Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has warned of a “long and difficult war”. After the shock of the incursion into Israel on Saturday by Hamas fighters from the Gaza Strip, Israel’s main objective, Netanyahu said, was to “see to it that it does not happen again”.
The first retaliation was swift, the destruction from Israeli missiles clouding the sky over Gaza. For Netanyahu to see his objective through in the weeks ahead, the far more complicated challenge is to uncover how Hamas was able to plan and execute such a brazen attack without being detected. To blame a failure by Israel’s intelligence agencies is one thing – the capability displayed by Hamas must also be acknowledged.
Hamas will have anticipated fierce reprisals. Seizing hostages appears a tactic to complicate the Israeli response. The number of people held is so far undetermined but reported to be as many as 100. The five-year ordeal of captured Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, held from 2006–11, shows how such a nightmare can drag on.
Was the Hamas objective to stymie talk of Saudi Arabia normalising relations with Israel in discussions supported by the United States? Potentially. It certainly won’t help diplomacy. But the bigger picture is that Hamas sees violent resistance itself as the objective. That it was able to strike Israel in this manner will already be counted by its supporters as a victory.
So, for Netanyahu, seeing Hamas destroyed entirely seems to be the aim.
Talk of Iranian direction for these attacks has so far come without much evidence. Hezbollah, the Iranian-backed Shiite militants in Lebanon, reportedly shelled Israeli positions in the disputed Golan Heights region but this appears more an opportunistic reaction to the Hamas attack rather than a broader escalation. While for Palestinians in the West Bank the settlements question dominates.
The prospect that fighting in Gaza would spark a regional conflagration is always a danger. But the way such conflicts have been contained previously suggests the risk is well understood. The US Navy deploying a carrier strike group to the eastern Mediterranean is intended to signal against wider escalation.
One certainty: this fighting won’t see any advance in finally settling the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Instead, the latest outbreak is quickly being incorporated by other nations to advance their own goals. One report has warned “the Kremlin is already and will likely continue to exploit the Hamas attacks in Israel to advance several information operations intended to reduce US and Western support and attention to Ukraine”. But there isn’t any sign yet of China making good on its idea to lead a regional mediation, even as news emerges that one of the women abducted on Saturday was born in China and had a Chinese parent.