Israel-Gaza Conflict 2023: Impact on the Middle East

On the 50th anniversary of the Yom Kippur War, Hamas launched an unprecedented attack on Israel. Prime Minister Netanyahu referred to it as a war and vowed a strong response. Experts speculate that the escalation is linked to Israel's growing proximity to Saudi Arabia.

09/10/2023 - 14:37
Source: BBC
Source: BBC

The following article will overview the impact of Israel's new war with HAMAS on the Middle East. 

Why did HAMAS Attack Israel? 

On October 7th, HAMAS, the Palestinian movement controlling the Gaza Strip, launched an attack on Israel, declaring the start of a military operation called "Operation Al-Aqsa Flood." Mohammed Deif, the leader of HAMAS's military wing, announced that the movement had fired 5,000 rockets at Israel (according to the Israeli Defense Forces, at least 2,200 rockets were fired from Gaza).

These strikes targeted southern and central regions of Israel, including the cities of Ashkelon (southwest), Tel Aviv (central), Rishon LeZion (central), and Sderot. The country's air raid sirens continuously sounded, beginning at 6:28 in the morning (local time).

Simultaneously, dozens of HAMAS fighters infiltrated Israel on trucks, motorcycles, and paragliders. They captured a police station in the southern city of Sderot, took Israeli soldiers and residents of border settlements hostage, and transported them to the Gaza Strip. Additionally, they seized a military base along with the equipment present.

What is Known About HAMAS

HAMAS, an abbreviation for the Arabic name "Harakat al-Muqawama al-Islamiya" or the Islamic Resistance Movement, was founded in 1987. Its ideology is rooted in the 1988 "Islamic Charter," which denies Israel's right to exist and aims to establish a Palestinian state across the entire territory that Mandate Palestine occupied before Israel's formation in 1948. Hamas consists of political and military wings and has been based in the Gaza Strip since 2007.

HAMAS is recognised as a terrorist organization by Australia, the United Kingdom, the European Union, Egypt, Canada, the United States, and Japan.

According to HAMAS's military unit, the "Al-Qassam Brigades," they have managed to capture over 35 Israeli soldiers and residents of settlements and cities, including Sderot, Ofakim, and Netivot. According to the Israeli government, the group is holding more than 100 Israelis.

The head of HAMAS's political bureau, Ismail Haniyeh, stated that this operation was a response to "Israeli aggression against the Al-Aqsa Mosque," one of the major Islamic holy sites situated on the Temple Mount in the center of Jerusalem.

Recent Clashes Surrounding the Al-Aqsa Mosque and Their Consequences

The latest clashes revolving around the mosque occurred in early April. The conflict erupted following calls from Jewish ultra-right activists to conduct a ritual sacrifice on the Temple Mount at the beginning of the Passover holiday. In response, Palestinians barricaded themselves inside the mosque, refusing to leave. The Israeli police claimed they attempted to peacefully persuade them to vacate the holy site but were compelled to use force. Israeli authorities also halted Jewish radicals on their way to the Temple Mount. At that time, Saleh al-Auri, Deputy Head of HAMAS, stated that "an attack on Islamic holy sites will come at a high cost." Additionally, the Lebanese group Hezbollah, closely aligned with Iran, declared its support for any actions taken by Palestinian forces against Israel in relation to the situation surrounding the Al-Aqsa Mosque.

Israel's Response and Prime Minister Netanyahu's Statement

Following the attack, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu declared that the country was in a state of war. In an address to the citizens posted on the social network X, he announced that he had instructed the security forces to prioritize the clearance of areas where terrorists had infiltrated.

"Simultaneously, I have ordered extensive mobilization of reserves and the opening of retaliatory fire of unprecedented force against the enemy. The enemy will pay an unprecedented price."- Netanyahu states

He called on citizens to adhere to the directives of the Israel Defense Forces (IDF).

At the beginning of the meeting of the security-political cabinet, Netanyahu outlined three objectives: clearing Israeli territory of enemy forces and restoring security in attacked population centers; demanding that "the enemy pays a huge price, including in the Gaza Strip"; and strengthening other fronts "to ensure that no one makes the mistake of entering this war."

HAMAS Initiates War with Israel

Hamas declared the start of a military operation, "Operation Al-Aqsa Storm," against Israel on the morning of October 7th. The movement referred to it as a response to "occupation crimes," as reported by Al Jazeera. The country's Defense Minister, Yoav Gallant, declared a state of emergency. The IDF announced the commencement of a counter-terrorism operation called "Iron Swords." The Israeli military's press service reported that dozens of fighter jets were targeting Hamas facilities in the Gaza Strip, striking 21 targets, including 17 military sites and four operational command centers.

On October 8th, the Israeli government approved the decision to transition the country into a state of war, signifying the initiation of major military operations. The statement read, "The war that was imposed on the State of Israel by a bloody terrorist attack from the Gaza Strip began on Saturday, October 7, 2023, at 6:00 AM." This decision was made based on Article 40 of the "Basic Law: The Government," one of Israel's fundamental laws that substitute for a constitution.

By midday on October 8th, according to Israeli media and the Palestinian Ministry of Health, over 600 people in Israel and 370 people in Palestine had been killed, with more than 2,100 and 2,200 individuals injured, respectively.

World Reactions to Hamas' Attack on Israel

Italy, France, Germany, the United Kingdom, Georgia, Ukraine, Hungary, the European Union, the United States, and Thailand have condemned the attacks and expressed support for Israel. British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak stated, "Israel has every right to self-defense." The White House referred to the attacks as an act of terrorism by Hamas against Israeli civilians, while the Pentagon stated that they would work to ensure that Israel has all necessary means for self-defense.

HAMAS received support from the partially recognised State of Palestine and Iran. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas stated that the Palestinian people have the right to defend themselves against Israeli attacks and settler terrorism. Rahim Safavi, an advisor to Iran's Supreme Leader, congratulated Hamas on the start of the operation and pledged that Tehran would stand with them until the liberation of Palestine and Jerusalem.

Russia, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Belarus, Egypt, and the United Arab Emirates took a neutral position, expressing concern and calling for de-escalation. The Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, for instance, called on both sides to "immediately cease fire, renounce violence, display necessary restraint, and engage in negotiations with the assistance of the international community." Egypt's Ministry of Foreign Affairs reported that they were in contact with both parties "to establish calm and prevent tension from escalating."

Potential Consequences

The hostilities erupted on the 50th anniversary of the Yom Kippur War. On October 6, 1973, the Arab coalition launched a surprise attack on Israeli positions, with Egypt advancing into the Sinai Peninsula, under Israeli control, and Syria targeting the Golan Heights. The war ended on October 25 after a series of successful Israeli counterattacks.

"This is an unprecedented attack by HAMAS in terms of scale. Judging by the response of Israeli security forces, no one expected this. The Israeli security forces' response is very reminiscent of the situation in 1973," said Vasily Kuznetsov, the head of the Center for Arab and Islamic Studies at the Institute of Oriental Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences.

"These actions are very risky for HAMAS because it is clear that the response will be very harsh. However, it is important to understand the consequences within Israel. It is quite likely that this will lead to a new government crisis and stall the process of rapprochement between Israel and Saudi Arabia."

As of today, Israel and Saudi Arabia have no diplomatic relations. In 2005, Riyadh lifted the economic boycott of Israel after joining the World Trade Organization (WTO). In 2020, when relations were normalized between Israel and the United Arab Emirates (and diplomatic relations were also established with Bahrain and Morocco at that time), the kingdom allowed Israeli planes to fly through its airspace via a special air corridor. In 2023, U.S. media reported that Washington believed it might achieve a breakthrough in normalizing relations between Israel and Saudi Arabia by year's end.

In the context of this normalisation, Irina Zvyagelskaya, the head of the Center for Middle East Studies at the IMEMO RAS, emphasised that it is entirely unclear what will happen next with the Palestinian issue and what role Hamas will play in its resolution.

"Hamas and Islamic Jihad want to show Netanyahu, who said that the Palestinians will not have a veto in this process, that this is not the case—that they have enough strength to influence it," the expert noted. "In any case, this operation is a signal to those who think that the Palestinian issue can be marginalized. Hamas is making it clear that this issue cannot be bypassed."

Zvyagelskaya also pointed out the unprecedented scale of the current operation:

"While attacks happen quite often, what is new here is that militants have penetrated into Israel and are conducting battles on its territory, a situation not seen on this scale before."

Analysing the Consequences of the Current Conflict

Speaking about the consequences of the current clash, Sergey Melkonyan, a researcher at the Israel and Jewish Communities Department of the Institute of Oriental Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences, highlights two dimensions: the national, where in the face of an external threat, resources are mobilized, and the internal threat to democracy, represented by Benjamin Netanyahu, takes a back seat; and the regional.

"This attack essentially puts the Palestinian-Israeli conflict back on the regional agenda," explained the expert. "Those states that aspire to leadership in the Arab world, such as Saudi Arabia, which was in negotiations for normalizing relations with Israel, will be forced to either postpone or freeze this process."

Secondly, the expert continues, there will be a question of identifying states that support Hamas and Palestinian organizations, including Iran, Syria, and Qatar.

"This offensive could open Pandora's box," 

Melkonyan noted, drawing attention to Hezbollah's statement that, in the event of an Israeli operation against the Gaza Strip, it may open a second front. "In other words, Israel would have to fight in the south and in the north."

According to the expert's assessment, two main scenarios emerge in this context. According to the first scenario, no one else gets involved in the conflict, Hamas and Islamic Jihad gradually withdraw into the Gaza Strip, negotiations take place for a prisoner exchange, but Israel does not leave attacks unanswered and strikes the Gaza Strip. In accordance with the second scenario, Israel has various options: it can launch a large-scale offensive against the Gaza Strip and increase the intensity and expand the geography of strikes on Iranian positions in Syrian territory.

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