This commentary is part of a Century International series exploring a shared future for Palestine and Israel that guarantees the fundamental rights of both communities. The Gaza war has exposed the bankruptcy of the existing policy frameworks. Our “Shared Future” series intends to spur conversation and promote new, better options for security, rights, and governance—for Palestinians and Israelis.

Israel’s war in Gaza has flummoxed U.S. policy elites.

Since the outset of Israel’s military campaign, U.S. officials and experts have urged Israel to fight a more limited, deliberate war—the kind Washington could more comfortably support. These Americans have insisted not only that Israel’s tactics are objectionable, but also that they will fail. By fighting the way it has, they have warned, Israel risks “strategic defeat.”

But Israel’s strategy in Gaza likely can succeed, on its own ugly terms. These Americans have just struggled to acknowledge Israel’s apparent strategy.

It’s past time for U.S. policymakers to wake up to the kind of war Israel is waging in Gaza: a counterinsurgency fought with indiscriminate, brutal means, comparable to some of modern history’s most unforgiving, scorched-earth military campaigns. And now, as famine takes hold in Gaza, Israel’s war might yet become something even worse.

It’s too late for the United States to try to moderate Israeli tactics. It needs to stop this war—and then rethink its whole relationship with Israel.

Israel Defies Elite Wisdom

Israel’s war in Gaza has, from the start, defied what U.S. policy elites consider best practices for counterinsurgency and counterterrorism.

On October 7, Hamas spearheaded an attack on Israeli military posts and civilian communities surrounding the Gaza Strip. The Hamas-led assault killed more than 1,160 people, including 767 civilians. Hamas and other militants took more than 250 captives back into Gaza.

Israel responded by hitting Gaza with what would quickly become a historically intense bombing campaign. On October 12, the Israeli military ordered the civilian population of northern Gaza—an estimated 1.1 million people, out of a total 2.3 million in the territory—to evacuate south. On October 27, Israel launched a ground invasion, first encircling Gaza City and then advancing south. Now, Israel has threatened to attack Gaza’s southernmost city, Rafah, to which most of the territory’s population has been displaced.

Israel’s military campaign has been among the most destructive this century. Even after an ostensible shift to “lower-intensity” combat, Israeli operations have continued to destroy large sections of Gaza. According to local authorities, Israeli attacks have killed more than 32,000 people, most of them civilians. The real death toll—including Gazans buried under rubble—is likely much higher. Israel has also detained large numbers of Palestinians, hunting for Hamas members and abusing prisoners.

It’s too late for the United States to try to moderate Israeli tactics. It needs to stop this war—and then rethink its whole relationship with Israel.

In Gaza, Israel is pursuing what Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu has called “total victory”—meaning, Netanyahu says, “eliminating the terrorist leaders and destroying Hamas’s military and governing capabilities,” recovering hostages, and creating a “demilitarized” Gaza under Israel’s “full security control.”

From early on, America’s policy elites said Israel needed to fight differently. Experts on conflict and counterterrorism warned that Israel had to separate Hamas insurgents from Gaza’s civilian population. They urged Israel to minimize civilian harm, or else risk driving even more Gazans to join insurgents. And they argued that Israel had to pair its military advance with care for civilian welfare and political solutions: steps to address Palestinian grievances, and a postwar vision for Gaza that presented a viable alternative to Hamas.

After it became clear that Israel was not doing these things, these same experts and others urged a course correction, mostly recapitulating the same advice: tend to Gazans’ well-being and drive a wedge between civilians and Hamas insurgents.

Even Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin chided Israel. In a December speech, he pressed Israel to protect civilians and ensure the flow of aid. Leading the fight against the Islamic State, he said, had taught him that “you can only win in urban warfare by protecting civilians. You see, in this kind of a fight, the center of gravity is the civilian population. And if you drive them into the arms of the enemy, you replace a tactical victory with a strategic defeat.”

Israel, obviously, has gone in another direction.

American Misapprehensions

These outsiders’ advice to Israel seems to have been premised on two assumptions: first, that there is only one way to successfully wage counterinsurgent warfare; and second, that Israel would abide by the limits on military tactics espoused by the United States and its peer democracies.

Yet that first assumption is obviously wrong. There are other, cruder ways to defeat insurgencies. We’ve seen them in conflicts that have since become bywords for brutal counterinsurgency: in the Boer War at the turn of the twentieth century, for example, when the British employed literal scorched-earth tactics against Boer insurgents and innovated concentration camps; more recently in Russia’s Second Chechen War (1999–2009), including the siege of Grozny; in Sri Lanka, when the national military exterminated the Tamil Tigers in the 2000s; and in Syria, twice, when the Syrian government crushed rebellions in the 1970s and 1980s and then again after 2011.

It’s not particularly difficult to see parallels between Israel’s war in Gaza and these historical cases. “Like Grozny, Aleppo, and Mariupol, Gaza will go down as one of the great horrors of modern warfare,” said CNN’s Clarissa Ward after reporting from a Gaza field hospital in December.

These approaches to counterinsurgency challenge prevailing Western thinking about “population-centric” counterinsurgency, in which counterinsurgents vie for the allegiance and cooperation of the civilian population—Austin’s so-called center of gravity. This thinking is based on a reading of history in which, for example, the British defeated Malaya’s Communist insurgency by winning local “hearts and minds,” not by forcibly resettling insurgents’ rural social base in internment camps. It is also a version of history that omits the United States’ involvement in comparably brutal warfare in episodes like the battle for Mosul.

Many Americans seem to assume that because more repressive, violent tactics offend their sensibilities, those tactics cannot succeed. That is not true. They can succeed, and they have.

Meanwhile, that second assumption has also been proven wrong: Israel is not somehow above a more atavistic way of war.

American elites seem to have projected their own values and imagined constraints onto Israel. In October, for example, academic Audrey Kurth Cronin asserted that a democratic Israel would have difficulty sustaining a campaign of repression akin to Russia’s or Sri Lanka’s. She said that, given these tactics’ terrible human cost, a repressive approach would likely backfire on Israel.

Nearly six months later, it seems likely she underestimated Israel’s capacity for repression.

Coercive Counterinsurgency

At this point, American policy elites ought to be able to look at the war in Gaza and make sense of what Israel is doing.

Israel is waging a coercive counterinsurgency campaign that relies on overwhelming force and strict population control. That control entails concentrating displaced Gazans in small, contained pockets as Israel eliminates militant holdouts elsewhere, in an indefinite, potentially years-long series of targeted raids. By the war’s conclusion, Gaza’s insurgents will be mostly dead. The civilian population will have been starved and brutalized into submission, and will likely remain under Israeli military supervision.

“Like Grozny, Aleppo, and Mariupol, Gaza will go down as one of the great horrors of modern warfare.”

Netanyahu’s public comments provide little clarity as to whether Israel’s all-out assault on Gaza is part of a fully considered strategy. There is apparently some push-pull between Israel and its foreign partners, and Israel’s leaders themselves seem to be internally divided.

But whether Israel has a real strategy or is just improvising, its military campaign strongly resembles past examples of brute-force counterinsurgency.

For example, to mitigate the dangers of urban combat, Israel has dropped huge amounts of ordnance on Gaza, damaging or destroying most structures in the territory, and devastating essential civilian infrastructure such as hospitals. Israeli attacks have undoubtedly killed many Hamas militants. They have also killed more than 9,000 women and 13,000 children.

Israel has forcibly relocated civilians inside Gaza, pushing them into ostensible “safe zones” and using filtration points to identify suspected militants. It has lately said it will relocate civilians to “humanitarian islands” in central Gaza ahead of a planned attack on Rafah.

Israel is now limiting movement inside Gaza. Its military has plowed a seven-kilometer road bisecting Gaza from its eastern boundary to the Mediterranean, both to use as a staging ground for operations and to control movement between Gaza’s north and south. Israel has also resisted civilians’ return to northern Gaza, and with its repeated raids to “clear” urban zones—without staying, as advised by U.S. counterinsurgency gurus, to “hold” and “build”—it is poised to maintain swathes of Gaza as depopulated wastelands.

Continued restrictions on movement will prevent Gazans from mounting organized resistance. Realistically, the idea that Israel can “demilitarize” Gaza and then withdraw is a fantasy. Maintaining this level of control, as Israel already does in the West Bank, will likely require a lasting Israeli military presence in Gaza.

Western experts concerned with how Israel could best separate Hamas insurgents from Gaza’s civilians were thinking of “separation” in figurative, political terms. But Israel can also separate them literally and physically. Israel can deny Hamas and other militants the social base that provides them with resources and recruits by removing that base—either forcibly relocating civilians inside Gaza or outside it, into Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula.

With enough time, these tactics could plausibly defeat Hamas and other Gazan factions. The territory is a small, mostly closed space. Hamas has built an extensive network of underground tunnels, but Gaza otherwise lacks insurgent-friendly terrain.

For Israel, the most obvious downside of its tactics is their political cost. Yet Israel doesn’t seem to take that concern particularly seriously. And thanks in large part to the United States, it hasn’t had to pay any serious political cost yet.

These tactics seem unlikely to secure the release of Israeli captives held in Gaza. But if the Israeli government were more interested in recovering these hostages, it would have traded for them earlier in the war. By now, the Israeli army has likely killed more captives than it has rescued militarily.

Unlivable Civilian Life

With this type of counterinsurgency, the civilian population is not the “center of gravity”; civilians’ well-being is basically incidental.

As Israel’s open-ended campaign to destroy Hamas continues, life for Gaza’s civilians will continue to be unbearable. Civilians will survive on a trickle of foreign aid in a ruined, violent strip of land.

At the war’s outset, Israeli officials announced a “complete siege” of Gaza. Subsequently, Israel partially relaxed its restrictions on aid, apparently in response to U.S. pressure. Yet Israeli authorities have continued to throttle aid provision, and aid deliveries remain far short of Gazans’ needs. Israel has also worked to dismantle the UN Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), which is central to the provision of aid and essential services inside Gaza.

A senior U.S. official recently told the New York Times that Israel’s strategy has been to allow just enough aid into Gaza to prevent starvation, but nothing more. Yet conditions have worsened beyond even that minimum level, in part because of Israeli protests blocking aid delivery and the breakdown of order inside Gaza. Gazans have begun starving to death, particularly in the less accessible north. On March 18, an international food security monitor warned that famine was “imminent” for hundreds of thousands of Gazans, and that it would spread, without a ceasefire, to half the population by July. Alex de Waal, a leading expert on famine, has said it will be the “most intense famine since the Second World War.

Israeli officials have apparently told foreign interlocutors that they have “no interest in being a long-term occupier” in Gaza. Yet Israeli leaders have also insisted on exclusive “security control.” That seems to translate, in practice, to military occupation without the responsibility for civilian welfare that international law would ordinarily entail.

To that end, Israel has obstructed aid deliveries via Israeli territory and, as conditions inside Gaza have become more extreme, encouraged initiatives that would obviate Israeli responsibility for the well-being of Gazans. These alternative aid channels include airdrops of aid and a maritime aid corridor via Cyprus, for which Biden announced the United States would build a pier off Gaza’s coast. Israel’s foreign minister called this arrangement “disengagement, with security control.

Israel has also approached local clans, private security companies, and regional countries to secure aid convoys and fend off desperate Gazans and criminal gangs. Israeli officials have previously proposed that “local entities” like these clans take over key governance functions.

U.S. policymakers have urged Israeli counterparts to develop a “day-after” plan for post-Hamas Gaza. In practice, Israel seems interested in delegating civilians’ survival to local bosses and various non-UNRWA aid agencies.

“Thinning” Gaza’s Population

Israel may also attempt to depopulate Gaza, which could make the territory easier to control.

Israeli finance minister Bezalel Smotrich summarized this logic in a December interview, saying that Israel should encourage emigration from Gaza. “If there were 100,000 to 200,000 Arabs in the Strip and not two million,” he said, “the whole conversation about the day after [the war] would be completely different.”

Gazans have begun starving to death, and an international food security monitor has warned that famine is “imminent” for hundreds of thousands of people.

Smotrich belongs to Israel’s far right, but removing Gaza’s people does not seem to be a fringe view. In October, an Israeli ministry circulated a paper advocating the transfer of Gaza’s population to the Sinai. A leading member of Netanyahu’s party has encouraged countries around the world to take Gazan refugees and published a day-after plan involving “voluntary” emigration. According to numerous reports in Israeli and international news media, Netanyahu himself has explored “thinning” Gaza’s population and has attempted to broker Gazans’ “voluntary emigration,” either to the Sinai or farther afield. In January, a “senior source in the security cabinet” told Israeli media that Israel was in discussions with the Republic of the Congo and other countries to take Gazans.

Egypt has rejected the idea of Gazans being relocated to the Sinai. Yet it has also set up a holding area there in case Israeli operations in southern Gaza push civilians across the border.

Most of these Israeli officials’ proposals for removing Gazans center on “voluntary” emigration. Yet famine and pandemic disease could also depopulate Gaza, either through widespread death or by pushing desperate Gazans to break out into the Sinai. In February, public health researchers projected that even in a best-case scenario—with an immediate ceasefire and an influx of aid—the war would cause the deaths of more than 6,000 Gazans over the subsequent six months. In their status quo scenario, they predicted a range of 48,210 to 193,180 deaths. Their worst-case scenario, with a new escalation of the war, was even more dire.

In January, the International Court of Justice issued a provisional ruling that Israel’s actions in Gaza could plausibly constitute genocide. In March, the court doubled down on that assessment. Particularly if famine is allowed to gain momentum, Israel’s war may warrant comparison not just with wars in Chechnya and Sri Lanka, but also with historical cases like Rwanda.

Seeing Israel’s War as It Is

Washington may have trouble admitting it, but the obvious truth is that Israel is waging a war in Gaza that is inconsistent with how the United States and other Western countries believe counterinsurgency should be fought, and with their understanding of international humanitarian law. Even Biden has called Israel’s bombing of Gaza “indiscriminate.” Much has been made of the misbehavior of Israeli soldiers on social media, but Israel’s whole theory of victory seems out of line with what the United States would ordinarily consider acceptable.

Israel has consistently rejected the Biden administration’s pleas to fight this war in a more reasonable way, or to prepare an adequate day-after plan. Israel has flouted the vision for postwar Gaza that Secretary of State Antony Blinken laid out in November, including by clearing buffer zones that reduce Gaza’s territory. The Biden administration touts the fact that it convinced the Israelis to let some aid into Gaza as a win for U.S. influence. That Washington had to push for this at all, though, should have been an early sign that things were headed in the wrong direction.

Some in the United States have blamed Israel’s conduct in Gaza on Netanyahu and called for new Israeli elections. It seems doubtful, though, that this is just a Netanyahu problem. According to opinion polling, overwhelming majorities of Jewish Israelis say that the Israeli military is using adequate or too little force in Gaza, and that the extent of Palestinian casualties is justified. Most Jewish Israelis oppose Israel permitting the delivery of aid to Gazans.

Despite all this, the Biden administration still isn’t pressing for an end to the war—it has just taken some remedial steps to mitigate the war’s worst humanitarian impacts and blunt its political costs. Biden recently offered a somewhat underwhelming condition for further U.S. support: “You cannot have 30,000 more Palestinians dead as a consequence of” attacking Rafah, he said.

U.S. officials and experts who encouraged Israel to fight a more palatable war in Gaza ought to recognize that Israel is not the responsible, like-minded fellow democracy they imagined. Israel has demonstrated since October 7 that it is prepared to wage war in ways that are shocking and barbaric. And even as the Biden administration has provided extensive, active U.S. support for Israel’s war, Israel has fought in ways that run counter not just to the United States’ advice, but also its professed values. Israel has killed 30,000 people, and currently—despite Biden’s admonition—seems likely to kill 30,000 more.

That is, unless the United States moves to stop the war in Gaza, now. Because at this point, it is no longer enough for Washington to counsel restraint. Israel cannot be counted on to moderate its behavior. The United States needs to force an immediate end to this war. And then it needs to reevaluate its relationship with a country capable of something like the liquidation of Gaza.

Header Image: People inspect the damage and extract items from their homes after their towers were destroyed by Israeli air strikes on March 17, 2024 in Hamad Town, Khan Yunis, Gaza. Khan Yunis is the second-largest urban area after Gaza City and is located in the southern Gaza Strip. It has faced extensive damage, including the destruction of the Al Qarara Cultural Museum during an Israeli attack in October 2023, which targeted civilian homes and mosques. Source: Ahmad Hasaballah/Getty Images