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8 October 2023

What comes next in Gaza

Israel was wrong to think it could contain Hamas so easily.

By Lawrence Freedman

Saturday’s terrifying attacks on Israel involved levels of planning, orchestration and audacity that meant it had been under preparation for some time. It was not an angry and impetuous response to recent events, such as settlers storming the Al Aqsa Mosque or the Israel-Saudi dialogue, other than that these events are the latest in a series that convinced Hamas that it was time to shock and shake Israel. The date of 7 October, almost 50 years after the last time that Israel suffered a similar blow — the Yom Kippur War — will have been ringed for some time. Hamas understands the symbolism.

The easy and obvious comparison between the two attacks is that once again Israel has been caught by surprise. The comparisons can be taken further. The Israelis eventually won the 1973 Yom Kippur War by defeating both the Egyptian and Syrian armies, but it didn’t feel like a victory. The human costs were high and showed that the country was still vulnerable, despite the stunning victories in the 1967 war. Arab armies had been dismissed as ineffectual: now they showed that with better weapons and tactics they were still capable of inflicting heavy blows on Israel, and could do so again. The Israeli people took the view that if only there had been a better appreciation of the danger all this could have been avoided. The government of the day was eventually punished in the polls for the error.

While I am always wary of predicting the course of a war, we can be reasonably sure of one thing. The political backlash within Israel will be harsh and will go beyond inquiries into the intelligence failure. Not yet, for the country will come together as the fighting continues and partisan differences will be put aside. But once the dust settles. The shift is already taking place as opposition parties have been offered membership of an emergency coalition by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu who will want the widest possible support for the next steps. According to Yair Lapid, Netanyahu recognises that “with the current extreme and dysfunctional security cabinet, he can’t manage a war. Israel needs to be led by a professional, experienced, and responsible government”. The condition will be to remove the most controversial and disruptive members of his coalition, notably Bezalel Smotrich and Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir, a far-rightist who has been busy aggravating relations with the Palestinians without preparing for the consequences. 

Not only has the coalition’s policies on judicial reform left Israeli society deeply divided, something of which Hamas will have been well aware, but also its active support of extremist groups stirring up trouble in the West Bank and Jerusalem meant that the Israeli Defence Forces (IDF) were diverted to protect them. This is one explanation for the empty guard posts and thin lines of defence on the border with Gaza, which affected the ability to respond to the attacks.

The scale and character of these attacks are more limited and terroristic than the canal crossing and armoured thrusts of 1973. Also, unlike 1973, when Israel could not focus on Egyptian forces until it had dealt with the more immediate threat from Syria, so far Israel is fighting just one enemy. It must be aware that this can change, either with an upsurge of violence in the West Bank or else Hezbollah deciding to join the war from Lebanon, with even more deadly consequences.

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There is another difference. The 1973 War was a prelude to diplomacy. Up to then all Arab governments had refused to accept Israel’s right to exist and rejected proposals for direct negotiations. Egypt’s President Anwar Sadat wanted to change that and used the boost to his prestige provided by the first successful days of the war to enter the process that culminated in a peace treaty with Israel, followed, sadly, by his assassination. The current war was preceded by significant negotiations and breakthroughs in Arab-Israeli diplomatic relations, especially with the Gulf states. The latest effort began under the Trump administration, leading to the “Abraham Accords” (between Israel and the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Sudan, and Morocco) and has recently been moving on to what Israelis see as the great prize of normal relations with Saudi Arabia. This has been moving forward in recent days, with the US trying to broker a deal (and get the Saudis to help lower the oil price). Netanyahu told the UN in September that the two countries were on “the cusp” of an agreement. Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman also confirmed that “every day we get closer”.

Palestinians have watched this with dismay because they feel that they are being abandoned by Arab governments keen to take advantage of the high-tech Israeli economy. In the past some sort of peace initiative was seen as a precondition for any Saudi move. The Crown Prince continues to insist that the Palestinian issue has not been forgotten, but the Palestinians have few friends in the region, however popular their cause is among ordinary people. The attacks were planned before the latest stage in the Saudi-Israel dialogue. It is possible, however, that as this normalisation process has been underway for some time one motive was to derail it. 

The Saudi response thus far has been to call for an immediate halt to escalating violence and noted that it had repeatedly warned that Israel’s ongoing occupation of Gaza would propel further violence. Its position remains that a ‘two-state solution’ is the best option, and that is the view of most of the international community.

The last serious attempt at negotiations to this end, however, was at the close of the Clinton Administration in 2000. The failure of those talks, over the division of Jerusalem and the extent of a Palestinian right to return, was followed by the “Second Intifada”, which included bombs in Israeli cities. This had the effect of pushing Israel to the right and undermining its peace movement. There have been occasional attempts to revive the process, at least with the Palestinian leadership in the West Bank, led by the ailing Mahmoud Abbas. At times there has been cooperation between the Israeli and Palestinian security forces to stabilise the situation. But relations, never good, have deteriorated even more as the Israeli government backed the hardline settler movement. Hamas, already in control of its own territory, remains rejectionist, with no interest in a negotiation even if that was on offer.

Once the Second Intifada was defeated, the then Prime Minister Ariel Sharon took a bold step. He concluded that the best way to cope with the Gaza Strip was to withdraw all Israelis from their settlements and put up a fence, and hope that if it left the Palestinians there alone then it would be reciprocated. That did not happen. In 2006 Hamas won elections in Gaza and soon consolidated its hold on the territory, pushing out Abbas’s Fatah group. It saw the territory as a base from which it could prepare for a final clash with Israel, and was soon accumulating weapons, including, with Iranian help, rockets.

Every time attacks were launched from the area Israel hit back. These armed skirmishes reflected frustration at the conditions in which the population was living and Hamas’s determination to show that they were not cowed. In response Israel took the view that it dare not show any weakness. This involved over the years a range of measures, from assassinating Hamas’s leaders and bomb-makers, to striking directly at the camps of its fighters.

Occasionally this meant taking the fight to Hamas strongholds in Gaza. For over a decade now, whatever the provocation, the IDF has wished to avoid that. Once it is in hostile territory its troops become vulnerable to ambushes as they try to root out fighters who merge easily with the local population. Experience warned that once these territories are entered, other than for a quick raid with a specific objective, it can be very hard to get out again and it is unlikely that much would be achieved.

It has therefore come to rely more on defensive and punitive measures. In 2014, in an effort to get the air and sea blockade on Gaza lifted, Hamas launched rocket attacks into Israel, while Israel demonstrated the quality of its intelligence by finding and destroying over 30 tunnels. These had been used for both smuggling and as potential routes under the fence through which attacks might be mounted on Israeli communities. Although Hamas fired off thousands of rockets its attacks were blunted by the impressive Iron Dome air defence system.

Thereafter the combination of an improved fence, air defences, and the precision strikes of the air force in taking out Hamas’s assets in Gaza, was seen as being sufficient to blunt the threat without taking the risks and anguish of trying to occupy the land. Meanwhile Gaza suffered under a blockade, backed by Egypt, that restricted the import of any goods, including electronic and computer equipment, that could be used to make weapons while preventing people from leaving the territory.

Rather than “solving” the Hamas problem, whether by military or political means, it could only be contained. There were demonstrations and protests along the fence but nothing that seemed unmanageable. As Seth Franzen noted:

“Hamas in Gaza appeared isolated, unable to even get more funds from the usual sources, such as Qatar. With Israeli normalisation agreements growing in the region, Hamas seemed to present an outdated ideology living in the past.”

Yet there were signs of increasing tensions. The junior faction in Gaza – Islamic Jihad – launched a barrage of rockets in May, followed by a targeted Israeli strike that killed three of its leaders. This time Hamas stood back. Egypt and the UN arranged a cease-fire. In July Israeli forces entered Jenin on the West Bank, with the claimed objective of taking out Palestinian militants. This involved hundreds of ground troops and air strikes. Then last month there were clashes close to the Gazan fence, as Palestinians fought with Israeli forces. Last week, Israeli settlers entered the al Aqsa complex in East Jerusalem, apparently helped by Israeli police, to mark the festival of Sukkot, provoking Arab anger. (It was a visit to this mosque by Ariel Sharon in 2000 that helped spark the Second Intifada.)

Against a backdrop of growing Palestinian frustration and anger, containment became more of a challenge. Hamas was working out how to breach Israel’s defences. It had long had its rockets as a means of taking the war to Israel but their impact was neutralised by the Iron Dome. On Saturday it launched hundreds simultaneously so that, at least temporarily, it overwhelmed the Iron Dome and some rockets hit targets deep into Israel. More seriously it breached the fence with bulldozers, jumped over it with paragliders and went round it by sea. Many of these moves were thwarted but enough of the first wave were successful to allow border posts to be overrun, hostages taken, and random civilians killed when militants came upon them. Although the operations inside Israel should soon be over, the murder of pensioners and the desecration of bodies will add to pressure on the Israeli government to exact retribution.

Israel is already hurting Hamas back with air strikes attacking infrastructure. More significantly Gaza is being deprived of much of its electricity and water supplies, and its internet has been hit. IDF Chief Spokesman Brig. Gen. Daniel Hagari told a press conference that airstrikes “would significantly intensify and would eliminate all Hamas terror infrastructure, all houses of terror commanders, and all symbols of Hamas’ rule.” But in the end these are buildings, and new buildings can always be found, and for that matter new fighters and leaders.

It has also called up reservists and appears to be preparing to once again re-enter Gaza. The pressure for it to do so will be considerable, but there are also reasons for caution.

First, Hamas will be prepared. This will be a tough fight. Even a limited incursion could be costly.

Second, the IDF neither has the capacity nor the staying power to take control of Gaza. This remains a territory of 2 million people, and as they have nowhere else to go, they will stay, still angry.

Third, for Israel the greatest danger is that the conflict spreads, stretching the IDF, and the Iron Dome, even more. The Lebanese group Hezbollah has praised the operation, and linked it to attempts by Arab governments to improve relations with Israel. 

According to its leader Hassan Nasrallah: “It sends a message to the Arab and Islamic world, and the international community as a whole, especially those seeking normalization with this enemy, that the Palestinian cause is an everlasting one, alive until victory and liberation.”

I presume that if Hezbollah was part of the plan they would have attacked at the same time to maximise the impact. Iran supports both groups, and it will be considering how much a wider war would complicate its own attempts to normalise relations with the Gulf Arabs. If the fighting drags on, and the images turn to those of Israeli strikes against Gaza, the pressures for Hezbollah to get involved will grow. Hezbollah has already made a gesture by sending rockets and shells against three Israeli positions in the contested Mount Dov region on the border with Lebanon. Israel responded with artillery and a drone strike. Similarly with the West Bank. Abbas has observed that the Palestinians have a right to defend themselves, without going further, but there must be a risk, whether or not he wills it, of freelance action against Israeli settlers, and for that matter by settler groups against Palestinians.

Fourth, what about the fate of the estimated 100 hostages taken by Hamas and Islamic Jihad (which has also been playing an active role in the attacks)? There was little pattern to the hostage taking (15 Thais are reportedly being held) and some appear to have been captured and held by Palestinian civilians. This issue is going to weigh heavily on Israeli calculations.

As for political objectives, the leader of Hamas’s military wing, Muhammad Deif, has said no more than the “operation” was launched so that “the enemy will understand that the time of their rampaging without accountability has ended”. It has also been described as being “in defence of the Aqsa mosque”. Netanyahu has described Israel’s objectives as follows:

“Our first goal is primarily to clear the territory of the enemy forces that have entered and restore security and calm to the settlements that have been attacked. The second goal, concurrently, is to exact a heavy price from the enemy, even in the Gaza Strip. The third goal is to fortify other areas so no one mistakenly joins this war.”

If Israel wants to contain the conflict it needs to get it over as soon as possible. For the same reason it will serve Hamas best if it can be kept going, raising emotions throughout the region.

Israel, having concluded that it was secure because it had found ways to contain the Palestinians and then largely ignore them, now discovers that this is not so easy. The international attention these events have gained, and the dangers if the violence continues, may encourage new diplomatic initiatives – the Security Council will meet while the US Secretary of State has been in touch with all interested parties other than Hamas – but with so much else going on this is not a propitious time. Perhaps Israel’s new friends in the Gulf will identify a way forward, as the Saudis have tried to do in the past. Perhaps the shock of this latest round of fighting will encourage fresh thinking. It is not as if history lacks examples of attempts to ease the conflict, some of which made progress.  

Local initiatives are more likely. It is hard to see how the hostages can be released safely by a military operation. The Wall Street Journal reports that Egypt has already been asked by Israel to mediate. Egypt was involved with talks underway since May 2021 with Qatar and Hamas (in which Israel has had an input). These were about rebuilding Gaza after past fighting and easing the blockade, in return for a cease-fire. According to Haaretz, they broke down a month ago, when instead of more aid Qatar’s representative in Gaza conveyed only Israel’s warnings against any escalation. These could be revived, although even a cease-fire now with an easing of the blockade, without Hamas being weakened for the future, would be seen as a defeat for Israel. But if we look back again to 1973 the long-term impact on Israel lay as much in how the fighting started as in how it ended. Being caught out by the first blow was a psychological victory for its adversary and the effects lingered.

Lawrence Freedman is a regular contributor to The New Statesman. This piece originally ran on his Substack “Comment is Freed“.

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