War on Gaza: How October 7 forever destroyed the myth of Israeli military invincibility

Sami al-Arian

Middle East Eye  /  July 5, 2024

To its allies and enemies, Israel’s disastrous response to the Hamas attack has undermined its future as regional hegemon and even its very survival

On 22 September 2023, two weeks before the October 7 Al-Aqsa Flood attack, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu addressed the UN General Assembly about “a new Middle East”. He bragged about Israel’s power and status as the enforcer of regional security.

He held up a map showing a line going from India through the Persian Gulf, the UAESaudi Arabia and Jordan, then to the Israeli port city of Haifa, and eventually ending in Europe.

This grand project was dubbed the India-Middle East-Europe Corridor (IMEC), a US-sponsored initiative to counter the Chinese Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). 

For at least a decade, the US has been seeking to reorient its global national security strategy in order to focus on its most significant geopolitical challenges, namely a rising China and a re-assertive Russia

But in the Middle East, which is one of the most vital regions for US interests, it has opted to reduce its military presence and assign the role of securing its interests and maintaining stability to two of its most trusted allies – Israel and Saudi Arabia.

It’s a policy similar to the Nixon Doctrine, which was adopted in the early 1970s and is known as the Twin Pillars.

The policy was designed to reposition US forces and outsource the task of protecting US security and economic interests in the Middle East to regional powers. 

Strategic defeat

After the Trump administration brokered the Abraham Accords between Israel and several Arab countries during its final year in office, it decided to move Israel from being a non-member ally in the European military command (NATO) and to incorporate it into the CENTCOM structure – the US military command in charge of safeguarding US interests in this critical region that extends from Egypt to Afghanistan

This policy was enthusiastically embraced by the Biden administration when it took office in January 2021. On the day of his inauguration, the new president appointed Brett McGurk to implement this policy as the leading official in charge of the Mena region on the US National Security Council. 

Since then, McGurk, who is rabidly pro-Israel and exhibits a colonialist mindset, has been diligently working on a normalization deal between Israel and Saudi Arabia, which was expected to be reached in early 2024. 

Under this deal, Israel was hoping to project its power in the region, enhance its status across the Islamic world, and affirm its self-perception as the regional hegemon. But the plan unraveled in the aftermath of Hamas’s 7 October attack.  

Since the early days of the Israeli war on Gaza, the Zionist regime and the Biden administration were determined to restore the image of the Israeli military’s invincibility, which was severely tarnished by the 7 October attack. 

To that end, Israeli political and military leaders deliberately unleashed a genocidal war to wreak havoc on Gaza, making it unlivable and severely punishing its population, especially women, children and the elderly. 

But despite the unfathomable devastation taking place in Gaza during the last nine months, resulting in an unprecedented number of Palestinian injuries and deaths, and destruction at a level not seen since the end of the Second World War, Israel has suffered a major strategic defeat, with the erosion of its military doctrine.

This doctrine consists of several military imperatives that the Zionist state has relied on for its survival and security since its founding more than seven decades ago.

Secured borders no more

One of the main pillars of Israel’s national security doctrine is the concept of “secure borders”. Throughout its existence, the Israeli regime has always attempted to establish buffer zones around its borders and ensure that the surrounding regimes are weak and amenable to serving Israeli and western interests.

Israel’s invasions of Egypt’s Sinai peninsula in 1956 and 1967 were designed to turn it into a buffer zone. Even when the Egyptian regime agreed to sign a “peace treaty” with Israel in 1979, the agreement effectively turned Sinai into a buffer zone, as it limited Egyptian sovereignty and military presence there. 

Similarly, the Israeli regime occupied Syria’s Golan Heights in 1967 and annexed it in 1981 under the pretext of establishing a buffer zone there. A year later, in 1982, Israel invaded Lebanon in order to secure a buffer zone there that would have extended to the Litani River, which is approximately 27km beyond its northern borders. 

After 18 years of military occupation, in 2000, Israel had to withdraw from its declared security zone of about 850 sq km after it suffered hundreds of casualties under fierce resistance led by the Lebanese group Hezbollah. 

Using the same logic, Israel continues to insist that the Jordan Valley must always be under Israeli control in order to serve as a buffer zone with Jordan.

When Netanyahu insisted on this position during his negotiations with Jared Kushner as part of Trump’s “deal of the century” in 2020, the final version of the plan incorporated the Jordan Valley as part of the territories Israel would be allowed to keep.

However, what the 7 October attacks and subsequent wars across multiple fronts have demonstrated is that the concept of secure Israeli borders is a myth. With recent developments in advanced military technology, including long-range rockets, ballistic missiles and highly accurate drones, resistance groups have been able to strike sensitive targets at will, including deep inside the Israeli state.

Colossal failure

The Israeli military doctrine is based on six principles: pre-emptive strikes, early warning systems, effective deterrence, strong defence, quick resolution, and escalation dominance. 

All of these elements have been weakened or undermined since 7 October.

During its many conflicts, Israel has relied on hitting its enemies first with pre-emptive strikes.

With the exception of the 1973 war, Israel has always instigated conflict through surprise attacks or invasions, including in 1948, 1956, 1967, 1982 and 2006, as well as the four wars it initiated in Gaza between 2008 and 2021. 

However, the 7 October attacks shocked the Zionist regime with their scope and far-reaching impact, as Hamas launched its daring raid on multiple Israeli targets, including military bases, the intelligence headquarters overseeing Gaza, and various nearby settlements. 

In the span of a few hours, the strike paralyzed several Israeli military units, shaking the confidence of the Israeli public in their military and political leadership. 

The second element the Israeli military doctrine has depended on is its capacity to protect the country through its superior early warning systems. 

For decades, Israel prided itself on its unparalleled human intelligence networks that are capable of penetrating and neutralizing its enemies, as well as its advanced technological surveillance systems, which are equipped to stop infiltration and security breaches. 

Yet the colossal failure of the Israeli intelligence agencies on 7 October, as well as their inability to recognize the extent of Hamas’s tunnel networks, Hezbollah’s advanced weapon systems or Iran’s ballistic capabilities, point to a significant erosion of this imperative.  

War of attrition

The third and perhaps most crucial element of the Israeli military doctrine is effective deterrence. To a large degree, Israel’s military posture has historically relied on its capacity to deter its enemies from daring to attack it for fear of an overwhelming and devastating response. 

This imperative may, in part, explain the ferociousness and brutality the Zionist regime has unleashed in Gaza after the Hamas attacks, in contravention of the laws of war and international humanitarian conventions. 

Yet, despite all its callous behaviour and cruelty, no one has been deterred, certainly not the resistance groups in Gaza, who continue to fight in a fierce war of attrition.

Israel has not only failed to achieve any of its declared objectives in Gaza, such as eradicating resistance groups, freeing its captives or dislodging Hamas, but it could not even dictate any terms to end the war despite the tremendous military and political pressure applied on the resistance groups by Israel, the US and other international actors.

Likewise, neither Hezbollah in Lebanon nor the Houthis in Yemen have been deterred. For the first time in its history, Israel is facing warring parties that continue to strike at it, bleed its forces and diminish its ability to intimidate and frighten its foes, a feature it has consistently counted on since its founding. 

The fourth element in the set of Israeli military imperatives is a strong defence. Since its founding, Israel has presented its army as invincible, disciplined and stronger than all its enemies combined. 

This image was not only embraced by Israeli citizens but is a view also shared in many countries around the world, particularly as the US has increasingly provided the Zionist state with its most advanced weapons systems and shared with it the most sensitive intelligence information. 

Yet, since 7 October, Israeli citizens have never felt more vulnerable.

Hundreds of thousands of Israeli settlers have had to be evacuated from the north and the south for more than eight months and relocate to the centre, as they are still unable to go back to their settlements. 

In fact, over half a million Israelis have actually left the country in the past nine months because of uncertainty and deterioration in security across the country. 

When Iran attacked in April in retaliation for the Israeli attack on its embassy in Syria, Israel needed the help of major countries, including the US, Britain, France and even Jordan, to repel the attack, which was publicly announced and not aimed at causing human or material losses. 

Demoralized army and society 

In short, even though Israel possesses the latest and most advanced US and European military technology, the confrontations in the last few months across several fronts have demonstrated that this principle has been dramatically weakened as Israel can no longer claim to be able to effectively defend its citizens from any threats.

In addition, Israel is paying a heavy price in military casualties, which, over time, will diminish its ability to project a strong defence or claim a competent army. The call to draft religious students into the military has become louder, while religious communities are adamant about not serving in a secular institution. 

Meanwhile, a former defence minister, Avigdor Lieberman, has said Israel has already lost an entire brigade in Gaza, which could mean between 2,000 and 5,000 soldiers. Yet, military spokesmen can only publicly admit to fewer than 600 soldiers killed. According to the Defence Ministry, Israel has also had about 9,000 of its soldiers disabled as a result of this war. 

That’s a significant number to endure in just a few months, considering that the total combined number of incapacitated soldiers in previous wars over decades was approximately 61,000.

The fifth principle the Israeli military had been able to employ successfully in previous wars was a quick resolution. 

In all previous wars, Israel used to proclaim its ability to achieve its objectives in a few days or weeks. But after nine months of waging a genocidal and destructive war, Israel has failed to achieve any of its military or political objectives. 

This failure has resulted in the severe polarization of the political class and a further demoralizing of Israel’s army and society.

Elusive victory

The sixth and final principle is escalation dominance.

This imperative means that when Israel is under a challenging attack, it will escalate militarily without limits until its enemies are overwhelmed and submit to its dictates. 

However, this time, Israel has been met with a determined opposition. Despite the massive destruction and civilian casualties suffered in Gaza, Israel has been militarily unable to eliminate or silence the resistance in Gaza or Lebanon. 

Furthermore, when Iran fired several ballistic missiles that reached their intended military targets, the Israeli reaction was so underwhelming to the point that it did not respond. 

Similarly, Israel has not been able to respond to the Houthis’ challenge in either the Red Sea or the Mediterranean and has asked US and British naval forces for help, with little success.

With Israel’s military doctrine significantly weakened as a result of the ongoing Gaza war, many of the regional states that were ready to hand over the task of keeping the region stable and under Israel’s effective control will start questioning its value and capacity to survive, let alone to be the regional hegemon.  

Netanyahu and his war cabinet lashed out after the 7 October attacks, looking for an elusive victory.

However, their flawed strategy and reckless behaviour undermined every element of their military doctrine. 

In the process, they assured their failure by forgetting Sun Tzu’s idiom that “he who is destined to defeat first fights and afterwards looks for victory”. 

Sami al-Arian, born in Palestine, is the Director of the Center for Islam and Global Affairs (CIGA) at Istanbul Zaim University