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Conflit in Gaza:

Sub Title : The escalating humanitarian and strategic costs of the Gaza Conflict

Issues Details : Vol 18 Issue 2 May – Jun 2024

Author : Ajay Singh

Page No. : 31

Category : Geostrategy

: June 5, 2024

Examining the ongoing conflict, this article delves into the miscalculations by Hamas and Israel, leading to a protracted, devastating war. With the region destabilized, both sides face severe consequences amid escalating violence and international scrutiny.

When Hamas launched its horrific attacks on 07 October, they anticipated a violent Israeli response but possibly assumed that they would be able to absorb it till international pressure halted it two or three months later. When Israel launched its own retaliation into Gaza, it knew that it would be a long haul, but perhaps thought it would eventually attain their military aims in a few months or so. Both sides miscalculated. Perhaps neither imagined that the war would go with such a scale of violence for over seven months, and still with no end state in sight.

To give them their due, Hamas planned and executed their attack into Israel meticulously, to cause the carnage they did. The Israeli response was a knee-jerk angry retaliation with no clearly defined end state in mind. All that has been attained so far, is the death of over 35,000 Gazans, the reduction of over 65% of Gaza’s infrastructure into rubble,  and the rescue of only three hostages. Hamas still retains its ability to fight, its top leadership is still free and the hostages are nowhere near return. And rather than being more secure, Israel finds itself facing increased isolation and global condemnation.

The war is poised for another turn as Israel enters Rafah – the last hideout in Southern Gaza, where four Hamas battalions, along with the most wanted duo of Yahya Sinwar and Mohammed Deif are reportedly holed out. But finding them amongst 1.4 million refugees will be a difficult task and could lead to a humanitarian disaster on a greater scale than before. This could be counterproductive and even cost Israel its hard won acceptance in the Arab world.

The Conduct of Operations

The Israel assault on Gaza seems to be following the  time- honoured doctrine of ‘retaliation and deterrence’ which their legendary chief Moshe Dayan laid down in 1956. “It will not be possible to stop isolated attacks into Israel, its people, or settlements. Our enemies are too many. The only answer is immediate and deadly retaliation that inflicts unacceptable damage and deters others from attempting the same again.”

It was in the spirit of retaliation that the IDF moved into Gaza on 28th October, after pounding it with air and artillery attacks for almost three weeks. The offensive – which began as a series of raids – first  went in towards Gaza City in the North, where Hamas had its headquarters and where its leadership were based. A two pronged mechanised attack from the east and north (coupled with the sea blockade) cut off Gaza City as the troops closed in.

Israel claims it follows a “knock on the door” approach – a warning before any attack. Residents of Gaza City were warned to vacate the area before the fighter jets and missiles struck. In the wake of intensive air strikes, ground troops – led by mechanised forces – isolated the town and cordoned it, while paratroopers and infantry moved into the warren of buildings, to seize cross roads, suspected hideouts and locate the entrances to tunnels. The use of tanks is itself a dubious proposition. Using heavy armour against an adversary with no tanks and few anti-tank resources created a perception of blatant aggression and disproportionate force. First Person View drones were used extensively, which entered buildings and tunnels through windows and openings  and transmitted a live  view to the handlers. Their tactics were designed to save Israeli lives, though with scant regard for Palestinian ones. So far, they have lost only around 290 officers and men, of which over a fifth have been due to accidents or friendly fire.

While Israel has managed to keep its own casualties within reasonable limits, they have not been able to fully attain their military aims. They claim to have eliminated 12-14,000 Hamas fighters, but have no way of identifying them. They have detected only around half of the 500 kilometre long warren of tunnels of the ‘Gaza Metro’, which Hamas uses to shelter its leadership, hide hostages, and move rapidly from place to place, resurfacing to fire and disappear again. Hamas’ arsenal of rockets and missiles seems to have been severely degraded, and amongst the 24 battalions it held before the war, 12 have been completely destroyed, 7 – 8 have been degraded and dispersed, and just around four still exist as a fighting force. (which Israel hopes to eliminate in Rafah) But these are mere figures. Even if Hamas is completely destroyed, its ideology will remain.

The tactics followed in Gaza City yielded little, but local destruction as the Hamas leadership and cadres in the area merely slipped away southwards towards Khan Younis. Like Gaza City,  Khan Younis was surrounded, its inhabitants told to leave, and the city pummelled to the ground. But when Israeli forces moved into the city, they found equally little. Israel paused their offensive for a week long ceasefire during November when 130 hostages were released in exchange of over 450 Palestinian prisoners. But that ceasefire did not continue and the Israelis resumed their bombardment virtually minutes after it was over. A much anticipated Eid ceasefire and Ramzan truce did not materialise. Subsequent rounds of peace talks held in Cairo held much expectations, but unfortunately, the two sides could not agree on the terms of a ceasefire. Hamas insisted on a complete and permanent cessation of hostilities, while Israel offered only a temporary ceasefire during which the hostages would be returned. That implied that Hamas would hand over their only card, and Israel would then be free to resume their offensive thereafter. The talks failed on 06 May, and the same day, Israel resumed its offensive towards Rafah with two Infantry divisions and three armoured brigades. (The Gaza Division and 162 Division along with the Givati Brigade, 401 Brigade and 7 Armoured Brigade.)

In the cramped area of Rafah – the southernmost strip of Gaza, adjoining Egypt – around 1.4 million Gazans have been pushed into after the battles of Gaza City and Khan Younis. Israeli tanks took control of the two main crossings of Rafah and Kerem Shalom. They issued the perfunctory warning for civilians to evacuate the area and began their offensive to eliminate Hamas and its leadership and attain the total victory that Netanyahu promises.

Coupled with the offensive towards Gaza, Israel also resumed actions towards Gaza City where they claimed that Hamas had regrouped after their troops left the area. This is an indicator of the nature of the operation. Irrespective of the damage caused, Hamas is still able to move from place to place and can regroup in the areas vacated by Israel troops. This will force Israel to either maintain a permanent presence or risk the return of the hydra of Hamas.

The Wider War and World Reaction

One of the things that Hamas had gambled upon, was that Israel retaliation would provoke a wider reaction within the Arab world. The war did draw reaction, but it was not as effective as hoped for.

The invasion into Gaza prompted a flurry of attacks by Hezbollah, the Houthis and  militant groups in the West Bank, Syria and Iraq. Hezbollah launched a series of missile attacks and raids into Israeli settlements along the Lebanon border, forcing the evacuation over 50,000 settlers. The West Bank saw more violence between Palestinians and Israeli security forces than ever before. And to add fuel to the fire, the Houthis from Yemen fired drones and missiles at ships transiting through the Red Sea and the Straits of Mendeb blocking the world’s most crucial oil artery.

Things reached a head when an Israeli strike on the Iranian consulate at Damascus killed seven senior Iranian Republican Guard Corps officers on 01 May, leading to a much publicised Iranian attack into Israel with missiles, rockets, and drones, just two weeks later. This was the first strike on Israel by another nation since 1973, and the first time Israel and Iran – in spite of their open hostility – have actually traded fire. Iran launched over 320 projectiles in to Israel, which were largely ineffective (perhaps by design) but forced them to fire over a hundred exorbitantly expensive Air Défense missiles to counter. The Iranian strike that did get through was at the airbase of Nevatim, which houses the F- 35 squadron which had carried out the Damascus attack. Two days later, Israel hit the city of Isfahan with a series of drones, in a largely symbolic gesture which fortuitously closed the issue and prevented a wider escalation.

Israel and US messaging has driven home the fact that Iran that it too could pay a heavy price and its proxies reduced their activities after that. A wider war has been avoided so far, but it has not stemmed adverse world reaction. Anti-Israel protest have arisen across the world, but these are largely ineffectual. The Arab nations too, have done little but provide lip-service. However, the resumption  of the Israeli offensive in to Rafah has garnered world opinion squarely against it, which will have implications in the long term.

For starters, US–Israeli relations have been strained greater than any time before. USA halted a consignment of 3500 two thousand pounder bombs to Israeli, while still releasing $1 Billion of other arms aid. Biden too has personally attacked Netanyahu’s conduct of the war. Much of what the US says and does is only for public consumption, but other nations have taken concrete steps. South Africa took Israel to the International Court of Justice for genocide and Egypt too has joined hands with it. Cracks are emerging in the 50-year-long Egypt -Israel peace as the effects of the war spill over. Turkey has halted trade with Israel. Tellingly, the United Nations General Assembly agreed to grant observer status to Palestine in a motion passed by an overwhelming majority of 138 for (Including India) and 9 against – and even the USA abstained and did not vote against the motion. And in a telling, though largely symbolic gesture, Spain, Norway and Ireland announced their recognition of the State of Palestine.

The talk of a two state solution for permanent peace is intensifying- voiced even by the USA, China, Russia, Saudi, and others. Hamas has succeeded in its aim of getting the Palestinian cause back on the table, and re-started the movement to implement the creation of the state of Palestine. This move will only intensify after the war, perhaps led by Saudi Arabia itself. Saudi will seek to cement its position as the leader of the Arab world by pressing for a Palestinian homeland in return for recognition of Israel and a proposed security pact between USA-Israel and Saudi.

The End State, if Any

Israel went into the war with the professed aim of getting the hostages back, destroying Hamas, placing a new regime in Gaza and eventually ensuring Israel’s long-term security. It does not seem to be close to attaining any of them. Of the 240 hostages, 105 were released in a prisoner swap, three were rescued, many killed in cases of mistaken identity and friendly fire. Of the 130 or so remaining only around 80 maybe still alive. The longer the war goes on, the lesser are the chances of getting them back safely

Hamas will be destroyed, but to no avail. Its ideology will remain in an angry, resentful generation that has seen the devastation of Gaza. And as far as long-term security goes, Israel is weakened and more isolated than at any time since 1967. The country is divided from within by Netanyahu’s far right policies. They will have to eliminate Hezbollah next, and then Iran,  if they are to truly ensure long-term security, following his policies. That is just not possible. Hezbollah is far too strong and if Israel opens the northern front, it will bite off far more than it can chew.

And what of Gaza when Hamas is finally eliminated?  Israel may be forced to occupy it again, as they did disastrously from 1967 to 2006. They could urge the Palestinian Authority to take over the enclave, but Mahmood Abbas has refused to “Ride into Gaza on an Israeli tank.” There could be a coalition of USA, Egypt, Saudi, UAE, Israel, and the United Nations to oversee its functioning till a long term solution is hammered out. But, any new regime that comes up in Gaza will also have to foot the bill for $300 billion worth of war damage, that will take over 80 years to reconstruct.

Israel has fought repeated wars for its survival. Yet, the only time they attained true peace and security was when they accepted a compromise. The 1978 Camp David Accord with Egypt got them fifty years of peace with its most hostile neighbour; the Oslo Accords of 1991 and 2003 got the Palestinians to accept its right to exist. Perhaps the time for another compromise has come now – irrespective of what the hardliners say. Should Israel not persist with this futile war and agree to compromise they may still be able to hammer out a fair and equitable long-term solution. That would be a greater harbinger of its security than the endless and senseless devastation.