not Jewish. I am tired of being told to feel afraid when these marches are by and large peaceful, and people are so lovely to us and so thankful to us. It really shows the ignorance of Jewish opinion outside of their very small Zionist rabble.”

This is where real leadership is coming from. It’s on the streets, not parliament. These are the lions. Our political leaders are the donkeys.

Israel and its apologists are right to be scared of what a new generation of American and British Jews are telling them. 

For the last eight decades, Israel governed a consensus about its existence, identity and purpose that was more powerful than all the arms, money and Jewish migrants it received.

The weaker this consensus becomes, the quicker Israel will lose its influence in the centres of western powers. Already, the compulsive addiction of support for Israel is upending the West’s own attempts to explain to itself that it is a moral force, a force for good in the world.

Under the British government’s latest definition of extremism, it is right to support a government that flouts the Genocide Convention, starves a population under occupation, and kills unarmed mothers and children at will, but extremist to protest against that on the streets of London. 

Jewish academic opposition to Israel is strong and vocal. It cannot accurately be called 'fringe'

This is a patent absurdity. 

It is left to the likes of South Africa to show Britain the way. It is now going to prosecute its citizens who return after fighting for the Israeli army.

It will take time to erode, but after what has happened in Gaza, the future will surely not guarantee the hold Israel has over every major western political party. It will not be able to dictate the definition of antisemitism, nor will it guarantee the funds that aspiring western politicians need. 

Today, every Tory and Labour politician with ambitions for the top job must, almost by definition, be a Friend of Israel, a club that maintains a strong hold on each parliamentary party. That might not be true for the next generation of politicians.

Jewish academic opposition to Israel is strong and vocal. It cannot accurately be called “fringe”. Israel is now starting to lose the global Jewish voice.

The war from within

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s attempts to keep this war going for as long as possible are not being helped from within. 

Two senior members of the war cabinet have defied the prime minister’s wishes publicly. The first act of public defiance came from Defence Minister Yoav Gallant, who announced that he would only agree to present a new military draft law if MK Benny Gantz’s National Unity party agreed on how to regulate the exemption of yeshiva students from conscription. 

Gallant effectively gave Gantz a veto on the law, on which government funding to yeshivas, whose students refuse to serve, depends. Without such a law, Haredi parties would leave the coalition and collapse the government.

The second act came from Gantz, who made unsanctioned visits to the US and Britain, in which Netanyahu ordered his embassies not to cooperate. But such is Netanyahu’s political weakness, that neither Gantz nor Gallant can be fired.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (L), Defence Minister Yoav Gallant (C) and MK Benny Gantz hold a news conference in Tel Aviv on 8 October 2023 (Abir Sultan/Pool/AFP)
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (L), Defence Minister Yoav Gallant (C) and MK Benny Gantz hold a news conference in Tel Aviv, on 8 October 2023 (Abir Sultan/Pool/AFP)

A third blow to Netanyahu in as many weeks was the recent statement by Sephardi Chief Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef, who said that if the government were to enforce compulsory military service on the Haredim, they would leave Israel en masse. Yosef was denounced by a Jerusalem Post editorial that said his words were an insult to the soldiers risking their lives in Gaza.

Israel’s war leader has less and less authority within Israel to conduct the war he wants. The balance of power between Israel and Hamas is also not as clear-cut as it might seem at first glance.

The military campaign has undoubtedly degraded Hamas as a fighting force in Gaza, although members of the leadership in Gaza have consistently passed the message to their political wing in Doha and Beirut that they are confident they can carry on. 

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Another sign of their confidence in their ability to shape the future of Palestine and its leadership is their list of prisoners who would be released in exchange for the remaining Israeli hostages.

The latest list includes Marwan Barghouti, the Fatah leader sentenced to five cumulative life sentences and 40 years in prison for his acts in the Second Intifada; Ahmed Saadat, secretary general of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine; Abdullah Barghouti, the Hamas military leader; and Ibrahim Hamid, a leader of the Second Intifada.

If any of these men were released, the effect would be a strategic shakeup of the Palestinian leadership across all factions: nationalist, secular and Islamist. 

For Palestinians, this would be a huge political renewal. It would also mean the definitive end of a Palestinian Authority (PA) that collaborates with their occupation

For Israel, the release of these men would present a real chance to negotiate an end to the conflict. But only the likes of Ami Ayalon, the former head of Shin Bet, gets this point. Instead, the war cabinet’s latest idea is to put another PA stooge, Majed Faraj, in charge of Gaza. Faraj’s mission is doomed before it starts, and he would be wise to decline such a poisoned chalice.

Green light turns yellow

Netanyahu’s weakness is having a profound effect on the western political elites who supported and armed Israel. 

US President Joe Biden’s rift with Netanyahu is now open and in the public eye. The US leader who said so loudly that Israel had every right to defend itself five months ago, now says Israel cannot kill another 30,000 Palestinians in the name of self-defence. 

I don’t believe Biden has had some dramatic change of heart or that the scales have fallen from his eyes. US government officials are fully informed about what is happening on the ground in Gaza at every stage of this operation. 

They knew, for instance, that Hamas was not diverting aid convoys or stealing food, and said so. 

Even if the war stops now, the price Israel has paid for the reoccupation of Gaza will be higher than it could have possibly calculated five months ago. But it has yet to realise this. It will

If Biden is confronting the consequences of having given Israel the brightest of green lights to invade Gaza after the Hamas attack on 7 October, those consequences are primarily electoral. Biden’s team has been shocked by the extent of the uncommitted vote.

Hundreds of thousands of voters across the US voted for no candidate in the Democratic primaries on Super Tuesday, as the movement urging voters to vote "uncommitted" gathers pace in protest against Biden's handling of the war in Gaza. This could cost him in the general election in November.

Biden’s Ramadan greetings were especially warm this year. But Arab Americans don’t want hugs. They want a change of policy. And Biden still only supports a temporary ceasefire, not a permanent one. He has not threatened to stop the supply of weapons to Israel. 

Nevertheless there has been a deliberate shift in tone. The Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, the highest ranking Jewish official in the US, was  full throated in his support for Israel after the Hamas attack five months ago. On Thursday, he warned Israel it can not survive if it becomes a global pariah.

Schumer accused Netanyahu of putting political survival above national interest and said  he had been” too willing to tolerate the civilian toll in Gaza, which is pushing support for Israel worldwide to historic lows. Israel cannot survive if it becomes a pariah”.

The loss of public opinion in the West, the continuing genocide case at the International Court of Justice, the erosion of the Jewish consensus, and the nervousness of Israel’s backers - all of these elements point to a strategic defeat for Israel. 

Even if the war stops now, the price Israel has paid for the reoccupation of Gaza will be higher than it could have possibly calculated five months ago. But it has yet to realise this. It will.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

This article is available in French on Middle East Eye French edition.

David Hearst is co-founder and editor-in-chief of Middle East Eye. He is a commentator and speaker on the region and analyst on Saudi Arabia. He was the Guardian's foreign leader writer, and was correspondent in Russia, Europe, and Belfast. He joined the Guardian from The Scotsman, where he was education correspondent.
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