had intended to write about the international context in which the 1973 October War broke out this week.
But the latest developments between the Palestinian resistance in the Gaza Strip and Israel in the light of the most daring and deadliest Palestinian attacks on Israel in years on 7 October have pushed me to postpone writing about the international and regional situation in 1973 and instead to concentrate on the background and regional ramifications of the Palestinian offensive in southern Israel.
Some Israeli commentators have called this an “invasion” of Israel and the first event of its kind since the establishment of the state in 1948. Due to the unprecedented and sophisticated attacks by the Palestinian resistance, the Israeli government announced that Israel was in “a state of war” on 7 October for the first time since the October War in 1973.
In a recorded video message, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said on the morning of 7 October that his country was “at war. Not an operation, not a round [of fighting], but at war.” He went on to say that the Palestinian group Hamas had “initiated a murderous surprise attack against… Israel and its citizens.”
The massive Palestinian attacks took the Israeli military and intelligence services by surprise. However, the real surprise lies in the fact that Israel did not see something of this magnitude coming. It represents the same kind of strategic failure on its part as took place 50 years ago when the Egyptian and Syrian Armies launched the October War in 1973.
The writing was on the wall. Over the last few months, the situation in Gaza, due to the difficult economic conditions in the strip, has reached almost boiling point, something that had manifested itself in demonstrations against the poor rule of the Islamic Resistance Movement Hamas. Rarely have demonstrations of this sort been seen in Gaza.
Meanwhile, in the larger Middle East the US administration has been pushing for a rapprochement between Saudi Arabia and Israel, on the one hand, while trying, on the other, to contain the growing diplomatic role of China in regional affairs. This has been particularly the case after the Chinese role in preparing the ground for the re-establishment of diplomatic relations between Saudi Arabia and Iran.
All the while, the Israeli government considered the most extreme right-wing government to have been in power in the country since 1948, has expanded settlements in the West Bank and has even been talking about annexing it outright.
However, the tipping point from Hamas’ perspective really came when Chairman of the Palestinian Authority (PA) Mahmoud Abbas (Abou Mazen) visited Saudi Arabia and met the Saudi crown prince in order to coordinate measures to be taken in the foreseeable future to
appease the Palestinians and make the normalisation of Saudi-Israeli relations acceptable to them in mostly financial and economic terms. There was no mention of the Gaza Strip, where most people have witnessed a significant deterioration in their standards of living.
The latest round of fighting between the Palestinian resistance and Israel will probably impact the wider Middle East. First and foremost, anyone who ignores the importance of the Palestinian question will do so at his or her peril. The PA also finds itself in a shaky position and will have to redefine its role in the Palestinian national struggle for statehood.
Another challenge will be how to address the enhanced role of Hamas in Palestinian politics and whether it will now stick to previous agreements concerning the restoration of national unity and whether it will also now impose new conditions.
Undoubtedly, the PA is also facing difficult choices in the days ahead. Will it support Hamas all the way, or will it adopt lukewarm positions that will not endear it to the majority of the Palestinians under Israeli occupation?
Will the scale of the Hamas military offensive on 7 October and the sheer audacity of its fighters, who proved to be highly trained and motivated, politically as well as religiously, lead the Israeli government to reconsider some of its destabilising and provocative policies in the West Bank and East Jerusalem? One may doubt it.
One of the direct consequences of the Hamas military operations will be the enhanced status of those Palestinian movements that dare to fight against the Israeli occupation forces and, as a corollary, the countries that back them.
Iran is the only regional power that has supported the attacks against Israel. Whether the Iranians knew of the attacks before Hamas launched them is a subject for speculation. However, one thing at least is certain: Iran’s logistical, financial, and political support for Hamas and the Islamic Jihad group is beyond doubt, and given the huge losses suffered by the Israelis on 7 October that support will be greatly appreciated by people in the Arab and Muslim world.
This will make any normalisation with Israel by any Arab or Muslim nation questionable, at least in the months to come, if it is not conditional on tangible progress to solve the Palestinian question.
The war in Ukraine that has been rumbling on for the past year and a half has led the West to relegate the Palestinian problem to a very low priority, something that has encouraged the Israeli government to expand the settlements in the West Bank and to permit the settlers and Jewish extremists to gain access to the Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem on an almost daily basis under the protection of the Israeli police.
The attacks of 7 October will have reminded the US administration in particular that its support for the quick normalisation of relations between Israel and some leading Arab and Muslim powers without serious and sustained diplomatic efforts to solve the Palestinian problem is not sustainable in the short or medium term.
Instead, the implementation of the two-state solution, an objective that is shared by the Biden administration, should become the centrepiece of the Middle Eastern policies of the great powers, especially the United States.
The Chinese newspaper the Global Times tweeted on X this week that during the administration of former US president Donald Trump the US “shifted from mediating the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to [adopting a] more explicit tilt towards Israel.” The Biden administration, even though it has on many occasions committed to the two-state solution, has not in fact dealt with the Palestinian conflict any differently from the previous Republican administration.
If Biden is re-elected to a second term in office in November 2024, his administration should seriously consider setting out a US plan for peace between the Palestinians and the Israelis.
The former are not going to disappear, and their right to self-determination and an independent state of their own should be a priority. The sheer scale of the combined human losses suffered by the Palestinians and the Israelis in only two days of fighting on 7 and 8 October, with more than one thousand people killed, 700 Israelis and 423 Palestinian civilians in Gaza, should concentrate minds.
The writer is former assistant foreign minister.
* A version of this article appears in print in the 12 October, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly