Israel at war: but where will it end?
Hamas knew its unprecedented attack would provoke ferocious retaliation and hopes the violence spreads
This article is taken from the November 2023 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.
It cannot be considered a coincidence that Hamas’s attacks on Israel began on 7 October, the fiftieth anniversary of the Yom Kippur War, fought over 6-25 October 1973 when Egyptian and Syrian forces, assisted by the wider Arab diaspora, launched a coordinated attack with complete surprise, starting on Yom Kippur, the “Day of Atonement”.
This sacred day is when those of Jewish faith do not work or go to school, and instead reflect on the past year and ask forgiveness of sins. It’s a time when many Israeli Defence Force (IDF) service personnel are off duty and with their families. Although this year’s Yom Kippur was celebrated in late September, it was the anniversary of the 1973 war that was more important to Israel’s foes, for it was a moment when the state was very nearly extinguished.
Back then, Egyptian forces attacked across the Suez Canal and simultaneously Syrian troops, later joined by other Arab brigades, assaulted Israeli positions on the Golan Heights. By the first afternoon, Israel’s fixed defences, the Bar Lev Line, had been penetrated and its armoured counter-attacks destroyed in the first major outing of anti-tank guided missiles supplied by Russia. The world reeled at the sight of blazing Israeli armour littering the northern and southern battlefields.
While US President Richard Nixon and Israel’s Golda Meir considered a nuclear response, the IDF fought back and eventually prevailed through superior staff work and well-rehearsed drills, at a cost of 2,656 killed and thousands wounded. Their efforts were underwritten by Operation Nickel Grass, a strategic airlift comprising 22,000 tons of US aircraft, armour, ammunition and other military supplies, which saved Israel from extinction.
The Arab members of OPEC, led by King Faisal of Saudi Arabia, a pious Muslim, were determined to protect the sacred sites of Islam in Jerusalem and punish America for its support of Israel, and imposed an embargo on oil exports. The impact was immediate and staggering. World crude oil prices had quadrupled by December 1973, and the GDP of many nations slumped more dramatically than in the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis or the 2020-21 Covid pandemic. Resultant recessions and reductions in spending power of Western currencies affected the lives of hundreds of millions. Saudi Arabia’s stance elevated it from a poor Arab backwater to leading regional state and global economic player.
Reflecting the increased cost of oil, wealth poured into the Gulf states, including Iraq, Qatar, and Kuwait. Faisal spent tens of billions propagating Saudi Arabia’s Wahhabi/Salafist ideology, a militant development of Sunni Islam, across the Muslim world. The consequences of this financial and religious boom still resonate. When Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini threw the pro-Western Shah Reza Pahlavi out of Iran in 1979, implanting his equally radical Shi’ite interpretation of Islam, he was also asserting his nation’s presence as a regional power, a rival to Saudi Arabia.
At the root of every Middle Eastern conflict, and in Gaza today, are the differing views of these two nation
At the root of every Middle Eastern conflict, and in Gaza today, are the differing views of these two nations, armed to the teeth, espousing competitive concepts of Islam. When Western countries espouse “anti-Muslim” legislation or causes, they overlook these important distinctions, in particular that Sunni Islam ranges from the conciliatory and peaceable to the suicidal martyr. In the middle, as the centre of worldwide Judaism, is Israel, creating a whole series of complex, tripartite challenges.
Arab setbacks in 1973, which cost them 18,000 dead, and the earlier Six-Day War of 1967 confined the occupants of the former British Mandate of Palestine to two separate areas: the West Bank of the River Jordan and the Gaza Strip. Other Palestinian refugees who lost their homes and livelihoods in 1967 fled to refugee camps in Jordan, Lebanon, and Syria. The descendants of these predominantly Muslim, displaced people now number 4.7 million, and act as a vociferous anti-Israel lobby in the region and around the world. They see Israel as occupying their homeland.
When I last visited Jordan with a UN team, I met several residents in one refugee camp who had been born there. Then in their twenties, they had known no other life, and their attitude to Israel and by extension to the West, was unprintable. Understandably, I could see it was a breeding ground for ugly extremism. Israelis assert the return of this population would endanger and possibly destroy the Jewish state.
The area around the city of Gaza was granted limited self-governance in 1993, through the Oslo Accords, and since 2007 has been under control of Hamas, an Islamic political and military organisation, sworn to Israel’s destruction and replacement with an Islamic state. The Gaza Strip has a population of 2.3 million, living in five townships but, in reality, a continuous conurbation six miles wide and 25 miles from north to south. Within its 150 square miles there are hospitals, schools, universities, and UN-administered refugee camps.
When I visited years ago, it took an hour to drive from north to south, though bomb damage sustained over the years has doubled or trebled this. Water, gas and electricity is mostly imported, controlled by Israel, and frequently turned off, as now, in punishment. My guide, Fatima, explained that with so many hemmed in to such a tiny urban area, the population was permanently angry and bitter, which explained a steady supply of young recruits to Hamas.
Perhaps in frustration, Hamas regularly fires scores of home-made rockets at Israel, but on the morning of 7 October it was different. The skies were full of thousands of missiles, accumulated in great secrecy over many months. We know some originated in Iran, because of occasional shipments intercepted, but the majority were home-made, one of many warlike cottage industries within the strip. During my visit, I was shown home-made pistols and submachine guns by a policeman.
The area is surrounded by a network of wire fences, concrete walls and forts equipped with cameras, ground-motion sensors and regular army patrols to keep the inhabitants in. These were breached in over 20 places during the 7 October attack using heavy industrial plant, and other entries made from the sea and by paraglider, again evidence of long-term planning.
In another deviation from past behaviour, Hamas media units filmed these incursions and rapidly distributed their professionally edited clips on social media. Other innovations included the use of drones to drop missiles onto Israeli troops, vehicles and equipment. I do not assess this is the result of Iranian training. Rather, it comes from watching 18 months’ worth of the Ukraine-Russia war, and cherry-picking the best tactics, most suited to their uprising. Just as in the Arab Spring of 2010-12, digital platforms have proved the best medium to transfer technical knowledge as well as political and religious fanaticism.
Hamas also has a presence in the West Bank, which includes the Old City of Jerusalem, home to the three major Abrahamic religions of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, but where power is exercised by Fatah. This rival organisation is the largest element of the Palestine Liberation Organisation, controlled by Yasser Arafat until his death in 2004, and today by Mahmoud Abbas. Thus, Hamas in the West Bank has barely heeded calls from their Gaza Strip brethren to rise up.
Another militant Shi’ite organisation, Hezbollah, emerged in Lebanon in 1982, remains sympathetic to Iran and Syria, and under Hassan Nasrallah has become a dominant force in Lebanese politics. In 2006, Hezbollah managed to fight the IDF to a standstill, emerging as heroes throughout the Arab world. However, they are also competitors of Hamas and were not beforehand inducted into the secrecy of the 7 October attack, which explains the very limited attacks against Israel from the north.
Every American president since Nixon has courted the Saudis to ensure the smooth flow of oil. But today Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS), partly to keep his nation relevant and a dominant world player, is keeping oil production down to elevate prices. His weaponisation of this natural resource helps Russia’s war in Ukraine by maximising Moscow’s foreign currency earnings. Although Saudi is the world’s leading Sunni nation (Indonesia is the largest), MBS has managed to decouple his country’s religious domination of its trade and diplomatic policies, reflected in closer Israeli-Saudi relations.
Riyadh’s gradual trade normalisation with Israel, culminating in the first-ever visit of a minister to Saudi Arabia last month, has alarmed Tehran. Although Iran’s spiritual leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has significantly and specifically denied direct involvement in the Hamas attack, it would surely be in his interest to disrupt this rapprochement.
The surprise attack by Hamas was the deadliest Arab assault on Israel in decades but was no repeat of 1973. Syria has taken no part. Damascus is close to Moscow, which would have no wish to endanger the lives of the 1.3 million settlers in Israel who emigrated from the Soviet Union and Russian Federation, and comprise 15 per cent of the Israeli population. They have full citizenship and are involved in Israel’s society at every level. Talk of Moscow’s hand in the Hamas attack makes no sense; in any wider conflict Russia would likely remain neutral. From 2008 Israel and Russia allowed visa-free travel between their countries. Russia remains Israel’s main supplier of oil.
Egypt and Israel have been at peace for more than 40 years. Egypt has “no skin” in the Hamas attack. It is the annual recipient of several hundred million dollars of US aid. This explains why the only external action in support appears to have been that of a policeman who killed two Israeli tourists and a local guide in Alexandria.
The operational security practised by Hamas, which bypassed even Fatah and Hezbollah, indicates a professionalism not before encountered. It also marks an Israeli intelligence failure. Israel possesses the most extensive intelligence services in the Middle East, with informants and agents inside Palestinian militant groups, as well as in Lebanon, Syria and elsewhere. However, this also underlines a wider failure in the inability of others such as America’s CIA, Britain’s SIS, Russia’s SVR or Egypt’s GIS to have picked up anything untoward.
US politicians are desperate to show their pro-Israeli credentials. This may well help President Zelenskyy in muting those American voices demanding an end to arms and aid for Ukraine. If Israel is to be the beneficiary of such assistance, and the movement of the USS Gerald R. Ford carrier battle group to the Eastern Mediterranean, then it will be more difficult to argue against continued US support for Ukraine. The likely impact on the American presidential election, scheduled for 5 November 2024, a little over a year distant cannot yet be gauged.
Republicans claim a recent $6 billion transfer to Iran, part of a complex deal announced by the Biden administration to release five US citizens, may have emboldened Tehran to goad Hamas into their attack. Frozen Iranian assets were transferred to an account in Qatar, but President Biden reports none of this money has been touched.
There appears no connection between the two events, although Donald Trump asserts there is one. “I imposed a strict travel ban to keep radical Islamic terrorists the hell out of our country … Now they’re pouring back in … Joe Biden gave billions and billions of dollars to the world’s top sponsor of terror, tossing Israel to the bloodthirsty terrorists and jihadists … the atrocities we are witnessing in Israel would never have happened if I was still President,” he claimed, without offering evidence as to how or why. Former Vice President Mike Pence used the moment to decry America’s “retreat from the world stage … voices of appeasement like Donald Trump, Vivek Ramaswamy and Ron DeSantis run contrary to the tradition in our party that America is the leader of the free world”.
The impending Israeli reduction of parts of Gaza, named Operation Iron Sword, is an understandable reaction to the shocking, animalistic violence in the first wave of attacks, such as the massacre of 250 partygoers by vehicle-borne gunmen at the Supernova music festival at Kibbutz Re’im, three miles from the Gaza border, and the beheading and burning of families including children at Kfar Aza, another kibbutz.
It is hard to divine the precise reason and timing of such a major action. Hamas must have known that to attack the wasp’s nest would be to invite terrible retribution. The action has similarities to the Tet Offensive of January 1968, when Viet Cong forces launched a series of sneak attacks against military and civilian command centres in South Vietnam on the Lunar New Year festival. It echoes the similar Yom Kippur surprise of 1973, also attacking on a Jewish holiday, this time Simchat Torah, a day associated with dancing, feast-making and the distribution of sweets. In other words, another time when the IDF might be with their families, and young people partying in the desert.
The real fear is of the violence spreading. Containment is everything
The real fear is of the violence spreading. Containment is everything. At the time of writing, this seems to have been achieved. The Hamas commander, Mohammed Deif, has called on Palestinians and other Arabs to join his mission “to sweep away the Israeli occupation” but so far his crusade has yielded little. The Fatah-Hamas split explains why there was no participation from Fatah. Hezbollah are probably furious at being excluded from the planning. The missile attacks have reduced in intensity and accuracy now. Long may that continue.
The scene has shifted to a ring of Israeli steel around Palestinian Gaza. A wise military head might have paused for an alternative solution before throwing endless artillery and airstrikes against the buildings of the Strip, perhaps later infantry and armour too. But I fear the heart has won. Large chunks of Gaza are being reduced to brick dust as I write. Thus, the final scene is no longer the final scene, for violence will beget violence and the whole cycle will begin again.
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