As the Gaza war enters its seventh day (October 14, 2023), there are prospects of greater death and destruction than seen so far in that bloodthirsty land. In the first days of the Hamas assault on Israel, about 1,300 Israelis were killed, while Israel claims to have killed half the 2,500 Hamas fighters who had entered its land. In the bombardment that Israel has since inflicted on Gaza, about 1,500 Palestinians have been killed, even as the “complete siege” of that territory has led to a serious humanitarian crisis, with electricity cut off, hospitals overwhelmed, nearly 400,000 people displaced, and food slowly running out.
The hundred or so Israeli hostages that Hamas says it has taken back to Gaza have now become a bargaining matter: Hamas says it will kill one hostage for every unannounced Israeli air attack, while Israel demands the hostages be released if an all-out assault on Gaza is to be avoided. As Israeli troops mass along the border of the 360 square kilometre strip, Gaza’s 2.3 million residents have been asked to evacuate the entire northern area that houses a million people. Given the small size of the territory, this is a physical impossibility.
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 marches through the mosque complex by extremist supporters of Israel’s right-wing 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 “in solidarity” with the Hamas attacks.
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Israel named its actions “Operation Iron Sword” and ordered the mobilisation of army reservists, said to number about 360,000. This was backed by fiery rhetoric to boost the morale of their bewildered citizens: Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has promised to reduce Hamas strongholds in Gaza to dust.
Defence Minister Yoav Gallant called the attack a “grave mistake” and asserted that “Israel will win this war”. The language of Israel’s leaders has since become even more bellicose. Netanyahu equated Hamas with ISIS and said “it will be crushed and eliminated”.
On October 11, Netanyahu formed an emergency government by bringing in two opposition figures—Benny Gantz and Gadi Eizenkot—both former army chiefs, into his four-member “war management cabinet”, while the 14-member security cabinet has four opposition members. This has enabled Netanyahu, criticised for failures to protect the nation, to broaden the decision-making platform with figures who enjoy greater credibility than he does.
The US’s stance
President Biden, who had distanced himself from the Israeli leader through much of his presidency, has, in line with traditional US posture, strongly affirmed his country’s support for its ally: giving what The Washington Post described as “the most pro-Israel speech by a sitting US president” when he condemned Hamas as “pure, unadulterated evil”. Biden said Israel had not just the right but the “duty” to strike back and that “the United States has Israel’s back”.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken rushed to Tel Aviv on October 12 and affirmed in ringing words: “You may be strong enough on your own to defend yourself, but as long as America exists, you will never, ever have to.”
“The Hamas attacks has dealt a body-blow to Israel’s image of invincibility and its ability to identify and eliminate specific enemies of the state.”
But Israel does not appear capable of defending itself on its own: within a few days of the conflict there have been reports of large shipments of US military equipment, the promise of a $2 billion defence package, and the visit of Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin to personally assess and meet Israel’s needs.
While Israel and most of its supporters have been taken by surprise by the Hamas attacks, observers who have been closely following Israeli politics since Netanyahu formed his government in December 2022 have expected a flare-up, although the scale was unexpected.
In May 2023, after the conflict between Israeli forces and the Gaza-based Islamic Jihad, commentator Aaron David Miller wrote: “It’s only a matter of time—days, weeks, months—until the next go-round.... a perfect storm is building.” Miller noted 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 in Israel and southern Lebanon.
The reason for this bleak outlook was obvious. As the price for his prime ministership, Netanyahu gave 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, Miller had described the three extremist parties 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 walked through the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound, signalling that the current arrangement that reserved the space exclusively for Muslim prayer would now change. 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 funds and forces. Their principal interest has been to tighten Israel’s control over the occupied territory just short of full annexation and double the settler population from 500,000 to a million. Ben-Gvir is also seeking to set up a national guard under his direct control to use force 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 settlers on Palestinian farm lands, accompanied by racist slogans. As these confrontations became more frequent, Israeli security used Apache helicopters to fire missiles.
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 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.
“As with every earlier confrontation with the Palestinians, Israel has the full support not just of the US administration, but also of the US political and media establishment.”
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. The UN said that in the first six months of 2023, there were over 600 settler-related incidents in the West Bank, in which 200 Palestinians were killed.
Looking back, most sober Israelis are already pointing fingers at Netanyahu for the disaster. Within a day of the conflict, an editorial in Ha’aretz said: “The prime minister… completely failed to identify the dangers he was consciously leading Israel into when establishing a government of annexation and dispossession, …while embracing a foreign policy that openly ignored the existence and rights of Palestinians.”
Yuval Noah Harari, historian and intellectual, said: “For many years, Israel has been governed by a populist strongman, Benjamin Netanyahu, who is a public relations genius but an incompetent prime minister. He has repeatedly preferred his personal interests over the national interest and has built his career on dividing the nation against itself.” The Israeli Prime Minister bears the greatest responsibility for setting the stage for the latest conflict. To regain some modicum of credibility with the Israeli public, the government is likely to continue the war; the aim being to inflict maximum damage in Gaza, along with targeted killings of certain high-profile Hamas leaders, so that Israelis can feel that the attack has been avenged.
Human Rights Watch (HRW) has issued reports on violations of international norms and human rights abuses by both sides, though culpability on the Israeli side has been much more serious and of much longer duration. HRW has pointed out that the long-standing privileging of Jewish Israelis over Palestinians amounts to “crimes against humanity of apartheid and persecution”.
Even before the current conflict, HRW says, Israel had carried out “indiscriminate airstrikes” on Palestinians that had killed numerous civilians, including entire families, and targetted highrise buildings with homes and businesses “with no evident military targets in the vicinity”.
In the current fighting, Hamas has been criticised for targeting civilians, including children, something routinely done on a very large scale by Israelis for several years. In response to the most recent Hamas attacks, Israel’s response has an unrelenting viciousness: asked if Israel was concerned about babies in incubators in Gaza who might die due to lack of electricity, former Prime Minister Naftali Bennett shouted on television: “Are you seriously asking me about Palestinian civilians? Have you not seen what’s happened? We’re fighting Nazis.”
As Ishan Tharoor noted in The Washington Post, “For Israel’s leadership and its supporters, now is the time for retribution and punishment”. This includes the use of white phosphorus against its enemies. On October 12, HRW reported that Israel used it in Gaza and Lebanon, “putting civilians at risk of serious and long-term injuries”.
- While Israel and most of its supporters have been taken by surprise by the Hamas attacks, observers who have been closely following Israeli politics had anticipated it.
- Human Rights Watch (HRW) had issued reports on violations of international norms and human rights abuses by both sides, though culpability on the Israeli side has been much more serious and of much longer duration.
- Over the last two decades, Israel and the US have been making a concerted effort to play down the significance of Palestinian claims.
- After this conflict, fake assurances of normalisation will no longer carry any conviction with the Palestinians or the Arab brethren who back them.
As with every earlier confrontation with the Palestinians, Israel has the full support not just of the US administration, but also of the US political and media establishment.
Biden has also given credence to some of the most foul misinformation coming from Israel. At a meeting in Washington, Biden said: “I have confirmed pictures of terrorists beheading children.” His officials later clarified that the President had not actually seen images of beheaded children but was basing his remarks on news reports. Social media too is awash with lurid images relating to allegations against Hamas, but there is no confirmation of their authenticity so far.
“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.”
Several American politicians are baying for Palestinian blood. One Republican senator sees the fight with Hamas as a “religious” war and has called for Gaza to be levelled. Presidential hopeful Nikki Haley has called for the Palestinians’ “elimination” as all “sick people” should be. A Republican Congressman is happy that Gaza will soon become a “parking lot”, while another calls on Israel to conduct a campaign on Gaza similar to what the US did in Japan towards the end of the Second World War.
The last thought is echoed by an Israeli politician who has urged the use of nuclear weapons on Gaza. A security official said that Gaza would soon become “a city of tents”.
Beyond the current fighting, the Gaza war will have immediate implications within Israel. The conflict has dealt a body-blow to Israel’s image of invincibility and its ability to identify and eliminate specific enemies of the state. Israel 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 cost one billion dollars.
The attacks have dented the credibility of the country’s intelligence services that 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: there are some reports that Israeli intelligence knew of Hamas’ exercises along the border, but was convinced that Hamas was not interested in any conflict and 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. Opposition leader Yair Lapid has insisted that Netanyahu 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. After the war, 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 live in ghettoes and eke out miserable lives.
Regardless of the outcome, the Gaza war will have significant implications for regional politics.
Over the last two decades, Isarel 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 to 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.
The US-Israeli approach of pursuing normalisation without paying 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 referred to as the “Abraham Accords”. Since Biden became President, his focus 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 expected to be announced within this year.
“The scale of the assault, the exposure of Israeli vulnerabilities, the Palestinian commitment to resistance, and the support the Palestinian cause enjoys across the Arab world and in the Global South—all these will ensure that regional leaders do not rush to normalise ties with Israel.”
However, following the Hamas attacks, 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”.
As for the prospects of normalisation of ties with Israel, a Saudi official said: “The optics are so bad for us. Things will be on ice for a while.” Later, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman told Mahmoud Abbas, head of the Palestinian Authority, that the kingdom continued “to stand by the Palestinian people to achieve their legitimate rights to a decent life, achieve their hopes and aspirations, and achieve just and lasting peace”.
Sections of the Western media have seen an Iranian role in planning the Hamas attacks, suggesting that Iran wanted to sabotage the ongoing normalisation between Israel and its Arab neighbours. Commentators in Time magazine wrote that the attacks had derailed “the transformation of the region which had started with the Abraham Accords”. The writers said 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 went further: its correspondents said that “Iranian security officials helped plan Hamas’ Saturday surprise attack on Israel”. Iran’s interest, according to the writers, is “to create a multi-front threat that can strangle Israel from all sides”. The article even gave details of specific meetings between Hamas and Iranian officials in Syria and Lebanon when the attacks were finalised.
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 Israeli people behind their leader. It could also have the advantage of reminding Saudi leaders of the continuing threat from Iran and encourage the kingdom to return to negotiations and place the Palestinian issue on the back burner of regional politics.
This 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, and, above all, the support the Palestinian cause enjoys across the Arab world and in the Global South—all these will ensure that regional leaders do not rush to normalise ties with Israel. And, contrary to the vague promises to uphold Palestinian interests without requiring Israel to do anything specific—which had been 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 the 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 last year.