Heavy smoke billows following an Israeli military strike in Gaza City.

Heavy smoke billows following an Israeli military strike in Gaza City. Photo: AFP

Hamas cannot wipe out Israel, and it cannot prevent thousands of Palestinians dying. Israel cannot end the existence of militant resistance on its borders; for every Hamas operative it kills it creates at least two more. It matters less who started the war than why neither seems to want to stop it.

Both sides are bent on what looks like mutual self-destruction, yet neither is willing to stop. From the outside it seems as if neither is motivated by rational assessment of its own interests, but instead are prisoners of ideology and history.

As a colleague suggested to me, both sides at some level want war, because both are motivated by a messianic view and pressure from even more extremist internal forces. The hatred, vitriol and violence on both sides is creating a spiral of ever-increasing disaster.

Partisans of both claim bad faith in peace negotiations, but it appears that each has walked away at a number of crucial moments, preferring war to peace. Israel is increasingly in the grip of people who have lost touch with geopolitical realities and believe they can dominate all of traditional Judea and Samaria for ever.

The commanders of Hamas, meanwhile, seem willing to sacrifice their own people in order to shift foreign perceptions of the conflict. They are losing the ground war, but they are clearly winning the battle for international sympathy, which is disguised in Australia by the bizarre bipartisan adoration of Israel.

Listen closely to President Obama and Secretary Kerry and it is clear they are far less supportive of the Netanyahu government than their counterparts in either major party here. But opinion polls suggest American opinion is becoming more critical of Israel; every Palestinian child killed is another wavering voice in the once near unanimous American blank cheque for Israel.

Both sides have been forced by international pressure to give lip service to a two-state solution, but neither really wants that. Israel continues to expand its grip on occupied land, Hamas and its supporters continue to preach hatred of Israel. There are voices on both sides who are now openly calling for what is in effect genocide of the other.

It is near impossible to have a rational debate on Australian policy towards the conflict, as Bob Carr discovered when he was foreign minister. This is usually attributed to the power of the ''Jewish lobby'', but I suspect it goes far beyond that. From the establishment of the state of Israel there has been a deep identification between two settler states, in which our own ambiguities about dispossession of the original inhabitants is displaced onto support for Israel as the mythical oasis of democracy in the Middle East.

I have no doubt that a Palestinian state will be far less attractive in our eyes than the current Israeli state, and the longer it takes to achieve it the nastier it will be. The whole history of decolonisation suggests that long and bitter wars and occupation do not suddenly give way to democratic states with respect for individual rights.

But the history of decolonisation also suggests that once a people have created a national identity – creatures of the 20th century for both Israelis and Palestinians – they cannot be held back indefinitely. Only where a majority supports a ruthless government, as in the case of Sri Lanka, can insurgencies be crushed. Where the majority are dispossessed and desperate the costs of denying them is too great.

Prime Minister Netanyahu predicts a long, drawn-out conflict, but this means he is accepting a permanent state of war in which Israelis will live with constant fear of attack, and Palestinians will be consigned to permanent refugee camps patrolled by young Israelis. Evidence from the United States suggests that younger diasporic Jews are becoming increasingly disillusioned with Israel and those American organisations that support it.

Israel can inflict many more casualties than can Hamas rockets. But it cannot ensure its survival as a state with a Jewish majority through a combination of military strength and continued occupation and settlement. In the long run Hamas can tough out the conflict, at great expense to Palestinians, but with the sense that international opinion will make the Israeli position increasingly untenable.

Dennis Altman is a Professorial Fellow in Human Security at La Trobe University.