On 7th October 2023, Hamas launched a devastating attack on Israel, counting approximately 1,400 Israeli civilians amongst the victims. Israel was unprepared, and the success of the attack challenged the notion that intelligence agencies – especially Israeli intelligence – could easily manage terrorism.
In response, Israel has launched air raids and a ground operation in Gaza, with the government noting that it is geared up for a prolonged conflict on multiple fronts.
In November, a four-day ceasefire mediated by Qatar offered a brief respite. Extended for seven days through hostage and prisoner releases, it ended on December 1, when Hamas resumed rocket attacks from Gaza. Israel responded by expanding its operation to target not just northern but also southern Gaza.
The fighting in Gaza has sparked global condemnation on a humanitarian level, with Israel being increasingly seen as losing the battle for global public opinion. Protests are being organised around the world, many supporting Palestine, and most calling for a general cessation of hostilities. A surge in antisemitism has been observed in many countries, while conspiracy theories have surfaced, including about the Israel Defence Forces’ (IDF) alleged involvement in the massacre.
Nation-states have demonstrated different stances, many calling for a ceasefire. All sides, except perhaps Hamas, appear to prefer the conflict not to escalate into a wider regional war, with Iran appearing to be cautioning Hezbollah. On the other hand, some countries are pursuing their own goals. Russia, for example, is attempting to use the situation to its advantage, proposing to act as a mediator and expecting the conflict to divert attention from Ukraine.
How and when exactly the situation will end is currently unclear, though Israel has vowed to completely eradicate Hamas.
Hamas’ motivations and Israel’s intelligence gaps
The reason for the large-scale attack by Hamas was likely triggered by the course of normalisation of Israeli-Arab relations. Historically, support for Hamas and its ability to recruit new members has always decreased with breakthroughs in the relations with Israel and, conversely, worsening conflict has increased its support. This is evident in a recent poll by the Arab World for Research and Development (AWRAD), which found that an overwhelming majority of Palestinians, both in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank, expressed their support for the Hamas attack.
There is no information to indicate that anyone outside a very narrow circle of Hamas leaders in Gaza knew about the planned attack, which would explain why Israel was taken by surprise. This speaks of extraordinary levels of operational security by the planners of the attack, with prior indications suggesting that Hamas is primarily interested in economics and governance.
Reports have since emerged about Israel’s intelligence apparatus ignoring the indicators of an imminent attack observed by the IDF’s monitoring staff and not sharing information with their political leadership before gathering additional information. On the other hand, the leadership of Hamas itself may have been surprised by the success of their attack, likely having prepared for unsuccessful scenarios.
Limited involvement from Hezbollah, Houthis and Iran
Hamas was also likely hoping that the attack and Israel’s inevitable response would force Hezbollah – widely believed to be much stronger and better-supplied than Hamas – to join the fight from Lebanon, forcing Israel to fight on multiple fronts. However, there are reports that Hamas’ attack took Hezbollah by surprise as well, forcing it to consider complicated choices in confronting Israel’s superior firepower. To date, Hezbollah has been exchanging fire with Israeli forces across the border, avoiding any more serious involvement. The attacks will likely be contained to a narrow strip of territory at the border, to avoid any escalation into a war between Israel and Lebanon.
Iran has reportedly been cautioning Hezbollah and announced it would not intervene in the war directly. The Iranian government will likely continue to support Hamas politically and morally, without becoming engaged in a direct conflict with Israel, unless it is attacked itself. Yemen’s Houthis, also backed by Iran, has launched missiles at Israel that were intercepted by a US destroyer in the Red Sea, and has warned that it will target all ships it regards as connected with Israel in the Red Sea until the cessation of hostile activities.
Political opinion elsewhere in the Middle East
Like other countries, Saudi Arabia was also taken by surprise by the Hamas attack. Its immediate response was to blame the attack on ‘the continued occupation’ and ‘the deprivation of the Palestinian people of their legitimate rights’. The war in Gaza presents a challenge for Saudi Arabia, a country that needs to navigate between the public opinion of the Arab and Muslim countries, as well as influential Western countries. At the joint summit of the Arab League and the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman condemned Israel’s military operation in Gaza, denounced the targeting of all civilians and called for the release of hostages. Though a number of countries, including Iran, Algeria and Lebanon, asked for an embargo on oil exports to Israel, this was rejected by Saudi Arabia. The summit’s resolution did, however, call for a stop on arms sales to Israel.
The Turkish President, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, has sternly criticised Israel’s operation in Gaza, labelling Israel as a ‘terror state’ and accusing it of war crimes and violating international law. Erdogan has described Hamas as freedom fighters defending their people and land – contrary to the designation of Hamas as a terrorist organisation by Israel, the US and the EU – and justified his stance by referring to Hamas as a political party that has won past elections. Erdogan stated Turkey’s intention to prosecute Israeli officials in international courts for their actions in Gaza and pledged to continue isolating Israel on an international scale while increasing Turkey’s humanitarian support to Palestine.
Cautious involvement from the US
Similar to the fears put forward by Middle Eastern countries, the United States appears to wish to avoid a scenario in which Israel becomes entangled in Gaza and wishes also to prevent the war from spiralling beyond Gaza. The country has called on Israel to be ‘extremely careful’ in conducting its operation and has reportedly advised to show the ground offensive in Gaza as a rescue operation for the hostages, rather than an attempt to extinguish Hamas.
The US is likely building on its own experience of its war on terror, which demonstrated that eradicating a terrorist group only leads to a new generation of ‘insurgents’. From a military standpoint, the US has so far limited its role to ensuring military aid to Israel, with two aircraft carriers moved to the eastern Mediterranean. This is also likely intended as a warning to Iran, following the increase in drone and rocket attacks at US forces in Iraq and Syria since the start of Israel’s Gaza operation.
Russia playing the conflict to its own advantage
The conflict has undoubtedly benefitted Russia as it seeks to divert attention from its invasion of Ukraine. Russia has increased its diplomatic efforts, with Putin declaring the Israel-Hamas war ‘a clear example of the failure of United States policy in the Middle East.’ On 6th December 2023, Russia’s president, Vladimir Putin, made a rare visit abroad since the start of the Russian invasion of Ukraine as he flew to the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia. Both visits focused on cooperation in the framework of OPEC+. Additionally, Putin met Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi in Moscow a day later.
Russia has engaged in a ‘strategic partnership’ with Iran, with Russia’s foreign minister Lavrov also having visited the country. This indicates that Russia may be willing to risk its relatively good relations with Israel. The reasons might not seem immediately clear, but Iran has virtually become a military ally of Russia – it is currently the main supplier of so-called ‘suicide drones’ to Russia, offering advice on drone warfare, while Iranian engineers are helping to set up a production of drones in Russia. There are also reports about Javelin anti-tank missiles captured by Russia in Ukraine having been passed on to Iran, who in turn has forwarded them to Hezbollah. At the same time, Russia appears to be circulating fake news about Ukrainian weapons sales to Hamas.
Divided opinion in Asia
Russia is not the only country seeking to play a role in the Middle East, with China making efforts to demonstrate its global power. Shortly after the Hamas attack, China’s foreign ministry issued routine statements calling for an end to violence, infuriating Israel by failing to condemn the attack and the brutality of Hamas.
China’s strategy in the Middle East often follows the pattern of cautious initial stance, calls for peace, condemning violence against civilians and primarily focusing on Palestinian grievances. Though China initially termed Israel’s actions as ‘beyond the scope of self-defence’, it has since stated that Israel had a right to self-defence against Hamas, while stressing that the country should abide by international humanitarian law and protect civilians.
China’s economic ties with oil-producing countries in the Middle East likely influence it to take a more pro-Palestine stance. However, over the past years, China and Israel have also been deepening economic ties and technological cooperation, with China now Israel’s third biggest trading partner after the EU and the US. China has also been massively investing in Israel, including via its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), despite Israel not formally joining the initiative – which creates complicated choices for China.
During a high-level meeting of Indian and US officials in New Delhi in late November, India was unambiguous in condemning Hamas’ attack and emphasising Israel’s right to self-defence, while also calling for humanitarian pauses and observing the international laws of war, demanding the release of hostages held by Hamas and pressing for durable peace in Palestine.
Both Indian and US officials affirmed that they ‘stand with Israel against terrorism’, underlining how close the positions of the two countries have come in the Middle East. The main reason for this has been the rising dominance of China. China has been seeking to replace the US as the dominant country in Asia, presenting challenges to India. China has in recent years been steadily increasing its naval presence in the Indian Ocean and working to establish ‘special relationships’ with India’s South Asian neighbours.
Rising tensions and the road ahead
Ismail Haniyeh, the leader of the ‘political wing’ of Hamas, has speculated that the war will spread to Jerusalem and the West Bank, with Hamas having called for ‘global intifada’. At the same time, Israel’s Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, has declared that ‘the war has only one goal: to win’.
Israeli sources have said that, while the country does not seek to spread the conflict, it is prepared to fight on new fronts if it needs to protect itself. The most immediate threat is currently seen as coming from Hezbollah in Lebanon.
Iran likely plans to continue to use its allies in the region to launch rocket and drone attacks on Israeli and US targets across the Middle East, without becoming engaged in a direct conflict with Israel. This is intended as a means of ‘deterrence’ against Israel and the US, but also to show solidarity for Hamas without becoming engaged in a direct conflict with Israel that could draw in the US.
Saudi Arabia likely wants to play a more decisive role as a regional power, possibly by pressuring Israel to negotiate peace with the Palestinians that would see the establishment of a two-state solution. In the longer term, Saudi Arabia likely views Hamas and Iran as agents of instability that must be contained.
The US will likely get involved to a certain extent, at least after the war ends with Hamas having been defeated, to create an administration in Gaza that is capable of reconstruction. It is widely believed that only the US can persuade Israel that the only way of achieving security is to arrive at a solution of peace.
Russia appears to be using the conflict in an attempt to influence other nations, such as Iran and North Korea, to join its quest to redraw the world’s political order. Putin maintains that Russia is engaged in an existential battle with the West and has been working to find allies across the Middle East, Africa, Latin America and Asia. Whether or not this will be successful remains to be seen.
China has been making efforts to increase its influence in the Middle East, building on its usual two pillars of investing and buying raw materials. The country is heavily dependent on oil imports and has been using its Belt and Road Initiative to build its influence in the Middle East, including Israel. However, China’s position after Hamas’ attack appears to have had negative effect on its relations with Israel.
India has been continuing to expand its independent bilateral partnerships with key countries in the region, with the aim of elevating its own standing and expanding its role in the Middle East.
To learn more about this and other top stories, trending events and conflicts on the ground that could impact your security, book a demo with Silobreaker today.