Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has vowed to eliminate Hamas from the face of the earth, following the surprise attack that killed nearly 1,600 people in one of the most brutal assaults against Israel since that country was founded. Israel has flattened out much of Gaza and continues to do so, as it prepares to launch a full-scale ground offensive.
At the time of writing, the Israeli army, while conducting a few night raids inside the Gaza Strip, had not started the ground war. Though Israel is determined to do so, the military knows that the task will not be easy. The Israel Defense Forces (IDF) has said the operation could take up to three months. US generals and strategists have warned Israel to learn from America’s mistakes after 9/11. Both Afghanistan and Iraq were destroyed. The civil war in Iraq led to the birth of ISIS, one of the most brutal terrorist groups the world has seen. Israel needs to think through its tactics before embarking on a dangerous ground invasion and be prepared to take heavy casualties.
Retired US General David Petraeus, who commanded USA’s wars in both in Iraq and Afghanistan, warned Israel of the danger of a ground assault inside the Gaza Strip. “This is going to be a very, very tough fight,” he told CBS News. “I almost can’t imagine a more challenging contextual set of circumstances here than what they face.” He went on to say: “There are tunnels; there will be rooms that will have improvised explosive devices.” “You have to clear every building, every floor, every room, every basement, every tunnel. Civilian losses are inevitable, and tough Israeli losses lie ahead as well.”
Equally important is the endgame in Gaza. Does Israel have a vision of what next? At some point in time, Hamas can be wiped out, but can the idea of a free Palestine be eliminated? Every time Israel kills civilians—and the air strikes have so far killed over 5,000 Gazans; 200 of them children—it allows the seed of hate to grow. Experts say that one civilian killed leads to the birth of 10 radicals ready to die for Palestine. Mothers, brothers, sisters, wives and daughters have died in Israeli strikes and left in its wake a burning desire for revenge. Hamas may go, but like a hydra-headed monster, another group will replace it. The military cannot crush the idea of justice and equity, which is in every Palestinian heart.
While it is right that Israel is outraged over what happened on October 7 and wants to fight Hamas, the ceaseless bombing and humanitarian crisis facing the civilians in Gaza are totally unacceptable. The collective punishment that Israel has reserved for every citizen of Gaza goes against the rules of war, yet neither the Biden administration nor the European Union (EU)—all of them great advocates of human rights and following the rules of the game—have raised their voices against the bombing that has cost civilian lives. The US has not called for a ceasefire, saying that will come only after all the hostages are handed back. However, UN officials have been crying hoarse for days about the humanitarian tragedy in Gaza with no response from the major Western powers.
This week, UN Secretary-General, Antonio Guterres, speaking out against the “relentless bombing” of Gaza, reminded Israel that no country was above international law, leading to Israel charging the UN top official with siding with the Hamas “terrorists”.
Last week, Miko Peled, the son of an Israeli general, who grew up in a conservative Jewish household, now an American-Jewish citizen and a peace activist, had this to say. “They have killed over 4,000 Palestinians in Gaza till now (the figures are going up every day). How many more deaths does the world have appetite for—10,000 or 100,000? It can’t go on,” Peled, who had long called for dignity for the Palestinians in their own homeland, told the Useful Idiots podcast.
The people of Israel are still trying to come to terms with the fact that a ragtag militant group like Hamas was able to breach the iron-clad security system of the world’s most militarised state, and bring death and destruction to civilians in its wake. The surprise attack had shattered the confidence of a vulnerable people brought up on tales of the suffering of their ancestors. Many in Israel are comparing the Hamas strike to the Holocaust—which in comparison is somewhat over the top considering nearly six million Jews were eliminated by Hitler, and around 1,600 or so now—showing the deep psychological impact that the attack has had on citizens. There is anger against Netanyahu’s government for failing to protect the lives of citizens despite the billions of dollars spent on expensive security systems—ranging from the Iron Dome system to ward off Hamas rockets with radars, sensors and rocket-busting missiles and an impregnable fence along the 65 km of the Gaza border, complete with booby traps and all conceivable detection sensors—that failed to detect “enemy movement”. Hamas fighters could walk up to their homes and eliminate entire families.
Ironically, in the past, Israel had helped Hamas to grow to cut down President Mahmoud Abbas and his Fatah party to size. Following victory in the elections in the Gaza Strip in 2006, Hamas took over control from Fatah, and shortly afterwards, there was a bitter fight between the two Palestinian factions. A large number of fighters from both sides died. In the end, Hamas drove out the Fatah fighters out of the Gaza Strip. Both Israel, its Arab neighbours, as well as the US and other major powers, lost interest and let the 1993 Oslo Accord become just another piece of paper.
Meanwhile, Arab countries were busy normalising ties with Israel. The Abraham Accords led to the UAE, Bahrain, Morocco and Sudan recognising Israel and establishing diplomatic ties with Tel Aviv. The accords of 2020 were brokered by the US, and Jared Kushner, former President Donald Trump’s son-in-law, played a pivotal role in working out the deal. Next in line was Saudi Arabia, where the Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) was readying to do so. But with the Hamas attack, that process will now be on hold. The strong reaction on the streets cannot be ignored even by an autocratic monarchy. Saudi Arabia, as the leader of the Sunni Muslim world and the keeper of the keys of Mecca and Medina, two of Islam’s holiest shrines, cannot afford to normalise ties with Israel in the near future.
Big Power Battle Lines Drawn
The Israel-Hamas conflict has brought the big powers back to the region, with each country playing to its national interest. The battle lines are drawn. The US and Western nations have all stood with Israel. America has repeatedly said that Israel has a right to defend itself and has given the green signal to Netanyahu to go ahead with his plans. A slew of western leaders have also travelled to Tel Aviv to show their support. The US had dispatched two of its aircraft carriers to the eastern Mediterranean to be at hand if Israel needs America’s help.
Ranged on the other side are Iran, Russia and China, all of them anti-US. However, Russia’s Putin and Netanyahu have an excellent personal equation. China too does a lot of business with Israel and trade ties were thriving. But now both China and Russia are batting for the Palestinians, like most nations of the Global South. Beijing, which projects itself as the leader of the developing world, is happy to lead the charge.
America has repeatedly warned Iran not to escalate the situation. Iran has plenty of assets in the region, including Hezbollah in Lebanon, which has already clashed with Israel since the Hamas attack. But so far it has not spread to a bigger confrontation. That may change if the ground offensive begins. Syria is also a staunch supporter of Hamas. So is Russia, though Moscow cannot do much because it is enmeshed in its own war in Ukraine.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken has done his first round of regional visits. China’s special envoy Zhai Jun has travelled to Qatar, attended the peace summit in Cairo, and has urged for a halt to the violence. China played peacemaker between Iran and Saudi Arabia and showcased its growing importance in the region. Whether it can play a role in the Israel-Hamas conflict is doubtful. But it will not be for want of trying.
(This appeared in the print as 'What Will Be The Endgame?')