The Gaza war needs a smart exit strategy

Gaza is an unwinnable conflict and Israel and Palestine, bound by geography and destiny, will need to search for major climb-downs

April 03, 2024 12:16 am | Updated 09:58 am IST

‘When it relates to the future and a two-state solution, all parties will have to go back to the drawing board’

‘When it relates to the future and a two-state solution, all parties will have to go back to the drawing board’ | Photo Credit: AFP

On March 25, 2024, there was finally some good news in the ongoing conflict in Gaza when the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) adopted a resolution demanding an immediate ceasefire in Gaza during Ramadan, while also calling for the immediate and unconditional release of all hostages. This was the UNSC’s first successfully passed resolution calling for a ceasefire since the war in the Gaza Strip following the brutal terror attack by Hamas last October in southern Israel. The previous four resolutions in the UNSC had failed due to veto, thrice exercised by the United States. The U.S., however, abstained this time and ‘let the resolution pass’.

What the recent UNSC resolution means for Palestinians in Gaza

The resolution this time drew mixed reactions. Israel was the first to react, with its Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu alleging that the U.S. had “abandoned its policy in the UN” and was, therefore, harming the war effort and the measures for the release of Israeli hostages in Hamas’s custody. Israel also cancelled the visit of its ministerial delegation to Washington which was scheduled to discuss the offensive in Rafah and other options. In an almost immediate U-turn, under Israeli pressure, the U.S. came out with a statement that the UN Resolution is ‘non-binding’ and that Israel can continue what it is doing in Gaza, making a mockery of the whole process in the UNSC. Hamas, on the other hand, initially welcomed the ceasefire resolution, but on March 26, reiterated its position on a permanent ceasefire accompanied by a complete withdrawal of Israeli forces from Gaza. As a result, the initial euphoria and hopes for an early ceasefire have very quickly turned into a ‘back to square one’ position.

The war grinds on

With no assurance that the ceasefire will actually take shape, the focus is now back to the joint efforts of Egypt and Qatar — these countries have been separately negotiating for an early ceasefire. Meanwhile, Israel has upped the ante. It launched an attack on the Al Shifa hospital in Gaza for the second time, again resulting in heavy civilian casualties. The airstrikes and bombing in Rafah too have intensified in the past few days. Reports also indicate Israel targeting Southern Lebanon, killing civilians. Meanwhile, Hezbollah has intensified its missile strikes into Northern Israel, inflicting damage to key military assets and loss of lives. Houthis in the south continue to disrupt and block Israeli, U.S. and British ships in the Red Sea, causing heavy economic losses for Israel and its allies. As in the latest estimates, the war in Gaza has resulted in the loss of over 32,000 lives in Gaza. Meanwhile, in a clear act of provocation, an Israeli strike in Syria targeted the Iranian Consulate in Damascus, killing a senior Al Quds leader on April 1, adding to the dangers of an enlarged conflict.

War objectives, their status

When Israel launched its counter-offensive into Gaza on October 7, it stated three clear aims: to flatten Gaza; eliminate Hamas, and get back all its hostages. With the war well into its sixth month, it is important to review each of these aims. Yes, Israel has flattened Gaza, in fact so badly that many who have been on the ground seem to suggest that Gaza will be virtually uninhabitable for years. Israel has also, in the past few weeks, flattened a kilometre-wide stretch along the border with Gaza, with the intention of converting it into a buffer zone later.

Editorial | A new low: On Israel’s Gaza war and the U.S. response

Second, the destruction of Hamas. The best estimates suggest that Israel has succeeded in eliminating only 30% of an estimated 30,000 Hamas fighters. Hamas’s fighting potential remains intact while the supply of rockets and ammunition has not dried up. Also, the mastermind of Hamas’s military operations, Yahya Sinwar, continues to evade Israeli forces.

Third, except for the exchange of a few hostages during a brief ‘humanitarian pause’ last November, Israel has not been able to rescue its hostages. In fact, around 32 hostages are reported to have been killed in cross fire in the war, leading to an uproar and protests against Mr. Netanyahu in Israel.

For Hamas, it was a question of two clear objectives. The first is to remind the world that while talks of normalisation and reconciliation between Israel and the Arab world could go on, the cause for a Palestinian state could not be lost sight of. The second is to expose to the world, and especially its support base, the false sense of the invincibility of the Israeli military and its intelligence services. Hamas has succeeded on both counts. When it unleashed terror on Israel on October 7, Hamas would have calculated the costs of an Israeli counter-offensive into Gaza. For Hamas, it was not about winning the war militarily but making its voice heard.

It is always easy to start a war but very difficult to decide when and how to call it off. Ceasefires often occur more due to stalemated situations or international pressure and less on account of military and political objectives. The U.S. war in Afghanistan is a classic example. Launched in October 2001 with the aim of ‘finishing off Al-Qaeda’, it became a war that dragged on till the U.S. finally made a messy exit in August 2021. The U.S. war in Iraq in 2003 is another example of a military offensive without a clearly defined exit strategy. The result? Although the Iraqi President, Saddam Hussein, was defeated within weeks, the war of attrition continued for years. The ongoing Russia-Ukraine war too has dragged on for over two years with no ceasefire or exit.

Impact on Israel

Israel, therefore, has to be mindful of the possibilities and the consequences of a prolonged conflict which has military, economic and political costs. The Israeli Army has suffered losses and injuries to its personnel. Its economy is shrinking rapidly, with some estimates showing a decline of almost 20%. Politically, it is becoming difficult for Mr. Netanyahu to hold on to his position, domestically and internationally. The U.S., Israel’s staunchest ally, has, in the past few weeks, made it clear that Israel has to restrain itself and cannot bank upon blanket support for any Israeli action in Gaza.

Israel launched the offensive in a state of rage and revenge. However, after the initial onslaught, and instead of reviewing its war strategy and politico-military objectives, it continues to unleash punitive strikes into Gaza. Israel, therefore, needs to work out a clear and achievable end state. Militarily, Gaza has been defeated, but Hamas, as an organisation, is unlikely to be eliminated.

What is the most viable option then for Israel? An early ceasefire, withdrawal of forces from the Gaza Strip and using the recently flattened one kilometre strip along the Gaza border as surveillance cum buffer zone, under 24X7 surveillance, to prevent a recurrence of ‘another 07th October’, could be a possibility. On hostages, Hamas would most likely agree to an exchange of hostages once Israel agrees to the above.

When it relates to the future and a two-state solution, all parties will have to go back to the drawing board and search for a time-bound and acceptable solution. Israel and Palestine are bound by geography and destiny and the solution for a peaceful future will have to include major compromises and climb-downs from previously stated positions. If all this is agreed upon, both sides can then ensure a face-saving and smart exit from what is an unwinnable war in Gaza.

Rajeev Agarwal, a retired colonel, is the Assistant Director of the Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (MP-IDSA), New Delhi. He has served as Director in the Ministry of External Affairs and as Director, Military Intelligence

0 / 0
Sign in to unlock member-only benefits!
  • Access 10 free stories every month
  • Save stories to read later
  • Access to comment on every story
  • Sign-up/manage your newsletter subscriptions with a single click
  • Get notified by email for early access to discounts & offers on our products
Sign in


Comments have to be in English, and in full sentences. They cannot be abusive or personal. Please abide by our community guidelines for posting your comments.

We have migrated to a new commenting platform. If you are already a registered user of The Hindu and logged in, you may continue to engage with our articles. If you do not have an account please register and login to post comments. Users can access their older comments by logging into their accounts on Vuukle.