October 10, 2023

The Fifth Israel-Hamas War — A Preliminary Assessment

By Robert O. Freedman, Johns Hopkins University

In a major surprise attack, Hamas forces, striking from land, sea and air (with paragliders) crossed into Israel, blasting holes in the security fence in more than 20 places. They also seized control of the Erez crossing, which was used to send food and medicine from Israel to Gaza and also where, before the broke out, 17,000 Gazans crossed into Israel daily to work. The attackers were brutal, massacring more than 260 people at a music festival and Israelis in their homes in communities near the Gaza strip. In addition, they seized Israelis of all ages–including grandmothers- -and brought them back to Gaza as hostages. Hamas, it should be noted, opposes Israel’s right to exist, and is closely aligned with Iran which also opposes Israel’s right to exist.

It took three days of fighting for Israel to root out the last of the Hamas fighters, but more than 900 Israelis were killed and more than two thousand wounded- a huge loss for a country with a population of less than 10 million people. Besides confronting and eliminating the Hamas terrorists who had penetrated Israel, Israel began a major bombing campaign in Gaza aiming to destroy Hamas infrastructure and may be preparing a major ground incursion into Gaza. The Israeli cabinet has ordered the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) to ensure that Hamas will no longer be able to threaten Israel and will no longer have the capability of governing Gaza. To accomplish this task, it would appear that a ground invasion will be necessary. But such an operation faces a number of obstacles. It is to be expected that Hamas will have put land mines along possible invasion routes. Second, it is inevitable that civilians will be killed in any ground incursion (along with those killed in Israeli airstrikes). But perhaps the biggest obstacle to an invasion is that Hamas may place Israeli (and non-Israeli) hostages in the way as human shields. Nonetheless, if Israel’s goal is to disarm Hamas and end its governing of Gaza, a ground invasion will be a necessity. How Israel will govern Gaza, or whether it will give it to Mahmoud Abbas’s Palestinian Authority which governed Gaza until it was ousted by Hamas in 2007, are questions for the future.

Hostages have long been a very sensitive issue for Israel. In 1985 Israel exchanged more than 1,500 Palestinian prisoners for three Israeli soldiers captured during the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982. Two years later, those 1,500 released prisoners were central to the first Palestinian Intifada against Israel. Similarly, Israel gave up 1,027 Hamas prisoners for Gilad Shalit. It may be expected that Hamas will ask for a similarly disproportionate number of prisoners, including those convicted of murdering Israelis, in return for the Israeli hostages whose total numbers are not yet clear but may amount to as many as 100. Unless Israel mounts a series of rescue missions, such as in Entebbe, Uganda in 1976, some Israeli hostages may not survive an Israeli ground attack.

Whatever the results of the war, some major domestic political repercussions in Israel can be expected. Netanyahu was already under fire for pushing so-called “Judicial Reforms,” which had precipitated mass demonstrations of Israelis opposed to the reforms. This may also have given Hamas the feeling that Israel was weak and divided, especially since some IDF reservists had refused to serve under the right-wing coalition government. Given the fact that Israel was surprised by the attack, and that Israeli military forces were concentrated on the West Bank, and that it took many hours for the IDF to confront the Hamas fighters in the Israeli communities near Gaza, undoubtedly Netanyahu will be blamed for Israel’s unpreparedness, much as Golda Meir was blamed for Israel’s intelligence failure in the Yom Kippur War in 1973. Netanyahu has sought to salvage his position—at least temporarily– by calling for a national unity government in which two large centrist parties, Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid Party and Benny Gantz’s National Union Party would join the government. Whether they would be prepared to sit in the same government as the extremely right-wing Religious Zionist Party of Itamar Ben-Gvir and Bzalel Smotrich remains to be seen.

Another likely domestic development will be the shelving of a proposed law facilitating a blanket exemption for the Haredi (Ultra-Orthodox) community from military service in Israel. Prior to the war, the head of the Ultra-Orthodox United Torah Judaism Party threatened to pull out of the Netanyahu’s government if the exemption law was not passed. But the war has undermined even the limited public support for the Ultra-Orthodox, for their demand for draft exemptions as well as for their effort to get equal state benefits for Ultra-Orthodox Yeshiva students on par with IDF soldiers, given their hotly-disputed argument that Israel is protected as much by Yeshivah students studying Jewish Law as by IDF soldiers serving on the front lines.

On the international front, Israel is strengthened by the full support pledged by U.S. President Joe Biden, who followed up his words with action by ordering an aircraft carrier battle group to the Eastern Mediterranean near the shore of Israel. This move may serve as an added deterrent to the Iran-supported Hizbollah armed organization that currently controls Lebanon from starting a second front against Israel. So far (I am writing on Monday afternoon, three days into the war), there have been only minor incidents on the Israel-Lebanon border as Hizbollah seeks to demonstrate symbolic support for Hamas, stopping well short of a full-scale war. Hizbollah, with its 150,000 rockets could pose a real danger to Israel, but it is not at all clear that Iran would want Hizbollah to go to war against Israel. This is because Hizbollah’s 150,000 rockets serve as a deterrent to an Israeli attack on Iran, and that deterrent would be lost if Israel and Hizbollah engaged in a full-scale war.

In contrast with the strong U.S. support for Israel, Russia has adopted what could be called an even-handed policy calling both for an immediate cease-fire and for the U.S. and its NATO partners to take a more balanced view of the conflict. In addition, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has offered to help evacuate Russian-speaking Israeli citizens from Israel—a bit ironic since more than 60,000 Russian Jews have emigrated to Israel since the Russian invasion of Ukraine to escape the growing anti-Semitism in Russia.

One of the main diplomatic casualties of the Israel-Hamas war may be the budding normalization process between Israel and Saudi Arabia that has been brokered by the United States. For the normalization to have moved ahead, Israel would have had to make concessions to the Palestinians—something that before the war might well have led to the collapse of the Netanyahu government as the right-wing Religious Zionist Party was dead-set against making concessions. Now, however, given the barbaric acts of the Hamas terrorists during their invasion, it will be hard to find sympathy for the Palestinians either on the West Bank or in Gaza, even if Netanyahu succeeds in broadening his government with the Yesh Atid and National Home parties. However, if the National Unity Government is formed it may well be possible to move the normalization process forward after the war, particularly given the relatively balanced position taken by Saudi Arabia so far during the war.

Two other questions that are unclear at this point. The first is the position of Israel’s Arab community. In 2021, a minority of the Israeli Arab community joined in the fight against Israeli Jews in Israel’s mixed cities such as Lod and Haifa. If there is an extended war, as seems possible, radicals in the Israeli Arab community may want to actively support Hamas. On the other hand, the Israeli Arab community may choose to remain quiescent, possibly because of images of the barbaric acts of Hamas cruelty widely circulating in Israel. The second question involves the Palestinian community in the West Bank. There are pockets of Hamas and Islamic Jihad on the West Bank that may try to take advantage of the IDF’s preoccupation with Gaza to attack the Jewish settlements on the West Bank. While it might be tempting, it is not clear whether Hamas and Islamic Jihad are strong enough to do so, given Israel’s crackdown on the two groups over the last year and a half. However, given the advanced age of Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas (87), and the succession battle already underway for Palestinian leadership, it is not possible to predict at this point which way the West Bank will go, especially if the Israel-Hamas war is prolonged.

In sum, three days into the war, it is clear that the Israel-Hamas war will have a significant impact on Israel and the larger Middle East. What the full impact of the war will be, however, remains to be seen.

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