The October 7 attack by Hamas on Israel created shockwaves in Israel and escalated the security situation to a new level. In response to this terror attack, Israel declared war against Hamas with a massive mobilization of troops to eradicate terrorism emanating from the Gaza Strip and to destroy the Hamas organization entirely. Israel considers this attack as its September 11th moment. The attack’s aftermath brought the Israelis together as a nation, and they received unconditional support from the West to fight against terrorism. Now, Israel Defense Forces is setting the stage to conduct one of the most significant operations in modern history against Hamas in one of the most densely populated areas in the region.
In contrast, Hamas’s fighters are determined to defend Gaza. Unequivocally, Israel has superiority in every military aspect. However, Hamas will use every available asymmetric warfare strategy against the technologically superior Israel military and hinder military operations as previously. Also, Hamas has a history of operating within a civilian population, seeking to exploit Israel’s concern for minimizing civilian casualties, making it challenging for Israel to employ its full military capabilities without risking international condemnation.
Meanwhile, the international community sent mixed messages to both parties, and many considered Israel’s impending military operation an invasion like the one carried out by Russia in invading Ukraine. In the latest move, with over 4,000 civilian deaths in the region, some 800 European Union officials have written to the head of the European Union criticizing her uncontrolled support of Israel. Even though there is a legitimate reason to conduct military operations against Hamas, the Israeli narration portrayed this operation as revenge. As such, President Biden also warned Israel not to make the same mistake committed by the United States after the terror attack in 2001.
As the situation changes with the heightened tension in the region, it is pertinent to examine recent Israel military operations conducted in Gaza against Hamas and the outcomes:
Operation Guardian of the Walls- 2021:
In May 2021, Israel conducted this operation in response to rocket attacks from the Palestinian militant Hamas. The operation lasted for 11 days, from May 10 to May 21. Israel launched airstrikes and engaged in ground operations in Gaza during this operation. However, the conflict resulted in a ceasefire brokered by Egypt due to widespread destruction, casualties, and loss of life, affecting Israel and Palestinians. As usual, this also led to international condemnation.
Operation Protective Edge- 2014:
Operation Protective Edge was a major conflict between Israel and Hamas lasting from July 8 to August 26, 2014. Israel launched this operation in response to a significant increase in rocket attacks from the Gaza Strip and the discovery of tunnels used by militants to infiltrate Israel. The operation aimed to eliminate the threat posed by these tunnels and reduce rocket attacks. It resulted in a significant loss of life of civilians and extensive damage to infrastructure in Gaza, leading to international criticism. The damage to the emotional well-being of women and children is unfathomable. Nevertheless, the conflict ended with a ceasefire, but the underlying issue of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict remained unresolved.
Operation Pillar of Defense- 2012:
Israel launched this operation in response to an uptick in rocket fire from Gaza, particularly after the targeted killing of a senior Hamas Leader. The aim was to reduce rocket attacks and weaken militant groups. It took place in November 2012. The operation ended with a ceasefire brokered by Egypt and the United States. It temporarily reduced rocket fire from Gaza but did not address the fundamental issues of the parties to the conflict. However, it also resulted in high civilian casualties and drew international condemnation.
Operation Cast Lead- 2008-2009:
The primary objective of this operation was to stop rocket attacks from Gaza and to weaken Hamas. The operation lasted for three weeks, from December 2008 to January 2009. This operation significantly damaged Gaza’s infrastructure and the military capabilities of Hamas but failed to eliminate the threat of rocket attacks. It also led to international condemnation and calls for investigations into possible war crimes as there were high civilian casualties and humanitarian impact.
Operation Summer Rains- 2006:
Israel launched this operation in June 2006 to secure the release of a captured Israeli soldier, Corporal Gilad Shalit, to weaken militant groups and stop rocket attacks. This operation did not achieve its primary objective of securing the release of the captured Israeli soldier. It further escalated tensions in the region. This operation only resulted in the death of Palestinian militants. Hamas released the soldier in a prisoner exchange in 2011.
Operation Rainbow- 2004:
Israel initiated this operation to clear militants from the Rafah area, a source of smuggling and attacks on Israel.
Operation Defensive Shield- 2002:
This operation primarily focused on the West Bank rather than Gaza to combat Palestinian terrorism. It resulted in the arrest of many militants and the disruption of their activities. After the operation, Israel reoccupied parts of the West Bank, escalating tensions in the broader Israel-Palestinian conflict.
In general, the above military operations had mixed results, and some achieved specific short-term goals, but they did not lead to a lasting resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The conflict remains a complex and profoundly entrenched issue with religious, political, social, and humanitarian dimensions. The international community criticized how Israel conducted this operation due to the impact on the civilian population.
Operational Challenges and Mistakes
Military operations against Hamas in densely populated areas have significant challenges, leading to committing mistakes. There have been incidents of violation of international humanitarian laws when conducting military operations, which quickly became the international community’s condemnation. Here are some of the critical challenges faced by the Israeli Defense Forces:
Civilian Casualties: The densely populated nature of the Gaza Strip makes it extremely difficult to conduct military operations to destroy militants and avoid civilian casualties simultaneously. It is no secret that Hamas conducts operations within the population to reduce its vulnerability of being targeted by Israel. There has been criticism against Israel Defense Forces due to insufficient measures to minimize civilian casualties, resulting in significant loss of innocent lives.
Disproportionate Use of Force: Israel is accused of using disproportionate force during some operations, resulting in excessive damage to civilian infrastructure and loss of civilian life.
Humanitarian Impact: The past operations have had severe humanitarian consequences for the people of Gaza, including destroying vital infrastructure. These actions resulted in prolonged hardships and created anger towards Israel.
Targeting Errors: There have been instances where strikes hit unintended targets or misidentified individuals as combatants. These incidents have raised concerns about the accuracy and precision of targeting decisions.
International Humanitarian Law Violations: Some critics argue that Israeli operations have violated international humanitarian law. These accusations include the disproportionate use of force, targeting civilian infrastructure, and restrictions on access to humanitarian aid.
Lack of Political Solution: Critics argue that the military operations while targeting militants and their infrastructure, have failed to address the underlying political and socioeconomic factors related to the conflict. Some view this as a strategy to evict the Palestinian population from Gaza.
Implications for Regional Security
The influx of foreign fighters: Unlike in other parts of the world, the Middle East has become a sanctuary for easy mobilization and radicalization of individuals. The influx of foreign fighters into the Middle East has been a significant factor threatening peace and stability in the region. The presence of foreign fighters can escalate existing conflicts, leading to increased violence and instability. Their participation can prolong conflicts and make it harder to reach peaceful resolutions. In this context, it is essential to prevent foreign fighters from joining Hamas or other regional groups like Hezbollah, involving international efforts and multifaceted security measures.
Iran Factor: Historical evidence shows that Iran plays a well-articulated script in using Hamas to further its geopolitical goals without direct military involvement. For many years, Iran has provided Hamas with political, military, and financial support. This support has been a significant factor in the Israeli-Hamas conflict, allowing Hamas to continue its military activities against Israel. On the other hand, supporting Hamas gives Iran leverage in regional conflicts and negotiations, allowing it to play a role in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and regional dynamics. The involvement of Iran exemplifies how it leverages groups like Hamas to further its geopolitical goals without direct military involvement. Iran’s behavior in the backstage and current military development in the Gaza Strip is a perfect scenario for Iran to expand its regional influence and build a cohesive front against Israel and the West. In this context, Israel has a daunting task of using its military force against Hamas only in the area of operations while reducing collateral damage, observing proportionality, and adhering to professional military standards. Israel is responsible to the international community by taking measures to achieve specified military objectives about Hamas and preventing the expansion of conflict to a regional war.
Civilian Population: Understanding the significant implications on civilians, particularly those living in the Gaza Strip and Southern Israel, is paramount. The previous conflicts have resulted in the loss of lives on both sides and the destruction of homes and infrastructure. Any violence or conflict would exacerbate the humanitarian crisis, limiting the civilian population’s access to essential goods, services, and medical care. Civilians, especially children, often experience psychological trauma due to the continuous violence in the area. In every situation, before military operations, civilians had to flee their homes to seek safety. This time, a massive evacuation is expected, leading to internal displacement and straining the capacity of humanitarian organizations to aid. The continued violence is one of the significant reasons that creates severe humanitarian consequences. The international community must make every effort to ensure the safety and well-being of innocent civilians, urgently needing international cooperation to address them.
Hostages: The importance of rescuing over 200 hostages held by Hamas is paramount. History shows that hostage situations are inherently dangerous and can have severe humanitarian, diplomatic, and security implications. Israel faced a similar dilemma in 1976 under different circumstances when Israel Defense Forces conducted a daring rescue mission to free Israelis and other hostages held at Entebbe Airport in Uganda. The iconic figure, Jonathan Netanyahu, often referred to as Yoni, the older brother of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, led the mission to rescue 102 hostages held by members of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine- External Operations and the German Revolutionary Cells. During the raid, Jonathan was tragically killed in action while leading his group to rescue the hostages.
In Gaza, according to reports, there are over 200 hostages held by Hamas, and it is challenging to locate them. Hamas conducted this massive attack on October 7, moving hostages to Gaza as planned. Unlike in Entebbe, locating and rescuing them this time will be complicated as Hamas may have already placed them in many different locations as small groups to reduce the vulnerability. Hamas will make every endeavor to protect hostages by resorting to different tactics to prevent rescue and to use them as bargaining power for future negotiations. Hamas has a history of holding prisoners without revealing locations/ visitation by the International Community of the Red Cross. Violating international standards is evident in the case of Corporal Gilad Shalit. Knowing the risk of holding hostages and the ability of Israel Defense Forces, Hamas will not leave any electronic signature on hostages that could be located and targeted by sophisticated equipment. Further, Hamas will likely use a cautionary approach by placing hostages in underground facilities with heavily guarded personnel with boobytraps and preventing rapid deployment of Israeli Defense Forces rescue efforts by air or ground. Therefore, one can reasonably assume that rescue operations under these conditions have a greater risk to rescuers and hostages equally.
Illusion of Elimination of Hamas
For many in the region, Hamas is not only an organization but also an outfit with a deeply entrenched ideology. The Gaza Strip has been a breeding ground for militants with continuous violence against Israel. In this context, it is unlikely to achieve the desired end state of eliminating Hamas in Gaza only by military means without a political solution. Any long-term occupation in the Gaza Strip will not bear fruits for Israel but will create more violence by Hamas with a renewed strategy to counter Israel’s military might.
As the world is at a crossroads with the Russian invasion of Ukraine and the emerging new world order, no one likes to see another invasion into the Gaza Strip. The world closely watches this development in the Gaza Strip with growing humanitarian concerns. The political leadership of the free world is compelled to stand on the right side of this episode. The future international support to Israel is likely to be decided by the outcome of this operation and the manner conducted. Israel has a right to defend the country and a greater responsibility towards the international community by preventing a regional war by adhering to international humanitarian laws.
Since October 7, 2023, heavy bombing by Israel Defense Forces and Hamas’s rocket attacks have killed over 4,000 civilians. To put this in perspective, this was before launching the most significant military operation in recent history. If the Israel operation goes as planned, one could imagine the destruction of the Gaza Strip, and it could be uninhabitable without significant efforts by the international community. Like in previous regional conflicts, the International Community will broker a ceasefire only after colossal losses of lives and properties in the Gaza Strip. However, it is unlikely to see an immediate cessation of hostilities.
In conclusion, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict presents constantly evolving challenges for both Israelis and Palestinians. It is no secret that the conflict has seen several missed opportunities for progress toward a resolution and lasting peace. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict remains a complex and profoundly entrenched issue with significant regional security and stability implications. Unlike in the past, there is a growing antisemitism worldwide with mounting civilian deaths in Gaza. Such sentiment is a perfect recipe for Iran and actors alike to destabilize the region’s security situation and facilitate foreign fighters’ involvement. Preventing the influx of foreign fighters and addressing the root causes of extremism is paramount to restoring peace in the Gaza Strip.
Moreover, winning the hearts and minds of Palestinians despite military offensives against groups like Hamas is essential for sustainable peace. Winning hearts and minds require a multifaceted approach prioritizing humanitarian aid, economic development, diplomacy, and fostering understanding between the two communities.
Ultimately, a comprehensive, negotiated two-state solution that respects Israelis and Palestinians’ legitimate aspirations and security concerns is the most desirable path forward. Achieving this goal will require unwavering commitment from both parties and international support and cooperation. The journey toward lasting peace in the region is challenging, but it is a journey that everyone must join for the well-being of all those living in the region.