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Gaza and Israel: Five things to watch

Here’s what you need to know following Saturday’s attack by Hamas.

- October 9, 2023
Aerial image of Gaza © Abdallah ElHajj via Canva.com

Hamas shocked Israel on Saturday, Oct. 7, by launching a massive, well-coordinated incursion across the border fence surrounding the Gaza Strip, along with thousands of missiles. Hamas fighters took control over numerous Israeli settlements and towns, reportedly capturing dozens of hostages and killing over 600 Israeli civilians by Sunday night.

The surprise attack, exactly 50 years after the Egyptian-Syrian attack on Yom Kippur, represented the first fighting on Israeli territory since its independence in 1948. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, facing a firestorm of criticism and a furious public, declared Israel to be at war and promised a decisive response. What happens now?

1. Israel is going to decimate Gaza – again.

Since its unilateral withdrawal in 2005, Israel has had one consistent response to provocations from Gaza: massive bombing campaigns. The first Israeli bombing campaign against Gaza commenced in June 2006 following the kidnapping of Gilad Shalit, an Israeli soldier. In December 2008, just weeks before Barack Obama took office in the United States, Israel launched a 22-day air campaign that killed at least 1,400 Palestinians. In the summer of 2014, Israel launched a seven-week war that killed more than 2,100 Palestinians.

Israel’s bombing campaigns tend to be extraordinarily destructive, as the Gaza Strip is one of the most densely populated urban areas in the world – and its people have nowhere to go, since the borders are effectively sealed by Israel and Egypt. A U.N. Commission of Inquiry led by Richard Goldstone concluded in 2009 that both Israel and Hamas had committed war crimes through the indiscriminate targeting of civilians. At a minimum, expect Israel to kill thousands of Palestinians as it bombs every target in sight – a process that has already begun..

But will Israeli forces invade and occupy, and attempt to destroy Hamas once and for all? Past bombing campaigns and endless blockades have done little to erode Hamas’s control over Gaza, and it’s unlikely that anything would change this time. Netanyahu will come under pressure from an angry public to authorize a ground invasion of Gaza to attempt to end Hamas rule and destroy the organization once and for all.

At least some ground offensive seems likely, but a full-scale invasion would be both costly and risky. Hamas surely anticipates such an assault, and will be prepared. Intense urban combat would likely cause high casualties on both sides, could turn into a protracted exercise, and would have no palatable endgame. Israel left Gaza in 2005 in part because it no longer wanted to bear the costs of directly occupying Gaza, and it would find no warmer welcome this time. What’s more, Hamas is reportedly holding about 100 hostages seized during the Saturday attack, which could inhibit Israel’s response.

2. This did not come out of nowhere. And there’s nowhere obvious to go.

The Hamas attack came at a time when the prospects for a negotiated two-state solution have long since disappeared. In its absence, Israel’s extreme right-wing government has been dramatically increasing the seizures of land and dispossession of Palestinians in Jerusalem and the West Bank. Violence has steadily escalated, from the 2019 clashes in Jerusalem to the 2022 IDF incursion into the Jenin refugee camp. The border with Gaza was less protected than usual, in part because a significant portion of the Israeli Defense Forces had been deployed in the West Bank to protect the settlers who have been aggressively moving against Palestinians. 

Nor is there any effective political alternative. The moribund Palestinian Authority still exists in name, but retains little legitimacy or capacity for action. Past crises would end with an internationally brokered ceasefire and ritual calls for a return to negotiations. While there will be calls for a return to diplomacy, those are more ritual than reality. There is no two-state off-ramp under today’s conditions. 

The attack also reflects the sheer desperation in Gaza. A generation of Palestinians have grown up in Gaza knowing nothing but Israeli blockades and Hamas rule, and see no prospect for a negotiated solution. In 2019, the attempted Great March of Return – an initially nonviolent mass march towards the fence enclosing the Gaza Strip – was met with live Israeli fire that caused hundreds of deaths. 

3. It might not end with Gaza. 

Hamas started this round of conflict with its shocking breach of the Gaza border fence. Its attacks were notably not limited to settlements in the occupied Palestinian territories – Hamas targeted towns and kibbutzim within Israel’s 1948 borders. This erasure of the Green Line (the armistice lines from 1948) reflects a longer ongoing evolution of the conflict towards what has been called a “one-state reality.” 

That could have repercussions for the West Bank. In 2019, many Palestinian citizens of Israel joined the protests over the Israeli seizure of homes in Sheikh Jarrah. And over the last several years Israeli settlers – often under military protection – have pushed Palestinians out of territories under their jurisdiction since the 1993 Oslo Accords. Should the conflict spread to the West Bank – or even if it doesn’t – extreme right-wing Israelis may seize the opportunity to seize even more territory or even attempt to expel Palestinians from the West Bank.

Conflict could also spread beyond the Israeli-Palestinian theater. Hezbollah will be the key group to watch. Thus far, it has expressed solidarity but declined to open a northern front against Israel in support of Hamas. Israel has been making active deterrent threats to keep it that way. Should Hezbollah decide to enter the fray, whether through a coordinated strategy or under popular pressure, it would dramatically increase the threat to Israel and could potentially widen the scope of the war.

It could get even worse. There have been reports, as yet unconfirmed, of an Iranian role in planning the attack. Of course, Hamas is far more than an Iranian proxy, and has its own reasons for this dramatic move. But many in the region will read the unfolding crisis as part of the conflict between Iran and the American-led regional order that has long defined regional politics. Israel could decide that attacking Gaza or bombing Lebanon isn’t enough this time, and seek to target Iran directly. If so, we are looking at a potentially uncontrollable regional war that could directly impact Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), and the flow of oil.

4. The Abraham Accords won’t help.

The Biden administration has focused nearly its entire Middle East strategy on brokering a normalization agreement between Israel and Saudi Arabia, building on the Trump administration’s Abraham Accords. This push for normalization was premised on the assumption that the Palestinian issue no longer mattered – or that the Arab states would no longer let it stand in the way of strategic alignment with Israel. The UAE in part justified its 2019 normalization with Israel as a way to restrain and influence Israeli behavior towards the Palestinians. 

Those assumptions will all now be put to the test. While the normalizing states may try to hedge, they will face serious domestic political pressure. Arab media such as Al Jazeera have been heavily covering the Hamas attack. The images of captured armored vehicles and dead or fleeing Israelis seem to have had a galvanizing psychological impact across the Arab world as much as among Israelis. The inevitable Israeli retaliation will generate familiar images of Palestinian deaths and destruction that could mobilize even greater Arab solidarities. A protracted ground invasion would be even more provocative. Arab leaders seemed happy to ignore Palestine when it was off-screen, but will they be able to sustain that posture under such conditions?

These events could do more than just set back efforts on normalization agreements. It’s been more than a decade since the 2011 Arab Spring uprisings, but most Arab regimes still fear little more uncontrollable mass mobilization. Egypt and other Arab nations outside the Gulf are currently facing extreme economic distress. The autocratic restorations of the last decade have largely eviscerated the possibilities for democratic participation. There’s not much more that these regimes can do by way of increasing repression. The possibility that protests over Palestine and Israel could mutate into domestic regime challenges can’t be far from Arab leaders’ minds.

5. Leaders on all sides will, as always, put their own survival first. 

The effects of this crisis will be felt at the domestic level across all the major players. In Israel, Netanyahu has brought the country to crisis and provoked months of massive protest mobilization out of his determination to change the political system to ensure his hold on power. He will almost certainly continue to prioritize his own political survival over notions of the national interest. 

Opposition leaders have signaled their willingness to join Netanyahu in a government of national unity to conduct the war. Whether they would join a government that retained its extreme right-wing parties is another story. Israel’s democratic future may rest on whether Netanyahu opts for a national unity government that requires major policy and personnel shifts or sticks to his narrowly based extremist coalition.

Meanwhile, Palestinian politics will also likely be fundamentally changed by this crisis. It seems likely that Israel will attempt to destroy Hamas and prevent a return to the status quo in Gaza. It is less clear that it can succeed. The astonishing scenes of military victory over a seemingly omnipotent Israel will likely galvanize support for Hamas, even among Palestinians who dislike its Islamist program. This will also put tremendous pressure on Mahmoud Abbas and the Palestinian Authority, which will be forced to navigate between a mobilized Palestinian public and demands by the United States and Israel to keep the West Bank under control. The PA’s days may be numbered – though what might follow it remains profoundly unclear.