Gaza war: What does victory look like for the US and Israel?

After more than seven months of war, analysts say Israel’s aims may be to destroy Gaza and displace its population.

Palestinian women are reacting as they sit on the rubble of a residential building that housed their apartments
Palestinian women sit on the rubble of a residential building destroyed by an Israeli attack in Nuseirat in central Gaza on April 18 [Majdi Fathi/NurPhoto via Getty Images]

Washington, DC – Each day, the images emerging from Gaza remain largely the same: Israeli bombs killing civilians. Palestinians fleeing their homes and makeshift shelters. Hamas targetting Israeli forces and posting the footage online.

After nearly 230 days of fighting, experts say Israel’s war in Gaza shows no sign of ending soon. So what is Israel trying to achieve? And do its objectives align with those of its closest ally, the United States?

Israel has said it is seeking an “absolute victory” over Hamas, as it continues to receive billions of dollars in unconditional military aid from the US.

But the country has faced criticism, including from allies, for its apparent lack of a long-term strategy in Gaza, beyond unleashing firepower on the Palestinian enclave.

To some experts, though, the destruction and killings are part of the objective. They say Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is willing to wage an endless war to stay in power while deepening Palestinian suffering.

And while the US government has said it seeks to end the conflict, Washington is fuelling the Israeli plans by maintaining its “ironclad” support for Israel, analysts say.

“What Israel is looking to achieve is simply erasure and expulsion. That’s what they want here. And they’ve been blunt about this,” said Osamah Khalil, a history professor at Syracuse University.

‘A status quo’

Palestinian rights advocates fear that the war on Gaza is slowly becoming the status quo — another lengthy chapter of pain and dispossession in Palestine’s history.

While Netanyahu has said Israel has “no intention of permanently occupying Gaza or displacing its civilian population”, high-level members of his government have suggested otherwise.

Some far-right Israeli ministers have openly called for displacing Palestinians from Gaza. Other officials have urged the “voluntary migration” of the territory’s residents. And last year, the newspaper Israel Hayom reported that Netanyahu tapped one of his aides to work on a plan to “thin out” the population in Gaza.

Egypt — the only country that borders Gaza other than Israel — has vehemently opposed the mass displacement of Palestinians, which experts point out would amount to ethnic cleansing.

But Khalil said Israel’s plans for the mass displacement of Palestinians have not changed. If anything, the ongoing offensive in the southern Gaza city of Rafah has heightened the prospect, given that many residents sheltering there have already fled bloodshed and bombing in the north.

And if the Israeli government fails to expel the Palestinians, Khalil believes it will instead try to contain most of Gaza’s population in small areas, preventing them from returning home and subjecting them to bombing, surveillance, starvation and disease.

Adam Shapiro, a political analyst, offered a similar assessment. “Israel is really trying to make any semblance of life impossible in Gaza,” he told Al Jazeera. “The goal is basically to just make it impossible for people to continue living there and to compel them to leave.”

Shapiro added that Israel has managed to level large parts of Gaza, starve its population and kill more than 35,000 people without facing considerable international pressure to end the war.

“It’s a status quo that seems to be sustainable for lots of actors for a pretty long period of time,” he said.

Matthew Duss, the executive vice president at the Center for International Policy, a US-based think tank, also said the conflict risks turning into a protracted one.

He added that Israel’s lack of strategy in Gaza could have “catastrophic” consequences for Palestinians, the US and Israel itself.

“You have a war of vengeance being carried out by a state that has the full backing of the global superpower who protects it from any consequences,” Duss told Al Jazeera.

US vision for Gaza

In the US, meanwhile, the administration of President Joe Biden has articulated a complex vision for the war and its outcome.

Washington says it backs Israel’s push to eliminate Hamas’s military capabilities. It is also seeking a ceasefire deal that would see a temporary halt in the fighting, the release of Israeli captives and a surge in humanitarian aid to Gaza.

At the same time, Biden officials have pursued an agreement to establish diplomatic relations between Saudi Arabia and Israel, which they say would boost the prospects of a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

As for Gaza, the US says the territory should ultimately be under the governance of a “reformed” Palestinian Authority (PA).

That US plan faces a mountain of hurdles, however. Netanyahu has repeatedly rejected the prospect of establishing a Palestinian state. Israeli leaders also oppose the return of the PA to Gaza.

Even Israeli war cabinet minister Benny Gantz, who is seen as Netanyahu’s strongest domestic political rival, recently said that neither Hamas nor PA President Mahmoud Abbas can rule Gaza after the war.

As for the so-called normalisation push to build ties between Saudi Arabia and Israel, Duss said it was “strategically misguided”.

“The fact that they are still pressing this just reveals a confounding obsession with this kind of agreement as a way to bring something good out of this whole catastrophe,” Duss said.

Defeating Hamas

More immediately, it is unclear how Washington foresees a permanent end to the ongoing violence in Gaza while backing the goal of a total defeat of Hamas — an objective US officials are starting to acknowledge may be unachievable.

“Sometimes, when we listen closely to Israeli leaders, they talk about mostly the idea of some sort of sweeping victory on the battlefield, total victory,” Deputy Secretary of State Kurt Campbell told CNN last week. “I don’t think we believe that that is likely or possible.”

With a military victory for Israel looking increasingly unrealistic, Duss said insisting on eradicating Hamas before ending the war is a “nonsensical position”.

Israel said it dismantled Hamas’s “military infrastructure” in northern Gaza in January, but months later, its military is once again bombing neighbourhoods and clashing with Palestinian fighters in the Jabalia refugee camp and parts of Gaza City in the north.

Khalil, the history professor, said that, since the beginning of the war in October, Israel has shifted its position on what needs to be done to eliminate Hamas in an effort to prolong and expand the war.

For example, Israel first argued that Hamas’s headquarters was located at al-Shifa Hospital in Gaza City — an allegation that proved to be false, despite being backed by US officials.

Now, Khalil said Israel has changed its stance, asserting instead that “Hamas is actually located in Rafah. All their guys are in Rafah.”

But, he added, Israel still has to justify restricting access to the north.

“Why can’t we let Palestinians go back to northern Gaza? Because Hamas is still there. We have to do ‘mop-up operations’,” Khalil said, mimicking Israeli officials.

He added that Israel is ultimately setting the stage for an open-ended war.

The day after

As the war rages, US and Israeli officials have been openly discussing what may come after the fighting ends.

Netanyahu wants the Israeli military to exercise indefinite control over Gaza — a possibility his own Defence Minister Yoav Gallant rejected last week, calling instead for a Palestinian entity to replace Hamas’s governance.

But what entity might fill that void? Experts doubt the PA’s ability to assert control over Gaza.

In 2006, for instance, the PA lost a bruising legislative election to Hamas, and the following year, tensions erupted into violence between the two groups. Hamas routed the forces of Fatah — the faction that dominates the PA — in days and ultimately took control of Gaza.

Questions also remain over what the US push for a “reformed” PA means. President Abbas — elected to a four-year term in 2005 — is now 88 years old. Notably, Washington has not called for an election to determine new leadership for the PA.

“Bringing Fatah back or the PA back on the back of an Israeli tank will absolutely not work. That’s obvious,” Duss said. “You need some kind of local Gaza leadership that is willing to do this. And given the fact that we understand that Hamas will continue to have a presence in Gaza, it will require some measure of buy-in from Hamas.”

But the US and Israel have ruled out involving Hamas in any discussions about Gaza’s future.

Last week, Gantz suggested de-militarising Gaza and forming an international coalition with “American, European, Arab and Palestinian elements” to oversee its civil affairs.

That plan has its own set of hurdles, including getting foreign countries to agree to participate in governing Gaza.

Khalil said that even if Israel succeeds in going after all of Hamas’s battalions, the remaining Palestinian fighters will stay active.

“This is a fantasy that you’re going to insert a NATO peacekeeping force,” he said. “And then what happens when the first roadside bomb goes off?”

The bottom line, Shapiro said, is that Israel is focused on the destruction of Gaza, not its future, and the US is fully backing the war regardless of its stated plans.

“I don’t know that anybody has a real idea about what governance in Gaza could look like in the aftermath of this.”

Source: Al Jazeera