This picture taken on October 11, 2023 shows an aerial view of buildings destroyed by Israeli air strikes in the Jabalia camp for Palestinian refugees in Gaza City.
Yahya Hassouna | AFP | Getty Images
The unprecedented outbreak of violence between Israel and Palestinian militant group Hamas this week has led many geopolitical experts to question when the conflict will end and, ultimately, whether peace can ever be achieved between the sworn enemies.
Israeli forces appear to be preparing to launch a ground operation on Gaza, having massed at the border of the Hamas-run territory. Israel has already blockaded the region, cutting off water, electricity, fuel and food supplies to its 2.3 million impoverished inhabitants, after Hamas’ unprecedented attack on Israel at the weekend.
Middle East experts believe the conflict is about to enter a more destructive phase, and say the outcome of the war is uncertain. There is widespread pessimism at the prospects of a near-term de-escalation in the violence between Israel and Hamas, with civilians expected to bear the brunt of the fighting.
“There’s no doubt in my mind, sadly, that it will get worse before it’s get better,” Yossi Mekelberg, associate fellow in the Middle East and North Africa Programme at Chatham House, told CNBC Wednesday.
“We don’t know [for sure] but there’s likely to be a ground campaign, this is the reality right now. Israel took time to regroup and mobilize its reservists and now they are ready on the borders with Lebanon, more to contain, and with Gaza, ready to attack,” he said.
An Israeli army self-propelled howitzer fires rounds near the border with Gaza in southern Israel on Oct. 11, 2023.
Jack Guez | AFP | Getty Images
Hamas launched a deadly assault on Israel on Oct. 7, killing hundreds of Israeli civilians and taking around 130 more hostage. An initially stunned Israel responded by mobilizing reservists and launching relentless airstrikes on the Gaza Strip.
Israel’s border communities have since been evacuated and the military said Tuesday it had regained control of the Gaza-Israel border, through which Hamas had launched its surprise offensive.
In the meantime, however, the al-Qassam armed wing of Hamas launched hundreds of missiles at the southern Israeli city of Ashkelon, saying the attack was “in response to the displacement of civilians.”
Amid the ongoing violence, an accurate death toll is difficult to ascertain but the figures as of 7:30 a.m. ET Thursday indicate that the total number of people killed is over 2,600 and the number of injured is approximately 9,500.
Experts agree that the next week will be critical in determining the wider risks that could arise from the Israel-Hamas war, and warn that a wider, regional conflict drawing in Israel’s neighbors and nemeses is a distinct risk.
Here, CNBC looks at a number of possible outcomes of the conflict, ranging from a degraded and potentially destroyed Hamas to an international intervention and a cease-fire.
Israel has vowed to “wipe out” Hamas once and for all, with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu promising to “defeat them to death.”
Having pummeled Gaza with airstrikes for days, the expectation is that the Israel Defense Forces, or IDF, will launch a ground invasion of the territory imminently, with analysts believing little to no mercy will be shown as Israel pledges to “crush and destroy” what it says are Hamas strongholds.
Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant, speaking to soldiers near the Gaza fence, said Tuesday: “Hamas wanted a change and it will get one. What was in Gaza will no longer be.”
“We started the offensive from the air, later on we will also come from the ground. We’ve been controlling the area since Day 2 and we are on the offensive. It will only intensify,” he added in the comments reported by Reuters.
People mourn at the graveside of Eden Guez, who was killed as she attended a festival that was attacked by Hamas gunmen from Gaza that left at least 260 people dead, at her funeral in Ashkelon, in southern Israel, October 10, 2023.
Violeta Santos Moura | Reuters
Analysts say the language being used by Israeli authorities indicates that there will no return to the status quo of sporadic violence, rocket attacks, skirmishes and short-lived but intense fighting between Israel and Hamas that have characterized the last 18 years. Hamas took full control of Gaza in 2007 following Israel’s withdrawal from the territory in 2005.
“The rhythm of the Israel-Hamas conflict had become increasingly routine, with regular Hamas terrorism followed by predictable Israeli reprisals … This routine is no more,” William F. Wechsler, senior director of the Rafik Hariri Center and Middle East Programs at the Atlantic Council, commented in analysis this week.
“The Israeli military response will reflect that reality, with ground operations accompanying air strikes. The likely result will be a significantly degraded Hamas and substantial destruction within Gaza,” he noted.
“And just as 9/11 proved to be a long-term strategic mistake for Al Qaeda, 10/7 will likely prove to be a similar strategic mistake for Hamas.”
Former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak told CNBC’s “Squawk Box” Wednesday that Israeli ground forces would take over the Gaza Strip in a matter of days. However, he did acknowledge that seizing Gaza City could be more complicated given the likely need for ground forces to go building to building to gain complete control of the city, which could take several weeks.
Barak conceded that it was uncertain what would happen to Gaza after the operation, mooting the possibility that another Arab nation could take over the territory’s administration temporarily. For now, he said, the main aim was to “paralyze” Hamas’ military capabilities.
The human cost of Israel’s attempt to eradicate Hamas — given that Palestinians are currently unable to leave Gaza — is of grave concern to humanitarian organizations and observers like Chatham House’s Mekelberg.
“Many civilians have already been killed on the Palestinian side and if you are using this amount of power, if there’s a ground campaign, there will be many more,” Mekelberg said.
“How many? Nobody will be able to tell you. I just hope they are able to minimize it. I hope there’s real understanding that no one can benefit from dead civilians or the destruction of infrastructure, but sadly in war, that’s going to happen and everyone is going to have to live with the consequences.”
“I think it’s important to realize that we are in a completely new situation after what happened in Israel. The level of tolerance is now below zero,” he said.
Whole neighborhoods have already been flattened in Gaza and water supplies running low. The U.N. said Wednesday that 263,000 men, women and children have been displaced across Gaza with thousands of homes damaged or destroyed.
One possible outcome of the current war that is far harder to predict is whether Israel’s neighbors, many of whom are latently or overtly hostile to the Israeli state, will get involved. Hamas has allies in Syria and Lebanon, for instance, and Iran is its de-facto paymaster.
Israeli soldiers gather near Armoured Personnel Carriers (APCs) near Israel’s border with Lebanon, northern Israel, October 9, 2023.
Ammar Awad | Reuters
Israeli forces have already launched rockets into southern Lebanon, targeting sites it said belong to Iranian-affiliated armed group Hezbollah which, like Hamas, has the explicit aim of destroying Israel.
Syria, on Israel’s northern border, is also an unpredictable entity, although there are hopes it can be largely kept in check by Russia, with whom Israel has warm(-ish) relations.
Some other nearby countries, like Saudi Arabia, have been put in an awkward position by the conflict.
Saudi Arabia and Israel — bound by a mutual disdain and distrust of Iran and Hamas, if not much else — were exploring a rapprochement ahead of Hamas’ attack, but Riyadh is now under pressure from its Muslim population to support the Palestinian people.
In any case, Israel is counting on, and has received, an outpouring of support from Western nations, with its allies stating that they are ready to provide the state with moral and material support. The U.S. has already sent a shipment of weapons.
Visiting Tel Aviv Thursday, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken offered reassurances of ongoing U.S. support to Netanyahu on Thursday, stating: “We’re here, we’re not going anywhere.”
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Berlin in March 2023.
Sean Gallup | Getty Images News | Getty Images
Experts agree that Israel has a window of opportunity to act but that some international partners might back off if the conflict escalates to engulf neighboring countries, or causes a humanitarian crisis on a massive scale.
“The coming days and weeks are likely not only going to drive the future of Israel’s security, but they may well also drive the future of its place in the region,” Jonathan Panikoff, director of the Scowcroft Middle East Security Initiative in the Middle East Programs at the Atlantic Council, said in analysis this week.
“Israel, as is often the case, will have some bandwidth from the international community in the coming days to launch a retaliatory strike. But the longer a war goes and the more carnage there is, the international community will begin to call for all sides to de-escalate,” he noted.
“Jerusalem is unlikely to accede to that request unless it views that it has achieved at least some of its objectives,” he noted.
He noted that while Saudi Arabia may be “privately supportive” of Israel’s efforts to quash Hamas, the Arab world is unlikely to be, “especially as images from television, print, and X (formerly Twitter) highlight death and destruction in Gaza and potentially Lebanon.”
Some countries, namely China and Russia, have called for a cease-fire in Israel, saying only diplomacy and a two-state solution — which envisages an independent State of Palestine alongside the State of Israel — will bring about peace and stability.
For now, however, a cease-fire looks nigh-on impossible, with the conflict likely about to enter a “hot” phase of active operations on the ground.
Geopolitical analysts say one of the biggest impediments to peace is a prior lack of international interest in such an outcome before the war broke out.
“I wish there was as much international interest in achieving peace as there is when there is bloodshed,” Mekelberg said. “Maybe then we could have averted such disasters and I think everyone should take responsibility for that.”
While he bore some hope that the current violence could act as a catalyst for a renewed push for peace and “an alternative way of coexistence” for Israelis and Palestinians, in whatever form that might take, Mekelberg said those who promoted peace, as he did, were like “voices in the wilderness.”
For now, amid bitterness and bloodshed following days of ferocious violence in Israel and Gaza, there is only talk of winners and losers.