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Israel’s 9/11

On Saturday October 7th, Israel experienced its most devastating attack since the Yom Kippur War of 1973. After two years of relative peace, Israel was caught off-guard by Hamas fighters breaching its southern perimeter. The Palestinian militants crossed one of the world’s most heavily fortified borders on hang-gliders while their comrades bulldozed through the walls and fences surrounding Gaza. Another unit attacked Israeli headquarters within the Palestinian enclave, jamming communications and preventing Israeli soldiers from warning others of the oncoming ambush. 

At dawn on the Jewish holiday of Sukkot, Israelis woke to enemy forces occupying their towns. The combatants entered homes, shooting some and kidnapping others. Militants stormed the nearby Supernova festival where attendees tried to flee as the attackers opened fire. Simultaneously, Hamas forces in Gaza fired a barrage of rockets across the border providing cover for their continued infiltration. The Israeli death toll has now risen to almost one thousand while the fate of others kidnapped and taken to the Gaza Strip remains unclear. Major Nir Dinar of the Israeli Defence Forces said, “This is our 9/11”. Their military forces have already responded with airstrikes and Gaza’s health ministry says 830 Palestinians have been killed in these. 

USA DRAWN INTO DEFENDING ITS CHIEF ALLY IN THE REGION 

Israel’s allies have been united in solidarity with the Jewish state, as emerging reports paint a barbaric picture of the attack in which neither women nor children were spared. The US immediately sent military aid in a show of force designed to ward off Israel’s other neighbouring enemies. But can the US pursue a muscular foreign policy in a third part of the world, as it already seeks to counter expansionist China and Russia? The latter is a particular problem for the Biden administration as Republican support for further financial aid to Ukraine starts to ebb. Senator Josh Hawley suggested all Ukraine funding should be immediately redirected to Israel. His comments were mocked but were reflective of a bipartisan sentiment that is instinctively more sympathetic to its familiar ally than an alien country in Eastern Europe. 

The Biden administration had counted on the region remaining relatively calm while it pursued two objectives there: brokering a normalisation of Israel-Saudi relations and containing Iran’s nuclear program. Biden hoped to stay away from the longstanding logjam of the Israel-Palestine conflict. But he is now unavoidably drawn into it. 

COUNTRIES JUGGLING TIES WITH ISRAEL AND ITS NEIGHBOURS 

Israel-Saudi relations typify the complex realpolitik in the region. In recent weeks, two Israeli cabinet ministers visited Saudi Arabia as relations continued to blossom. But Saudi Arabia has also cultivated warmer relations with a previous common enemy: Iran. In June, the Islamic Republic reopened its embassy in Riyadh. And, as part of this rapprochement, Saudi Arabia has watered down its stance on Iranian-backed Hamas. It recently released local Hamas leaders from lengthy prison sentences and has allowed other group figureheads from Qatar and Lebanon to participate in Mecca pilgrimages. 

Russia and China have similarly played both sides. The former has significant historical ties to Israel as many Russian Jews moved to the state after the Second World War. Putin and Netanyahu have enjoyed cordial relations and Israel has not joined its Western allies in imposing anti-Russian sanctions. Russia also has strong military ties with Iran. So too China whose relationship with Israel has grown increasingly warm since establishing full diplomatic relations in 1992. They have deep economic and technological links. However, China is a close ally of Iran and proud of its triumph in negotiating the Saudi-Iranian detente earlier this year. Instead of condemning either party, Russia and China are likely to focus the blame on US malevolence and present themselves as more honest brokers in the Middle East. 

ISRAEL PREPARES ITS MILITARY RESPONSE 

The world now awaits Israel’s full military response to the crisis. The public and security establishment are demanding retribution. Netanyahu has pledged that every Hamas member is “a dead man” while opposition figure Benny Gantz said it was “a time for war”. Crushing Hamas’ operation in the strip requires clearing out tunnels, underground weapons stockpiles and smuggling routes that enabled Saturday’s attack. The initial retaliatory airstrikes are not enough to do this. Israel’s army has called up three hundred thousand reserve soldiers and developments on the ground suggest it is preparing for a ground invasion. Gaza is one of most densely populated places on earth and, with many civilians unable to flee, casualties will inevitably ensue. This may jeopardise Israel’s recently established diplomatic ties with the Islamic nations of Bahrain, Morocco and the UAE. If Israel is seen to be killing innocent Palestianians, clamour will grow within these already sceptical populations to suspend relations.

END OF THE ROAD FOR NETANYAHU? 

Israeli anger might yet turn on their own Prime Minister. The left-wing Haaretz newspaper wrote a damning editorial that blamed Netanyahu for “establishing a government of annexation and dispossession”. His complete sidelining of Palestinian statehood, it argued, had created the motivation and support for an attack like this. On a more personal level, the paper said his focus on extricating himself from corruption cases meant he was incapable of looking after state affairs. And this allegation of incompetence echoes across the political spectrum. US Representative Michael McCaul revealed that Egypt’s warning to Israel of an imminent attack went unheeded. When the dust settles, Israelis may not forgive this kind of complacency. It could finally spell the end for Israel’s seemingly teflon Prime Minister. 

 

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