Hamas, the Islamist militia that controls Gaza, will likely emerge a victor regardless of how the latest round of Israeli-Palestinian fighting ends.
Hamas’ unprecedented attack on Israel, described by some analysts as the Jewish state’s 9/11, changes the dynamics of Middle Eastern geopolitics.
The brutal attack involved prolonged fighting with the Israeli military in Israeli towns and cities, the firing of thousands of rockets at Israeli population centers, the random killing of innocent civilians in Israeli homes, and the kidnapping of scores of Israeli soldiers and civilians.
BBC foreign correspondent Secunder Kermani described sirens sounding off and multiple explosions as he disembarked at Tel Aviv airport on Saturday.
Like the Turkish assault on Kurdish positions in Syria and Iraq in the wake of the October 1 suicide bombing in Ankara, the Hamas attack and Israel’s retaliatory pounding of Gaza call into question the sustainability of a regional de-escalation that freezes rather than tackles perennial conflicts.
Similarly, the attack pours cold water on the notion of Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and his ultra-nationalist and ultra-conservative coalition partners that Israeli occupation of Palestinian lands can be sustained indefinitely.
On Hamas’ tailcoat, Iran, long opposed to Arab normalisation of relations with Israel, sees the Palestinian offensive as vindication of its position.
Only days before the hostilities, Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei cautioned that normalisation of relations with Israel amounted to “gambling” that was “doomed to failure.”
He warned that countries establishing relations with the Jewish state would be “in harm’s way.”
Raising the spectre of a wider regional conflict, Hamas spokesman Ghazi Hamad told the BBC that the group had direct backing for the attack from Iran. Mr. Hamad did not specify what support entailed.
Even if suggestions prove correct that Iran helped Hamas plan and prepare for the attack, the group would have launched its assault because it served its purposes rather than serving Iranian interests.
Hezbollah, the Iranian-backed Lebanese Shiite militia, bolstered the threat of a regional conflagration by firing rockets at the Israeli-occupied Shebaa Farms in southern Lebanon. Israel retaliated with armed drones.
The Hezbollah attack came after Israeli soldiers opened fire on pro-Hamas demonstrators carrying the group’s flag on the Lebanese side of the border. There were no reported casualties.
Meanwhile, a Saudi statement suggested that the Hamas attack had complicated US-led efforts to engineer Saudi recognition of Israel.
The Saudi foreign ministry recalled the kingdom’s “repeated warning of the dangers of the explosion of the situation as a result of the occupation, the deprivation of the Palestinian people of their legitimate rights, and the repetition of systematic provocations against its sanctities.”
The statement indicated that the fighting reinforced Saudi conditioning of diplomatic relations with Israel on viable steps toward resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Already, the fighting will stop Environmental Protection Minister Idit Silman from becoming the third Cabinet-level Israeli official to visit Saudi Arabia in less than two weeks.
Ms. Silman was expected to attend this week’s MENACW 2023, the Middle East and North Africa Climate Week conference in the kingdom, one of four Regional Climate Weeks held worldwide ahead of next month’s COP28 United Nations Climate Change Conference in Dubai.
In what diplomats described as an indication of the United Arab Emirates’ predicament, Emirati officials insisted that Sunday’s United Nations Security Council discussion of the fighting would be a closed session rather than a private meeting. The UAE called for the meeting alongside Malta.
Unlike a private meeting, the closed session excluded Israeli and Palestinian representatives. It ended without a Council statement.
The UAE was one of four Arab states to recognize Israel in 2020. At the same time, UAE officials describe Hamas as a terrorist organisation.
Had there been a Palestinian representation, the Palestinian voice would have been President Mahmoud Abbas’s Palestine Authority, dominated by Al Fatah, Hamas’ archrival, further marginalized by the fighting.
This weekend, Mr. Abbas was reduced to issuing a statement insisting that Palestinians had the right to defend themselves against the “terror of settlers and occupation troops.”
With the perennial potential collapse of the Palestine Authority, Hamas’ attack strengthens the group in a likely struggle to succeed 87-year-old Mr. Abbas, who has lost public support.
While the Israeli-Palestinian fighting was likely to boost popular Arab rejection of relations with Israel, social media responses in Turkey indicated a different sentiment among one segment of Turkish public opinion.
“Israel is probably more popular than ever among Turks,” said Turkish Middle East scholar Karabekir Akkoyunlu.
Mr. Akkoyunlu attributed Israel’s popularity to Israeli support for Azerbaijan against Armenia, rising anti-Arab sentiment in Turkey, and Arab countries normalizing relations with the Jewish state.
That did not stop many Turks from marching in Istanbul this weekend to support the Hamas attack.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan hosted Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh in July and has allowed the group to operate.
However, unlike Arab statements that blamed Israel for the violence, Mr. Erdogan offered to mediate between Israel and Hamas.
The fighting risks, at least in the short-term, stiffening Israel’s refusal to entertain steps that would enable the creation of an independent Palestinian state alongside Israel or a viable one-state solution, even if the Netanyahu government, the most ultra-conservative and ultra-nationalist in Israeli history, becomes a victim of renewed violence.
Israeli reticence will be further reinforced by likely increased violence on the West Bank, where Palestinian militants resisting Israeli occupation are certain to be emboldened. Militants called this weekend on Palestinians to fight Israelis in their West Bank towns.
Some Israeli sources suggested that Israel’s focus in the last year on Palestinian resistance in the West Bank had led Israel to pay less attention to Gaza.
More than 50 years after initial Egyptian-Syrian advances in the early days of the 1973 Middle East caught Israel by surprise, the Hamas attack has put a dent in Israel’s image of military superiority and prowess.
In addition, perceptions of Israeli weakness may be reinforced once the guns fall silent, with the country likely to be wracked by assertions that the Hamas attack was an intelligence and operational failure.
Nevertheless, Israel would likely benefit from an international community breathing a sigh of relief should the Netanyahu government, too, pay a high price with its possible demise.
No Israeli government has survived longer than six months in the aftermath of a major war like the 1973 war or the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon.
Even so, the Hamas attack is likely to impact Israeli public opinion. On the one hand, it is expected to harden attitudes towards Palestinians, reinforced by Hamas’ brutal attacks on innocent civilians and abuse of soldiers.
On the other hand, Israelis will probably have less confidence in Israeli security. “I’m worried. I can’t believe what happened. I’ve lost confidence,” said an Israeli woman in a text message.
Mr. Netanyahu has sought to capitalize on the hostilities and unprecedented losses suffered by Israel at the hands of Palestinians, — reportedly 600 dead, including 26 soldiers, and more than 2000 wounded at the time of this writing – by inviting opposition leaders Yair Lapid and Benny Gantz to join an emergency government.
Mr. Lapid said in a statement that Mr. Netanyahu would have to ditch his far-right and ultra-conservative coalition partners in forming an emergency government.
The prime minister “knows 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.”
Mr. Netanyahu’s invitation came as the fighting temporarily eased the prime minister’s immediate domestic concerns.
The rocket attacks and fighting in Israeli towns and settlements close to Gaza ended, at least temporarily, nine months of mass protests against Mr. Netanyahu’s judicial changes.
It also halted protests by military reservists, including fighter jet pilots currently striking Gaza, who had earlier refused to report for duty because of the judicial changes.
Israeli ultra-nationalists and military commanders warned that the reservists’ protest would weaken Israeli military readiness.
On Saturday, Israel called up reservists for a possible ground invasion of Gaza after Hamas took scores of Israeli soldiers and civilians hostage and transferred them from Israel to Gaza.
Israel may take heart from the unconditional US and European support, fuelled by Hamas’ Islamic State-style brutality, in public statements after the Hamas attack.
However, reality is very different behind the scenes, according to US and European diplomats.
Mr. Netanyahu has not endeared himself to Western leaders by heading a government that has expanded Israeli settlements in the West Bank; tacitly endorsed increased anti-Palestinian violence by Israeli settlers; violated fragile understandings on the Temple Mount or Haram-ash-Sharif, a site in Jerusalem holy to Jews and Muslims; and responded brutally to Palestinian resistance.
In addition, Mr. Netanyahu has embraced nationalist and far-right European leaders, who look more favorably at his policies than Western Europeans, the European Union, and US President Joe Biden.
Forming an emergency government would ease Western criticism of Israeli policies
Distressing images from Gaza could counter that as Israel continues with its devastating bombing of Gaza, which has killed at least 300 Palestinians and wounded nearly 2,000 others in less than 24 hours.
Nevertheless, Hamas may have miscalculated by counting on Mr. Netanyahu’s strained relations with his Western partners, leading them to take a more even-handed approach to renewed violence.
Selfies of Hamas fighters lynching the corpses of killed Israeli soldiers, reports of killings of Israeli civilians in their homes in towns near Gaza, and the parade of the dead body of a German tattoo artist buried the slim chance of a more nuanced Western attitude.
Even so, a Middle Eastern diplomat argued, “The Middle Eastern paradigm has changed. Everyone is forced to recalibrate. Hamas shattered perceptions. The Middle East may never be the same.”’
Dr. James M. Dorsey is an Honorary Fellow at Singapore’s Middle East Institute-NUS, an Adjunct Senior Fellow at Nanyang Technological University’s S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, and the author of the syndicated column and podcast, The Turbulent World with James M. Dorsey.
The views expressed in the articles are the author’s own and do not reflect the editorial policy of Global Village Space.