It may sound daft to suggest that a group of armed irregulars, numbering in the low tens of thousands, besieged and with little access to advanced weaponry, is a match for one of the world’s most powerful militaries, backed and armed by the United States. And yet, an increasing number of establishment strategic analysts warn that Israel could lose this war on Palestinians despite the cataclysmic violence it unleashed since the Hamas-led attack on Israel on October 7. And in provoking the Israeli assault, Hamas may be realizing many of its own political objectives.
Both Israel and Hamas appear to be resetting the terms of their political contest not to the pre–October 7 status quo, but to the 1948 one. It’s not clear what comes next, but there will be no going back to the previous state of affairs.
The surprise attack neutralized Israeli military installations, breaking open the gates of the world’s largest open-air prison and leading a gruesome rampage in which some 1,200 Israelis, at least 845 of them civilians, were killed. The shocking ease with which Hamas breached Israeli lines around the Gaza Strip reminded many of the 1968 Tet Offensive. Not literally—there are vast differences between a US expeditionary war in a distant land and Israel’s war to defend an occupation at home, waged by a citizen army motivated by a sense of existential peril. Instead, the usefulness of the analogy lies in the political logic shaping an insurgent offensive.
In 1968, the Vietnamese revolutionaries lost the battle and sacrificed much of the underground political and military infrastructure they had patiently built over years. Yet the Tet Offensive was a key moment in their defeat of the United States—albeit at a massive cost in Vietnamese lives. By simultaneously staging dramatic, high-profile attacks on more than 100 targets across the country on a single day, lightly armed Vietnamese guerrillas shattered the illusion of success that was being peddled to the US public by the Johnson administration. It signaled to Americans that the war for which they were being asked to sacrifice tens of thousands of their sons was unwinnable.
The Vietnamese leadership measured the impact of its military actions by their political effects rather than by conventional military measures such as men and materiel lost or territory gained. Thus Henry Kissinger’s 1969 lament: “We fought a military war; our opponents fought a political one. We sought physical attrition; our opponents aimed for our psychological exhaustion. In the process we lost sight of one of the cardinal maxims of guerrilla war: The guerrilla wins if he does not lose. The conventional army loses if it does not win.”
That logic has Jon Alterman of the not-exactly-dovish Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C., seeing Israel as being at considerable risk of losing to Hamas:
Hamas’s concept of military victory…is all about driving long-term political outcomes. Hamas sees victory not in one year or five, but from engaging with decades of struggle that increase Palestinian solidarity and increase Israel’s isolation. In this scenario, Hamas rallies a besieged population in Gaza around it in anger and helps collapse the Palestinian Authority government by ensuring Palestinians see it even more as a feckless adjunct to Israeli military authority. Meanwhile, Arab states move strongly away from normalization, the Global South aligns strongly with the Palestinian cause, Europe recoils at the Israeli army’s excesses, and an American debate erupts over Israel, destroying the bipartisan support Israel has enjoyed here since the early 1970s.
Hamas, Alterman writes, seeks “to use Israel’s far greater strength to defeat Israel. Israel’s strength allows the country to kill Palestinian civilians, destroy Palestinian infrastructure, and defy global calls for restraint. All those things advance Hamas’s war aims.”
Such warnings have been ignored by the Biden administration and Western leaders, whose unconditional embrace of Israel’s war is rooted in the delusion that Israel was just another Western nation peacefully going about its business before it suffered an unprovoked attack on October 7—it’s a comforting fantasy to those who prefer to avoid recognizing a reality they’ve been complicit in creating.