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Monday, July 22, 2024

Israel—Palestine Escalation: GVS Exclusive Interview With Sami Hamidi

Editor GVS interviews Sami Hamidi to discuss the escalating situation between Israelis and Palestinians and its broader ramifications.

Hamas launched an unprecedented attack on Israel yesterday, resulting in the tragic loss of over 600 Israeli lives and 400 Palestinian casualties, with thousands more wounded on both sides. The Israeli population has been left deeply stunned and shaken by these developments. Western nations have swiftly condemned these actions while affirming Israel’s right to self-defense. However, there remains a stark difference of opinion among Muslim nations regarding this issue. While generally condemning Hamas, many Muslim nations have emphasized that this incident underscores the urgent need for peace between Palestinians and Israelis, reigniting discussions about the two-state solution as a potential path forward.

GVS Dialogue was joined by Mr. Sami Hamidi who is a public commentator on MENA issues, an MD for an international organization.

GVS News: Sami tell me, is it right to say that what Hamas has done is unprecedented?

Sami Hamidi: This situation is truly unprecedented, and even Israelis acknowledge it for several compelling reasons. Firstly, for the first time since 1948, Palestinians have managed to temporarily reclaim land and settlements surrounding the Gaza Strip, previously seized by Israelis. This achievement surpasses what occurred even in 1973. In 1973, when Egypt and Syria broke Israeli lines, they did so in the Sinai Peninsula and Golan Heights, not within Israel itself. This time, Palestinians have breached Israeli lines within Israel proper, leading Netanyahu to declare an official state of war, the first such declaration since 1973’s Yom Kippur War.

Secondly, the number of hostages taken by Hamas and Palestinian forces is unprecedented. To provide context, in the 2010s, Palestinians traded 1500 Palestinian prisoners for one Israeli soldier. This means that the Palestinians now possess substantial leverage in efforts to release those arbitrarily imprisoned by Israel.

Thirdly, this attack stands out because in previous conflicts like 1948 and 1973, regional powers were involved in wars against Israel. However, this situation uniquely involves Palestinian forces. Palestinians have developed their capabilities to the extent that they bypassed Israel’s sophisticated intelligence network and penetrated deep into Israeli territory, leaving the Israelis initially shocked and unsure of how to respond. Furthermore, the Iron Dome, designed to protect Israel and considered state-of-the-art, has been breached for the third time. Initially seen as a technical anomaly, this breach signifies that the Iron Dome can no longer provide adequate protection for Israeli territories. Consequently, Netanyahu faces unprecedented pressure to take decisive action.

This situation is indeed unprecedented, and the reason it has garnered so much attention is because it was orchestrated not by nation-states but by the Palestinians, a group many had underestimated.

Read More: Turks rally for Palestinian solidarity amidst ongoing conflict

GVS News: Where were intelligence agencies such as Mossad and the Five Eyes during the organization of this attack, and how did Hamas manage to coordinate and execute an attack of this magnitude?

Sami Hamidi: This question is best answered by considering the perspective of the Israelis. Netanyahu and Israel, in general, had been receiving various signals and delegations from leaders such as Erdogan of Turkey, Mohammed bin Salman of Saudi Arabia, Mohammed bin Zayed, and the Moroccans. For instance, when Netanyahu met with Erdogan and heard about Turkey’s desire for warmer ties, along with proposals for a gas pipeline and an economic corridor, he believed that leaders who had historically supported the Palestinian cause, like Erdogan, were shifting their priorities away from it.

Similarly, when Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman indicated to the Americans that he was less interested in the Palestinian State and more interested in a NATO-style security pact with the U.S., provided it would lead to Palestinian cause abandonment. And when the UAE ambassador to Washington, Yousef al Otaiba, stated that the Palestinian issue was no longer a priority for the UAE, Netanyahu interpreted this as Muslim states moving away from supporting the Palestinian cause in favor of personal gain. Consequently, he assumed that Hamas and the Palestinian factions would lose the international support they needed to mount an offensive.

This perception of complacency in the ranks of intelligence and the military arose because Israel believed that the Palestinian cause was becoming powerless on the international stage. For example, when bin Salman hosted a delegation from the Palestinian Authority and sent his ambassador to meet with them, Israel interpreted this as a sign that the Palestinians were so weak that they couldn’t even protest against Saudi Arabia’s shift in position.

Netanyahu’s recent actions, like presenting a map at the UN where Israel encompassed all the territories, including the Palestinian territories, reinforced the idea that the Palestinian cause was diminishing. Additionally, his statements about being close to normalization with Saudi Arabia further fueled this belief. Israeli officials even stated that normalization meant abandoning the Palestinians.

The prevailing sentiment in Israel was that the Palestinian cause was fading, and the focus was shifting towards normalization with countries like Saudi Arabia. This is why they were caught off guard by the recent events.

GVS News: Do you find any merit in the argument that suggests this situation was deliberately allowed to form akin to the May 9 incidents in Pakistan?

Sami Hamidi: I have come across this argument, which has gained popularity on social media recently. However, let’s provide some context for what has transpired. Biden is facing a presidential election and is eager for Saudi Arabia to sign a normalization deal with Israel. This desperation for normalization was evident when he dispatched his CIA director, William Burns, to Libya three months ago to discuss the potential normalization of ties with Israel, even though Libya is in the midst of a civil war. This suggests that Biden considers it a high priority, possibly even higher than resolving issues in Libya.

Read More: Israeli envoy vows to wipe out Hamas ‘savages’

Netanyahu, too, has emphasized normalization with Saudi Arabia as a historic breakthrough, akin to the Cold War era. Both Netanyahu and Biden are fully aware that Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) cannot sign a normalization agreement amid a war. Therefore, it does not make sense for Biden or Netanyahu to escalate the conflict when MBS has already expressed readiness to set aside the Palestinian cause for normalization. Additionally, it is illogical for Biden and Netanyahu to ignite a conflict when Biden has begun discussing a draft for a NATO-style agreement with Saudi Arabia to present to Congress, with a backup plan that involves sending the Fifth Fleet to the Saudi border if Congress does not approve. The latter option does not require Congressional approval and would secure Saudi Arabia’s safety.

MBS has expressed interest in obtaining nuclear technology to build weapons and facilities, and reports suggest that Israel has allowed this, with Biden providing the technology. In other words, Biden has actively created an environment for MBS to sign a normalization agreement.

Now, the opposite has occurred. Due to the escalation, Saudi statements have reverted to using terms like “colonizer” and “occupier” when referring to Israel. This shift in language reflects MBS’s sensitivity to public opinion and his desire not to be perceived as siding with Israel.

If MBS is on the verge of signing a normalization agreement, it would be counterproductive to initiate a false flag operation and jeopardize the prospects of this agreement. While some may draw comparisons to the May 9 events in Pakistan, in the context of Israel and Palestine, it appears that the benefit for Netanyahu lies in maintaining peace rather than instigating a conflict with Palestine.

GVS News: Has this situation disrupted the agenda and timeline for normalization between Saudi Arabia and Israel, and how long do you anticipate this disruption will last? Furthermore, does it make sense for Hamas to engage in these actions if they were concerned about the stance of other countries, leading them to pursue this course of action?

Sami Hamidi: I believe that is a valid argument. While it is true that Palestinians have felt uncomfortable with the normalization agreements and let down by Muslim nations and the international community, I hesitate to directly tie this specific campaign to normalization for two reasons.

First, organizing a coordinated campaign of this scale in secret requires months of planning and preparation to avoid Israeli detection. It has been only 48 hours since the Palestinians launched their counteroffensive against the Israelis, and Israel has not yet retaken the settlements that the Palestinians have reclaimed. Some reports even suggest that they are getting closer to connecting the West Bank to Gaza via a bridge.

Read More: Palestinian village should be wiped out: Israel

Second, Hamas does not need normalization as an excuse to confront Israel, nor have Palestinians needed an excuse in the past. Whenever Palestinians build up strength, they challenge the Israelis to remind them that their occupation will not go unchallenged.

One of the key victories of this offensive is reminding everyone that regardless of normalization, the Palestinians are still a force to be reckoned with, capable of acting independently of various Arab regimes. Regarding your question about a potential link between normalization with Saudi Arabia and the decision to attack Israel, it is possible that this was planned well in advance and was launched at a time when Israel believed that nothing would happen from the Palestinian front. This campaign is a resounding statement of Palestinian capabilities and their demand for more concessions.

For those who find the idea of Israel making concessions outrageous, I would refer them back to 1973 when Kissinger facilitated territorial concessions from Israel to Egypt and Syria in exchange for normalization of ties. The scale of this offensive has humiliated Israel to the point where, given that Biden’s priority is normalization, the Americans may approach Israel and say, “You’ve retaken the settlements that the Palestinians reclaimed, but we want to facilitate normalization, so make concessions to the Palestinians to facilitate that process.” The scale of the attack could lead to a situation where Israel is the one making concessions, not the Palestinians.

GVS News: Will Israel respond to the recent attacks in a manner similar to how the United States responded to the 9/11 attacks, potentially involving military action in the West Bank and Gaza, given the significant casualties on both sides and the comparison drawn to the aftermath of 9/11 in the Middle East?

Sami Hamidi: Israel’s response to the recent attacks would differ from how the United States reacted to 9/11, primarily due to the unique regional circumstances at play during these events. In the aftermath of 9/11, the Middle East was experiencing significant unrest, with Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah even threatening to sever ties with the United States over its response to the Intifada in Palestine. This period saw Arab nations considering breaking their relations with the U.S., bilateral agreements being canceled, and a sense of rebellion in the region.

The 9/11 attacks presented the perfect opportunity for the U.S. to assert its influence and control in the Middle East, and it succeeded in doing so, largely because Saudi Arabia was reeling from these events. It is worth noting that the Arab Peace Initiative, which aimed to normalize relations between Israel and Arab states, emerged during this period. However, it was driven by a desire to appease the U.S., rather than genuine peace intentions.

In contrast, the current situation in the Middle East is different. The region is moving towards normalization, with Arab states increasingly establishing relations with Israel. The U.S. does not have the same motivation to discipline the region as it did after 9/11. Instead, it is working to maintain the delicate balance it has fostered in a context of Arab-Israeli normalization.

On the Israeli side, there is a psychological impact, especially considering that Hamas has ventured into Israeli territory, a departure from previous conflicts. This has affected the Israelis, and they may feel the need to respond forcefully to restore a sense of security and deter future attacks. However, this response is not necessarily aimed at disciplining the region, as was the case with the U.S. post-9/11. It is more focused on addressing the specific threat posed by Hamas and maintaining security within Israel.

While Israel may respond to recent events with military actions, it is motivated by a different set of circumstances and objectives compared to the U.S. response to 9/11. The region’s changing dynamics and the desire for normalization between Arab states and Israel have reshaped the geopolitical landscape in the Middle East.

GVS News: Do you believe that Israel‘s recent experiences, including the psychological impact of Hamas entering Israeli territory for the first time, create a need for Israel to take disciplinary measures against the Palestinians and Hamas, especially considering the distress this has caused among Israelis and the leadership under Netanyahu?

Sami Hamidi: Netanyahu believes in the necessity of disciplining the Palestinians and taking severe measures against them. He aims to exert significant pressure and, in his words, cleanse Palestinian areas, among other actions. It appears that Netanyahu is genuinely committed to pursuing this approach. However, he faces challenges as he receives calls from various parties, including the Egyptians, Qataris, Saudis, Americans, French, and Europeans, urging him not to inflict heavy punishment on the Palestinians. They are concerned that such actions could jeopardize the ongoing efforts for normalization between Israel and its Muslim allies, thus presenting a dilemma for Netanyahu.

GVS News: The Western governments have essentially granted Israel a carte blanche for self-defense, and how do statements like Nikki Haley’s urging forceful actions like ‘bombing’ Palestinians affect the situation?

Sami Hamidi: I believe that the statements made by Western governments, including Biden’s assertion of rock-solid support for Israel, may appear assertive on the surface. However, there are likely intensive diplomatic efforts happening behind closed doors. Notably, Israel has not initiated a ground operation, which is unusual given their past responses to such conflicts. This suggests that there might be internal deliberations within Israel about the course of action—whether to proceed with a ground operation or stick to airstrikes.

From the American perspective, Biden is facing political pressure from Republicans and is keen to de-escalate the situation swiftly and foster normalization. There is likely a private conversation occurring between the U.S. and Israel. While publicly expressing strong support, privately, there may be efforts to persuade Israel not to disrupt the normalization efforts with Arab nations.

Furthermore, recent communications between U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and the UAE indicate that even countries advocating for normalization, like the UAE, are feeling discomfort due to the ongoing conflict. This suggests that the UAE may be urging the U.S. to resolve the crisis swiftly to avoid revising their own positions.

The current situation involves a debate within both Tel Aviv and Washington about the best course of action—whether to allow a ground offensive or de-escalate quickly to facilitate further normalization. It is important to note that this debate has not been definitively settled at this point.

GVS News: Will the ongoing debate in Tel Aviv and Washington regarding Israel’s course of action be affected by the level of public demonstrations and support for Palestinians on Arab streets, as seen in Yemen with thousands of protesters, or do you think it will hinge on other factors beyond public demonstrations?

Sami Hamidi: I believe that the outcome of the ongoing debate in Tel Aviv and Washington will be less influenced by demonstrations on the Arab streets, as it is widely understood that public opinion in these regions overwhelmingly supports the Palestinians. Instead, it will likely be determined more by the number of casualties Israel experiences. Israel is not accustomed to facing casualties on this scale, and if they proceed with a ground operation, historical precedent suggests that Israeli casualties tend to increase rapidly.

In the past, we have seen initial Israeli support for such operations followed by shock and disappointment when the intended objectives aren’t achieved. For instance, in 2008, when Netanyahu engaged with Hezbollah, he initially aimed to remove them but ended up withdrawing after one week due to a high Israeli death toll. Such setbacks can be humiliating for Israeli leadership.

As the Israeli death toll continues to rise – a situation that no one should encourage – the stakes and the political cost for Netanyahu will also increase if he continues to escalate against the Palestinians. To provide context, the Palestinians may now be more willing to discuss concessions, as they believe they have already achieved significant goals. They have shocked the Israelis, demonstrated their agency, garnered international sympathy, and shown that public opinion is in their favor. They have little left to prove and may be ready for dialogue.

The dilemma for Israelis is whether to risk further casualties in an all-out fight, potentially realizing that they can’t eliminate the Palestinians as easily as they had hoped, or to opt for a different approach. This could involve more airstrikes, further damage to buildings, and additional casualties in Gaza, followed by efforts to spin the situation in a way that presents Israel as the victor.

Read More: Palestinian Lives Matter— The world needs to speak

In essence, one should not underestimate the potential damage to Netanyahu’s position due to rising casualties. As this number continues to increase, it may reach a point where Netanyahu shifts his focus away from a ground operation and seeks ways to mitigate the growing humiliation inflicted by the Palestinians.

GVS News: Do you believe that, in light of the ongoing situation and the potential political challenges Netanyahu might face due to rising casualties, there is a possibility that he might have to resign from his position in the near future?

Sami Hamidi: I believe that there is a growing sentiment, both within Israel and among Israeli journalists, that the current situation represents a significant failure, possibly the most significant since the 1973 Yom Kippur War. Netanyahu’s entire political campaign and government have centered around the idea that his leadership ensures Israel’s security. However, during his tenure, Israel has faced what could be its most significant security challenge since 1973 or even since its establishment. This undermines the notion of Netanyahu as the guardian of Israeli security.

While I do not think Netanyahu will be forced to resign immediately, there are political parties offering to enter into a coalition government with him. However, forming such a coalition would necessitate concessions on Netanyahu’s part, potentially weakening his position. Whether Netanyahu resigns or not remains uncertain, primarily because he has shown a propensity to hold onto power, even in situations that Israelis might consider defeats.

Moreover, if there is to be any de-escalation or treaty, it would likely need to be done in a way that allows Netanyahu to save face. This may lead to a scenario where Netanyahu escalates the situation in the coming days before seeking de-escalation, aligning with American interests in preserving a sense of dignity and face-saving in the process.

GVS News: Will the message reach Israeli democracy that, due to their internal divisions and political issues, such as actions taken on the judiciary and reservists’ reluctance to join the army, they were preoccupied with internal conflicts, leading to the current situation, and that this could affect their democracy in the long run?

Sami Hamidi: I believe there is a suggestion that this attack may initially serve to unify Israeli ranks and political parties. However, if you examine the ongoing debates among Israeli journalists, even on platforms like Twitter or social media, the reality is quite different. There is a sense of disarray, and blame is being placed in various directions. For instance, Haaretz blames Netanyahu, Netanyahu blames the intelligence agencies, and the intelligence agencies might blame the military, and so on.

The shock factor of this offensive is likely to prevent a unification of Israelis behind any particular principle or front. Instead, I think it may deepen the divides between Israeli parties, especially among those factions that want to see Netanyahu removed from power. The surprise element in this situation will likely lead to a new debate within Israel. People will question what went wrong, especially since they were told that normalization would alleviate security threats. Instead, they are facing some of the most significant security threats in years, even before normalization fully took place. This deep debate is likely to perpetuate divisions among different factions and possibly result in greater confrontation between Palestinians and Israelis.

Confrontation is often used by Israel to divert attention from domestic political problems. However, it is worth noting that the Palestinians have been continuously improving their capabilities, acquiring more advanced weaponry, refining their strategies and tactics. This suggests that as the Palestinians grow stronger, the Israelis might be weakening over time. Despite the Israeli perception of strength, the momentum appears to be shifting in favor of the Palestinians.

To directly answer your question, I believe this situation has the potential to weaken Israeli democracy, fuel authoritarian tendencies, and intensify the debate on how to address this existential crisis. It is unlikely to lead to a unified resolution among Israeli factions, and the momentum seems to be favoring the Palestinians.

Watch the full interview on GVS Dialogue: