As Gaza Land Incursion Looms,
Israeli-Palestinian Conflict at a Crossroads
Claudia De Martino 18 October 2023

On October 7, Israel awoke to a series of terrorist attacks perpetrated by Hamas that shook it to the core: to date, 1,400 Israelis have been killed, 3,842 wounded and 199 kidnapped in a single major coordinated military operation unexpectedly launched by the Islamic Resistance Movement, otherwise known by the acronym Hamas. By comparison, the deadliest Israeli-Gaza war in 2014, the so-called Operation “Protective Edge”, killed 71 Israelis, most of which were soldiers. Israeli retaliation, in turn, has already taken the lives of 2,740 Palestinians in airstrikes that have pounded Gaza. To look back on a similar number of casualties, one would have to go so far back as to recall dramatic events such as the Yom Kippur War (1973) or the Second Intifada (2000 – 2005), now relegated to memory by Israeli public opinion. This new shock will long remain with the Israeli public, which for the first time realized that civilians living – that is, within the Green Line, the border separating pre-1967 Israel from the Occupied Palestinian Territories (OPTs), which still constitutes the internationally recognized border – could be on the front lines of a confrontation with those Palestinians who for the past 16 years had been relegated to the Gaza Strip, just 10 kilometers from their kibbutzim.

The Israeli establishment did not see it coming, as the Netanyahu government was in denial that its own actions, especially the judicial overhaul, which had divided the country in recent months and systematically undermined public confidence and national unity, led to  increased military unpreparedness.  I.e., with reservists pledging to shirk their duties if called up, in protest against the government’s illiberal and populist turn, and many people alienated by its staunch support for growing and vocal minorities such as the ultra-Orthodox communities and the settlers, who were seen as the main driving force behind the government’s decisions.

Indeed, prior to the attack, some three battalions from the IDF’s Gaza Division had been transferred to the West Bank to monitor the brewing tensions between settlers and Palestinians there, undermining the IDF’s ability to control the Gaza border during the Sukkot national holidays, when IDF positions are already undermanned. In addition, the intelligence services suffered a major failure, apparently buying into the Netanyahu government’s belief that peace in Gaza could be guaranteed with some 18,000 work permits, 30 million dollars in monthly aid from Qatar, UNRWA services and 25 million dollars in EU donations. No one saw the threat looming on the horizon. Even the same Hamas political bureaus in Istanbul and Doha seem to have been caught unawares, since the surprise attack was launched directly by the military wing of the Izz al-Din Qassam Brigades, which had been preparing for over a year. Hamas proved that a non-technical force like its Brigades could pose a threat to a major military power like Israel. They relied on rockets, hang gliders, motorcycles, and bulldozers to penetrate the electrified border fence full of sensors and razors, and to outwit the Iron Dome anti-missile defense.

As its name would imply, Hamas’ Operation “Al-Aqsa Flood” was however not really intended to restore the dignity of the holy places, or the right of Palestinians to pray on the esplanade of the mosques.. Its objectives were many, but all political ones: Hamas wanted at once to shatter the belief in the invincibility of the IDF, shatter universal support for Israel and its 56-year-long occupation, and to hamper the soon-to-be normalization process between Saudi Arabia and Israel, that would have excluded the Palestinians. They might have succeeded in achieving all three of these goals, refocusing the world’s attention once again on the forgotten “Palestinian question” and the ongoing Israeli-Arab conflict.

Hamas’ decision to opt for a major military operation would inevitably trigger a massive military response from Israel however, as the land incursion is about to begin, with the possibility of permanently eliminating Hamas as a governmental force from the Gaza Strip. Moreover, Hamas should have taken into account the thousands of human lives that its war against Israel would have entailed without giving in. On the contrary it used its own population, completely unaware of the attack, , as a human shield and left it to fend for itself in the midst of Israeli shelling. However, the moral boost that its actions would have given to Palestinians and Arabs worldwide was supposed to balance out and exceed the inevitable loss of the Strip’s government, which in any case will not mean . In addition, Hamas may have been betting on a major regional domino effect, in which the Israeli government would take revenge with massive airstrikes on the Strip, killing many thousands, and the major Islamic and Arab countries would then be drawn into a war with Israel for Gaza’s sake. It is highly doubtful, however, that the major Arab players will be willing to go along with this plan and assume direct responsibility for Gaza,

It is true that Hezbollah and, less likely, the Islamic Republic of Iran could enter the conflict if it were to escalate much further. But it is questionable whether it would be in Iran’s interest to see Lebanon descend into a new civil war and into chaos, and for Tehran to be directly involved in a major regional confrontation that would inevitably involve the US at a time when it is reaping the first results of successive deals made with Washington (a 6 billion dollar prisoner exchange, which has now been put on hold) and the Saudis (the March 2023 deal on the restoration of diplomatic relations) and has been engaged in a de-escalation process in both Syria and Iraq since March.

Moreover, if Tehran were to retaliate against Israel for a Gaza aggression, it is more likely to do so through its partners and proxies in the region, rather than taking the front line and risking an all-out war, also considering that Tehran faces the opposite problem in the Arab world. In the Islamic Republic, the massive support for Hamas is not unanimously shared by the Iranian people, who criticize the regime for investing more in militias across the Middle East than in public services at a time of domestic economic hardship and deteriorating living conditions.

The situation looks even bleaker for Hezbollah, which could more easily be drawn into the war for the sake of Palestinian solidarity, but must weigh the high risk of civil strife at home. Indeed, the “Party of God” has seen its influence in Lebanese politics diminish and its majority in parliament eroded in the latest round of elections (May 2022), and it has since been increasingly criticized by opposition forces – such as the Free Patriotic Movement, the Lebanese Forces, the ex-Future supporters and the Falange, all of whom are ready to disarm it – for having obstructed the election of a president 12 consecutive times and for being on a foreign (read: Iranian) payroll. That is why, despite its consistent military capabilities, it will not lightly engage in a full-scale war on Gaza, which could possibly trigger a civil war and entail the loss of its 30-year kingmaker role in Lebanese politics.

In Israel, the soul-searching will take some time, and certainly after the war a commission of inquiry will need examine the major individual and institutional failures behind this major military and intelligence setback, but as of now, the Israeli citizens  near the Gaza border feel abandoned by the authorities. Not only in the first six hours after the attack, when the IDF did not respond to their calls for help and intervention, but also in the days that followed, when the government made no major attempt to negotiate with Hamas over the hostages, preferring instead to search for them on its own through combat and reconnaissance missions, while continuing to bombard Gaza, where they are currently being held and risking their lives.

Netanyahu and his right-wing coalition, who portrayed itself as the iron-fisted guardians of security, will have to explain to the public why they diverted so many human and military resources to the West Bank, favoring the security of the settlers over that of the entire nation, and postponing talks on the two-state solution or any other issue of negotiating interest with the Palestinians. The Netanyahu government led the Israelis to believe that the pre-, that they could settle anywhere in the country (with the sole exception of the Gaza Strip) and enjoy all the benefits of the land without compromising with its people: a collective self-deception that proved fatal.

That is what the International Crisis Group analyst Mairav Zonszein means when he explains Israeli social complacency about the occupation as a “cognitive dissonance” in which ordinary citizens, saturated with years of propaganda about an unspecified stalemate in the peace process due to the lack of a reasonable Palestinian partner, were no longer reminded of the Palestinian people living just 10 km away from their own communities, but behind unsurmountable walls).

A process of collective forgetfulness that was profitable for the elites, who were able to systematically divert public opinion from the “Palestinian question” to external threats and opportunities, such as the Iranian nuclear deal or the Saudi normalization agreement and give them more room to maneuver in advancing the colonization of the West Bank, eroding even the minimal core of principles and laid out in Oslo that regulate the management of Areas A, B and C, whereby, for example, the IDF does not have the right to enter and carry out raids in area A, to build new settlements in area B and to exploit the natural resources located in area C. In the end, it was convenient for everyone to think that the conflict with the Palestinians was over, though unresolved, and that they would slowly disappear behind gates and checkpoints remotely controlled by Israel. After October 7, the spell has lifted and the reality looks grimmer after hitting the Hamas terror wall.


Cover photo: Palestinians queue at an Israeli checkpoint in Bethlehem in the occupied West Bank on April 14, 2023, awaiting to be allowed to attend prayers during Ramadan at the al-Asqa mosque compound in Jerusalem. (photo by Hazem Bader / AFP.)

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