For Israel, this war is about more than recovering hostages and destroying Hamas — and it could last a long time

For Israel, this war is about more than recovering hostages and destroying Hamas — and it could last a long time

Originally posted in the ABC


For almost all of its modern history, the state of Israel has engaged in relatively short wars. This is a function of its geography and its small population.

The 1967 and 1973 wars lasted for six and 20 days respectively. Its wars in Gaza have also been short. None of its wars there in 2008, 2012, 2014 or 2021 lasted more than a couple of months. Similarly, the 2006 Israel-Hezbollah War lasted a month.

However, despite its preferences, there have been times when Israel has had to fight for much longer periods. These include the first and second intifadas and the Lebanon War from 1982 to 1985.

Today's Israel-Hamas War may also continue for a considerable amount of time. There are three reasons for this.

The first reason is that Israel has extensive aims for the current conflict. While many reports characterise Israel's Gaza objectives in terms of Hamas and hostages, this is only part of the story. In addition to dismantling Hamas and recovering all Israeli hostages taken on October 7, Israel has four other objectives. These need to be understood when considering how long this war might last.

The four additional aims include ensuring there is no threat to it from Gaza in the long term, strengthening the security of Israeli citizens, restoring Israel's deterrence against repeat attacks on civilians, and vitally, restoring the physical and psychological security of border settlements in the south and the north.

The earthquake of October 7

This last objective is critical to the country. The social contract between Israelis and their military was shattered by IDF failure on October 7. The sense of trust that kibbutz residents close to Gaza had in their army to defend them prior to October 7 evaporated as thousands of Hamas operatives engaged in their brutal rampage of murder, rape, looting and kidnapping. This trust cannot be re-established in weeks or even months. Nor are the other objectives likely to be achieved in this time.

The second reason why this may be a long war is that October 7 was an earthquake in Israeli security affairs and those of the wider region. The effects of that day will continue to reverberate for some time. The impacts, besides the current Gaza war, include the unanticipated expansion of the Houthi threat south of Israel, increasing tensions in the West Bank, and the ongoing attacks across the northern border of Israel.

More broadly, beyond the borders of Israel there has been a step-up in attacks against US bases across the Middle East, as well as a global surge of misinformation and propaganda about the Israeli operation in Gaza. Each of these conflicts, part of an overall conflagration that sees no sign of abating soon, is complex. None have simple solutions and all will take some time to resolve.

Finally, this is likely to be a long war because that is what Hamas wants. It's why it conducted its attacks against Israel in the manner it did. To bring the Palestinian issue back to the fore, the organisation goaded Israel into a broader conflict. In this respect, they have succeeded.

The war in Gaza would be significantly shortened if Hamas released the hostages. This would also save the lives of many Palestinians. But now they have their war and the opportunity to conduct a global information campaign against Israel, Hamas is unlikely to take a backward step.

A long war would come at a heavy cost

Hamas leader Yahya Sinwar studied Israel and learned Hebrew during his time in prison. He understands the Israelis well. He knows that if he can sustain the war, Hamas might continue degrading Israeli citizens' confidence in their military's ability to secure border regions. This will have an economic impact, eventually increase domestic political instability and increase migration out of Israel by families who no longer feel safe there.

All of these, at least in the mind of Sinwar, help achieve the Hamas goal of extinguishing the state of Israel.

Israel's efforts to combat this means weeks of heavier combat in Gaza. Even when the intensity of ground combat inevitably reduces, Israel will undertake months or years of raids and air strikes to continue dismantling Hamas.

A long war would have several serious implications. Israelis and Palestinians will continue to suffer and die. More broadly, the US and Europe will need to normalise splitting their attention (and resources such as munitions and intelligence) between the wars in Ukraine and the Middle East.

And for Australia, it will mean that the US administration, which is also about to launch into an election year, will be further distracted from Indo-Pacific affairs.

The full fallout of Hamas' October 7 massacres is yet to be revealed. It is also unclear what actions Hezbollah, the Houthis and Iran and Israel will take from here.

But one thing that is certain is that Israel and Hamas are now locked in a deathmatch each is determined to win.

This is an existential conflict, and it is a struggle that may continue for some time to come.


Areas of expertise: Russia-Ukraine war; military history and strategy; advanced technologies