The massive rocket attacks from Hamas-controlled Gaza on Israel and the simultaneous infiltration by over a thousand Hamas fighters and their terrorist assault on civilians on 7 October, shocked and stunned Israel and the world.
Over 5000 rockets and ground attacks hit Israeli towns and settlements near the Gaza border, triggering another round of hostilities, and exposing the fragile peace in the West Asian region.
The conflict has entered its 12th day with the United States strenuously attempting a series of shuttle diplomacy, backed by positioning two carrier groups in the Eastern Mediterranean to deter any external intervention.
US President Joe Biden has declared that his country is solidly behind Israel as he prepares to visit Israel for confabulations with PM Benjamin Netanyahu, President Mahmoud Abbas of the Palestine Authority (PA), and Jordan’s King Abdullah II.
Operation "Al-Aqsa Storm"
The Hamas terrorists slaughtered civilians in towns and settlements near the Gaza border captured over 150 civilian and defence officers and took them to Gaza as hostages. Apart from Saturday being the weekly Shabbath, it coincided with a religious holiday of Simchat Torah.
Hamas called the operation "Al-Aqsa Storm” and said that the assault was a response to what it described as Israeli attacks on women, the desecration of the Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem, and the siege-like conditions of Gaza.
50 years ago on 6 October, Egypt, Jordan, and Syria had taken Israel by surprise when their armies attacked Yom Kippur – one of the holiest days in Judaism. Israel has responded with an intense campaign of aerial bombardment and missile attacks on Hamas targets in Gaza and quickly mobilised its defence forces (IDF), calling up 3.5 lakh reservists.
Netanyahu’s Cabinet declared war officially and two major opposition leaders who were previous IDF chiefs have joined the national unity government. The IDF has been fully mobilised and deployed along the Gaza border, poised for the next phase of the conflict. Forays into Gaza by Israeli special forces have started and some hostages have been rescued.
Israel’s military response has caused over 2000 Palestinian deaths and injuries to around a thousand Palestinians. Power, food, and fuel supplies have been cut off by Israel. Palestinian civilians are the worst affected. Hospitals are overflowing and running out of medical supplies. A humanitarian tragedy has unfolded.
Attack Couldn’t Be Pre-Empted
Meanwhile, Hezbollah has also launched sporadic rockets into Northern Israel from Southern Lebanon. Israel has evacuated border towns from its border with Lebanon. Hamas has claimed that 22 hostages have died. Israel has asked Palestinians in North Gaza to move South.
This has affected around one million residents. The toll of the dead and wounded is still rising. For Israel, casualties numbering over 1300 dead (including over 200 IDF personnel and foreigners) and over 1500 injured are the largest ever since the 1973 war.
Israel's much-vaunted intelligence gathering system and the high-tech security perimeter around Gaza failed to either pre-empt or stop the assault. Nor did the Anglosphere’s 5-Eyes intelligence network pick up prior information.
Netanyahu’s divisive policies over judicial reforms have divided Israelis to such an extent that military reservists had threatened not to respond to any national emergency. A perception that Israel looked divided and weak had gained ground and Israel’s enemies may have taken advantage of this distraction.
Netanyahu’s current government is viewed as the most right-wing one in Israel’s history. There are ministers who want to annex the whole of the West Bank and expel all Palestinians to other Arab countries. They want to bury forever the two-state solution. Jewish settlers and Palestinians in the West Bank have clashed frequently over land grabs and maximum casualties have occurred in 2023. Palestinians and Muslims have also been incensed by the ultra-right-wing Jews entering the Al Aqsa Mosque to pray.
Clearly, Hamas had meticulously planned this assault for around 2 years. Leaks to the media have suggested that Egypt had passed on some information to Israel that Hamas may be preparing for some action but that Israel, either ignored it or didn't process it on time.
The Cost of Israel’s Apathy
Israel’s complacency and arrogance may have led to the assumption that Hamas was content with the status quo with its share of revenue from Israel, 20,000 Gaza residents employed in Israel, and external inflow of funds from various countries like Qatar and international agencies. Hamas leaders and their members were pocketing a lion’s share of these funds for personal benefit.
Though Hamas’ original Charter when it was founded in 1987 had the objective of liberating Palestine from Israeli occupation and to establish an Islamic state in the whole of Palestine from the “River to the Sea” (from the River Jordan to the Mediterranean Sea), Hamas later moderated its objectives in July 2009, when its political bureau chief, Khaled Mashal, declared that it would be willing to cooperate and work for a resolution of the Arab-Israeli conflict, on the condition that an independent Palestinian state is established based on the borders of the pre-1967 War, unfettered right of return for Palestinian refugees in exile and recognition of East Jerusalem as the capital.
Hamas’ original objective of wiping out Israel from the map is shared by Mullah-ruled Iran, a Shia-majority country, that has been with the major benefactor of the Sunni Hamas ever since its founding.
In the 2006 election, Hamas gained control of Gaza after Israel vacated its occupation in 2005 when it bested the Palestinian Authority (PA), successor to the PLO after the Oslo Accords and internationally recognised as the legal representative of the Palestinian people.
The PA-Hamas struggle for power gradually intensified and in 2007, Hamas threw out the PA from Gaza and had to set up base in Ramallah in the West Bank. This cleavage in the Palestinian nationalist movement has continued.
US' Agenda in The Conflict
The PA favours reconciliation with Israel, leading to a comprehensive peace deal. All attempts for reconciliation between the PA and Hamas have failed. Israel, keen on preventing any consolidation of the Palestinian movement and sustaining the animosity between Hamas and the PA, had helped Hamas with funds transferred via Qatar to sustain the cleavage, ensuring that an independent Palestine would never see the light of day. Hamas has turned out to be the proverbial snake in the backyard and has risen to bite Israel.
Biden’s forthcoming visit is timed to express moral support to Israel but he is likely to persuade Netanyahu to avoid the ground offensive into Gaza. Iran has warned that it might join the conflict but has also held out the offer that if Israel does not attack Gaza, hostages would be released.
The US wants to ensure that the conflict remains localised and to deter any intervention by external powers. US Secretary of State Antony Blinken has visited Israel to demonstrate support and also visited Jordan and Qatar to explore venues for mediation.
The Middle East Response
Qatar has funded Hamas and the Islamic Brotherhood and has offered to mediate the release of the hostages. Hamas Chief Ismail Haniyeh and former Chief Khaled Mashal operate out of Qatar. Doha’s close ties with hardline Islamic organisation is well known but its actions are coordinated with the US and Israel, to keep an eye on these organisations and maintain a conduit for communication. Qatar was also host to the Taliban for the US-Taliban talks which led to the withdrawal of American forces from Afghanistan. Qatar hosts the US’s Al-Odeid air base and has American patronage.
With the exception of the UAE, Muslim countries have come out in support of Palestine, without condemning Hamas. China and Russia have called for ceasefire and reconciliation talks also without condemning Hamas. Turkey – another longtime Hamas supporter – has also offered to mediate.
Demonstrations in support of Palestine and Hamas have continued in many countries. India’s first response was fully supportive of Israel and the second statement reiterated India’s support for the internationally accepted two-state solution within secure borders.
Did Hamas time its attack to scuttle the "Abraham Accords”? These Accords were signed in September 2020 and led to the establishment of diplomatic relations between Israel, the UAE, and Bahrain. Sudan and Morocco also signed up later.
Though supportive, Saudi Arabia stayed aloof, despite the US’s pressure. These developments introduced a new geopolitical trend in the region.
Iran’s firm opposition to the Abraham Accords and its call to all Muslim countries to avoid any ties with Israel has been reiterated. Iran has supported both Hamas and Hezbollah with funds, weapons, and training.
Iran has warned against the normalisation of Israel-Saudi ties. Iran’s nuclear programme has led to insecurity among the Gulf Arab countries. Diplomatic ties between Israel and Saudi Arabia will be viewed as a victory for Israel without any sign of an independent Palestine.
Implications of the War
Geopolitical trends, West Bank clashes, Israel’s continuing land grab, religious feelings over the Al Aqsa incidents and Iran’s encouragement could have forced Hamas to attack Israel. Israel’s harsh response must have been factored into this decision.
Bitterness, hate, desperation, and the prospect of achieving a Palestine state gradually evaporating have all combined into Hamas’ do-or-die attempt, triggering consequences, like higher oil prices which will again undermine the global economy, barely recovering from COVID and the Ukraine War.
Israel ’s economy too will take a huge hit as its workers are called up for military duty emptying out industry and high-tech sectors of the economy. This conflict too will end but will recur again if an enduring solution based on the two-nation state remains out of reach.
(The author is a former Ambassador and Secretary in the Ministry of External Affairs; he has served in Israel as Deputy Chief of Mission in the Indian Embassy; he is Founder Director of DeepStrat, a Delhi-based think tank. This is an opinion piece. The views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)