The quiet of the early Saturday morning on October 7 was harshly broken by thousands of rockets that streamed across Israel’s skies from Gaza, even as hundreds of Hamas militants crossed the heavily guarded border to attack Israel on several fronts. All told, Israel experienced incursions from 22 locations, with Hamas forces penetrating up to 25 km inside Israeli territory.
The incursions occurred by land, sea, and air: many militants used motorcycles, trucks, and boats to get into Israel, while some even used paragliders to fly into Israeli space as part of the assault. Explosions took place across the country—from Ashkelon to Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. The attackers targeted rural communities and at least two military bases; seven communities came under Hamas control. Hamas forces also took about 150 prisoners back to Gaza across the border they had penetrated.
Hamas said that over 5,000 rockets were fired into Israel in the first few minutes, as the Palestinians marked their first major attack on Israeli territory in five decades. First reports of Israeli casualties were horrendous: over 300 were killed on the first day itself, with several hundred injured; the death toll doubled over the next day. In Israel’s retaliatory attacks, over 600 Palestinians have been killed. October 7 has been described as “the bloodiest single day” in modern Israeli history.
Hamas has called its assault “Operation Aqsa Flood”. The commander of the Hamas forces, Mohammed Deif, has described the attack as “the day of the great revolution”. He said the attacks were initiated in response to “the desecration of the Al-Aqsa Mosque”, a reference to the frequent marches through the mosque complex by extremist supporters of the government’s right-wing parties that make up the governing coalition. Deif called on Palestinians everywhere, in the West Bank and in Israel itself, “to launch an attack without restraint”. On October 8, Hezbollah fired artillery shells from Lebanon at Israeli positions in the Israel-occupied Shebaa Farms area; this was “in solidarity” with the Hamas attacks.
Also Read | Understanding the Israel-Palestine conflict
Israel’s stunned leaders have indulged in fiery rhetoric to boost the morale of their bewildered citizens: Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has declared war on Hamas and has promised to reduce Hamas strongholds in Gaza to dust. Defence Minister Yoav Gallant has called the attack a “grave mistake” and asserted that “the State of Israel will win this war”. Israel named its actions “Operation Iron Sword” and ordered the mobilisation of army reservists, said to number about 3,00,000.
On October 9, Netanyahu said that there was a “long and difficult war ahead”. He said that the Israeli forces were entering into an “offensive phase”, which would continue “with neither limitations nor respite” until all military objectives had been achieved. The defence minister said he had ordered a “complete siege” of Gaza, with electricity, water, and food supplies cut off. The air force has commenced a bombardment of Gaza: hundreds of bombings have occurred and numerous high-rise buildings have been razed. The death toll is already in the several hundreds and will go up in coming days.
Portends of conflict
While Israel and most of its supporters have been taken by surprise by the Hamas attacks, observers who have been closely following various aspects of Israeli politics since Netanyahu formed his government in December 2022 have been expecting a flare-up, although the scale of the attacks was unexpected.
In December 2022, just before the Netanyahu government took office, thousands of Palestinians in Gaza celebrated the 35th anniversary of the founding of Hamas, when Hamas leaders predicted there would be an “open confrontation” with the incoming extremist administration. One of them said they would wait “to give the chance to ignite the resistance in the West Bank”.
In May 2023, after the conflict between Israeli forces and the Gaza-based Islamic Jihad, the commentator Aaron David Miller had written: “It’s only a matter of time—days, weeks, months—until the next go-round. … a perfect storm is building.” Miller had noted in this regard the “volatile mix” of fundamentalist flame-throwing ministers in the Israeli government, extremist settlers in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, and a Hamas eager to continue the armed struggle in Jerusalem, the West Bank, and mixed Arab-Jewish cities within Israel and even southern Lebanon.
The reason for this bleak outlook was obvious. As the price for his prime ministership, Netanyahu had given senior positions to the most extreme among his coalition partners: Itamar Ben-Gvir was named National Security Minister, while Bezalel Smotrich became Finance Minister with responsibility for construction of settlements in the West Bank. At that time, Aaron David Miller had described the three extremist parties in government as collectively embodying “a racist, Jewish supremacist, anti-Arab and homophobic view”. Confirming this, Smotrich asserted publicly that “there is no such thing as Palestinians because there is no such thing as a Palestinian people”.
The new ministers lived up to their reputation immediately. In January, Ben-Gvir deliberately walked through the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound, signalling that the current arrangement that reserved the space exclusively for Muslim prayer would now be changed. In April, Israeli police stormed the mosque complex and detained over 350 worshippers during Ramadan, using rubber bullets and stun grenades.
Both Ben-Gvir and Smotrich then took up the expansion of Jewish settlements in the West Bank, between them providing the required funds and the security forces. Their principal interest has been tightening Israel’s control over the occupied territory just short of full annexation and doubling the settler population from 5,00,000 to a million. Ben-Gvir is also seeking the setting up of a national guard under his direct control to coerce the Palestinians without official scrutiny.
Encouraged by their extremist ministers, the settlers have turned more aggressive: both in expanding their presence and in confrontations with the 3.7 million Palestinians who live across the West Bank in non-contiguous “cantons”. The settlers have begun by expanding illegal settlements, that is those not formally approved by the government, being assured that approval will follow later.
Even before the latest Netanyahu government took office, the settlers had increased their violence against the Palestinians. In 2020, there were 127 attacks by the settlers on Palestinian agricultural lands, accompanied by racist slogans. As these confrontations became more frequent, Israeli security used Apache helicopters to fire missiles at Palestinians. Security officers predicted that large-scale military operations could be expected in the West Bank as part of “counter-terrorism” measures.
“Even before the latest Netanyahu government took office, the settlers had increased their violence against the Palestinians. In 2020, there were 127 attacks by the settlers on Palestinian agricultural lands, accompanied by racist slogans.”
After the Netanyahu government came into power, the settlers increased their attacks exponentially: in just one week in June, there were 310 attacks by settlers on Palestinians that included the burning of homes and a mosque and school. This set the stage for tit-for-tat violence, with Palestinian responses leading to further escalation in attacks by the settlers. Security officials carried out drone strikes on a refugee camp and demolished homes.
In July, the settlers called for military action to exterminate Palestinians. Security forces backed them by launching a raid on Jenin and killing 10 Palestinians. In August, in an unprecedented move, the US State Department described the killing of a young Palestinian by a settler as a “terror attack”, terms till then reserved only for the Palestinians. The UN said that in the first six months of 2023, there had been over 600 settler-related incidents in the West Bank, in which 200 Palestinians had been killed. Opposition leader Benny Gantz spoke of the “dangerous nationalistic Jewish terror” and blamed this on the “silence of our national leadership”.
In September, distinguished commentator Nathan Brown noted that more extreme Israeli voices were “calling not simply for bottling up Palestinians as non-citizens in their homeland, but for expelling those who do not like it.” He added that some extremists were even referring to Palestinians as “Amalek”, a Biblical people described as the mortal enemies of the Jews whose memory should be eliminated.
Thus, the stage was set for the latest conflict between the Palestinians and the occupiers of their homeland.
Ending the conflict
Given the damage the Hamas attacks have done to Israel’s political and military leaders, it is not surprising that there have been bellicose statements from the latter vowing the extermination of the Hamas threat. To regain some modicum of credibility with the Israeli public, we may expect the war to continue; the aim on the Israeli side will be to inflict maximum damage in Gaza in terms of human life and infrastructure, along with the targeted killings of certain high-profile Hamas leaders, so that Israelis can be assured that the attacks on them have been avenged.
Israel will attempt to achieve this through aerial bombardment, but if that is not effective, then ground action may have to be resorted to. Gaza, with 2.3 million people living in an area of 360 sq km, is one of the most densely populated spaces in the world. Ground fighting could lead to even greater Israeli casualties and more prisoners while raising questions about whether to retain the forces in Gaza or withdraw them. Both options are unattractive—prolonged occupation will breed further resentment among Palestinians and trigger sporadic acts of violence, while withdrawal will lead to the return of Hamas, even if it has lost some of its leaders.
Assuming Israel has obtained its war aims, a ceasefire will need mediators, countries that enjoy credibility on both sides. Turkey could be one such player, but it is non-Arab and has been ideologically close to Hamas in the past. Perhaps the best mediators would be Saudi Arabia and Qatar working with Egyptian diplomats. Egypt has engineered several truces in the recent past, often along with Qatar, which has promised financial support for civic services and reconstruction.
Qatar is reported to have initiated discussions to get Hamas to release the women and children among the Israeli hostages, in return for the release of 36 Palestinian women and children in Israeli prisons, but there has been no progress so far.
Domestic implications of the Gaza war
The conflict initiated by Hamas has dealt a body blow to Israel’s image of invincibility and its ability to identify and eliminate specific enemies of the state, be they heads of enemy organisations, individuals who had directed attacks on Israeli nationals, or even scientists who were associated with the development of capabilities that might threaten Israel’s interests. Israel had also expended huge resources to prevent precisely the kind of incursions that occurred on October 7: just the barricades along the 60 km border with Gaza had cost $1 billion.
The attacks have also dented the credibility of the country’s intelligence services which had prided themselves on being fully informed about the plans of their enemies through contacts and eavesdropping devices. Perhaps the failure was in the assessment of information obtained: there are some reports that although Israeli intelligence knew of Hamas’ exercises along the border, they were convinced that Hamas was not interested in conflict—that it attached greater value to funding from Qatar and the employment of 20,000 Gazans in Israel.
Both the military and intelligence failures will have negative implications for the Netanyahu government and the Prime Minister personally. Netanyahu’s attempts to get moderate politicians into a national unity government led by him have been stymied by Yair Lapid’s insistence that he rid himself of “the current and dysfunctional security cabinet” and replace it with “a professional, experienced and responsible government”.
It is unlikely that Netanyahu will muster the courage to do this: he depends crucially on extremist parties to stay in power and enjoys almost no credibility with the moderate groups. Thus, to ensure his continued stay in power and protect himself from indictments by commissions of inquiry that will later examine the Gaza war, Netanyahu could find himself more closely tied to his extremist allies and compelled to back them in their messianic vision for Israel—an apartheid-like scenario in which millions of Palestinians will live in ghettoes and eke out miserable lives in submission to their occupiers.
Over the last two decades, Israel and the US have been making a concerted effort to play down the significance of Palestinian claims and aspirations and pursue “normalisation” of ties between Israel and Arab states without the former conceding anything on the core issues that agitate the Palestinians: a sovereign and viable state with East Jerusalem as its capital and the right of return of Palestinian refugees.
After the Oslo Accords of 1993 and 1995, which had deferred consideration of these “final status” issues, no Israeli leader has had the courage to address them seriously. The assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in November 1995, just two months after signing the Oslo II agreement, made it clear to Israeli politicians that the extreme right—ultra-nationalist and ultra-religious—have a decisive veto over the country’s politics despite their small presence in the Knesset. Netanyahu had then sharply criticised the accords and built his career on the Israeli right, becoming the longest serving Prime Minister in his country’s history.
The US-Israeli approach of pursuing normalisation without paying any attention to Palestinian interests seemed to be succeeding when, in August 2020, the UAE normalised ties with Israel, followed by Bahrain, Morocco, and Sudan, the process being referred to as the “Abraham Accords”. Ever since Joe Biden became US President, the principal focus of his administration in West Asia has been to get Saudi Arabia, the world’s principal Arab and Islamic country, to establish diplomatic ties with Israel. Through 2023, the process made good progress and a successful deal was to be announced within this year.
However, the Gaza war has become a serious obstruction in the normalisation path being pursued by the US, Israel, and Saudi Arabia. Following the Hamas attacks, in a major change from its earlier position, the Saudi foreign office has recalled the kingdom’s “repeated warnings of the dangers of the explosion of the situation as a result of the occupation, the deprivation of the Palestinian people of their legitimate rights, and the repetition of systematic provocations of its sanctities”. In regard to the prospects of normalisation of ties with Israel, a Saudi official has said: “The optics are so bad for us. Things will be on ice for a while.”
Sections of the Western media have seen an Iranian role in the Hamas attacks, suggesting that Iran has wanted to sabotage the ongoing normalisation process between Israel and its Arab neighbours. Commentators in Time magazine wrote that the attacks derailed “the transformation of the region which had started with the Abraham Accords”. The writers said that Iran was the principal sponsor of Hamas and, given the regime’s loss of legitimacy at home, “it needed the conflict very badly”.
The Wall Street Journal has gone further: its correspondents say that “Iranian security officials helped plan Hamas’ Saturday surprise attack on Israel”, giving the final green light on October 2. Iran’s interest, according to the writers, is “to create a multi-front threat that can strangle Israel from all sides”. The article even gives details of specific meetings between Hamas and Iranian officials in Syria and Lebanon when the details of the attacks were finalised.
Surprisingly, The Guardian too has echoed the Iranian role in the attacks, with the Diplomatic Editor, Patrick Wintour, saying that Iran and its allies “have a longer-term strategic goal: to thwart the US-led effort to achieve a normalisation between Saudi Arabia and Israel, which would entrench the US in the Middle East”.
“What is interesting now is that even supposedly “liberal” sections of European media echo the same American positions. There is no mention here of Israeli violence and depredations against the Palestinians carried out with total impunity over many decades.”
The Gaza war has also entered the polarised domestic politics of the US: former US President Donald Trump has held Biden responsible for the Hamas attacks by providing $6 billion to Iran as part of the recent prisoner-swap deal. This has compelled US Secretary of State Antony Blinken to come to Iran’s rescue in The Wall Street Journal article and say: “We have not yet seen evidence that Iran directed or was behind this particular attack, but there is certainly a long relationship.”
The diverse Western media voices singing from the same score sheet reflects the near unanimity of opinion in the West one saw on the Ukraine war; there is the same banding together of commentators to establish a broadly similar discourse on West Asian politics as has occurred on Ukraine.
Iran is an easy villain in the US, having been relentlessly demonised for many decades, but what is interesting now is that even supposedly “liberal” sections of European media echo the same American positions. There is no mention here of Israeli violence and depredations against the Palestinians carried out with total impunity over many decades, nor even references to the deliberate provocations and violence associated with Netanyahu’s extremist government.
The West Asian political landscape
In Israel, focussing on Iran’s culpability is meant to shift attention from the Netanyahu government’s role in the fiasco and the obvious military and intelligence failures, while uniting the shocked Israeli people behind their leader. It could also have the added advantage of reminding the Saudi leaders of the continuing threat from Iran and encourage the kingdom to return to negotiations on normalisation and place the Palestinian issue on the back-burner of regional politics.
This game plan might not work. The ongoing Gaza war has placed the Palestine issue where it belongs: at the heart of West Asian politics. The scale of the assault, the exposure of Israeli vulnerabilities, the Palestinian commitment to resistance despite the heavy price extracted, and, above all, the support the Palestinian cause enjoys across the Arab world and among most nations of the Global South—all of these will ensure that there will be no rush among regional leaders to normalise ties with Israel.
And, contrary to the vague promises to uphold Palestinian interests without requiring Israel to do anything specific—which was part of the Saudi normalisation process—it is now clear that such fake assurances will carry no conviction with the Palestinians or the Arab brethren who back them. The Saudi journalist, Faisal Abbas, has written in Arab News: “… the international community must act now to activate a credible peace plan that enables a two-state solution, which is the best means to protect civilians.”
The heart of the Palestine issue resonates in these words of their national poet, Mahmoud Darwish:
You have stolen the orchards of my ancestors
And the land that I cultivated
And you left nothing for us
Except for these rocks …
If I become hungry
The usurper’s flesh will be my food.
Talmiz Ahmad is the former ambassador to Saudi Arabia, Oman, and the UAE. His book, West Asia at War, was published in 2022.
Click here to read an updated version of the story.