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11 October 2023

A new age of volatility

Hamas’ recent brutal attack on Israel reconfirms that the post-Cold War era of Western triumphalism is over.

By New Statesman

Israel is at war. Fifty years since the start of the Yom Kippur War, the country has again been hit by a ­devastating surprise attack. This time, it was not neighbouring armies that stormed across the border, but Hamas militants pouring out of the Gaza Strip. The assault, which began on 7 October, was as audacious as it was low tech. Hamas fighters used bulldozers and explosives to break through the barricades surrounding the enclave, then streamed into southern Israel on motorbikes and pick-up trucks. Others used paragliders and speedboats. Early in the morning on the Jewish Sabbath, they set about attacking military outposts and murdering and abducting civilians.

The full extent of the horrors that followed is becoming clear: the young Israelis massacred at a music festival in the Negev desert; the mothers clutching their terrified children as they were loaded onto trucks; the elderly women being paraded through crowds of jeering militants. At least 150 Israelis are thought to have been taken to Gaza and as many as 1,000 killed.

[See also: Edward Luttwak: “The Israelis are bombing to kill Hamas, not civilians”]

It is abhorrent that the response to these events among some pro-Palestinian groups, including in the United Kingdom and United States, has been to celebrate with flag-waving rallies and dancing in the streets. We must unequivocally condemn these atrocities. 

Israel has entered a new era. A political reckoning will likely follow. Beyond the inability of Israel’s vaunted intelligence services to predict these attacks, and the country’s formidable military to prevent them, they represent an abject failure of political imagination by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Long content to ignore Palestinian grievances and empower far-right extremists in the service of his own goals, Mr Netanyahu has been condemned for his administration’s failure to protect Israeli citizens in their own homes. While he has proved remarkably resilient during his scandal-ridden career, we may finally be witnessing the beginning of the end of Mr Netanyahu’s time in power.

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The failure of imagination – and intelligence – was not limited to Israel. The US national security adviser, Jake Sullivan, declared recently that the Middle East was “quieter today than it has been in two decades”. No longer. As Joe Biden, in the tradition of US presidents who sought to pivot away from Europe and the Middle East to focus on the great power contest with China, has learned, foreign policy crises rarely align with leaders’ grand visions. Prospects for regional stability are receding and the talks on normalising relations between Saudi Arabia and ­Israel will be put on hold. 

This is an age of extreme volatility. The post-Cold War era of Western triumphalism is over, and the world is fractious and fragmented. Old scores are being settled and old certainties reassessed. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has unleashed the largest land war in Europe since the Second World War. That assault was predicated, at least in part, on Vladimir Putin’s assumption that the West would fail to mount a meaningful response (as was the case when he annexed Crimea in 2014).

Azerbaijan seized the disputed Armenian enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh in September after correctly assessing that a distracted Russia would be unlikely to intervene. China’s leadership, long convinced that the US has begun an irreversible decline, is watching to see how long Western support for Ukraine endures as it builds up its own military and presses its claim to Taiwan. The US’s latest domestic political dysfunction – ­leaving the House of Representatives temporarily without a speaker – and the looming prospect of a second Donald Trump presidency only fuels the narrative that the US is turning inwards, and a new international order is emerging.

[See also: Gaza’s attack changes everything]

There will be more violence to come. Mr Netanyahu has warned Israeli citizens to prepare for a “long and difficult” conflict with Hamas. The ominous calls from his officials for a “complete siege” of the Strip and a fight against “human animals” portend more suffering for the more than two million people who live there – almost half of whom are children. They have already endured a 16-year blockade. This is both the beginning of a new conflict between Israel and Hamas and the continuation of a generations-long one between Israel and the stateless Palestinians, to which there is no end in sight.

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This article appears in the 11 Oct 2023 issue of the New Statesman, War Without Limits