On Saturday, 7 October 2023, the Palestinian militant movement Hamas, launched a sudden attack on Israel, which has so far resulted in the deaths of more than 1,400 Israelis, with approximately 3,000 people wounded, and the capture of around 240 soldiers and civilians. On the first day of the attack, Israel declared a state of war, called upon reserve forces to prepare for a ground intervention and initiated an extensive campaign of aerial bombardment in the Gaza Strip, resulting in over 10,000 casualties.
There is no doubt that the operation launched by Hamas was an incredible endeavour that has shaken Israel in a manner reminiscent of the October War of 1973, initiated by Egypt and Syria exactly half a century ago. It is evident that Hamas symbolically chose this anniversary date to commence its operation with a spectacular breach of the security fence surrounding the Gaza Strip, evoking the historical crossing of the Egyptian army over the Suez Canal to reclaim the occupied Sinai. Hamas's operation took place on the Jewish holiday of Sukkot, which falls on a Saturday, paralleling the pick of the religious holiday of Yom Kippur by Arab forces half a century ago.
Hamas’s militants breached the renowned 'impassable barrier,' equipped with sensors, cameras, and other surveillance equipment, and encircled by an underground metal wall several meters deep. The security wall stretches for a length of 65 kilometres, starting from the border with Egypt, encircling the Gaza Strip, and extending to the sea. It is regarded as a 'high-tech jewel' intended to ensure a hermetic siege of Gaza.
The war that Hamas initiated against Israel is unlike any of the prior conflicts waged by this movement against Israel in 2008, 2012, 2014, 2019, 2021, and 2022, both in terms of scale and the element of surprise.
With regard to the element of surprise, it was unexpected that Hamas would instigate a war against Israel, who had claimed ever since the October War of 1973, that such an event would never happen again. However, it did recur, though not by the hand of a regular army but by a military organization whose weaponry and intelligence capabilities hardly match those of conventional state military forces. This represents a significant defeat for Israel, regardless of the outcome of this confrontation in the foreseeable future.
In terms of scale, Hamas has deployed its attacks by using unanticipated military capabilities on all fronts: on land, at sea, and in the air. This represents a distinct evolution from previous attacks, which were limited to the (non)selective launching of improvised rockets toward Israeli cities and settlements.
In Israeli assessments, a prevalent comparison arises between the failures in this conflict and those in the October War of 1973. However, Israeli analysts have underscored that while the failure in 1973 resulted from individual errors within the military establishment's leadership, the current failure reflects a breakdown in the entire military and security apparatus. Furthermore, in 1973, Israel confronted two of the most powerful Arab armies, namely Egypt and Syria, whereas in recent events, it has faced a non-state actor in the form of a militant group, estimated to comprise around thirty thousand members.
What Israel is presently facing and the path it aims to follow resembles what the United States has confronted in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks on 11 September 2001, when a symbol of U.S. economic power in New York was destroyed.
At present, following Hamas' attack, Israel is in need of war more than ever to restore the confidence of Israelis in security and stability, as well as reaffirm the conviction that Israel stands as the only state and sanctuary for the Jewish people. Respected Israeli-American writer and journalist Yossi Klein Halevy, from The Shalom Hartman Institute, believes that Israel has “become the most dangerous country in the world for Jews.”
This war could potentially mark the political end of the Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu (Likud), irrespective of its possible outcomes. The Israeli investigative body, Agranat Commission, released its three-part report on the 1973 war. The interim report, issued on 1 April 1974, called for the dismissal of a number of senior IDF officers and generated such controversy that the then-Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir was compelled to resign. It is anticipated that a similar commission will be established upon the conclusion of the ongoing war, as is customary in Israel after most of its armed conflicts.
In the near future, the opposition is poised to garner significant support within Israeli society by capitalizing on the warnings it has issued against the right-wing government led by Netanyahu, which will cast doubt on the viability of his government once this war concludes.
On 29 December 2022, while handing over the office, the leader of the opposition and then outgoing Israeli Prime Minister, Yair Lapid, addressed the new government led by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. He stated, “We are giving you a state that is in excellent condition. Try not to destroy it," and added that his government "reached an agreement with Lebanon on the demarcation of maritime boundaries, stopped the re-signing of the nuclear agreement with Tehran, and laid the groundwork for mutual recognition with Saudi Arabia.”
The secular orientation of the Israeli opposition is set to gain momentum, particularly as it calls for an end to the political influence of religious parties. This aims to prevent Israel from experiencing unexpected armed conflicts, often launched precisely during religious holidays. These religious parties impose a state of near-total halt in the country's activities.
The position of the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank
The ongoing war between the Gaza Strip and Israel has demonstrated that the Palestinian authorities, led by President Mahmoud Abbas, no longer have any influence on the course of events. On the other hand, Hamas has managed to assert itself as the primary actor in the existing equation through its sudden and unprecedented attack, dictating the political and military agenda of the conflict.
President Abbas has condemned what he termed the ‘practice of civilian killings’ on both the Israeli and Palestinian sides, urging the Hamas and Islamic Jihad movements to release the Israelis captured during the operation. Furthermore, he emphasized that Hamas's policies and actions do not represent the Palestinian people, as the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) is the sole legitimate representative of the Palestinians.
Over time, the status of the Palestinian Authority, established under the 1993 Oslo Accords, has dwindled in significance and influence. The Palestinian entity, initially tasked with establishing a Palestinian state, remains suspended to this day due to Israel's unyielding stance in negotiations, coupled with internal Palestinian divisions. In Gaza, Hamas forcefully ousted Palestinian Authority in 2007. Mahmoud Abbas has served as the President of the Palestinian Authority for over 18 years, despite his mandate officially expiring in 2009. Nonetheless, he continues to hold the position without conducting elections, that were called for by political factions and a substantial portion of the Palestinian population. Presently, the Palestinian Authorities exert no control over Gaza and Hamas and have no influence over Israel, finding themselves relegated to a position of insignificance in the current unfolding of events.
Russian policy regarding the conflict
Russian official position on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict: Russia maintains a clear and consistent strategy for the Middle East. With the exception of the Syrian crisis, it has sought to maintain impartiality in all disputes and conflicts in the region. Moscow's relationship with Hamas in recent years has been positive. In contrast to the United States, the United Kingdom, and some other European countries, Russia has refrained from designating Hamas as a terrorist organization.
In a historical context, Vladimir Putin was among the first to extend congratulations to Hamas and its leadership following their victory in the 2006 parliamentary elections. At the outset of Hamas's operation on 7 October, Russia maintained its prior approach while also seeking political engagement in this crisis. Putin attributed the crisis to subversive American policies in the Middle East, identifying them as the primary root cause. The Russian President and his Foreign Minister, Sergei Lavrov, called for a balanced approach to conflict resolution and expressed condemnation for civilian casualties on both sides.
Actually, in addition to its strategy of neutrality in this conflict, Russia is attempting to divert attention from its war against Ukraine. The Russians recognized the Gaza conflict as a favourable opportunity to liberate themselves of Western media scrutiny and propaganda campaigns against them. On the other hand, Russia has mobilized all of its soft power tools and media outlets to portray the decline in the influence of the United States, their weakness, and their irrational policy of escalating military conflicts. Furthermore, Russia also seeks to persuade the world that the United States is incapable of protecting its closest allies, primarily referring to Israel.
Russian media asserts that Western weaponry originally designated for Ukraine has been dispatched to Israel. This narrative is designed to erode any Arab sympathies towards Ukraine by conveying the message that Ukraine can be perceived as an ally in the conflict against the Palestinian population.
The war against Ukraine has precipitated a relative decline in Russia's role in the Middle East and the Caucasus. Its influence in Syria has diminished in favour of Iran due to the reduction of its military presence in the region and the redeployment of its air defence systems and fighter aircraft from Syria to the Ukrainian front. The rapid takeover of the Nagorno-Karabakh region by Azerbaijan has also exposed the fragility of the Russo-Armenian alliance and tensions in these relations, owing to Russia's neutral stance in this crisis. Given the aforementioned context, Russia presently regards the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as an opportune moment to divert attention from the Ukrainian crisis and as another avenue to reassert its role in the Middle East. Moscow is diligently working to portray the American role as that of an obstructionist and a war-monger, incapable of creating opportunities for peace. This is precisely the agenda that Russia pursues, as it leads diplomatic efforts at the United Nations on one front, while receiving leaders of the Hamas movement in Moscow on the other.
Chinese policy regarding the conflict
China is exerting its political weight to quell the ramifications of the conflict in the wider Middle East region. The United States has urged China to leverage its influence to prevent the escalation of the conflict. This request comes at a time when Beijing's role in the region has been strengthened, following a historic agreement that resolved the diplomatic dispute between two regional rivals, Iran and Saudi Arabia, in 2023.
Washington hopes that the friendship between China and Iran, both supporters of Hamas, will contribute to the de-escalation of the conflict. Meanwhile, while Tehran warns of potential pre-emptive measures against Israel, which is conducting a ground incursion into the Gaza Strip. There is also apprehension regarding the possibility of a Lebanese Hezbollah attack, supported by Iran, which would open a second, more dangerous front against Israel.
China's amicable relations with the Palestinians, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Israel represent assets that could be harnessed in an attempt to de-escalate the situation. In the case of Israel and Hamas, Beijing aspires to initiate what others have found challenging: establishing and maintaining good relations over an extended period with all parties involved in the conflict.
Throughout history, Beijing has consistently expressed sympathy for the Palestinians and supported the Palestine Liberation Organization as the legitimate representative of the Palestinian people, rather than Hamas. At the beginning of this conflict, China refrained from explicit condemnation of Hamas.
The conflict provides China with an opportunity to underscore what Beijing has long insisted upon - 'Western hypocrisy regarding international law and human rights.'
Beijing's influence in the Israel-Hamas conflict is likely to be significantly less substantial than its role in the agreement between Saudi Arabia and Iran. It is worth noting that in the case of Riyadh and Tehran, the Chinese 'jumped on a train that was already in motion.'
Turkish policy regarding the conflict
Gaza presents a significant quandary for Turkey's foreign policy, as it has halted all recent efforts by Ankara to abstain from involvement in the Middle East and compelled Turkey to re-engage with the region. It was previously believed that Ankara would refrain from entangling itself in Middle East regional conflicts after appearing to shift its focus towards the Caucasus region. This pivot was driven by the aspiration to reap geopolitical benefits from a major victory achieved by Turkey's ally, Azerbaijan, over its rival, Armenia, in the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh region. Turkey seemed to be exploring opportunities to expand its influence in the Black Sea basin, particularly in light of Russia's diminishing influence due to the conflict in Ukraine.
The Gaza war has disrupted Turkey's calculations regarding the normalization of relations with Israel. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan had even planned to visit Israel for the signing of important energy agreements. Following the May 2023 elections in Turkey, Erdogan simultaneously decreased his warm relations with Hamas and strengthened ties with Israel. Now, due to substantial pressure from the Turkish public, he had to adopt a more decisive stance.
On 25 October 2023, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan stated, “Hamas is not a terrorist organization; it is a national liberation movement defending its land,” and announced in his address to the masses, during a rally of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) that he had canceled his plans to visit Israel because of its inhumane war.
The options available to Turkey have become increasingly limited and will be further constrained due to the actions of its historical rival, Iran, which has far greater sway on Hamas and, consequently, the outcome of this conflict. As a result, Turkey finds itself bereft of the opportunity to act as a mediator, as neither Israel nor Hamas place trust in its role.
Hamas, backed by Tehran, was well aware of the consequences of an attack of this magnitude, which would hinder the normalization of relations with Israel for both the Turks and Arab countries. It's worth noting that Hamas and Iran achieved far greater success than they had anticipated, compelling regional actors not only to distance themselves from Israel but also to adopt a resolute stance against it.
It is highly unlikely that Turkey will prevent Israel from executing a military operation aimed at expelling Hamas from Gaza. Consequently, Turkey will be compelled to adopt a more severe diplomatic position towards Israel and the United States, potentially exacerbating Ankara's geopolitical standing in the Mediterranean, particularly in Syria, where it has military presence.
Turkey had to adopt a firm stance to uphold its credibility as an ally of the Palestinian people and to preserve its spiritual standing within the Arab and Islamic world.
The dilemmas facing Turkish politics in this intricate geopolitical situation are likely to surpass its diplomatic capabilities.
The future of the Gaza Strip
The most crucial strategic debates on Israeli national security during this war are: What are the war's objectives? or What will the Gaza Strip look like the day after the war?
The question arises: who will govern the Gaza Strip the day after the war? There are several options under consideration. The first is for Israel to directly administer the Gaza Strip, much like it does with Zone C within the West Bank. The second option involves Arab countries, Egypt and potentially Qatar, assuming governance of Gaza until the Palestinian Authority's institutions can return to the territory, having been expelled after the civil war in 2007. However, the latter scenario is less likely to occur immediately after the war, as it could create the perception that Palestinian authorities are symbolically entering the Gaza Strip ‘on Israeli tanks.’
Israel must start thinking 'now, rather than tomorrow' about how to fill a potential vacuum after Hamas's defeat. The issue of governance in Gaza stands as one of the most significant strategic errors stemming from Netanyahu's policies from 2009 to the present. He consistently supported Palestinian divisions, and while it was a successful policy for a time, it inherently carried its own contradiction.
Such Israeli policy was designed to halt the peace process and defer any negotiation initiatives, under the pretext that the Palestinian side is divided and that there is no one to represent the entire Palestinian nation. Therefore, the Israeli assumption rested on the principle of 'appeasing' the Hamas movement, affording it an opportunity to consolidate its influence within the Gaza Strip, effectively contributing to the undermining of Palestinian Authorities. Consequently, this policy has led to the steady strengthening of Hamas over the past 15 years, while the Palestinian Authorities have progressively weakened.
The Washington Institute for Near East Policy from the United States, recommends the establishment of a ‘transitional administration to govern the Gaza Strip’ allowing Palestinian authorities to gradually assume this role, starting at least three years after the war's conclusion.
The authors of this proposal believe that the new administration must serve as an interim self-governing body for a period of three years before the return of the Palestinian Authority. However, the authors of this visionary approach do not specify whether this transitional period may extend for several more decades, given the unresolved status of the Oslo Accords. This agreement was initially created as a transitional framework with a limited timeframe (1993-1999), yet the status quo persists, and there has been no progress in its implementation.
There is no clearly defined strategy for Israel to eradicate Hamas. Israel acknowledges that Hamas represents an ideology deeply rooted within the social fabric of the Gaza residents. According to Israeli commentator Zvi Yehezkeli from Channel 13 News, Hamas is not merely “a group of masked militants” but an organization with broad popularity not only in Gaza but also throughout the West Bank, within Israel, among neighboring countries, and other parts of the world.
Geopolitical analysts view history as a ‘repetition’, where in all previous iterations of wars or Palestinian uprisings (Intifadas) that have drained Israel, a military defeat was subsequently followed by a political triumph for Israel. According to David Ignatius, a prominent political analyst for The Washington Post, after Israel's defeat in the 1973 war, it successfully achieved a political victory through the Camp David Accords with Egypt in 1979, leading to the signing of a peace agreement with its prominent neighbour. Similarly, the instability in Israel during the first Intifada in 1987 was followed by an important political victory marked by the signing of the Oslo Accords with the Palestinian Liberation Organization in 1995, thereby transitioning the Palestinian armed struggle into a diplomatic one.
Hamas's operation and the Israeli response will represent a strategic turning point not only in Israeli relations with Hamas and the Gaza Strip but also in Israel's broader approach to the Palestinian issue. Israel perceives this conflict as not solely directed against Hamas but as a confrontation involving all members of the hostile axis (Hezbollah, Iran, and its militias in Syria, Iraq, Yemen, etc.). These entities closely monitor Israel's military capabilities and vulnerabilities. Israel has embarked on a devastating war in the Gaza Strip with the objective of reinstating its deterrence-based system. On both the international and domestic fronts, there has been a consistent lack of accountability for severe violations of international humanitarian law in the Middle East, and it appears that this situation will persist even after this conflict.
Israel also considers that its regional standing stems from its military strength and deterrence, and it will not allow it to be undermined. It is determined to prevent any deterioration of this position, as further setbacks would imply not only a reluctance of other Arab nations to engage in normalization agreements, but also an ongoing existential threat.
All of this may appear as an additional incentive and justification for Israel to launch a ground invasion of the Gaza Strip in order to eradicate Hamas’s resistance. However, matters are far from straightforward, given that the Gaza Strip is the most densely populated area in the world, with approximately 2.3 million Palestinians residing there.
Historical experiences have consistently demonstrated that urban warfare poses significant challenges, even for the most formidable military forces. This pattern has been evident from the Battle of Stalingrad in 1942 during World War II, through the battles of Fallujah in 2004 and Mosul in 2017 in Iraq, to the recent battles in Mariupol in 2022, Ukraine.
The defeat that Israel suffered on 7 October 2023, must serve as an impetus and a catalyst for a return to the negotiation table with the aim of achieving a comprehensive peace agreement that would enable the Israeli and Palestinian people to coexist. Such an outcome would constitute another historical victory for Israel, notwithstanding the bitterness of the current military defeat.
IFIMES - International Institute for Middle East and Balkan Studies, based in Ljubljana, Slovenia, has a special consultative status with the United Nations Economic and Social Council ECOSOC/UN in New York since 2018, and it is the publisher of the international scientific journal »European Perspectives.