Six months into the Israel-Hamas war in Gaza, everyone seems to be losing

Six months ago, armed terrorists burst across the border from the Gaza Strip into Israel and unleashed a devastating massacre, during which 1,200 people were killed and more than 250 were taken hostage by Hamas. What followed has been a war that on some level everybody appears to be losing.

That reality will be writ large Sunday — in the vigil for the hostages still not returned, on the streets of Tel Aviv where protesters will gather, in the rubble of Gaza where the dead pile up, and in the Egyptian capital of Cairo, where negotiators will once again try to hash out a cease-fire.

Israel’s war in the Gaza Strip has killed more than 33,000 people, most of them women and children, according to the Palestinian enclave’s health ministry. Israel says it has two primary aims: to free the remaining 130 mostly Israeli hostages; and to destroy the Hamas militant group that led the attack on Oct. 7, a goal that critics say is too ambitious or impossible.

Smoke rises following an Israeli airstrike in the Gaza Strip.
Smoke billows over Gaza following an Israeli airstrike in October.Ariel Schalit / AP file
Palestinians pray over bodies.
Palestinians pray over a mass grave containing the bodies of people killed in an Israeli strike.Mohammed Dahman / AP file

Meanwhile Israel has become increasingly isolated internationally, with even its closest ally, the United States, demanding that it do more to help protect Palestinian civilians in Gaza, where more than 1 million people are now thought to be on the brink of famine. Israel’s killing of seven aid workers has put that global condemnation into overdrive, with prominent voices in Europe and the U.S. now calling for the suspension of arms sales.

At home, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is the subject of mass street protests calling for his removal over his handling of the war. The movement includes many family members of the hostages who say he has prioritized his own political future — allegedly extending the war to stave off a political ousting, not to mention his legal troubles — over rescuing their loved ones.

On Saturday night, tens of thousands gathered in Tel Aviv in an anti-government protest that police later forcibly dispersed.

And many inside Israel and abroad fear the country may be on the brink of a direct conflict with Iran, after months of bubbling violence culminated in a suspected Israeli strike killing Iranian commanders in Tehran’s consulate in Syria.

Tens of thousands protested in Tel Aviv Saturday, calling for an immediate hostage deal and early elections to oust Netanyahu.Ariel Schalit / AP
Mourners gather around the coffins at a funeral.
Mourners gather around the coffins at a funeral in Kfar HaRif, Israel, on Oct. 25.Ariel Schalit / AP file

“There is no victor in this kind of war,” said Yossi Mekelberg, an associate fellow at Chatham House, a London-based think tank. “The situation in Gaza is catastrophic in every sense of the word, and yet Israel is getting more embroiled — in Gaza, but also Iran. Then there’s the hostages: God knows how many of them are still alive. Meanwhile Israel is really pushing itself into becoming a pariah state.”

Gaza’s humanitarian nightmare has provoked months of mounting outrage around the world: In addition to the more than 33,000 dead, 45% of buildings have been destroyed, 1.9 million people have been displaced, and some 300,000 people are trapped in northern Gaza, forced to live on an average of 245 calories per day — 12% of the recommended intake — according to the charity Oxfam.

But it was Israel’s killing of six international aid workers and one Palestinian working for the World Central Kitchen organization that appears to have tipped the balance from rhetoric to action — a fact that many saw as the latest sign the plight of the Palestinians does not provoke the urgency it should.

People gather around the carcass of a car used by aid group World Central Kitchen.
Children look into the burned out World Central Kitchen car the morning after it was struck by an Israeli missile.AFP – Getty Images

Last week, President Joe Biden told Netanyahu in a by-all-accounts tense phone call that Washington’s continued support depended on Israel doing more to protect civilians and aid workers.

In Europe, the backlash has been even more severe. British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak said he was “appalled” by the killings; and German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock posted to X that there were “no more excuses” for not letting aid into Gaza — a tone unthinkable months ago for a country that has traditionally backed Israel unconditionally because of the Holocaust.

That Western pressure is being brought to bear just as Israel faces a rising danger of direct conflict with Iran.

People show solidarity with Palestinians.
Pro-Palestianian protesters in London in April. Cities around the world have organized regular protests since the start of the war.Carl Court / Getty Images

Since Oct. 7, it has traded rocket fire with Hezbollah, a militant group and political party based in Lebanon that’s backed by Tehran and tooled up with tens of thousands of rockets. Israel has also apparently carried out strikes on Iranian personnel based in Syria, although it does not directly admit this.

One of these strikes last week killed two senior commanders with Iran’s powerful Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, leading Biden administration officials to fear that Iran might feel compelled to retaliate by striking inside Israel.

Neither Israel nor Iran wants a direct military conflict with the other, most experts agree, but the scope for miscalculation and escalation is substantial.

Hamas, which is also backed by Iran, has lost what some analysts estimate to be about 10,000 fighters — a third of its force — and almost all of its rocket arsenal. Yet many of its commanders are still believed to be at large and it retains substantial minority support in Gaza.

Palestinians line up for a meal.
Palestinians crowd around a food distribution point in Rafah. Fatima Shbair / AP file

Hamas and other groups such as Palestinian Islamic Jihad still hold some of the 130-plus hostages still unaccounted for in Gaza, but at least some of them are believed to have been killed. Survivors have detailed torture and sexual assault at the hands of their captors.

Netanyahu’s dual promises of toppling Hamas and returning the hostages may already be impossible. And yet he has staked his political future on this very outcome. He is already on trial for graft and other allegations, all of which he denies, and now he faces mass street protests at home from Israelis angry at his handling of the war, although most people there support the war against Hamas generally.

In every corner, there are parties for whom the past six months have either been damaging or devastating, according to Mekelberg of Chatham House.

“It doesn’t look like anyone is winning right now,” he said, “but there are many, many losers.”