The Israel-Hamas war has taken an ugly and dangerous turn following claims and counterclaims over the air strike on Al-Ahli Hospital in Gaza City, allegedly killing a few hundred people. The current asymmetric, dirty war triggered by Hamas’ brutal terror attack on Israel that targeted civilians on 7 October 2023 deserves global condemnation.
Israel has, as expected, unleashed a military onslaught in response. However, the death toll is rising and predominantly comprised of innocent civilians and children. While provocation was grave, the voices that seek to distinguish between Hamas and Palestinians, along with the hostage crisis are major concerns for Israel’s emergency unity government.
Israel’s attempt to obliterate Hamas is translating into unprecedented collateral damages and the ultimatum to over a million Palestinians to leave North Gaza and relocate to the South has been deemed impractical, as the South experiences bombing and casualties. This left the civilian population with slim chances of survival, as humanitarian convoys struggle to enter Gaza. The crisis is snowballing into one of the worst human disasters with potential to expand into a regional conflict, with angry reactions from the Arab world and sharp divisions in global opinion.
While Israelis and Palestinians both have the right to life, have a homeland, govern, and defend themselves, a lack of accommodation of these rights within the boundaries of Israel, West Bank and Gaza Strip has led to bloodshed for decades. While proponents of peace talk about the two-state solution, it has not succeeded because of competing claims to Jerusalem, crucial to Christians, Jews, and Palestinians. The problem, therefore, is how to divide the landmass into two states, as both sides want Jerusalem. Palestinians won’t compromise on the Al-Aqsa Mosque while Jews can’t compromise on Temple Mount or the Western Wall. With 167 Palestinian enclaves embedded in 203 Israeli settlements in the West Bank, the situation is complicated further.
Events like the Abraham Accords, the formation of I2U2 and a potential deal between Israel and Saudi Arabia, have indicated increasing acceptance of Israel in the Arab world. Palestinians in general, and Hamas and its backers in particular, see this as a threat and a dilution of the Palestinian cause, and loss of Hamas’ relevance.
Over the decades, Israel emerged as the most powerful military force in the Middle East, directly controlling claimed areas the West Bank, and the Gaza Strip indirectly through six crossings, the coastline and airspace. With hardline Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s re-election, Palestinian fears of further encroachment and tighter control grew, more so in the aftermath of the al-Aqsa Mosque confrontations in 2021. The fact that Israel has a state of its own, but not Palestine, will continue to be perceived as injustice.
Additionally, Netanyahu’s recent attempt for judicial overhaul was viewed as a power grab and the internal opposition to it divided Israeli establishment. The redeployment of forces to control internal dissent with additional focus on West Bank in last two years, provided Hamas an opportunity, coupled with complacency in Southern Israel opposing Gaza Strip. The formidable, technologically enabled fencing was assumed to be impregnable; and hence found inadequately manned, violating important military principle: Any obstacle not covered by troops and fire can be breached.
Hamas—designated a terrorist group by the US, Canada, EU, Japan, and Israel—has controlled Gaza since Israel’s 2005 disengagement. In 2006, Hamas won the last-held Palestinian legislative election. In the absence of further elections, Hamas claimed to represent the Palestinian cause, but its barbaric actions last week brought greater miseries upon Gazans. It doesn’t recognise Israel as a legitimate state, neither the Oslo Accords of 1993 and Palestinian Authority (PA) over it, and aims to destroy Israel.
The group knows Israeli forces have asymmetric advantage in combat power and military capabilities; therefore it undertook a surprise terror attack to disrupt Arab-Israel engagement. Choosing Saturday to launch the “Operation al-Aqsa Flood” indicates exhaustive planning and preparations for offensive to take on Israeli forces with speed and surprise. The scale and magnitude indicate that it was beyond the capacity of Hamas alone; the possibility of external assistance can’t be ruled out.
Hamas aimed to weaponise utmost brutality and provoke Israel beyond limits to respond disproportionately, which would invite favorable reaction in their support from Arab countries and most radical Islamic entities. To a great extent it seems to have achieved its initial aim.
The operational objective of Hamas was capturing maximum hostages from Israel to use as bargaining chips or human shields to negotiate with a much powerful adversary. While Hamas has no concern for human lives, Israel has released many Palestinians in exchange for few Israeli hostages; however, it may now take calculated risks in an attempt to obliterate Hamas.
Having suffered heavy casualties due to serious intelligence failure and underestimating Hamas due to its military power, Israel’s first priority was to evict Hamas militants from its territory. It is continuing standoff attacks in Gaza Strip to soften Hamas positions, shape the battlefield for a ground offensive, hoping that the growing miseries of the people of Gaza might pressure Hamas into release some hostages.
Israel understands the gravity of hostage crisis and hence it attempted backdoor negotiations through various mediators like Qatar, Turkey, Egypt, and even the US. The hospital explosion however halted this process, as the Arab world wants a ceasefire before further steps. It is aware of the the impact of its offensive “Operation Iron Swords” and seems ready to take some risks, emboldened by the visits of President Joe Biden and other western leaders. The chances of Israel and its allies conceding ceasefire without punishing Hamas seem to be remote, despite the threat of Hamas brutalising the hostages.
While punishing Hamas is a political compulsion for Netanyahu, considering that many Hamas leaders and cadres are outside striking distance, and total obliteration involves heavy fighting in densely populated areas, this rhetoric is ambitious.
With increasing civilian casualties in Gaza, global human rights concerns will increase and the anger of some neighbours and Islamic radical organisations will be provoke into joining, although the US, Israel’s strongest is trying to prevent it. It has positioned its strongest aircraft carrier groups (the USS Gerald R Ford and the USS Dwight D Eisenhower) in the Mediterranean Sea as a deterrent and its secretary of state is visiting every possible stake holder to prevent expansion.
Hezbollah, despite US warnings, may increase its scale of engagement, which is a more potent force than Hamas. Evidence of Iran’s direct involvement in the 7 October hasn’t emerged. However, the fact that Iran will benefit from a breakup of Israel-Saudi normalisation, and its warnings to Israel to stop the strikes in Gaza, puts the needle of suspicion on it.
Assistance from the Syrian front cannot be rule out either. Currently, the US is also downplaying the Iranian angle to keep the crisis localised.
With over 3,500 killed and thousands wounded in eleven days by Israeli strikes, casualties in Gaza, which include innocent women and children, have increased to three times that of Israeli casualties from the 7 October attack and beyond—1,300 were killed and 3,400 wounded. Israel is now being criticised for going beyond self-defence, disproportionate response, and collective punishment. Considering the excessive pain inflicted on Israel, the West was initially tight-lipped about Israel’s blockade on food, water, shelter, and electricity but criticism has resulted in Biden convincing Israel and Egypt to open the Rafah Crossing to permit humanitarian aid to Gaza, although it is yet to materialise.
Israel and its western backers have not conceded to calls of humanitarian ceasefire from the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), with the US vetoing a ceasefire in the Security Council. Despite global protests and growing Arab support for Palestinians, no one is allowing Palestinians into their country, on the pretense that it may result in loss of their motherland forever. Irrespective of who executed attack on Gaza hospital, it has hijacked Biden’s visit and made Israel a target of collective Arab condemnation.
Israel is determined to launch an offensive to obliterate Hamas and seems ready to accept criticism for collateral damages. Once commenced, a fresh wave of violence can be expected with Hezbollah potentially entering the conflict, posing a two-three front threat for Israel. While its military might may prevail to destroy Gaza with harsh punishment to all its occupants, the complete destruction of Hamas and its ideology is difficult. Israeli strategy ignores the fact that people are central to counter-insurgency operations and excessive civilian casualties can give birth to the next generation of Hamas terrorists, even if the current one is defeated. For Palestinians, the poor leadership of Abbas, whose term expired 12 years ago and with radicalised, brutal Hamas, the promise of peace and its legitimate rights looks bleak, notwithstanding genuineness of their cause and optics of support by Arab world.
Major General (Dr) SB Asthana is an international strategic and military analyst, specialising in conflict and has served in the UN Peacekeeping Force. The author can be reached at Facebook and LinkedIn as Shashi Asthana, @asthana_shashi on Twitter, https://asthanawrites.org/ and email@example.com.