By Kabir Taneja
In an unprecedented display of both capacity and terror, Gaza-based group Hamas mounted a mass-scale terrorist attack against Israel, using land, air, and sea raids, killing hundreds of Israeli citizens, and fracturing the state’s “aura of invincibility”. It is also known that Hamas has taken dozens of people hostage.
The strike, which uncharacteristically caught the famed Israeli security establishment off guard, in theme was reminiscent of the Yom Kippur War exactly 50 years ago—almost to the minute—when a coalition of Arab states led by Egypt and Syria launched a surprise attack against Israel. Only days ago, senior Israel Defense Forces (DF) officials had assessed that Hamas in fact wanted to avoid a full-scale conflict.
The attack this week was of a scale not witnessed by Israel before, as over 5,000 rockets were fired within minutes, possibly overwhelming the anti-missile systems, as other offensives were parallelly initiated including using gliders and boats. This attack comes at an interesting time, with Israel’s domestic politics being in flux; the Abraham Accords from 2020 initiating a level of normalisation between the Arab world and Israel in place; a United States (US)-led push towards Saudi Arabia’s recognition of Israel in play; and, finally, a Saudi-Iran détente, brokered by China.
As these events grabbed global headlines, the issue of Palestine was rapidly being seen as one being sidelined despite its centrality to both Arab politics and its relationship with the wider Muslim world. Hamas’ attack has catapulted the crisis to the top of the headlines both regionally and internationally. This was, perhaps, at least one of the core aims: To puncture the narratives of a ‘new’ Middle East (West Asia).
Hamas’ role as the “leader” of Palestinian resistance has its own regional designs. The group, formed out of the ideological incubation of the Palestinian Muslim Brotherhood in 1987, had a radically different political approach to its immediate rival, Fatah, which was more open towards working through political dialogue and institutionalised mechanisms. An intra-Palestine battle between these two groups ended in 2007, with Hamas coming out on top in the 2006 elections—which were pushed by the US—stamping its authority across Gaza as it prioritised a model of armed resistance instead of negotiations. This was also the same time Israeli forces had withdrawn from Gaza in 2005. This new Hamas era included installing a level of internal ‘stability’ by controlling other Salafist groups looking to use Palestine as a springboard for their own agendas. These are the contours under which even the likes of the Afghan Taliban in Afghanistan, the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), and Al Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent (AQIS) were quick to offer their weight behind Hamas.
Gaza and the resistance soon became a geopolitical tool as well. Hamas, a Sunni movement, found its regional patrons in groups such as Hezbollah, a Shia militia that gets support from Iran. Hezbollah gained strength after the Iranian revolution of 1979 and Israel’s invasion of Lebanon in 1982. ‘Any country that signs a normalization agreement (with Israel) must be condemned and its actions denounced’, Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah was reported as saying only last week. These ideological and theological marriages around the Palestinian cause were also acts of strategic convenience despite being on different sides of sectarian divides, merging around the common aim of disallowing Israel a normal existence.
For a long time, Israel’s neighbours—Egypt, Syria, and Jordan, amongst others—have also used the Palestine issue to achieve their individual strategic aims in the region, and against an overarching military supremacy by Israel backed by the West, in particular, the US. In a 2017 document published by Hamas titled ‘A Document of General Principles and Policies’, section 25 reads: “Resisting the occupation with all means and methods is a legitimate right guaranteed by divine laws and international norms and laws.
At the heart of these lies armed resistance, which is regarded as the strategic choice for protecting the principles and the rights of the Palestinian people”. The scale and coordination of this attack now also puts Hamas beyond the ambit of just a terrorist group, but as highlighted by Michael Milstein, a former IDF official, a “quasi-military” force. The planning displayed is reminiscent of a now oft-forgotten militant group, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, or the LTTE in Sri Lanka, which had developed the contemporary blueprint of modern guerrilla warfare that encapsulated land, sea, and air operations.
Statements and stances made post the Hamas attack
The official statements released by the neighbours of Israel and Palestine, who are also stakeholders, offered an interesting window into how regional powers read this escalation in the current climate. Expectedly, Iran and Qatar offered weight behind the Palestinians, blaming the attack on Israeli actions over the recent past. Qatar has played host to parts of the leadership of Hamas, as has Türkiye.
In fact, Israel has attempted to open channels with both states to address this. In 2020, then Mossad chief Yossi Cohen landed in Doha to urge Qatar to continue financial aid for a Hamas-controlled Gaza. However, more fascinating were statements by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE). Riyadh found itself in a difficult position as reportscontinue to highlight that both Saudi and Israel are not too far from normalising relations. The Kingdom’s statement was cognisant of running parallel to a pro-Palestine Arab public sentiment, referring to Israel as an occupying force and finishing by calling, like many others, for a two-state solution—a call that India also continues to support. Abu Dhabi, now having full diplomatic relations with Israel, had an even more ‘safe’ statement, calling for de-escalation and resumption of mechanisms towards Arab-Israeli peace.
In September, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MbS) had said that sorting out the Palestinian issue would be very important to achieve normalisation with Israel. “We need to solve that part”, he had said. However, media leaks from the regional press and in the US over a Saudi–Israel détente saw little mention of demands on Palestine or any blueprints that highlight deliverables towards any kind of agreement. Instead, most reports highlighted more geostrategic demands such as the call for a US security treaty and delivery of a civil nuclear programme.
The Israeli response to the terror strikes by Hamas will be a long-drawn and decisive affair, potentially single-handedly reshaping the trajectory of regional geopolitics at least in the near future. While Hamas’ calculations may not have been directly designed to break a potential Saudi–Israel thaw, achieving that is certainly one of the main aims of the patrons backing the organisation. Much of the realpolitik that has been witnessed in the region over the past few years has been conducted in a ‘top down’ approach, with governments and monarchies rearranging friendships and rivalries to adjust according to their national interests.
Impact of the attack on regional politics and sentiments
What Hamas may well have managed to do is disturb a latent but existing public opinion that would fundamentally sympathises with the Palestinian cause, specifically in a place such as Saudi Arabia, home of the two Holy Mosques. According to the Arab Opinion Index survey of 2022, 76 percent of the respondents said that the Palestine issue concerned all Arabs and 84 percent of respondents disapproved of their states normalising relations with Israel*.
Interestingly, while many people in the region also disapproved of the Abraham Accords, they also approved of the ideation of ‘strategic autonomy’, which, in essence, diluted any major public condemnation or movements against the deals. This was a calculus correctly gamed by the regional leadership. Today, it will be pivotal to see if the Arab public opinion distinguishes between resistance and the aims of Hamas, or sees them both as the same thing. For the likes of MbS, who is openly taking on Islamic ultra-conservatism and the Muslim Brotherhood’s brand of political Islam instead of aiming for moderatism, the prevailing crisis is a delicate test of intent versus realities.
Finally, the impact of these developments will be multi-layered. Israel will rightly be emboldened by expansive support against terrorism from most quarters, while the issue of Palestine could get a new lease of life, specifically in the Arab world. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s message published on ‘X’ (formerly known as Twitter) gave unconditional support to the Israeli leadership. Hamas, on the other hand, has elevated itself to a level comparable to how the US saw Al Qaeda post 9/11. Saudi Arabia, UAE, Israel, and others will simultaneously need to make sure that newer geopolitical and geoeconomic initiatives such as the I2U2, India-Middle East-Europe Economic Corridor (IMEEC), and a general opening of and progress made in the region do not suffer a setback. Preservation of a new era of bilaterals, minilaterals and multilaterals connecting the Middle East and all its people as a hub and market are in place to benefit global prosperity and by association regional and international security.
About the author: Kabir Taneja is a Fellow with the Strategic Studies Programme at the Observer Research Foundation.
Source: This article was published by the Observer Research Foundation
*The institute conducting this survey is based in Qatar