Israel is in a precarious position.
It’s been grappling with Arab Palestinians over ownership of the Holy Land for decades. Its neighbours Syria and Lebanon are wracked with internal turmoil. Jordan and Egypt still harbour resentment over its very existence. The remnants of the jihadist Islamic State are still seeding chaos throughout the region. And Russia and the United States are engaged in an escalating power struggle.
And the weekend surprise attack by Hamas militants threatens once again to immolate the troubled region in conflict.
“Citizens of Israel, we are at war,” embattled Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu declared in a televised statement to his people at the weekend. “Not an operation, not a round of fighting – at war!”
The subject of his declaration was the democratically elected Palestinian government, the Hamas movement. This group’s militant wing has been receiving arms and training from Iran. And that fact has prompted Israel in recent years to repeatedly strike facilities in Syria and Lebanon, which it claimed were part of this process.
At the weekend, Hamas revealed the full extent of its preparations.
“Although much of the Western media did not notice, the leader of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ Qods Force, General Esmail Qaani, had been meeting with Hamas, Hezbollah, and Islamic Jihad leaders in the region to co-ordinate and thus more effectively threaten and provoke Israel,” says Council on Foreign Relations analyst Steven Cook. “Operation Al Aqsa Flood may be the result.”
A co-ordinated attack from land, sea and air was unleashed upon Israel and the occupied territories. It involved drones, paragliders, rockets, mortars and heavy arms.
All must have been smuggled into Gaza from Egypt’s Sinai desert region and Lebanon via underground tunnels and blockade runners.
Israel’s severely embarrassed Netanyahu government will likely feel compelled to retaliate.
But Iran is a long distance away.
And any attempt to find and destroy Hamas supply and training facilities in Egypt, Lebanon, Jordan and Syria risks further escalation.
Operation Al Aqsa Flood
“The first question is over Israel’s response, which Prime Minister Netanyahu has vowed will follow soon,” argues Chatham House Chief Executive Bronwen Maddox. “He has portrayed himself as ‘Mr Security’, and this attack represents a real humiliation.”
The Hamas assault appears to have had little tactical purpose beyond inflicting death and destruction upon Israeli settlements, citizens and armed forces.
“Under these circumstances, no foreign government, including the United States, will have any leverage on Israel to respond with restraint,” notes Cook.
“So far, the IDF has not issued a general call-up, but significant numbers of units have been mobilised. The Israelis do not want to occupy the Gaza Strip, but the withdrawal from the area in 2005 can only now be regarded as a major mistake.”
University of Sydney Conflict Studies lecturer Eyal Mayroz says that, while Hamas’ motivations are uncertain, Israel’s reaction is not.
“The assured severity of Israel’s retaliation against the group – and, as a consequence, the civilian population in Gaza – makes it likely that considerations beyond just tit-for-tat revenge were at play,” he writes.
“Arguably, this weekend’s national trauma and the radical make-up of Netanyahu’s right-wing government will make it very difficult for him to show similar restraint in the coming days.”
A clash of Iron Swords
The United States has redirected its newest aircraft carrier, the USS Ford, and its battlegroup to the Eastern Mediterranean. It’s also moved to strengthen the number of combat aircraft across the Middle East.
But, unlike the October 6, 1973 Yom Kippur War, Israel is unlikely to face an open assault from Syria or Egypt.
Syria is in turmoil. A brutal civil war against the dictatorship of Bashar al-Assad erupted in 2011. The resulting fragmentation along ethnic and religious grounds helped pave the way for the rise of Islamic State. It enabled Iran to expand its covert support for Palestinian fighters. The militaries of Russia, the United States and Turkey now occupy parts of the fractured state. And Israel regularly launches air strikes deep inside its territory.
Egypt has its own internal problems. The authoritarian government of President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi came to power after widespread clashes and demonstrations in 2013. It has since been accused of detaining and torturing political activists and dissidents by the thousands. And Israel has built a five metre-high fence along the border to block refugee and smuggler movements.
Lebanon is a failed state. Years of Israeli occupation and internal factional disputes have left its 5.6 million people virtually ungoverned. As such, it has become a significant base of operations for the militant Hezbollah group.
Jordan, however, signed a peace treaty with Israel in 1994. This ended the state of perpetual war between the two countries that had existed since 1948. Relations have steadily improved, with King Abdullah engaging in bilateral discussions. But, in April this year, Jordanian MP Imad Al-Adwan was arrested by Israel during an attempt to smuggle weapons into the Palestinian West Bank.
Behind much of the Middle East’s turmoil, however, is Iran.
It’s been blamed for building the networks supplying Palestinian groups with arms, training and intelligence support.
“While Tehran has said it supports the attacks by Hamas against Israel, it remains uncertain at this point whether Iran or Hezbollah would open additional fronts against Israel in the coming days,” says Mayroz. “Any escalation in the conflict from either Iran or Lebanon would be highly problematic for Israel. The same would apply if the war with Hamas further exacerbates the already high tensions and violent clashes between Israel and Palestinian militant groups in the West Bank.”
“For the moment, Israel will unite behind Netanyahu,” says Chatham House’s Maddox. “Voices protesting his recent moves to weaken the Supreme Court will now be quiet. But there is a strong case that his deeply divisive moves, which led to an unprecedented period of protests within Israel, distracted the government and divided military forces and reservists.”
Netanyahu has also promised to expand Israeli settlements within the occupied West Bank.
“Some (in his government) have declared all the land from the sea to the Jordan River as Israeli,” Maddox adds.
It’s a highly provocative stance.
It’s a move that would once again mobilise international outrage.
But, now, military occupation may be one course for Netanyahu to restore his reputation.
“Along with the need to restore the trust of the Israeli public and resurrect Israel’s smashed military deterrence against Hamas and other foes, Prime Minister Netanyahu’s government will likely have to deal with other complexities,” warns Mayroz.
This includes the fate of hostages, urban combat against a hostile population, and the threat of violence within Israel’s own mixed Jewish-Arab cities.
“The current round of violence has barely started, but it could end up being the bloodiest in decades – perhaps since the war between Israel and the Palestinians in Lebanon during the 1980s,” he adds.
Netanyahu government talks to “normalise” relationships with Saudi Arabia have stalled. This diplomatic dance has been taking place for months. If successful, it would have represented a decrease in tensions between regional powers and a source of expanded economic reach for both nations.
But its future is now in doubt.
“The argument is that Iran, a longtime backer of Hamas (and Hezbollah), would not like to see its great rival Saudi Arabia strengthened by a deal with Israel,” says Maddox. And such a move would also “from the US point of view, counter China’s influence in the region”.