An attack from Gaza and an Israeli declaration of war. Now what? | ET REALITY


Nearly 50 years after the 1973 Yom Kippur War, Israel has again been surprised by a sudden attack, a startling reminder that stability in the Middle East remains a bloody mirage.

Unlike the series of clashes with Palestinian forces in Gaza over the past three years, this appears to be a large-scale conflict mounted by Hamas and its allies, with rocket bombardments and raids into Israel itself, and with Israelis killed and captured.

The psychological impact on Israelis has been compared to the shock of 9/11 in the United States. So after the Israeli army repulses the initial Palestinian attack, the question of what to do next will loom large. There are few good options for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who has declared war and is being pressured to adopt a major military response.

Given that 250 Israelis have been killed so far and an unknown number taken hostage by Hamas, an Israeli invasion of Gaza (and even a temporary reoccupation of the territory, something successive Israeli governments have tried to avoid) cannot be ruled out.

As Netanyahu told the Israelis when declaring war: “We will take the fight to you with a power and scale the enemy has not yet known,” adding that Palestinian groups would pay a high price.

But a major war could have unforeseen consequences. It likely resulted in significant Palestinian casualties (both civilians and combatants), disrupting President Biden and Netanyahu’s diplomatic efforts to achieve Saudi recognition of Israel in exchange for US defense guarantees.

There would also be pressure on Hezbollah, the Iran-backed militant group that controls southern Lebanon, to open a second front in northern Israel, as it did in 2006 after an Israeli soldier was captured and taken prisoner in Gaza.

Iran, a sworn enemy of Israel, is a major backer of Hamas and Hezbollah and has provided both groups with weapons and intelligence.

The conflict will unite Israel behind its government, at least for a time, with the opposition canceling its planned demonstrations against Netanyahu’s proposed judicial changes and heeding calls for reservists to rally. It will give Netanyahu “all political cover to do whatever he wants,” said Natan Sachs, director of the Middle East Policy Center at the Brookings Institution.

However, he added, Netanyahu has in the past rejected calls to send thousands of troops to Gaza to try to destroy Palestinian armed groups like Hamas, given the cost and the inevitable question of what will happen the day after.

“But the psychological impact of this for Israel is similar to that of 9/11,” he said. “Therefore, the calculation on the cost could be quite different this time.”

The question will always be what happens next, said Mark Heller, a senior researcher at Israel’s Institute for National Security Studies. Almost every year there have been limited Israeli military operations in the occupied territories, but they have not brought any solution.

“There is already a lot of pressure for a large-scale raid, to ‘take down Hamas,’ but I don’t think this will solve anything in the long term,” Heller said.

But Carl Bildt, former Swedish prime minister and foreign minister, said a major Israeli attack on Gaza was almost inevitable, especially if Israeli soldiers were taken hostage. “If Hamas has taken Israeli soldiers prisoner and taken them to Gaza, it seems very likely that a large-scale Israeli operation will take place in Gaza,” he said. said in X. “Another war.” Presumably, the same would be true for Israeli citizens.

Israel and Netanyahu have been cautious about sending ground forces to Gaza. Even in 2002, when Ariel Sharon was prime minister and Israeli forces crushed a Palestinian uprising in the West Bank, the government decided to avoid sending significant additional forces to Gaza, where it then had Israeli settlements.

Israel unilaterally withdrew its soldiers and citizens from Gaza in 2005, while maintaining effective control of much of the occupied West Bank. The failure of that withdrawal to secure any kind of lasting peace deal has left Gaza something of an orphan, largely isolated from other Palestinians in the West Bank and almost completely isolated by both Israel and Egypt, which control the borders and Gaza coast. Palestinians often call Gaza “an open-air prison.”

After the Israeli withdrawal from Gaza and the 2006 conflict, an internal struggle between Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’s Fatah movement and the more radical Islamist movement Hamas ended with Hamas taking control of the territory in 2007, prompting Israel to attempt isolate Gaza. Even more.

Even in a protracted conflict in 2008 and 2009, Israeli forces entered Gaza and its population centers but chose not to push too far into or reoccupy the territory, with a ceasefire brokered by Egypt after three weeks of war. .

Successive Israeli governments insist that, after the 2005 withdrawal, they no longer have responsibility for Gaza. But given Israel’s control over the borders and its overwhelming military advantage, many groups like B’Tselem, which monitors human rights in the occupied territories, argue that Israel retains important legal responsibilities and obligations for Gaza under international humanitarian law.

While Hamas has not made clear why it decided to attack now, it may be a response to Israel’s growing ties with the Arab world, particularly Saudi Arabia, which has been negotiating a so-called defense treaty with the United States in exchange for normalizing their relationships. relations with Israel, potentially to the detriment of the Palestinians.

That’s the view of Amberin Zaman, an analyst at Al-Monitor, a Washington-based news website that covers the Middle East. “Israel’s response to today’s attacks will likely be on a scale that will set back US efforts at Saudi-Israeli normalization, or even torpedo them entirely,” she said. in a message on X, formerly Twitter.

Saudi Arabia has not recognized Israel since its founding in 1948 and had until now signaled that it would not even consider normalizing relations until Israel agreed to allow the creation of a Palestinian state.

But recently, even Saudi Arabia’s de facto ruler, Prince Mohammed bin Salman, has made public claims that some kind of deal with Israel seemed plausible. In an interview with Fox News last month, he said talk of normalization was “for the first time real.”

That will now be in doubt, depending on how long this conflict lasts and with what level of deaths and injuries.

But Brookings’ Sachs says Hamas’ goals may be simpler: taking hostages to free Palestinian prisoners from both the West Bank and Gaza in Israeli jails.

Aaron David Miller, a former U.S. diplomat dealing with the Middle East, said Hamas has been frustrated by the amounts of money coming into Gaza from Arab countries and the restrictions on workers getting permission to work in Israel. “In many ways, this is a prestige attack, to remind Israelis that we are here and we can harm them in ways they cannot anticipate,” he said.

Shocked Israel will now have to deal with the results of what Miller, now at the Carnegie Endowment, called its “overconfidence, complacency and unwillingness to imagine that Hamas could launch a cross-border attack like this.”

The ramifications of the war and its consequences will be “far-reaching and will take a long time to manifest,” Sachs said. There will be commissions of inquiry into the military and intelligence agencies “and the political level will not escape blame either.”

But first, as Heller pointed out, comes the war. “And these things tend to get out of control,” he said.

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