The Implications of Israel’s Assault on Gaza

  • Mahmood Monshipouri

    Mahmood Monshipouri, PhD, is professor of International Relations at San Francisco State University. He is the editor of Why Human Rights Still Matter in Contemporary Global Affairs, New York: Routledge, 2020.

With a growing civilian death toll and war crimes allegations, how does the conflict affect Tel Aviv’s relationships with the Palestinians, its allies, and the region? 

Since the brutal and reprehensible October 7 attack by Hamas, which saw hundreds of civilians killed and more than two hundred taken hostage, Israel has moved from its traditional posture of self-defense to the collective punishment of civilians in Gaza, focusing on the greatest amount of damage rather than accuracy in target selection throughout the densely populated enclave. Approximately half of the munitions Israel has used in Gaza since the war began have been unguided bombs, according to a recent US intelligence assessment—a fact that may help explain the climbing civilian deaths.i 

Most recently, the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) has brought war crimes allegations concerning events that occurred in Gaza City on December 19, 2023, when witnesses accused the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) of attacking a building where several families were taking shelter. “The IDF allegedly separated the men from the women and children, and then shot and killed at least 11 of the men, mostly aged in their late 20’s and early 30’s, in front of their family members.”ii  

The allegations sound the alarm regarding the potential for such crimes in the face of ongoing claims about the deliberate targeting and killing of civilians by Israeli forces. The facts on the ground are unmistakably clear: Nearly two million displaced, thousands of homes destroyed, more than 26,000 dead, and some 65,387 wounded. About 70 percent of the dead are women and children, according to relief agencies and Gaza health officials. Some 10,000 of the dead are children under the age of 18, and nearly 8,000 more are reported to be missing, presumed dead, or trapped under wreckage.iii Rafah, a small town next to the Egyptian border once home to 300,000 people, now houses nearly half of the Gaza Strip’s pre-war population of 2.2 million as more flee their homes.iv  

The death toll is clearly out of alignment with Israel’s stated military objectives, and the current operations in Gaza continue to put many more women and children at risk. Furthermore, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has noted that UN agencies and their partners “cannot effectively deliver humanitarian aid while Gaza is under such heavy, widespread and unrelenting bombardment.”v According to some reports, “at least 152 UN staffers have been killed in Gaza since the start of the war.”vi 

It is hard to avoid the conclusion that this is a war against civilians, given the relentless and indiscriminate attacks on civilian infrastructure with no endgame in sight. The restricting of electricity, water, fuel, and internet by Israel has made many health facilities in Gaza dysfunctional and inhumane. Israel is deliberately using starvation of Palestinians as a weapon of war; the use of hunger against a civilian population, according to Human Rights Watch, is a war crime. Those Gaza residents who have thus far survived the military operations now face the rapid spread of disease and epidemic. In the past two weeks, according to the World Health Organization (WHO), cases of jaundice, respiratory infections, and diarrhea have seen a dramatic spike in children under five, as well as increases in the rest of the population.vii  

The human toll of the war in Gaza is neither morally nor strategically defensible, and the use of blockades and restrictions on the Gazans’ basic necessities has led to a spiraling humanitarian disaster. The indiscriminate Israeli bombing campaign of civilian centers and refugee camps flatly contradicts the notion that Israel’s military actions are based on the right to defend itself.viii Recent reports indicate that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has urged US President Biden and other American officials to pressure Egypt into opening its border with Gaza and accepting Palestinian refugees. Some within the Israeli government, such as Col. Yogev Bar-Sheshet, have openly talked about razing Gaza’s towns, buildings, schools, mosques, and hospitals to the ground by making the Strip uninhabitable: “Whoever returns here, if they return here, will find scorched earth. No houses, no agriculture, no nothing. They have no future.”ix  

It is noteworthy that South Africa’s 84-page case before the International Court of Justice (ICJ) is replete with damaging evidence that Israel has violated its obligations to prevent genocide under the 1948 UN Genocide Convention. Many experts argue that the legal case against Israel is compelling and could lay groundwork for sanctions against the state or the prosecution of its officials.x If the evidence of genocide is established by the ICJ, the US could be implicated via association, a crime according to international law.xi This is largely a result of the arms the US has provided to Israel that are being now used in Gaza. Since the war began on October 7, according to Euro-Med Human Rights Monitor, Washington has sent Israel vast quantities of offensive weapons and ammunition, including at least 15,000 bombs and 57,000 artillery shells. Given the numerous war crimes being committed in the enclave, the airlift of billions of dollars in ammunition from the US to Israel has raised serious concerns about the legitimacy of the flow of such weapons during this time.xii South Africa’s lawyers argue that Israel’s attacks on Gaza are noticeably disproportionate to the crimes of Oct. 7 and that self-defense cannot account for acts of genocide.xiii 

The deliberate targeting of the civilian population in Gaza, on the assumption that Hamas has built its infrastructure beneath civilian residential areas, also amounts to war crimes and will most likely undermine the effectiveness of any future deterrence. Israel’s punishing response is reminiscent of the US military interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq that were initially aimed at demolishing al-Qaeda’s bases and operations in that country, eventually toppling the Taliban regime in Afghanistan and Saddam Hussein in Iraq. In those cases, as well as in Gaza currently, the endgame was unclear beyond achieving these immediate goals of destruction in civilian areas. In the end, US military officials became convinced that they could not simply kill or capture their way out of a complex local resistance.xiv 

There are several lessons to be applied insofar as the Israeli military campaign in Gaza is concerned. First, US military interventions in Vietnam, Afghanistan, and Iraq have underscored the perils of pursuing prolonged, divisive, and costly military interventions. Second, Hamas’s military structure and bases in Gaza can be eradicated, but the idea and the movement of resistance against occupation and the struggle for self-determination cannot. Finally, regional peace and stability cannot be attained if any future negotiations involving Israel and the Palestinians fail to culminate in a political settlement based on a two-state solution.  

 The open-ended building of new illegal settlements in the West Bank and the scaling up of old ones has significantly undermined the viability of a two-state solution. Many observers have warned against the potential threats that the ongoing construction of such settlements, illegal under international law, can pose. For too long, former President Jimmy Carter wrote in 2006, Israeli leaders have been “imposing a system of partial withdrawal, encapsulation, and apartheid on the Muslim and Christian citizens of the occupied territories. The driving purpose for the forced separation of the two peoples is unlike that in South Africa—not racism, but acquisition of land.”xv  

A similar consensus has now emerged among the observers of the Gaza crisis, a consensus that maintains that a two-state solution should be an inevitable part of any post-war negotiations. It is noteworthy that Netanyahu and the far-right extremists in his cabinet have long propped up Hamas in an attempt to cripple the strength of the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank, while also using this as part of the strategy of “buying quiet” in Gaza.xvi Critics disparage this approach and argue for holding Netanyahu accountable for the deteriorating conditions on the ground. Israeli settlers and soldiers have frequently attacked Palestinian residents in the occupied West Bank—some 300 Palestinians had been killed there since Oct. 7, a report from the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) has found.xvii  

These attacks outside of Gaza have already expanded that war into the broader Israel-Palestine conflict. What precisely Israel’s endgame is remains an open question, as the Netanyahu administration is not apparently preparing for the war to end anytime soon. The IDF has assessed that fighting in Gaza will likely last throughout all of 2024 in order to eradicate Hamas’ military infrastructure.xviii Military chief Herzi Halevi, according to one source, has warned that Israel’s gains made over the last four months of fighting could be lost due to the lack of a plan for post-conflict management and security of the enclave. The lack of preparation for a so-called “day after” in Gaza, as Israel signals a transition in its military campaign against Hamas, has raised growing concerns inside the country’s leadership.  

The resultant vast destruction and high death toll, over time, could undermine Israel’s economy and international standing, while fostering a sense of revenge among a new generation of Palestinians.xix To many Palestinians, the Israeli response to Hamas in the form of collective punishment of Gaza’s residents is cruel and dehumanizing. “There is a lot of horror around the response, but despite that,” says Abdaljawad Hamayel, a lecturer at Birzeit University in the West Bank, “Hamas is now undoubtedly the leader of Palestinian nationalism. It is now the one holding the cards.”xx Jon B. Alterman, the director of the Middle East Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C., argues that the group views success not just in terms of military victory, but political outcomes. In the long-term, a protracted struggle can mean that “Hamas rallies a besieged population in Gaza around it in anger and helps collapse the Palestinian Authority government by ensuring Palestinians see it even more as a feckless adjunct to Israeli military authority.”xxi  

The war’s regional and global implications also merit particular attention. The assassination of Hamas deputy leader Saleh al-Arouri in Beirut on January 2, 2024, by Israel could precipitate the spread of this conflict to the neighboring country of Lebanon. Arab states would be unlikely to continue normalization talks with Israel. In such a situation, Alterman lays out, one can imagine that the Global South would show solidarity with the Palestinian cause, Europe may begin criticizing Israeli military excesses, and the domestic American debate will intensify, undermining the bipartisan support Israel has long enjoyed. The possibility of the spread of this conflict across the region could spur global debates about the cost of an alliance with Israel.xxii 

As in so many US military interventions, it is difficult to foretell what the aftermath of war in Gaza might look like. What is clear is that the Israeli military campaign might weaken or even demolish Hamas infrastructure in Gaza, but risks its own long-term security by radicalizing a new generation of Palestinians against Israeli occupation of their lands. Also, at stake is Washington’s credibility in the Middle East, especially since the US has voted against or abstained from UN General Assembly calls for a ceasefire and for allowing the passage of aid to Gaza. The delivery of relief for Gazans is impossible in the face Israel’s ongoing airstrikes. Without a ceasefire, very little can be done to effectively end one of the world’s worst humanitarian disasters.xxiii 

Likewise, Israel’s attempts to normalize its relations with the Arab countries by focusing solely on economic issues while bypassing the Palestinian issue has backfired in the aftermath of the Gaza conflict. More noticeably, the crisis has exposed the Biden administration’s failure to put its leverage behind a diplomatic solution, including a two-state outcome, which it has long supported in its rhetoric. As a result, US credibility and diplomatic influence has significantly dwindled in the Middle East. Likewise, Israelis will face harsh criticism from the international community. What Hamas operatives did on October 7 was atrocious and wicked; the IDF operations in Gaza that have followed also raise serious questions about potential war crimes. Two wrongs do not make a right, as the saying goes. Proponents of the invasion of Gaza ought to take a second look at lessons learned from the US military interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq. In both cases, the cost of military interventions and occupation was enormous, created local pushback and resistance, and caused great civilian suffering and long-term failed political outcomes. The US intervention failed to eventually stave off the Taliban’s return to Afghanistan, and the emergence of the Islamic State in Iran and Syria (ISIS) in Iraq, Syria, and the rest of the Arabian Peninsula has posed new and difficult challenges to the region’s stability. 


The views and opinions expressed here are solely those of the author and do not represent the positions of the Middle East Policy Council.

  • Mahmood Monshipouri

    Mahmood Monshipouri, PhD, is professor of International Relations at San Francisco State University. He is the editor of Why Human Rights Still Matter in Contemporary Global Affairs, New York: Routledge, 2020.

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