The Gaza Wars: The Regional Dimensions of the Israel-Hamas Conflict

The Israel-Hamas War is having tragic consequences that fill newsfeeds and dominate the headlines on a daily basis. So far, the impact of the war has been shocking and tragic on Israel; utterly catastrophic for the population of the Gaza Strip. According to WHO estimates, by the end of April 2024, at least 34,568 inhabitants of the Gaza Strip had lost their lives and 77,765 had been injured. Almost 1,200 Israeli citizens died in the October 2023 attacks while over 240 were taken hostage. By May 1st, 262 Israeli soldiers were reported dead, and 1,602 injured, as a result of Operation Sword of Iron – the military campaign launched in the Gaza Strip in the aftermath of the October 7 attacks. According to more recent calculations,  the number of hostages still held captive by Hamas and other terrorist groups might be 120, but the Gaza death toll may have surpassed 37,000. In addition to 1.7 million internally displaced persons (75% of the Gaza population), the war is creating a catastrophic health and food emergency. The conflict that started on October 7, moreover, is having significant military ramifications beyond its epicenter. Tension might escalate into open war in several other areas, such as the West Bank, the border between Egypt and Israel, the Red Sea, Syria, and the border between Lebanon and Israel. 

Gaza City, October 2023. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

The Israel-Hamas war is having a strong impact on the situation in the West Bank, with several episodes of settler violence against the Palestinian population of the area. This, in some cases, has led to massive destruction of property or deaths. However, Israeli occupation authorities and the country’s security services have often proven unable or unwilling to prosecute these crimes. As a matter of fact, in many cases, perpetrators have not faced consequences. The increasing level of settler violence has convinced the US government to impose sanctions against settlers, but this policy has had a very limited impact on this escalation in violence. Recently, the IDF – the Israel Defense Forces – has handed over significant legal powers concerning the West Bank to the Civil Administration that Israel has set up to exercise administrative duties in the occupied territories. The Civil Administration is currently led by Bezalel Smotrich – Israel’s finance minister – who is a vocal and proactive supporter of the settler movement. Israeli settlements in the West Bank are illegal under international law, and some have been ruled illegal by Israel’s Supreme Court as well. At the same time, the state of occupation as well as the persistence of violence have favored the growth of Palestinian terrorist groups such as the Lions’ Den and the Jenin Brigades.

The Jericho area in the West Bank. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

The evolution of the conflict in the Gaza Strip is also deeply connected to Egypt’s security. Egypt was the first Arab state to sign a peace agreement with Israel in 1979. The Egyptian government shares an aversion to Hamas and, since the terrorist group took power in the area in 2007, has consistently collaborated with the Israeli government in the enforcement of a very strict regime of economic sanctions on the Gaza Strip . The war, however, is creating very significant tension between the two countries. Israeli military operations have pushed the overwhelming majority of Gaza’s population toward the southern border of the Strip, and Egyptian authorities face the daunting prospect of a massive influx of Gazan refugees into the Sinai Peninsula. Israel’s war in Gaza, moreover, is directly generating tension with Egypt. Israeli military operations in the southern city of Rafah have increased the likelihood of direct clashes between Israeli and Egyptian forces. This situation has led to the killing of a member of Egypt’s security forces near the Rafah border crossing. In fact, the IDF has taken over control of the Palestinian side of the crossing, and Israel now controls 75% of the Philadelphi Corridor, which runs along the Gaza-Egypt border. According to security arrangements between Egypt and Israel, this area should remain largely demilitarized. The war in Gaza is also causing serious damage to the Egyptian economy because of its impact on the Suez Canal. Since the beginning of the conflict, the Houthis – a Yemeni militia supported by Iran – have launched a harassment campaign against commercial vessels crossing the Red Sea. The United States has increased its naval presence in the region, and, along with a group of Western and Middle Eastern allies, has Operation Prosperity Guardian in the Red Sea. That naval campaign aims to neutralize the impact of Houthi attacks. However, in spite of these efforts and the damage inflicted on the Houthis, the militia continues to pose a major security threat to commercial shipping in the Red Sea. As insurance costs rise because of the tension, shipping companies are increasingly using alternative routes such as southern Africa. Besides the negative impact on the global economy, this diversion is depriving an already economically fragile Egypt of revenues obtained from passage through the Suez Canal. 

The Sinai Peninsula and the Suez Canal. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

The Israel-Hamas War has also led to a brief but dangerous escalation in tension between Israel and Iran. Last April, a strike against the Iranian consulate in Damascus (attributed to Israel) led to the killing of seven Iranian officials, including two generals. This operation induced the Tehran regime to launch a direct missile and drone attack against Israel. This was largely neutralized by Israeli and allied defenses, while in return, Israel carried out a series of attacks on Iranian territory. The limited nature of both the Iranian response and the second Israeli attack appears to signal that both countries are determined to avoid a direct confrontation. The magnitude and the unprecedented nature of this direct exchange of fire between Israel and Iran, however, is a demonstration of the very dangerous regional ramifications of the war in Gaza. The conflict is leading to the crossing of several military thresholds.

As these lines are written, the most alarming spillover of the Israel Hamas War is the confrontation between Israel and another major Iranian proxy – the Lebanese militia Hezbollah. Tension and clashes between Israel and Hezbollah have grown significantly since October 7, and that escalation has led to the death of at least 400 Lebanese and 25 Israelis. On June 10 a senior Hezbollah leader was killed in an Israeli strike, and in return Hezbollah fired 150 missiles at Israel. Both Hezbollah and Israel are striking deeper into each other’s territory. On June 18, the IDF announced that a plan for a major military operation in southern Lebanon had been approved and the country’s foreign minister stated that a decision on all-out war would come soon. Hezbollah’s leader Hassan Nasrallah has responded by threatening a “war without rules or ceiling” and warned that Cyprus could be attacked too in case of all-out war with Israel. Hezbollah’s authorities claim that the group has 100,000 fighters and reservists, while other estimates suggest that the number of actual forces may not exceed 45,000. At any rate, Hezbollah remains one of the best armed and trained militias in the world, and is considered a more effective fighting force than Hamas. It is believed that the group has an arsenal of up to 150,000 modern rockets that are estimated to be much more effective than the ones Hamas has been using against Israel since October 7. Such an arsenal could seriously challenge, and possibly even overwhelm, Israel’s air defenses. 

Lebanon. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Despite the increasing magnitude of the border clashes and the aggressive language on both sides, several factors suggest that neither Hezbollah nor Israel have much to gain from an all-out war. A low-intensity conflict between Hezbollah and Israel has been going on for decades, especially in the 1980s and 1990s, when Israel kept a military presence in southern Lebanon. Hezbollah and Israel fought a short war in the summer of 2006, and the results were a disappointment for both sides. The war had a destructive impact on Lebanon, but despite its technological superiority, Israel failed to neutralize Hezbollah. At the same time, notwithstanding a boost in popularity, Hezbollah paid a very high price in terms of casualties and fatalities. Nasrallah famously and publicly regretted the decision to escalate tension with Israel in the summer of 2006, because of the very high blood tribute and destruction caused by the war.  It is also important to consider Cyprus is a member state of the European Union and that a multinational UN peacekeeping mission – UNIFIL, the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon – is currently deployed in southern Lebanon. Hence, a new war between Israel and Hezbollah would create immense humanitarian and geopolitical challenges. The situation remains extremely tense, however, and Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has announced that the main focus of the Israeli military effort may soon shift toward the Israel-Lebanon border.

A brief analysis of Israel’s military performance in the war against Hamas can help understand why the case for opening a new front or a regional escalation is weak from Israel’s point of view. Israel’s military apparatus consists of around 170,000 active duty soldiers, making up one of the most effective, best-trained, and technologically advanced military organizations in the world. The IDF has an excellent air force, outstanding special forces, and some of the most effective cyber warfare and cyber security capabilities in the world. Israel also has a nuclear arsenal – although its existence has never been officially acknowledged by the country’s authorities. In the aftermath of the October 7 attacks, Israel has also mobilized more than 300,000 reservists. However, while the IDF has repeatedly proved to be a formidable force against conventional Arab armies, Israel’s performance against non-state militias and terrorist groups like Hamas and Hezbollah has been much less successful. This trend has been confirmed in the ongoing war against Hamas.

The objectives of Operation Sword of Iron are the destruction of Hamas’s military and government capabilities as well as the liberation of the hostages. By mid-May, the Israeli government claimed that at least 14,000 Hamas fighters (out of a total of 30 to 40,000 estimated militants) had been killed as a result of the Israeli military campaign in Gaza. These numbers imply that at least 18 of Hamas’s 24 pre-war battalions have been forced to disband. The IDF has also killed a number of senior Hamas commanders, including Marwan Issa, who died as a result of an Israeli airstrike on a tunnel complex under the Nuseirat refugee camp in March. Hamas forces, however, have demonstrated an ability to come back to areas of northern Gaza that had been cleared by the IDF, while Hamas’s tunnel network has neither been destroyed nor rendered unusable. As already mentioned, around 120 hostages are still considered to be in the hands of the terrorists, although 4 were rescued in an Israeli commando operation on June 8.  According to estimates elaborated by the Bank of Israel, the war in Gaza might reach a total cost of $67 billion between the years 2023-2025. Israel’s economy contracted by almost 20% as a result of the war, while mobilization has created a serious manpower shortage. The war in Gaza and rising tension with Hezbollah have forced the Israeli government to evacuate and resettle the civilian population of the southern and northern parts of the country. The Gaza campaign is expected to continue until at least the end of 2024, but the IDF force structure, with its heavy reliance on reservists, makes it very difficult for Israel to fight a prolonged military campaign. 

IDF operations in the Gaza Strip, November 2023. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

In light of these facts, it seems reasonable to predict that any further escalation or additional front would have dire implications for Israel. The country’s military machine would become much more stretched and hard to sustain. Destroying Hamas’s military capabilities in Gaza would become more difficult, and in general the IDF would need to either accept much higher levels of casualties or adopt an even more indiscriminate approach to warfare. The latter would inevitably result in a higher number of civilian casualties. A regional escalation would require additional US military and economic assistance – the US already provides $3.8 billion annually in military assistance to Israel and has pledged an additional $17 billion in April.  A broader war would require a more direct US and international military involvement, especially to deter an Iranian intervention and contain the already fragile situation in the Red Sea.

It is interesting to mention that Rear Adm. Daniel Hagari, the IDF’s spokesperson, has recently declared that Hamas as an “ideology or an idea” cannot be destroyed. That statement can be considered quite accurate from a strictly military point of view. As suggested by Audrey Kurth Cronin’s research, military repression seldom succeeds on its own as a form of counter-terrorism. In contrast, as suggested by Cronin, Hamas’s threat might be eventually brought to an end by letting it fail. This could be achieved by exploiting the group’s brutal, repressive, and unpopular rule while giving the people of Gaza – and the Palestinians in general – hope that a better future is attainable. After all, as observed by Ami Ayalon – the former head of Shin Bet, Israel’s internal security agency – a Palestinian state capable of living in peace alongside Israel is Hamas’s greatest existential threat. 

Israeli military operations in the Gaza Strip, November 2023. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Even if it is very hard to imagine such a scenario, reconsidering the military approach to the conflict against Hamas and adding a political component might make sense not just from a humanitarian point of view but also strategically. Israel’s efforts would likely be more effective if paired with a political initiative intended to reach out to the Palestinians and search for some form of long-term accommodation, including the eventual establishment of a Palestinian state. Such an approach would offset the rhetoric of Israel’s enemies, deprive them of legitimacy in the eyes of Arab as well as world public opinion, and facilitate the revitalization of the process of normalization between Israel and its Arab neighbors. These developments would in turn help defeat Hamas as well as Israel’s other regional adversaries, ending the immense suffering of the Palestinians, while ensuring the security of the people of Israel. With a tragic conflict already going on in the Middle East, the most important question for statesmen around the world might not be where the war might expand next, but rather what the most desirable post-war scenario should look like and how to get there.

Diego Pagliarulo

Mia Morreale contributed to the editing and proofreading of this article.