Israel Must Heed the Lessons of the Iraq War

The Israel Journal at NYU
6 min readDec 12, 2023

By a TIJ Contributor

President George W. Bush giving his “Mission Accomplished” speech aboard the USS Abraham Lincoln on May 1, 2003 (Photo: J. Scott Applewhite/AP)

It has been almost two months since Hamas launched its invasion of Israel, killing about 1,200 Israelis, the bulk of whom were civilians, and taking about 250 captives back into the Gaza Strip. Since then, Israel has launched a punishing offensive against the Hamas stronghold. Much of the northern Gaza Strip has been leveled, with almost 15,000 killed, and over 1.5 million people displaced. On November 24, a deal was reached to exchange hostages taken on October 7 for Palestinian prisoners and for a temporary pause to allow humanitarian aid into Gaza for the displaced Palestinians. However, that deal collapsed on December 1, and the war is far from over. Hamas is still standing, battered to be sure, but standing. Israel’s stated goal in this war is to destroy Hamas, but Israel needs to heed an important lesson learned painfully by the United States in Iraq: Israel needs a plan for the day after.

In 2003, the U.S. launched its invasion of Iraq, then led by Saddam Hussein, due to claims that Hussein both supported Al-Qaeda and possessed nuclear weapons, both of which turned out to be false. Within three weeks, the capital city of Baghdad was captured, and a month later President George W. Bush gave his “Mission Accomplished” speech. 20 years later, conflicts of varying levels of intensity has wracked Iraq, the government is dysfunctional, and Iran has increased its influence through allied political parties and militia groups. The history of American foreign policy is filled with black marks and dark chapters, of which Iraq may be one of the worst.

There is growing concern that Israel has no plan for the day after they conclude the war. In an interview with CNN, former CIA Director and Army General David Petraeus recalled an incident from his service in the Iraq War after his troops successfully took the city of Najaf:

“After several days of fighting, the enemy collapsed and melted away. We took control of the city, and I go on the radio. I called my boss and said, “Hey, boss, I’ve got good news and bad news. The good news is that we own Najaf.”

He asked, “What’s the bad news?”

I replied, “We own Najaf. What do you want us to do with it?””

The military phases of the Iraq War were well-planned and successful, taking little over a month to accomplish their objectives. However, there was no real plan for what happened after Saddam Hussein was overthrown or how to rebuild Iraq into a functioning country.

The Iraq War ended in disaster, and is a quagmire that the United States is still extricating itself from; and that is with a country located over 6,000 miles away. After the U.S. withdrew its troops in 2011, ISIS soon came to power, taking over large swaths of Northern Iraq, requiring the reintroduction of American troops in 2014 in order to defeat them. American soldiers remain there to this day to help them deal with the remains of the wannabe caliphate. Sectarian tensions remain high within Iraq, crippling any attempt at nation-building. Iran also seeks to influence its neighbor, with more than a dozen Iraqi political parties having ties to Iran, while Iranian-backed militias have clashed with the American troops still stationed there.

The Iron Dome intercepts rockets fired from the Gaza Strip over the city of Ashkelon on October 9, 2023 (Photo: Amir Cohen/Reuters)

Israel does not have the luxury of distance with the Gaza Strip, and it appears to be repeating the same mistakes the U.S. made two decades ago. Various ideas have been suggested for how to properly rebuild what will be a shattered postwar Gaza. Brett McGurk, President Biden’s Middle East adviser, has indicated that the ideal American plan involves a coalition of allied Arab states and the return of a “revitalized Palestinian Authority,” eventually leading to the establishment of a Palestinian state in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank. President al-Sisi of Egypt, whose cooperation is vital for any future plans in the Gaza Strip, has expressed openness to a demilitarized Palestinian state, coupled with a temporary international security presence. One idea floating around the State Department is to have the United Arab Emirates help rebuild health facilities or train civil servants. Another permutation includes a role for the United Nations Supervision Organization, whose original goal was to implement armistice agreements between Israelis and Palestinians after the 1948 War. Israeli-American political scientist Dahlia Scheindlin suggested looking to Kosovo for intervention, where an international peacekeeping force successfully managed a transition to independence.

Prime Minister Netanyahu has said very little about his postwar plans for Gaza. However, many members of his coalition seem to delight in coming up with outrageous plans that would be harmful for Israel’s security or international standing. Intelligence Minister (a borderline fictitious position) Gila Gamliel recently published an op-ed calling for the “voluntary transfer” of Gazan civilians, a thinly veiled call for ethnic cleansing. The Israeli Embassy in Washington D.C. has thankfully clarified that this is not government policy. Meanwhile, Chairman of the Knesset Constitution, Law and Justice Committee, Simcha Rothman, and Heritage Minister Amichai Eliyahu from the far-right Religious Zionism and Otzma Yehudit parties, are calling for the reestablishment of Israeli settlements in the Gaza Strip that were evacuated in 2005. The call is not only coming from Bibi’s coalition partners, as Education Minister Yoav Kisch and MK Amit Halevi of Likud have also joined the call.

Former IDF Chief of Staff, Defense Minister, and Opposition Leader Shaul Mofaz speaks to Danny Kushmaro about the war (Photo: Channel 12/Mako)

Of all the potential plans on the table, that might be the worst one. The Israeli right has constructed a myth around Gush Katif having been the vanguard of Israel’s security that protected the pre-1967 borders from terror attacks, while also being an agricultural Jewish paradise. It was anything but. 8,000 Israelis lived among 21 settlements that presented easy targets for Palestinian terrorist groups and required disproportionate numbers of IDF troops to defend them. Any civilian traveling to those settlements required an IDF escort. Former IDF Chief of Staff and Defense Minister during the Disengagement, Shaul Mofaz, put it best in a recent interview after the outbreak of war. When asked if the security situation in Southern Israel would have been better if Israel had maintained its settlements within Gaza, Mofaz responded:

“What security? These settlements, 22 settlements, the majority of which are on the coast in the southern part in general. Most of them are on the coast west of the Hamas positions. What protection did this give to the State of Israel? What interest did we have in being there at all? We only saved lives [by removing the settlements].”

The most Bibi has said on the topic is that Israel will oversee “overall security” over the Strip for an indefinite period, and that the rebuilding of Gush Katif is not plausible. He has also ruled out the return of the Palestinian Authority, but has failed to offer any meaningful alternatives. For the sake of its own security and wellbeing, Israel must have a detailed plan for the day after the war. Even without the folly of rebuilding the settlements, the reoccupation of Gaza puts Israel on the same road as the US in Iraq: a long term military occupation with indefinite goals.

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The Israel Journal at NYU

The Israel Journal at NYU is an explanatory journal dedicated to clearing up the conversation around Israel.