The attacks by Hamas fighters on 7 October were unprecedented in the history of Israel since 1948. The scale and duration of the attacks and the number of those killed and injured shocked not only the Israeli people but also the government of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the Israeli military and intelligence agencies, civilian and military alike.
The attacks have led to a fifth round of fighting between the two Islamic resistance movements in Gaza, Hamas and Islamic Jihad, and Israel since the first such round in December 2008 to January 2009. This fifth round of fighting has been raging for the last 17 days and is continuing at the time of writing.
Israeli Minister of Defence Yaov Gallant has said that the confrontation with Hamas, which I would call a war, will be divided into three phases. Phase One has seen the intensive Israeli bombardment of the Gaza Strip, particularly its northern part where Gaza City is located. Phase Two will be an Israeli ground invasion to destroy Hamas as a military movement and as a government. Phase Three will consist of Israel’s establishing an administration to run the affairs of the Gaza Strip. After that, the Israelis would withdraw their forces from Gaza and cut any links with it.
From the statements of senior Israeli officials, it seems that neither the Israeli government nor the military command in Israel have a clear and precise idea of the morning after and nor do they give the impression that they have worked out their exit strategy from Gaza.
However, the most grave and risky phase will be the second one, the ground invasion of Gaza, or to be more precise, a leap into the unknown despite Israel’s intensive air strikes on the Strip. It is this phase and its outcome that will determine how the situation will play out.
Most military experts expect the second phase to be bloody and say that it could last for months. On 18 October, US President Joe Biden travelled to Israel to show his support for the country and to reaffirm the US commitment to its security.
No sitting US president has ever visited Israel while it has been at war with its neighbours or the Palestinians. During his visit, Biden attended a meeting of the Israeli War Cabinet to hear from the Israeli side about their war plans and the day after their military operations against Hamas come to an end.
Aboard Air Force One and en route to Israel, US National Security Council Spokesman John Kirby said that Biden intended “to make clear, as he has before, that we want to see humanitarian assistance flow into Gaza in a sustained effort.” He added that Biden would ask “tough questions” in his meeting with the Israeli War Cabinet, including about “their plans, objectives, and intentions of the war.”
According to Kirby, Biden “is going to make it clear that we continue to want to see this conflict not widen, not to expand, not to deepen. And he will make that point very clearly.”
While he was in Israel, Biden also said that “justice” must be done, while at the same time cautioning the Israelis not to repeat the “mistakes” that the US had made in responding to the 11 September 2001 attacks on New York and Washington.
On his way back to Washington the same day of his visit to Israel, Biden talked to Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi about humanitarian assistance entering Gaza through the Rafah Crossing from Egypt. The Israelis had refused to allow its entry up until their discussions with the US president. Humanitarian aid started passing through the Rafah Crossing three days later.
On 18 October, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres accused Israel of “pursuing collective punishment” against the Palestinians after the Hamas attacks. He visited the Egyptian side of the Rafah Crossing on 20 October and urged the international community to agree to a “humanitarian ceasefire” in Gaza.
On the same day, Biden asked the US Congress to agree to a $106 billion aid package for Ukraine, Israel, and Taiwan. $14 billion of this would go to Israel, divided into $10 billion in military assistance and the balance as financial and economic support. This would compensate the Israelis for their economic and financial losses due to the mobilisation of 360,000 Israeli reservists to launch a ground offensive in Gaza.
On the 17th day of the Israeli war on Gaza, it has become clearer that the Middle East could see the war front widening. Although the US administration has warned third parties not to attack Israel, the intensive Israeli bombing campaign against innocent Palestinian civilians – at the time of writing on 23 October more than 4,000 Palestinians have been killed in Gaza and 12,000 wounded – has meant that risks are running high of a major regional conflagration.
On 22 October, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in an interview with the US network CBS that “no one should take advantage of this moment to escalate, to further attacks on Israel, or for that matter attacks on us.” He added that in terms of what “we are talking to Israel about… with regard to their military operation, it really is focused on both how they do it and how best to achieve the results that they seek.” He did not leave any doubt that in doing so the Israelis would have full US support.
Blinken told CBS that Israel “has to do everything it can to make sure this doesn’t happen again [the Hamas attacks].” He said that “freezing things where they are now would allow Hamas to remain where it is and to repeat what it has done sometime in the future.” In the meantime, and lest anyone doubt the US full support for Israel, he added that “Hamas represents an active, ongoing threat, and one that has to be dealt with.”
Even more ominous have been the repeated and persistent Israeli and US warnings, beginning on 20 October, to the Lebanese Shia group Hizbullah not to attack Israel by opening a new front in the Israeli war on Gaza. The longer this war lasts, the greater are the risks of a major regional war in the Middle East with changing strategic objectives for the parties concerned that will have nothing to do with the Hamas attacks on 7 October.
In a further demonstration of unqualified US-led Western support for Israel in its brutal aggression against the Palestinian resistance movements in Gaza, Biden took part in a conference call with the leaders of the UK, France, Germany, and Italy on 22 October. Unsurprisingly, this virtual summit meeting did not call for a ceasefire in the Israeli war, let alone a humanitarian one, and reaffirmed the right of Israel to “defend itself” by taking up a condescending attitude towards the innocent Palestinian civilians in Gaza, only calling for the free access of humanitarian assistance into Gaza through the Rafah Crossing and an appeal to protect the lives of the civilian population in Gaza.
The virtual summit meeting came after the Israeli military command had announced that a ground invasion of Gaza could be imminent, as if the West, in its complete solidarity with Israel, was taking revenge for its own failure to defend and protect its citizens on 7 October.
Aside from the strategic miscalculation that the Israelis could destroy Hamas, this virtual summit meeting only demonstrated the glaring moral failure of the West and proves once again that Europe has no strategic autonomy to speak of on the world stage.
* The writer is former assistant foreign minister.
* A version of this article appears in print in the 26 October, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly