international analysis and commentary

How Netanyahu’s legacy is on the line in Gaza – along with Israel’s future

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The October 7th Hamas attacks on Israel came as an earthquake in Middle East politics: The Israeli-Palestinian conflict escalated further and advanced to the next stage, blowing up Israeli-Saudi normalization as collateral damage and negatively resetting Israeli-Palestinian and Israeli-Arab relations for the long run. While a major violent outbreak was expected, no one was able to predict or prevent an attack of this magnitude, causing as many civilian casualties as in the 1948 Arab-Israeli war. Not even the powerful Israeli intelligence service (the Shin Bet), known for carefully monitoring the Gaza Strip from its towers and bases along the high-tech border fence, was able to detect the coming attack.

 

Military and technology miscalculations

Indeed, that barrier, full of razor wires, cameras and sensors, and fortified with a concrete base against tunnels, was considered a formidable security block, both insurmountable and unconquerable. However, it turned out that its patrolling mostly relied on young and inexperienced duty soldiers, thin in their ranks, thanks to a massive recent redeployment of three battalions to the West Bank to defuse tensions between Jewish settlers and Palestinian citizens, particularly in the Nablus area. The Gaza Division was left understaffed by a government policy prioritizing West Bank control over fair distribution of military resources along the three risk areas smoldering almost simultaneously: Gaza on the southern front; Hezbollah on the northern border; and the West Bank on the eastern brink.

An Israeli air strike on Lebanon, on October 21

 

Moreover, technology was favored in providing security over human control, but a failure occurred in monitoring some key communications channels used by Hamas, which were likely transferred on new undetected software. The intelligence community was also duped by Hamas’ mock restrained posture in the last round of confrontations in May between Israel and the Islamic Jihad, in which Hamas stayed neutral, and during the latest round of popular fence demonstrations in August. This resulted in the major massacre of Israeli citizens of the Gaza enclave kibbutzim that went unnoticed by the authorities for six hours on a shabbat morning of Sukkot (Jewish holiday).

This major miscalculation will weigh heavily on the assessment of the sixth Netanyahu government, exposing the most right-wing coalition ever, which was supposed to put security for Jews first. In fact, Netanyahu’s public approval has been plummeting in Ma’ariv surveys (29% approval rate) since the attack. The Gaza enclave communities, beforehand staunchly supportive of Likud, have indeed been alienated by the lack of response to the Hamas terrorist attack. Common people have lashed out against a government that asked them for much, but returned very little. This equation is further complicated by the kidnapping of around 200 confirmed Israeli hostages taken to theaza, whose families are begging to be heard by the government and pleading for the opening of humanitarian corridors, which can be established only upon negotiations with Hamas, and through a number of international brokers.

Enormous pressure is being exerted by public opinion on the government, to which it is yet to respond concretely. This could potentially cost the government greatly in terms of public trust in the near future, as hostages’ relatives openly voice their disappointment: “We all gave to this country. We all served in the army, we all pay a crazy amount of taxes, and we live in our country where our paychecks don’t support the cost of living. The only thing we believed that our government was good for was keeping us safe and helping us when we were in distress. But even that wasn’t true.” (Ha’aretz, October, 11, 2023)

Public outcry could explain, after an initial wavering, that Netanyahu’s choice to set up a war cabinet including the National Union opposition party and its the two former Generals, Benny Gantz and Gabi Eisenkot (with their 12 seats), was an attempt to regain some public trust in a show of national unity after months of polarizing protests around a judicial overhaul that split the country into two warring parties – which undermined Israeli’s response to external threats. However, to avoid jeopardizing his future chances of staying in power once the war over, Netanyahu did not venture so far as to set up a national unity government – a request made by the majority of public opinion -, which would have extended it to all opposition parties, including Lieberman’s Israel Beitenu and Lapid’s Yesh Atid, who have spared no critique to the government’s management of the Gaza Strip through Qatari money.

The Israeli war cabinet, made up of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Defense Minister Yoav Gallant, and former Chief of the General Staff Benny Gantz

 

Hamas, politics by other means

It is clear that there will be a pre- and post-October 7, 2023, in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, just as September 11, 2001 acted as a watershed in US history. For Israel, the illusion, to which most analysts worldwide believed, was that the 2020 Abraham Accords and further normalization agreements could reshape Middle East politics without taking stock of geography and the physical presence of more than five million stateless Palestinian people still living in their midst. It is very likely that the attack’s objective was to shatter all those expectations, place the Gaza Strip again on the world map and reroute the process by changing the rules of the game. While it is still unclear whether Iran played a role, Hamas’ choice to trigger this major attack, profited from Israel’s thoughtlessness throughout the holidays and for quite some time before.

The attack itself, presumably in the works for over two years, was planned in detail and tactically successful. Its aim was to shock the Israeli public opinion by indiscriminately killing civilians dancing at a music festival in the Negev and extended families gathered for the Jewish holidays in their small kibbutzim. In total, the attack resulted in the mass killing of 1,300 people with 3,400 wounded over 22 Israeli localities along the Strip. By doing so, Hamas brought 1948 Israel into the conflict, eroding the thin line separating Jewish settlers from average citizens, pooling them all as enemies, reminding the world that the Islamic Resistance Movement never accepted or subscribed to the two-state Oslo logic, nor did it make a real difference between 1948- and 1967-occupied Palestinian land, despite the amendment of its charter in 2017.

Indeed, Hamas’ strategy was “politics by other means”, risking everything – including its government role in Gaza – by gambling on violence and a disruptive attack of such a magnitude, shaking the foundation of a host of opportunities for all main regional actors, now confronted with a war nobody anticipated or wanted. In fact, all major regional players – Israel, Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia, among others – had a major interest in keeping the status quo, while trying to forge a new pacified and prosperous Middle East despite the unsolved Palestinian question. However, all but Hamas, which was no longer able to provide basic services in Gaza, which was unable to pay public salaries since August when Qatar suspended its $30 million monthly donor aid, and which continued to witness its popularity plummeting in recent months. It comes as no surprise that Hamas would have risked everything in the hope of starting a full-scale war against Israel, possibly dragging in all the powers of the Axis of Resistance and the West Bank Palestinians, while engaging Arab moderate states to take stance, particularly in the case of mass killings and destruction in the Gaza Strip.

A range of bad options for Israel

As a result of a single terror action by Hamas, Israel is now confronted with a range of bad options. First, a land invasion is looming, preceded by the heavy aerial bombings, which is unavoidable if Israel wants to get rid of all Hamas members and fully clear the area, as it has pledged to the world press. The call of some 330,000 reserve soldiers right after the attack sent a signal to that end. However, a land invasion implies house by house, guerrilla-style ground combats, which, beyond being more brutal and bloody, are also the longest military operations, as completing the mission and clearing the whole Strip of terrorists would take at least two months.

Second, the worst choices hovering around Israel might still be in regard to the aftermath: Even once the Strip is cleared, what to do with it? The most direct option would be to militarily occupy the Strip again, until an Arab or UN-led multinational peacekeeping force would possibly take control over it, though with the aim of transferring it under the Palestinian National Authority once fully stabilized.

However, this move is not easy to accomplish, as it is not clear whether the Arab states would be eager to contribute to such a multinational force. Plus, the UN agencies have a negative track record with Israel, which displays little confidence in UN peacekeeping missions, such as the UNIFIL force, operating in the south of Lebanon since 1978, which is constantly blamed for not intervening in active conflict or promptly alerting Jerusalem when there are border provocations and skirmishes with Hezbollah. Moreover, the Palestinian National Authority hit a record low of national prestige  and public support before the current crisis. It has also experienced many security failures in the West Bank in recent months, and it has disappeared from the Strip since 2007. Israel could also decide to repeal the 2005 Disengagement Law – already amended by the current government in March to allow Jews to set up more colonies in the West Bank – to allow Israelis to resettle in their vacated communities in the Gaza Strip. This choice, however, would entail full military control of the Gaza Strip and the management of its population in an apartheid-style regime. Furthermore, it is to be seen how heavily damaged infrastructures and buildings in the Gaza Strip will be and who might finance their reconstruction, as it is unlikely that Israel would take it fully upon itself and provide for the Palestinian stateless survivors.

Even for the other regional players the situation does not bode well. The Saudis have already declared to the US that they are halting normalization talks with Israel while waiting for the outcomes of Israeli military operations. Confronted with the mass killing of 4,137 Palestinians in the first eight days of conflict, Riyadh made a show of force condemning the displacement of 1.1 million of Palestinians within Gaza and attacks on helpless civilians. However, it did not act as an active broker between the parties; it did not come up with any proposal; and it pledged no temporary welcome to Palestinian refugees on its territory. Finally, Jordan and Egypt are threatened by the potential massive exodus of Palestinian refugees on their respective territories and by the internal political turmoil it could trigger within their countries. In Egypt, Gazans are mostly perceived as pro-Hamas, thus political Islamist troublemakers, and in Jordan they could tip even more the fragile political balance in favor of majoritarian Jordanians of Palestinian descent against local Bedouins and tribes, feeding into preexisting ethnic tensions. The UAE and other Gulf states have less to be worried about, yet a new Israeli-Palestinian conflict with a heavy toll in terms of Palestinian lives could potentially jeopardize the Abraham Accords and send them into a stalemate – a setback the UAE would likely want to avoid after signing a free trade agreement with Israel in 2022.

As for now, the Israeli society braces for a full-scale military operation able to restore order over the border, addressing the deep anger and fear of common Israeli citizens by crushing Hamas as a government and military force, though it will not be able to wipe it out as a political player. If the war succeeds, Hamas will definitely be kicked out of the Gaza Strip, but it will still survive as a political Islamist movement in the refugee camps in Lebanon, as well as in the West Bank, neighboring Egypt, Qatar, Syria and Turkey, where its headquarters is located. The Israeli war will be considered a success only if it contains the number of Palestinian civilian victims, while abiding to the rules of war. However, to do so, it inevitably has to risk more Israeli lives in a ground operation that is better able to target Hamas operatives while sparing civilians stuck in Gaza City and in the Jabaliya camp.

In fact, despite the evacuation order dispatched by Israel to 1.1 million people living in the northern area of the Strip, some people might be tempted to stay, as they are second or third generation 1948 refugee descendants who are afraid that leaving their homes might represent a no-return choice. In addition, if the first stage of the land invasion implies the full evacuation of the Strip to the south and the Rafah crossing, it is not clear what the second stage would entail, as the Gazan people would not have any other place to move to, especially if the northern part is flattened by Israeli bombings from air and land.

 

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It is possible that, faced with a humanitarian disaster, the UN, some Arab states, the European Union, and the US might intervene, setting up refugee camps or at least some human corridors for Gazans to neighboring states or Europe. As for now, there are no talks on international aid to be provided to neighboring states to welcome those refugees, and there is no pressure to host them on their territory. Beyond blaming Israel for the responsibility in the current crisis, the UN would better work on alternative solutions, testing possible channels for temporary sheltering of the refugees and providing a framework of financial incentives to those countries willing to welcome them. In fact, a new Nakba could spiral easily out of control, with a new exodus of a million of Palestinians to other countries causing an uproar in public opinion worldwide. This could send a new anti-Zionist, but also antisemite, wave in Muslim countries, whose public opinions still widely support the Palestinian cause at the popular level, thus swiftly and easily undoing all the diplomatic progress Israel has made in the Middle East in the last three years.

The real allies of Israel, therefore, should first and foremost warn Jerusalem that it should act with self-restraint in the current conflict because it is in its best long-term interest. It does not want to find itself trapped between two fronts (with Hezbollah to the north) and it should not raise suspicious of heading towards a new Nakba. To avoid these dangers, Israel should spare innocent lives, renouncing on technology to bet on human understanding, meaning combat units’ ability to extricate themselves in Gaza’s maze of rubble drawing a difference between Hamas militants and common people, even if at a higher cost of soldiers’ lives. It might be that Gantz’s inclusion in the government and the extra time taken by the IDF to launch the ground invasion are signals of an intention to design a better military operation capable of sparing the maximum number of civilian lives, while still achieving Israel’s military objectives.

Nonetheless, it is with deep sadness that this tragic set of war events unfolds, as this could have been avoided. Once there was the “peace process” that did not work and that came to a stall after Netanyahu’s rise to power and with his stifling of the Oslo Accords since 1996. It was easily forgotten thereafter by all countries, mumbling about a “two-state solution” without pressuring Israel to stop its creeping colonization and its 16-year blockade enforced on the Gaza Strip. The so-called peace process did not come to a halt because the differences between the two sides were too great. It ended because Israel felt unbeatable thanks to its military supremacy and, therefore, had no need to come to terms with its weaker partner, the Palestinians. Slowly, over time, the international community forgot about the Palestinian question and removed its aspiration to self-determination from the international agenda.

The result was not only another round of Gaza-Israeli hostilities, but the bloody war we now are helplessly witnessing that is able to ignite new tensions across the whole region and beyond. It is a reminder that the only political solution is one that considers the Palestinian people’s right to independence, to enjoy a safe and free space of their own, or else to the granting of full political, economic, and social individual rights in one state called Israel.

 

 

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