TAG Special Virtual Conference Note: War in the Levant, October 31st, 2023

By Julian Lindley-French

“There will be a reckoning”.

There was consensus that despite the appalling atrocity committed against the Israeli people by the Hamas terrorist group on October 7th (7/10) and the tragic loss of Palestinian life in the Gaza Strip Israel has a right to defend itself.  However, Tel Aviv needs to be much clearer about its objectives. At stake is the long-term viability of the Jewish state which, though hard though it may be to envision, is dependent on the establishment of a viable, sovereign Palestinian state.  Whatever Israel’s righteous fury Tel Aviv must not lose sight of its strategic goal during what is for all its violence a tactical action. That is precisely what Iran, Hezbollah, Hamas, and other enemies of the Jewish people want and allies and partners of Israel must remind Tel Aviv.

The debate was fourfold: to consider the situation on the ground, how Hamas could undertake such an attack, why Israel did not detect preparations for the attack, and to recommend courses of action to allied and partner governments. The 7/10 attack on Israel by Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ) which saw over 1400 Israelis brutally executed and over 200 taken hostage had been long in the making.  The attack also fits into a pattern of action by Iran and its proxies when Israel is making progress diplomatically towards recognition by Arab states, in the form of the Abraham Accords, with, most notably the Gulf States with Saudi Arabia to the fore.  Hamas launched a far smaller scale rocket attack on Israel in 2014 in response to a violent Israeli crackdown on the West Bank, which also had the effect of putting an end to what had been hopeful progress on the two-state solution.

Since Israeli forces and the small Israeli settlements withdrew unilaterally from the Gaza Strip in 2005 and Hamas gained power as the “principal political authority”, Hamas, as constituted, is a Palestinian “resistance” entity, which by its ideology and doctrine seeks destruction of Israel and the eradication of Jews. For some time, and over the period of several governments in Tel Aviv, the Gaza strip was separated from the West Bank in terms of Tel Aviv’s approach to the Palestinian question and to the future of a 2-state solution.  While successive governments were willing to deal with the Palestinian Authority in Ramallah, Israel dealt with Hamas with a containment strategy within Gaza.  In the end, this strategy was profoundly flawed and served to permit the Gaza Strip to be the incubator of Hamas and PIJ resistance capabilities, fuelled directly by support from Qatar and Iran, aided by the Bedouin tribes of the Sinai, and the “blind eye” turned to the entire resistance undertaking in Gaza by regimes in Cairo.  Now, in the aftermath of the 7 October massacre, and previous failed incursions in Gaza post-2005, the Netanyahu Government seeks the complete eradication of Hamas through a “guns-blazing counteroffensive” even though such a goal is highly unlikely to be achieved using force.

There is also the danger of a wider regional war involving Iran’s well-armed proxy Hezbollah, armed with potentially “tens of thousands” of short and medium range rockets and precision guided missiles.  The Hezbollah of 2023 is not the Hezbollah of 2006 when Israel tangled with the organization in Southern Lebanon with, frankly, limited success.  In the meantime, Hezbollah has been in almost constant combat in Syria as an Iranian proxy, frequently advised by IRGC operatives and advisors and supported by Russian firepower.  Whole battles have been fought in Syria with Hezbollah infantry, IRGC advisors, and Russian and Wagner Group assistance.   The US has moved forces into the region just to remind Iran that any escalation would be costly. Thus far Iran has shown little interest in such a war and seems more concerned about preserving its ‘assets’ in both southern Lebanon, Syria, and the Gaza Strip. Rather, both Iran and Russia are seeking to exploit the information space at the expense of both Israel, the US, and its other Western partners, with Moscow using the conflict to distract from its brutal war in Ukraine.  

Israel failed to detect preparations for the 7/10 attack because Hamas did all in its power to leave no electronic signature of meetings and planning that could be detected.  Training for the attack was done in such a way to desensitize Israeli intelligence as it appeared part of routine resistance-oriented training. The control by Hamas over operational security was highly effective.  To its detriment, Israel had permitted its HUMINT capabilities to atrophy inside the Gaza Strip, believing that electronic surveillance and air breathing and overhead imagery could suffice to provide warning of a potential Hamas/PIJ attack.

Courses of action available to Western allies and partners are limited beyond encouraging Tel Aviv to remember the bigger strategic picture and clamping down on the rise in antisemitism on Western countries. Short-term options included seeking to destroy investment portfolios and other assets Hamas holds outside the Gaza Strip believed to be worth more than $1 billion and putting pressure on the Hamas leadership in Qatar and on Qatar itself, which seems now to want to be helpful in solving this immediate crisis, in no small part a crisis of its own making. Efforts should be made to frustrate any efforts by Iran (and/or Russia) to use the conflict to weaken the regime in Jordan, and every diplomatic effort should be made to encourage Arab states in the region to remain in, and to preserve, the Abraham Accords which offer the best chance of Arab states recognising Israel and further isolating Iran, and stabilizing the region for the first time in decades.  Any enduring 2-state peace now seems a distant prospect but over the medium-term North Americans, Europeans and other allies and partners should also remind Israel of its obligations under the Oslo Accords most notably with respect to illegal settlements on the West Bank, that have functionally precluded the creation of a contiguous future Palestinian state.  As it stands, direct Israeli actions on the West Bank, in response to the military action in Gaza, threatens to inflame the Palestinian population there too.   

If the Abraham Accord can survive Israel’s current action, it affords the best chance for a “deluge of recognition” of Israel by Arab States, and Muslim entities from the Maghreb to the Gulf, with the effect of further isolating Iran, and undermining the very logic of the resistance narrative. However, there are many obstacles.  As Israel prosecutes its actions in Gaza, deep fissures are emerging in the US-Israel relationship, China is seeking narrow advantage in the region from the conflict, and Turkish-Israeli relations have deteriorated markedly not least because Ankara seems intent on siding with Qatar and political Islam. Their collective interference is made easier by Israel’s emphasis on the use of firepower to limit the casualties amongst the IDF’s infantry forces during the ground campaign in the Gaza Strip. This will continue.   Going forward there will be a political reckoning in Israel for what happened on 7/10.  However, if Likud is the government, characterized as an extremist hard-right government with hard-line religious “Settler” political parties, it is hard to see a shift in Israeli policy.  It is hard to see how the US and Europe will deal with a Netanyahu-led Likud government going forward, especially considering the humanitarian disaster now emerging in the Gaza Strip and the crackdown on the West Bank Palestinians.

What is at stake is the very future of Israel and the viability of its democracy. Some talk of possible future bi-national state in which Palestinians would or submit to a politically disenfranchised so-called Palestinian Autonomy is fanciful.  Such an outcome is not only unlikely but would also mark the beginning of the end of the Israeli state.  However, for Israel to be at peace the legitimate aspirations of Palestinians must be addressed, and Israel must always be conscious of limiting the narrative used by its enemies to garner support across much of the world that Tel Aviv is only interested in occupying Palestine and killing Muslims and Palestinians. 

The Alphen Group

Photo Credit: Taylor Brandon on Unsplash