In Retrospect

Brutal idea of 'victory'

Stories and images coming out of the war zone are horrific and depict unspeakable atrocities. Livid with pain, fear and anger, thousands stare at more destruction as the Hamas-Israel conflict rages on with several voices within the leadership veering towards reconquering the Gaza Strip or bombing it to rubble, which might lead to the worst humanitarian crisis the region has experienced since 1948

Brutal idea of  victory

Following a major escalation of conflict between Israel and Hamas, Palestinians in the Gaza Strip woke up once again to the sight of pulverised neighbourhoods after spending the night in pitch darkness with Israel unleashing more air raids in the backdrop of last week’s unprecedented attack by Hamas, the group running the besieged enclave.

This attack by Hamas on the 50-year anniversary of the Yom Kippur War of 1973 seems to have caught Israel’s military and security services by surprise, as was the case back in 1973.

Some political and military commentators have already compared the events of October 7, 2023, with the US September 11 attacks, implying that the same potential for future conflict with similarly seismic changes to the Middle East is in tow. One day later, Israel’s government confirmed the total number of Israeli victims at 700 murdered and 100 abducted. The number of murder victims alone makes this massacre of Jewish Israelis the worst since the Nazi Holocaust over 75 years ago. As a consequence, Israel declared a state of war and called up 300,000 reserves.

The two new dimensions of terrorism in the form of mass murder and hostage-taking, in addition to the conventional rocket attacks, highlight the use of cognitive warfare — to influence public support “for Hamas and Palestinians,” and also reignite hatred for Israel.

Besides the political signal of being able to attack Israel on the 50th anniversary of the Yom Kippur War, the current operations by Hamas highlight the emergence of hybrid warfare as a concept of modern conflict. Such concepts were discussed as early as 2005 by the US military and then developed further by NATO in response to Russia’s annexation of Crimea and aggression by proxy in the Donbas of 2014.

Hamas’ surprise attacks developed along various modes and intertwined vectors of warfare (land, air, and sea) and incorporated both overt and covert methods. They seem to have been planned well in advance and their coordination and execution were well practiced. According to Washington, Iran has been complicit but not involved directly in these attacks.

Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu issued an ominous warning: “Residents of Gaza, get out now (because) we will be everywhere and with all our might.” But Gazans couldn’t possibly reach safety while buildings around them, and possibly ones they inhabited, imploded. Besides, Israel, along with Egypt, has blockaded the Gaza Strip’s air, land and sea routes for 16 years. Gaza’s people were trapped.

Israeli Defense minister Yoav Gallant announced “a complete siege” of the Gaza Strip that would sever electricity, gas, and even food and water supplies — to an already hardscrabble place. The Strip’s per capita income is USD 5,600, 47 per cent of the population lack jobs, and 81 per cent live in poverty. The minister’s justification: “We are fighting animals and are acting accordingly.”

Israel’s intelligence and security services have been called into question for failing to anticipate the large-scale attack launched by the Palestinian militant group Hamas and the death toll is likely to grow as fighting continues.

“No national intelligence agency is omniscient or flawless, but this is just a colossal failure,” said Bruce Hoffman, a senior fellow for counterterrorism and homeland security at the Council on Foreign Relations. “It’s just astonishing that this could occur.”

Around the globe, representatives of approximately 100 countries have reacted to the war in varying ways. At least 44 nations have publicly expressed their unequivocal condemnation of Hamas and explicitly decried its tactics as terrorism. Others, including regional players such as Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Syria, and Iraq, have placed responsibility on Israel for the attacks.

In their first phone conversation since the Hamas attack on Israel, Prime Minister Narendra Modi told Netanyahu that “people of India stand in solidarity with Israel in this difficult hour”.

Thanking Netanyahu “for his phone call and providing an update on the ongoing situation”, Modi, in a post on X later, said: “India strongly and unequivocally condemns terrorism in all its forms and manifestations” — remarks reiterated in a statement by the Prime Minister’s Office.

While this was their first phone conversation when Hamas targeted Israeli civilians in perhaps the bloodiest attack since the formation of the State of Israel in 1948, Modi’s underlying message was in sync with what he had said soon after the attack.

“Deeply shocked by the news of terrorist attacks in Israel. Our thoughts and prayers are with the innocent victims and their families. We stand in solidarity with Israel at this difficult hour,” Modi had said.

The US announced it was sending military support to Israel and strengthening its naval and air force presence in the region amid widespread condemnation of the Hamas attack on Israeli civilians, and as the UN warned the region was on a “dangerous precipice”.

Pledging any and every support to Israel, US President Joe Biden told Netanyahu that “additional assistance for the Israel Defence Forces is now on its way to Israel with more to follow over the coming days”, according to a White House account of the conversation.

According to different accounts from Hamas leaders, the planning of the operation took somewhere between a few months and two years, as a reaction to changing regional dynamics and growing Israeli aggression. The depth and magnitude of the attack were unprecedented and took Israel by surprise.

Apparently, Hamas’ move was triggered by three factors. First, the policies of the far-right Israeli government enabling settler violence in the occupied West Bank and Jerusalem led to a sense of desperation among Palestinians and growing demands for a reaction. At the same time, the rising tensions in the West Bank caused by these policies necessitated the shift of Israeli forces away from the south and into the north to guard the settlements. This gave Hamas both a justification and an opportunity for conflict.

Secondly, the Hamas leadership felt compelled to act due to the acceleration of Arab-Israeli normalisation. In recent years, this process further diminished the significance of the Palestinian issue for Arab leaders who became less keen on pressuring Israel on this matter.

If a Saudi-Israeli normalisation deal had been concluded, it would have been a turning point in the Arab-Israeli conflict, which may have eliminated the already weak chances of a two-state solution. This was also part of Hamas’ calculations.

Thirdly, Hamas was emboldened after it managed to repair its ties with Iran. In recent years, the movement had to reconsider the political position it assumed in the wake of the Arab Spring in 2011, in opposition to Iran and its ally, the Syrian regime.

Almost a week into the carnage, Israel has intensified its bombardment of the Gaza Strip and announced a total blockade on the coastal enclave, turning off electricity and blocking humanitarian aid. Netanyahu’s government was already facing domestic turmoil before the attack due to its judicial reforms; its stability will now be tested even further.

In the three-and-a-half-decades since it began as an underground militant group, Hamas has pursued a consistently violent strategy aimed at rolling back Israeli rule — and it has made steady progress despite bringing enormous suffering to both sides of the conflict.

But its stunning incursion into Israel marks its deadliest gambit yet, and the already unprecedented response from Israel threatens to bring an end to its 16-year rule over the Gaza Strip.

Israel’s retaliation will likely bring a far greater magnitude of death and destruction to Gaza, where 2.3 million Palestinians have nowhere to flee and where 1,100 have already been killed.

The atrocities began when Hamas gunmen struck 20 sites near the Gaza Strip, murdering adults and children indiscriminately. They opened fire on unarmed kibbutzim (a community in Israel that was traditionally based on agriculture) and opened fire at a music festival. They shot people in their cars, in their houses, and in the street. One gunman filmed himself shooting an elderly woman, using her cell phone, then posted the video on social media and set her house on fire. These actions are all, unambiguously, war crimes.

However, it is no longer controversial to describe Israel’s policies toward Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank as a form of apartheid. Israel’s 15-year blockade of Gaza, according to Amnesty International, “amounts to illegal collective punishment.” Plenty of civilians, including children, have died at the hands of Israeli soldiers in Gaza, under conditions some human rights groups consider war crimes. Many more will die in the days to come. There’s plenty of blame to go around.

Views expressed are personal

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