Hamas by staging the October 7 attacks sought to unsettle the prevailing status quo that came into existence since the Oslo Agreement between Israel and Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) was signed in 1993 to find two state solutions to the Palestinian territorial question and subsequent efforts made in 2020 towards normalisation of diplomatic relations between Israel, United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Baharain at the diplomatic level under the Abraham Accords.
During this entire timeframe, Hamas continued to launch air strikes on Israeli mainland several times but it had to pay stiff price each time in retaliation from Israel and thus the status quo remained intact. Palestinian Authority (PA) was established to govern Gaza and West Bank and it sought to implement the Oslo Agreement. However, with the rise of Hamas in Gaza and its victory in 2006 lone elections, the PA was squeezed out of the strip and retained authority in West Bank.
The October 7 attacks disturbed the rough equilibrium of coexistence between the two countries by compelling Israel to undertake massive and sweeping military operations that could spark a regional and possibly a global war by pitting one regional power against the other alongside the grim side effects such as collateral damage and airstrikes on proxies of regional powers.
Questions of Legitimacy
Some scholars have likened to make comparisons between the 9/11 attacks launched by Al Qaeda on American twin towers and October 7 attacks launched by Hamas into Israeli mainland considering not only the lethality aspects but in terms of their intended ramifications as well.
These attacks had been staged with the larger geopolitical objectives. Hamas which does not recognise Israel as a state sought to mobilise other Islamic countries to help it occupy its claimed Islamic holy places now part and parcel of Israeli territory. The militant group perhaps believed the Israeli massive retaliation and deaths of civilians would serve its cause. In the beginning days, it has appeared that Hamas has clearly failed to muster the requisite support for its cause from its proxy partner Hezbollah and Iran and Arab countries.
The militant group is nonetheless slowly gathering support from Israel’s overreaching military actions including airstrikes penetrating into areas of West Bank, Lebanon and Syria targeting at Hamas and Hezbollah hideouts and these are opening up new war sites and war fronts. The spike in civilian deaths which is now projected to be more than 7,000 is undercutting the Israeli right to wage a war for self-defense.
Some scholars have argued that the right to self-defense not only includes the right to protect the nationals from the imminent external threats but also from future threats and the grave existential threat that Hamas poses to Israel with its unprecedented magnitude of attacks on October 7 confirmed that without complete decimation of military and governance capabilities of Hamas in Gaza, Israel could not secure its people in the long-term.
Further, some argue Israel is committed to maintaining the principles of distinction and proportionality in its conduct of the war, for instance, its commitment to humanitarian treatment to war detainees and delivery of early warning signals to help the evacuation of civilians from war zones have not been flouted. However, the Israeli claim of early warning issued to the Gazans to vacate their homes and move to southern part lacks substance. Without a humanitarian corridor with the assistance and monitoring of United Nations, such warnings are meaningless. In an atmosphere of war, people remain fearful that while moving or fleeing from one place to another they may be killed. Further, the Palestinians also fear that once they leave their homes, they will not be able to come back as has been witnessed during the Israeli operations in the past.
Hamas has been labelled as a terrorist organisation by most countries of the West for the violent methods it adopts in defiance of international humanitarian laws. In this light, some experts argue that to defeat the militant group on ground, possibilities of collateral damage cannot be ruled out. Intermingling with civilians and finding out safe havens amid the places where civilians live is the long-term strategy of Hamas itself.
Despite the difficulties in carrying out the operations with precision and glaring violation of international humanitarian laws by Hamas, Israel as a state actor cannot but be more careful and cautious in streamlining the operations to minimise collateral damage as much as possible.
The Israeli war cabinet has instructed the Israeli Defence Force (IDF) to destroy the military and governing capabilities and infrastructure of Hamas as the infrastructure used for governance might have been used for military operations. However, the Israeli determination to decimate the political structure and military capabilities of Hamas in Gaza is becoming too expensive in terms of humanitarian costs that the operations might have to pay for.
Meanwhile, Israel has started ground operations and Hamas has averred that it would not make the operations easy. Israel has started ground operations with 3,50,000 reservists indicating that it is ready for a prolonged operation. Hamas certainly has the leeway to make the operations difficult given the difficult urban terrains embedding civilians and Hamas militants in same places and tunnels that would facilitate guerrilla warfare tactics.
Palestinian Authority which is undergoing a legitimacy crisis for its alleged collusion with Israel to rein in the Palestinian resistance and also for lack of young leadership is in search for support of common people and during this war time nothing pays off like condemning the actions of Israel that deny the people the basic right- the right to life to common Palestinians not only by taking lives by launching airstrikes but by denying them the urgent humanitarian assistance.
The stranded Gazans could hardly receive humanitarian assistance like medicines, food and water in time and many trucks containing these stuff are still parked near the Egyptian border and are beyond the reach of needy Palestinians. Hamas and Palestinian resistance group’s deep connections with Islamic brotherhood are likely to drag Egypt from expediting the humanitarian assistance.The telephone and internet services have also been cut off in Gaza which has stymied the basic ambulance services. Meanwhile, UN General Assembly has called for a humanitarian truce primarily with the initiative from Arab countries which is likely to be ignored by Israel.
All the major powers including the US have advised Israel to observe the international laws of war and international humanitarian laws. The US President Joe Biden also suggested Israel to take cue from the failures of overstretched post-9/11 American military operations. However, the US has not yet set any red line for Israel and has instead stepped up its military support for Israel complicating situations on ground. The ambiguous US role might have been driven by two objectives first it perceives a decline in its power position in the Middle East so it is seeking to enhance it during such a crisis and second, it might be a step forward to fulfill the unfulfilled desires of US to destroy the last vestiges of international terrorism.
The Israeli settlers who were implanted by Israel to depopulate the Palestinians in West Bank are also using violence against the Palestinians. This is further compounding the problems for Israel. Israel instead of either counting on or consulting the Palestinian Authority (the key actor in maintaining a status quo between Israel and Palestine until the recent war) as regards the humanitarian aspects of operations in Gaza and West Bank, it is taking unilateral military actions. The PA has reportedly indicated to move away from the bilateral water, energy and security agreements with Israel.
The diplomatic breakthroughs recently attained between the US and Iran on Prisoners Exchange Agreement on the one hand and between Israel and Arab countries on the Palestinian issue on the other are likely to fall apart and reverse. As the Israeli operations gravitate towards Lebanon targeting at Hezbollah cells, Iran will be directly involved to safeguard its proxy which would propel the US towards direct involvement in the war paving the way for China’s involvement.