Gaza: Why the War Won’t End

There is a natural tendency in every war to focus on the fighting and the current trends in combat. This is especially true in a surprise attack where the attacker’s strategic goals are as uncertain as those announced by Hamas so far, where it launched a limited attack on Israel’s border area with Gaza on October 7, 2023, that was almost certain to lead to a massive level of Israeli retaliation, and where Israel had no clear strategic goals for dealing with the Palestinian population in Gaza and had committed major failures designing its forward defenses that no one in Israel seemed to have anticipated.

The end result was a tactical success by Hamas that produced large Israeli civilian and military casualties and numerous hostages but left Hamas without any clear political or strategic gains and Gaza hopelessly vulnerable to Israeli air attacks and without any clear options to achieve a stable level of security in Gaza regardless of its eventual level of military success. By November 1, 2023, after some three weeks of war, massive Israeli bombings, and the beginning of what appeared to be a major land offensive, Israel had inflicted massive damage but the scale and strategic goals of its offensive were still unclear, as was Hamas’s ability to defend and survive, and what level of support Hamas would really get from outside forces like those of Hezbollah, Iran, and the Houthis.

What does seem clear, however, is that both sides now have no good options that will bring lasting peace or stability. Israel will almost certainly be able to contain Gaza and seriously weaken Hamas. At best, Israel can use force to occupy and control Gaza but never be accepted by Gaza’s population and able to offer successful development or a decent life. Israel’s actions have also, however, sharply increased Gazan, Palestinian, and Arab hostility to Israel and undermined the sympathy and support it gained after the initial invasion by Hamas. The best outcome from Israel’s current offensive seems all too likely to leave Israel either as at least a partial occupier of a hostile Gaza or create and maintain a far larger set of security barriers that may have to extend well beyond the present border and require a much larger forward-deployed security force.

As for Hamas, some three weeks after its attack, it was still unclear what its strategic objective was in launching an attack whose very success was certain to provoke a massive Israeli military response without achieving any clear strategic gains for Hamas. Given its long history of defeats in previous fighting, Hamas had to realize that Israel’s almost inevitable violent response might limit or end the progress made in improving Arab-Israeli relations and the Abraham Accords; and it had to realize the result would sharply weaken or destroy Hamas and lead to massive damage to the civil population in Gaza. To quote Henry Kissinger in a very different context, “The threat of committing suicide is not an adequate deterrent to being murdered.”

Unless the leadership of Hamas is far more fanatic than it seems, it should also have learned from its past defeats that no level of Hezbollah, Iran, Houthi, or other outside Arab intervention would secure Hamas from the equivalent of massive retaliation or offer Gaza’s population successful development or a decent life. Worse, it should have understood that one legacy of its invasion would be to cause added Israeli-Palestinian violence and settler attacks on the West Bank and cause more tension violence in Jerusalem as well—a reality that ongoing media reports made clear within days of Hamas’s October 7 attack.

The far broader problem for both Israel and Gaza, however, is that by November 1, 2023, the war had already escalated to the point where Gaza had suffered massive civil damage and losses that would take years to recover from under the best conditions. Israel had escalated to the point where it had lost a great deal of international sympathy but had not demonstrated it could achieve lasting security in Gaza or had any way of going from conflict termination to real peace. At some point, the fighting will probably end in a ceasefire of some kind, but like so many recent wars, neither side will have a good option to win a lasting victory. Worse, a prolonged pause in the fighting will now seem likely to make things worse for both sides, involve ongoing confrontation at many levels, and eventually lead to another round of active warfare.

It is necessary to consider how bad the situation in Gaza was before Hamas launched its attack and how much worse things have already gotten to understand the forces that are likely to shape the dismal outcome of the latest war in Gaza. The issue is not so much how the fighting will continue—although every indicator to date shows that life in Gaza is now getting steadily worse—it is rather, as General Petraeus asked in the case of the war in Iraq, “How will this war end.”

Fighting over the Equivalent of an “Open Air” Prison

The current reality of life in Gaza was shaped by Israel’s withdrawal in 2005, Hamas’s surprise election victory over the Palestinian Authority in 2006, and Hamas’s violent suppression of all elements of democracy in 2007. This allowed Hamas to rule under conditions where there has been no election of any kind since Hamas and other extremist elements like the Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ) created a virtual dictatorship.

Hamas’s 2007 victory in forcibly defeating the Palestinian Authority and other Palestinian opposition in Gaza created two separate and hostile Palestinian enclaves on the West Bank and in Gaza and created a situation where the Palestinian Authority could no longer compromise with Israel in making “Palestine” into a real second state and a unified “Palestine.”

Repeated clashes between Hamas and Israel after 2007 further divided Israel from Gaza and showed Israel just how hard it was to occupy Gaza even when it defeated Hamas. They virtually forced Israel to isolate Gaza and create a giant security barrier and set of concrete barriers, sensors, remote-controlled weapons, tunnel detectors, and other barriers that were largely completed by 2021. They also led Israel to create a steadily growing set of controls over population movements and into Israel, over trade and imports, over the flow of aid, and over water, power, and fuel.

Without arguing the merits of the actions taken by either side, this mix of fighting, tension, and later rocket attacks made Gaza into a giant “open-air prison” where survival for most inhabitants depended on aid from Qatar and other outside states. As the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) at the end of this analysis shows, Gaza was already under massive stress from overpopulation before the new round of fighting began.

If one looks at the daily media reports—such as the BBC, New York Times, and Washington Post, their reports—and maps of the Israeli bombing efforts and land operations through November 1, 2023, all show the displacement of over 400,000 Gazans before November 1 and a massive decline in food, water, fuel, and electricity supplies. They also show that Israel had carried some 11,000 air strikes on Gaza by that date, almost all affecting civilian areas because that was where Hamas sheltered. The result was the systematic destruction of homes, businesses, hospitals, and aid facilities. The United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) reported on October 19 that “at least 30 per cent of all housing units in the Gaza Strip have been either destroyed (12,845), rendered uninhabitable (9,055) or moderately/lightly damaged (121,000), since the start of the hostilities, according to the Ministry of Housing in Gaza.” Even more conservative estimates put the levels of damage as at least 25 percent of all the buildings in Northern Gaza by October 31.

The past history of efforts to deal with less intense combat damage shows that it will take at least two years after a secure ceasefire to rebuild back to the prewar level of aid and services. And any such rebuilding will not compensate for the fact that at least 2.1 million people are crammed into an area about twice the size of the greater D.C. urban area in the United States when the war started.

According to the Palestine Central Bureau of Statistics, the population of Gaza grew from 340,000 in 1970 to 1.13 million in 2000 and 1.6 million in 2010. It now has more than 2.1 million Palestinian citizens and refugees, and the population seems to be growing at rates approaching 2 percent per year. Moreover, Gaza has one of the youngest populations—with the highest number of children and young adults—of any region (or country) in the world. And major conflicts tend to lead to a post-conflict rise in the rate of population increase.

Gaza had no major industries or exports. It depended on Israel for much of its potable water and electric power. It only had one comparatively small desalination plant plus wells of uncertain quality and private generators. Its small garden crop areas were part of the Israeli security zone. While estimates differ, it had at least up to 50 percent unemployment and 50 percent direct dependence on foreign aid, with another 20 percent receiving some aid. The OCHA estimated in its prewar web data that Gaza had 1.32 million people in need (66 percent).

Its population had to live in Gaza that was separated from Israel by a security wall and barriers that now are certain to be massively increased in depth and capability. It has no meaningful airport, no free access to the Mediterranean, and no share of offshore gas reserve discoveries. While leaving Gaza and the region was comparatively easy before the war, the right of return was very restricted.

Despite some minor recent increases in Israeli jobs for Gazans, only token levels of Gazan workers were allowed to work in Israel. This was critical because Gazans potentially could find well-paying jobs in Israel, but Israel’s security regulations sharply limited such opportunities and seem to have increased some of these limits over the last years while maintaining tight control over any movements outside Gaza or return to Gaza.

Guessing at the Future Impact of the Fighting

It is still too early to know whether and how an Israel invasion will progress, whether it will be modified to set goals lower than trying to destroy all of Hamas and the PIJ, how Israel will apply humanitarian limits, how much damage Hamas is willing to accept, and how urban warfare will play out in Gaza’s very special conditions. What does seem all too likely is that any successful Israeli defeat of Hamas and the PIJ and the successful removal of their leadership from power will simply replace them with something equal or worse, and Israel will respond by making the open-air prison-like character of Gaza even more efficient.

No one can estimate the extent to which threats like Hezbollah and Iran will intervene, and physical issues like the vulnerability or non-vulnerability of Hamas’s tunnel systems present special targeting challenges that may or may not explain why Israel has used such heavy bombing efforts to try to inflict major damage on Hamas’s capabilities before its launches a full-scale ground operation. Certainly, the satellite coverage of the bombing indicates many strikes did exceptionally large damage to civilians; and this means whole buildings will have to be demolished, and new structures will have to be built up from the ground up.

It also does seem clear that if the war does escalate to serious involvement by such outside powers, Israel’s reaction is likely to escalate the bombing in Gaza even further and use its ground forces as decisively as possible.

At the same time, while sources disagree, are uncertain, and constantly changing, they seem to agree that the current daily flow of aid has at best reached sporadic peaks of 7 percent of the prewar level and may well average below 4 percent. Any further restoration of aid and services during the period of active combat seems likely to be faltering at best and will not include major rebuilding and reconstruction efforts or new and efficient systems for managing the flow of aid until there is an effective ceasefire. There is also a significant risk that the current rise in Israeli-Palestinian confrontations in Jerusalem and the West Bank could displace more Palestinians in every area and broaden the negative impacts of the war.

There is also no clear area where either set of Israel’s Palestinians can go. Egypt can accept some refugees that need urgent medical case, but no neighboring power—Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, or Syria—seems likely to accept large number of Palestinians from Gaza or the West Bank or to be able to include them in its political system or development plans. All of the neighboring Arab states face severe political and economic strains in meeting the demands of their existing populations. Lebanon and Jordan have problems dealing with their current population of Palestinians. Syria is still at war, and anyone who talks blithely about relocating major numbers of Gazans into Egypt has probably never spent a day in the Sinai.

Rebuilding Gaza Rather Than Preparing for Another Round of Destruction

Efforts to estimate the time and cost of rebuilding states after major conflicts generally reveal that they tend to be little more than well-intentioned guesswork, particularly because the true nature of any conflict termination is so hard to predict. And the tensions and divisions that follow—along with limited donor funding—make the reality so hard to guess at. It is hard to believe, however, that it will take less than two to three years—after serious conflict termination—to build Gaza back to the miserable level of development and progress it had reached before the war began. This “recovery” means going back to the level of near misery that did so much to enable Hamas and led to its brutal October 7 attack on Israel.

At the same time, it is far from clear that there is any real-world option to an eventual form of conflict termination that can lead to another pause in the fighting or a level of lasting hostility in Gaza that makes creating any kind of two-state solution almost impossible. Furthermore, the internal politics of Israel may also lead to even more pressure by settlers and hard-liners to take territory and restrict the rights of Palestinians in the West Bank, the Old City and East Jerusalem, and Israel proper.

The tragedy of having no good options is that neither Israel nor Hamas made serious efforts to create a clear path to peace before the war exploded into Hamas’s attack, which was both extremist and terrorist in character, and where Hamas has still to state any clear strategic objective beyond provoking the response it got. At the same time, the Israeli government pursued the Abraham Accords without pursuing real peace or even some more equitable way of integrating Palestinians into more stable and productive roles in Israeli society. Hamas started a war it could not possibly win at the expense of almost all of its people, and Israel has so far responded in ways where the war may pause but will not end.

At the same time the rest of the world did no better. The UN web pages is largely a critique of Israel and the “UN in Palestine section” of its web page does nothing more than go to list of Sustainable Development Goals for the entire world.

If one reviews the work done by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank—the two leading international institutions focusing on these issues—both failed to focus on realistic efforts to develop Gaza. Some of the IMF work does reveal how much worse things were in Gaza than in the West Bank before Hamas’s attack, but much of it also speaks vaguely of Palestinians as if they were already part of a two-state solution and a joint economy. Neither body’s recent reporting provides much insight into whether it would be possible to create a more viable Gaza, what can or cannot be done to reduce its dependence on aid, offer Gazans real jobs and incomes, and help speed recovery.

A September 2023 IMF report on the Palestinian economy at least addresses some of the economic differences between the West Bank and Gaza in some detail. The World Bank seems to be living in a politically correct economic fantasy world in describing a unified “Palestinian” economy.

It is unclear that a more realistic effort to plan separately for development in Gaza and the West Bank could produce more than a “least bad” option for Gazans or that any resulting plan for the West Bank could offset the growing problems that the war has accelerated in Israeli relations with the Palestinian Authority and the sharp increase in Israeli settler violence and efforts to seize more territory.

If there is a lasting answer to real stability in Gaza, and any prelude to a broader Israeli-Palestinian peace, however, it lies in finding some realistic plan that can offer Gazans the incentive to remain at peace and offer the Israelis some promise of Gazan stability and lasting security. At present, even the groundwork in exploring such options seems to be missing, and the focus on humanitarian aid is one that temporarily reduces suffering but does not shape a better future. In short, the real issue now is not how this war will end, but why it won’t. Escalating to nowhere is not a strategy—it is a disaster.

UNRWA Summary of Prewar Conditions and Trends in Gaza

UNRWA Summary of Prewar Conditions and Trends in Gaza

Source: Screenshot of “Gaza_15 Years of Blockade,” United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA), accessed October 28, 2023,

OCHA Map and Prewar Summary of Conditions in Gaza

OCHA Map and Prewar Summary of Conditions in Gaza
OCHA Map and Prewar Summary of Conditions in Gaza

Source: Screenshots from OCHA, Humanitarian Needs Overview OPT: Humanitarian Programme Cycle 2022 (OCHA, December 2021),

Anthony H. Cordesman

Anthony H. Cordesman

Former Emeritus Chair in Strategy