By Harsh V. Pant
As if the world was not grappling with enough instability, the renewed conflagration between Israel and Palestinians has added another, more dangerous layer, to the mix. And it’s not the usual stuff even by the standards of the Middle East.
This is being termed as Israel’s 9/11 moment – a moment that will redefine how Israel deals with its security challenges going forward and how various regional stakeholders recalibrate their strategies. It is a massive intelligence failure for a nation that has basked in the glory of having a mighty security apparatus. But beyond that, it is a shock to people who have somehow been lulled into believing that they had achieved a level of security that their adversaries would find difficult, if not impossible, to breach.
So when 50 years after the Yom Kippur War’s surprise assault, another attack was launched with a barrage of rockets, under the cover of which Palestinian fighters entered southern Israel by sea, land and air, the confidence of a people who have learnt to live in a volatile neighborhood seems to have been shaken to the core. That it was unexpected makes the scale and scope of this attack and its impact of the Israeli psyche unprecedented. Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has said the country is going into a “long and difficult war”, which he said had been “forced on us by a murderous attack by Hamas.”
The attack was launched from Gaza, which had been under the control of Hamas since the Israeli withdrawal in 2005. As Hamas fighters penetrated Israeli border posts and military bases, killing innocent civilians and making a public display of it, the audacity of a globally proscribed terror group wreaking havoc was on full display. For a while, the terrorists had a field day, seizing military vehicles and hostages. More than 24 hours later the Israeli military was “still at war… still completing efforts to take full control of Israeli territory and communities from Hamas”. In Israel, 300 civilians have been reported killed with dozens of Israelis having been taken hostage, while Israeli counter air attacks have resulted in the killing of at least 313 people in the Gaza Strip, with almost 2,000 wounded. This is just the beginning as the region and the world brace for more.
At the local level, this attack will push Israel to reassess its military strategy at its very foundation. Given the meticulous planning behind the attack, Hamas is fully aware of what is likely to happen from the Israeli side. As retaliatory strikes began, Hamas called on Palestinians and other Arabs to join the action to “sweep away the [Israeli] occupation.” The Israeli military has ordered a massive reinforcement of troops as fears of multiple fronts opening up remains a real possibility. Ground operations in Gaza would be needed to free hostages from Hamas and then to completely decimate the terror group as Israeli officials are suggesting. But herein lies the catch. Such a move would entail Israeli troops entering into an extremely difficult terrain of urban warfighting where Hamas fighters can easily hide among the civilian population. This is the kind of quagmire that Israeli Defense Force has long tried to avoid and that’s precisely what Hamas is aiming for.
But this is no longer a local conflict. The Israel-Palestine issue is embedded in the wider regional faultlines. Hamas has the backing of Iran and the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah (also being backed by Iran) has already entered the fighting, saying it was behind strikes on Mount Dov, a tract of land claimed by Israel, Lebanon and Syria, which Hezbollah made clear was carried out “in solidarity with the Palestinian resistance”. Israel has struck back at Hezbollah in the JabalRus area. There have been reports of Israeli tourists being killed in Egypt and Qatar has underlined that it “holds Israel solely responsible for the ongoing escalation due to its ongoing violations of the rights of the Palestinian people”.
And it is at the global level that some understanding of the present predicament can be found. With its audacious attacks, Hamas was not only trying to establish itself as the key interlocutor in the Israel Palestine issue, it was also trying to derail the emerging US strategy towards the region. As the Biden administration pushed for a rapprochement between Saudi Arabia and Israel in exchange for security guarantees and civilian nuclear technology to Riyadh, new strategic contours had begun to emerge in the Middle East. This pact, if finalised, would have marginalised Iran and Hamas in the region and so it was scuttled with a grand terror assault on Israel. Now, as Israel fights back against Hamas and other terror groups, the Saudis would find it very difficult to go in for normalisation, at least in the near term, for fear of public disapproval.
There are significant lessons here for nation states like India trying to grapple with terrorism. Even as the world is focused on great power contestation, the potency of threat from pernicious non-state actors has only grown. Technological advancements are in some ways levelling the playing field for non-state actors, especially those who have the support of states like Iran and Pakistan. Security apparatuses should avoid mirror imaging their biases on the adversaries and should always be thinking the unthinkable if they are to remain ahead of their adversaries.
The IDF is a potent military machine and Israeli intelligence is among the best in the world. Yet, the latest attack reveals the vulnerabilities of a nation that has to remain in non-stop war mode. If the aim of every war is to achieve political ends, then perhaps the time has come for Israel to not only reboot its war machinery and reestablish its deterrence but also rethink the political ends it wants to achieve through the instrumentality of force.
About the author: Professor Harsh V. Pant is Vice President – Studies and Foreign Policy at Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi. He is a Professor of International Relations with King’s India Institute at King’s College London. He is also Director (Honorary) of Delhi School of Transnational Affairs at Delhi University.