Five Months of War: Where Israel, Hamas, and the U.S. Stand
from Middle East Program

Five Months of War: Where Israel, Hamas, and the U.S. Stand

An Israeli tank drives along Israel’s border with the Gaza Strip.
An Israeli tank drives along Israel’s border with the Gaza Strip. Jack Guez/AFP/Getty Images

The death toll from the Israel-Hamas war continues to mount, with no lasting settlement in sight. Meanwhile, concerns about humanitarian catastrophe and regional violence are spreading.

March 8, 2024 4:45 pm (EST)

An Israeli tank drives along Israel’s border with the Gaza Strip.
An Israeli tank drives along Israel’s border with the Gaza Strip. Jack Guez/AFP/Getty Images
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In five months of war, how has Israel fared in achieving its aim of eliminating Hamas?

It is hard to say. The Israelis have certainly done considerable damage to Hamas, which is no longer capable of firing rockets into Israel and has seen thousands of its fighters either killed, wounded, or captured. Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant has averred that Hamas has ceased to be an organized fighting force in the northern Gaza Strip, and that the residual fighting is between units of the Israeli military, known as the Israel Defense Forces (IDF), and small numbers of Hamas fighters acting on their own.

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The south is a somewhat different story. The city of Khan Younis remains a combat zone, and the Israelis are intent on carrying out an operation in the city of Rafah, near the Egyptian border, because there are four Hamas battalions holed up there. In addition, the group’s Gaza-based leadership is believed to be in tunnels below the city.

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As far as the military toll, the IDF reports that almost 250 soldiers have been killed in action since group operations began, bringing the total IDF deaths since Hamas’s October 7 assault on Israel to more than 500. The number of Hamas fighters killed is unclear. The Israelis claim that they have killed thirteen thousand Hamas fighters, but that figure has not been independently verified. The U.S. government estimates that the number of Hamas fighters killed is likely lower.

What is the war’s humanitarian impact at this point, and how do you gauge the international response?

By all measures, the humanitarian situation in the Gaza Strip is dire. Almost the entire population of about two million has been displaced. Around one million people are crammed into Rafah, which prior to the war was home to about one-third of that. Food, shelter, water, and medicine are hard to come by. Currently, about a quarter of Gaza’s residents—five hundred thousand people—are food insecure. The United Nations and international nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) are warning of famine. Aid delivered through Egypt has been slow and uncertain given the fighting, cumbersome Israeli security checks, and banditry. The situation has gotten so bad that U.S. Central Command has begun delivering assistance from the air. Air drops are not an efficient way of delivering food, however, which is why the Joe Biden administration is proposing to build a pier off of Gaza’s coast to facilitate aid shipments.

Israel’s planned assault on the city of Rafah promises to make the humanitarian situation worse. The Biden administration has made clear that Israel needs to have a credible plan to protect civilians in the event of an operation, but Palestinians in Gaza are confronted with the fact that there is no place left for them to seek safety.

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Skirmishes between Israel and Lebanon’s Hezbollah continue, as do attacks by the Yemen-based Houthis in the Red Sea. How serious is the escalation beyond Gaza, and what are the risks of it spreading further?

It is serious. Israel and Hezbollah have been trading blows since October 8. In accordance with UN Security Council Resolution 1701 [PDF], which was passed at the end of the 2006 conflict between Israel and Hezbollah, the Israelis want Hezbollah to withdraw to the Litani River. That would leave them about twenty miles (thirty-two kilometers) north of the Israel-Lebanon border. U.S. and French diplomats, at the forefront of de-escalation efforts, have struggled to find a way to get Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah to agree to redeploy his forces. As diplomacy has bogged down, Israel and Hezbollah have engaged in bolder and deeper strikes into each other’s territory. It is important to remember that Iran has supplied Hezbollah with more than one hundred thousand rockets that can hit across Israeli territory. A war would be devastating for both Israel and Lebanon, but Israeli officials argue that after the events of October 7, they can no longer tolerate Hezbollah forces at their border.

Elsewhere, Yemen’s Houthis—another member of Iran’s axis of resistance—have been firing ballistic missiles at Israel and attacking shipping in the Red Sea. Israel’s missile defense system, the Arrow, has successfully knocked out the Houthi missiles. At the same time, the United States and the United Kingdom are engaged in military operations to ensure freedom of navigation in the Red Sea. But after two months of American-led attacks, the Houthis have continued their operations. They claim that they will stop once Israel withdraws from the Gaza Strip, but that seems unlikely given that the attacks are not limited to Israeli shipping or vessels bound for Israeli ports. Moreover, the Houthis—and their Iranian patrons—now have leverage in the international economy that they had never before enjoyed. They are unlikely to give that up even in the unlikely event that the Israelis withdraw.

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Has the Biden administration position shifted its approach to the war?

Only rhetorically, with the use of “cease-fire” as opposed to previous formulations such as “humanitarian pause.” As the full extent of the humanitarian crisis in Gaza has come to light, the administration has sharpened its public criticism of Israel, but it has not backed away from the two pillars of President Biden’s position on the October 7 terrorist attacks: Israel has a right to defend itself and Hamas must be destroyed.

There is one area where the president has changed his view, however. Prior to the war, Biden evinced little or no interest in a U.S. effort to push a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. He has now put his administration squarely behind the idea of two states—Israel and Palestine—living side by side and in peace. The challenge for Biden and his advisors is the enormous difficulty in how to get there—a barrier his predecessors who sought the same outcome also discovered. In Biden’s case, the challenges are even greater given that opposition to a two-state solution has only increased among the Israeli public since the war with Hamas began. At the same time, public support for Hamas has grown among Palestinians in the West Bank even amid a growing body of evidence that Palestinians in Gaza place at least part of the blame for their present circumstances on Hamas.

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