Three months after the current conflict began, civilians have borne the brunt of the violence on both sides, with the deaths of more than 22,000 Palestinians in Gaza and 1,200 Israelis. Some 85% of Gazans have also been displaced and a quarter of the population is facing a famine, according to the United Nations.
The conflict still has a long way to run and may be headed towards stalemate. From a geopolitical perspective, here’s where the main players stand at the start of the new year.
Israel: limited success …
Israel has so far failed to achieve either of its primary war aims: the destruction of Hamas and freedom for the remainder of the 240 Israelis taken hostage on October 7.
Hamas fighters continue to use their tunnel network to ambush Israeli soldiers and are firing rockets at Israel, albeit in much lower volumes: 27 were fired at the start of the new year, compared with 3,000 in the first hours of the conflict on October 7.
There are still around 130 Israelis being held hostage, and only one hostage has been freed by the Israeli Defence Forces (IDF), as opposed to releases arranged through Qatari and Egyptian mediators. Israeli society is divided between those who want to prioritise negotiations to release the hostages and those who want to prioritise the elimination of Hamas.
Israel achieved an important symbolic success with the apparent targeted killing of Hamas deputy leader Saleh al-Arouri in Beirut on January 2. Though Israel has not formally claimed responsibility, there is little doubt it was behind the killing.
But the two Gaza–based Hamas leaders Israel most wants to eliminate, political leader Yahya Sinwar and military leader Mohammed Deif, are still at large.
Israel still has US support in the UN Security Council, which has managed to pass only one toothless resolution since the war began. But the Biden administration is publicly pressuring Israel to change its tactics to minimise Palestinian casualties.
…and facing a ‘day after’ conundrum
The Israeli government is also divided on how Gaza should be run when the fighting stops.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has said he won’t accept Gaza remaining “Hamastan” (Hamas-controlled) or becoming “Fatahstan” (ruled by the Palestinian Authority, which is dominated by the secular Fatah party). US President Joe Biden prefers a Gaza government led by a reformed Palestinian Authority, but Netanyahu has rejected this and has not articulated an alternative plan.
Defence Minister Yoav Gallant this week outlined what seems to be his own plan for Gaza, involving governance by unspecified Palestinian authorities. His plan did not immediately have Israeli cabinet approval and has been slammed by hard-right ministers.
Two of these, Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich and National Security Minister Itamar Ben–Gvir, have called for a solution that encourages the Palestinian population to emigrate and for Israeli settlers to return to the strip. That would be unacceptable to the Biden administration.
Israel’s massive bombing campaign has also slowly turned international opinion against it, as expressed in the UN General Assembly vote last month in which 153 of the 193 member states called for a ceasefire.
Are Netanyahu’s days now numbered? The current issue of The Economist features a headline that reads “Binyamin Netanyahu is botching the war. Time to sack him”. Whether or not that’s a fair judgement, it’s clear that internal divisions and indecision within his government are hindering Israel’s prosecution of the war.
Hamas – still standing
The militant group has obviously been hurt. Israel claims to have killed or captured between 8,000 and 9,000 of Hamas’ approximately 30,000–strong fighting force – though it has not explained how it calculates militant deaths.
Hamas’ main achievement is that it is still standing. To win, the militant group does not have to defeat Israel – it needs merely to survive the IDF onslaught.
Hamas can claim some positives. Its attack on October 7 has put the Palestinian issue at the top of the Middle East agenda.
Citizens in the Arab states that have signed peace agreements with Israel are clearly angry. And an Israeli-Saudi agreement to normalise relations between the countries, which had been imminent before the conflict, is off the table for now.
Opinion polling also shows support for Hamas has risen from 12% to 44% in the West Bank and from 38% to 42% in Gaza in the past three months. If it were possible to hold fair Palestinian elections now, they could produce results Israel and the US would not like.
United States – weakness in dealing with Israel
Biden embraced Netanyahu immediately after the Hamas attack, but US efforts since then to influence Israel’s war plans have not yielded any results.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken failed in his effort to persuade Israel to end the war by the start of the new year. His current visit to the region is unlikely to yield any major changes.
Moreover, divisions in the US may hurt Biden in the lead–up to the presidential election in November. Young, college–educated progressives, who tend to vote Democratic, have taken part in demonstrations against Biden’s public support for Israel’s right to defend itself, if not its way of doing so.
These progressives won’t vote for the almost–certain Republican candidate, Donald Trump. But they could stay home on election day, handing the election to Trump.
US support for Ukraine has also become a casualty of the war. Republicans, taking their cue from Trump, are prioritising support for Israel and stopping the flow of migrants across the US-Mexico border. They are losing interest in Ukraine – which clearly benefits Russian President Vladimir Putin. Those benefits will be reinforced if Trump wins the presidency again.
United Nations – irrelevant
The UN has also failed in its mission of maintaining world peace. The only Security Council resolution on the war meant nothing, as Russia was pleased to point out.
The recent UN General Assembly resolution illustrated Israel’s growing isolation, but has done nothing to change the course of the war. UN Secretary–General Antonio Guterres has been powerless to influence either Israel or Hamas.
Iran – watching for opportunities
The Hezbollah militant group will do a lot of huffing and puffing over the killing of al-Arouri in a Hezbollah-controlled part of Beirut. But it takes its orders from Tehran, which still shows no sign of wanting to become directly involved in the war.
That said, Iran appears to have no problem with its proxies – Hezbollah in Lebanon and the Houthis in Yemen – providing token support for Hamas through limited rocket, drone and artillery attacks.
Iran is likely to be reinforced in this approach by the bombings at the tomb of former Quds Force commander Qassem Soleimani last week, which killed almost 100 Iranians. The bombings have been claimed by the Islamic State, which will likely make Iran more focused on its internal security than on assisting Hamas.