On October 7, Palestinian militant group Hamas, which has ruled the Gaza Strip since 2007, launched a series of rocket attacks against Israel and then followed them up with commando raids across the southern border of Israel, killing Israeli civilians and foreigners indiscriminately, kidnapping Israeli civilians and several Israeli defence personnel. Over 250 young Israelis and foreigners, enjoying a music festival just across the border, were killed in a murderous attack, while several were kidnapped and are being held hostage in Gaza. Israel is describing this Hamas attack as its ‘9/11’. Other Israelis rate this as the worst targeted killing of Jews since the Holocaust during World War II, when millions of Jews were sent to the gas chambers by Hitler’s Germany.
The planned offensive will serve the political purpose of shifting attention from Netanyahu’s failures to uniting the country against a hated enemy.
We are on the threshold of a major humanitarian tragedy in the Gaza Strip, which is home to more than 2 million Palestinians. People living in the northern part of Gaza have been warned by the Israeli Defence Forces to vacate the area and move towards the southern part of the strip. However, as Israeli airstrikes and artillery bombardment continue, there are no safe corridors to move south. The only other exit point is to Egypt through the Rafah checkpoint and that too lies closed. The last thing that Egypt wants is an influx of thousands of Palestinians. The Israeli blockade has completely stopped the supplies of urgently needed food, water and power, all of which come through Israel. Hospitals and clinics which are still functioning have run out of medical supplies. The US intervention has reportedly led to the resumption of water supply, but only to southern Gaza. This dire situation will further worsen once the Israeli ground offensive begins.
It is unlikely that this collective punishment of the Palestinians in Gaza will decimate the Hamas leadership. Some of its leaders have already taken shelter in Oman. Others may have escaped to Iran or Lebanon. Iran supports Hamas, as does pro-Iran militant group Hezbollah in Lebanon. Hamas has already announced that several of the hostages have died in the Israeli bombardment of Gaza.
The Israeli offensive is the unfolding of a politics of revenge, of assuaging the widespread anger felt among ordinary Israeli citizens over these terror attacks. There is also anger at the Benjamin Netanyahu government, which could not prevent the attack despite its world-class intelligence and military capabilities. Suddenly, Israel does not look as invulnerable and secure as many had assumed. The planned offensive will serve the political purpose of shifting attention from Netanyahu’s failures to uniting the country against a hated enemy. Israel may be reluctant to occupy Gaza, as it did from 1967 to 2005, when it evacuated its settlements in southern Gaza and handed over the reins to the Palestinian National Authority (PNA). But it was Hamas which took charge in 2007 and the PNA has had no role to play since then. Israel has continued to control the airspace over Gaza and also its Mediterranean coast. It is difficult to see how even a temporary reoccupation of Gaza, with its traumatised and hostile population, could enhance Israel’s security.
There are already significant regional and global consequences of the outbreak of hostilities in West Asia and the Gulf region. The trend towards normalisation of relations between Israel and key Arab nations will now be under challenge. Saudi Arabia has already made it known that it is suspending talks that were expected to lead to the establishment of diplomatic relations and exchange of embassies with Israel. The India-Middle East-Europe Economic Corridor, announced at the recent G20 summit at Delhi, which would have included Israel and its port of Haifa, is now likely to be put in limbo.
The killing and maiming of innocent Palestinians in Israeli military operations is already agitating the Arab street, and Arab regimes would not want to endanger their security by display of proximity to Israel. There have been angry demonstrations among the sizeable Arab diaspora in the US and Europe and among Muslim and even non-Muslim people across the world. The Palestinian issue, having been marginalised by cynical governments, including Arab states, is now front and centre of regional and global politics. And this is what Hamas may have wanted to achieve. The trend towards a regional compact, supported by the US, which would bring Israel into the mainstream of the West Asian polity and usher in an era of peace and prosperity —having buried, or so it was assumed, the Palestinian issue — has got stalled and may well be reversed. There is every danger of the conflict escalating if Iran and Lebanon become flashpoints as well. A wider war would be a catastrophe.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi expressed solidarity with Israel in the aftermath of the horrendous terror attacks launched by Hamas against civilian targets. That was appropriate then, but there is a need to factor in subsequent developments. The collateral damage to Palestinian civilians in the assault against Hamas in the Gaza Strip must also be acknowledged. Their rights are as important and compelling as those of the people of Israel.
India will also suffer if the situation in our western neighbourhood becomes a geopolitical flashpoint. Oil prices are already rising in anticipation of supply disruptions. The welfare of nearly 8 million Indians living and working in the region would also be in jeopardy. In the recent past, India had been able to pursue stronger partnerships concurrently with Arab nations and Israel, taking advantage of the general trend towards détente and reconciliation in the region. The I2U2 (India-Israel, UAE-US) partnership has been based on the expectation of that trend continuing. This assumption may have to be reassessed.
We now have to contend with not only the Russia-Ukraine war but also a potential conflagration in West Asia. There are also political transitions looming large, with elections due in the US and in our own country next year. Uncertainty and unpredictability have reached an unprecedented level. The glow of success of the New Delhi G20 summit needs to be tempered with a fresh dose of realism.
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