"A COMPREHENSIVE ANALYSIS OF THE CATALYTIC FACTORS, STRATEGIC QUANDARIES & ETHICAL CONUNDRUMS INVOLVED"
On Saturday, October 7th 2023, a “symbolic & a picked up date” - a Jewish Sabbath day, marking the end of the weeklong Sukkot festival, coinciding with the 50th anniversary of the Yom Kippur War, a wave of turmoil unfolded in the Middle East.
Illustration by The Geostrata
THE STORY SO FAR
Al-Qassam Brigades (armed wing) of HAMAS (Harkat al-Muqawama al-Islamiya that translates to “Islamic Resistance Movement” -a designated Foreign terrorist organisation or FTO by several countries including the European Union) launched a meticulously coordinated offensive and incursions combining both ground (Vehicle-transported incursions) and aerial assaults (incursions via motorised hang Gliders) across multiple Israeli borders.
SUPERNOVA music festival’s people became the very first casualties of this petrifying assault, their night of celebration turned into a day of horror.
At 6:00 am, a relentless barrage of rockets rained down on coastal towns like Ashdod, Ashkelon, and even as far north as Tel Aviv, rendering the Iron Dome (renowned state-of-the-art aerial defence system of Israel) overwhelmed and significantly dwindling its interception capabilities. This military assault was codenamed “Al-Aqsa Flood” (an attack perceived to avenge Israel's high-handedness of the Al-Aqsa Mosque site).
This surprise attack collapsed the current security doctrine of Israel, which was in place for the last 20+ years culminating in an unprecedented attack on Israel's soil in decades (hyperbolically referred to as Israel’s 9\11).
It's estimated that a staggering 3-5000 rockets were fired on the very first day. In response, the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) unveiled Operation “Iron Swords” (Apparently, an operation to obliterate HAMA’s physical existence from Gaza), setting the stage for a protracted and dreaded conflict, one that has, since its inception, claimed the lives of tens of thousands of both civilians (approx 60% women & children) and combatants.
The present crisis raises haunting questions about potential war crimes and the humanitarian catastrophe which is unfolding.
BRIEF HISTORICAL BACKDROP
The longstanding history of the Israel and Palestinian conflict is the backdrop for the tensions broadly.
The Israel-Hamas conflict is deeply rooted in the Israeli-Palestinian territorial and statehood dispute, marked by the establishment of Israel in 1948 and the consequent displacement of Palestinians.
Moreover, the illegal occupation of Israeli settlers in Palestinian territories aggravated the complexity of the situation. Over time, Hamas emerged as a prominent player slowly becoming a hybrid actor-part terrorist organisation & part pseudo-state in the Gaza Strip, actively challenging Israel's presence with underlying objectives as per their Charter viz.
“Hamas Covenant” AKA “Covenant of the Islamic Resistance Movement” which directs to resist Israeli occupation, establishing an Islamic state in historic Palestine, opposing negotiations with Israel & denying Israel the right to exist.
The concurrent domestic and regional developments in the political environment set the scene for this latest phase of the conflict to emerge. As we delve into this multifaceted scenario, we must consider the role of not only the historical animosities but also the contemporary shifts in power dynamics, diplomatic relations, and regional alliances which gave the immediate impetus to this dreaded war.
The October 7 onslaught undertaken by HAMAS is undoubtedly inhumane, brutal & horrific. Slaughtering non-combatants, mass killing them, taking hostages & parading a woman naked while spitting over her amid the chants of Allah hu Akbar amidst a busy road can never be equated with a liberation movement from any argument whatsoever.
That said, what Israel has done historically to the Palestinians also remains to be answered unequivocally. Apparently, there are no clearly defined heroes in this dreaded ‘war of attrition’. Unfortunately, the war is being fought at the cost of the lives of those innocent people who were not even the party to this historical animosity.
(This piece will take up the potential Immediate (not historic) catalytic factors which led to this unprecedented surprise blitz which caught the IDF off guard & aims to analyse the strategic quandaries and ethical conundrums associated with this ongoing conflict).
CATALYTIC WAR FACTORS
"ARAB-ISRAELI RAPPROCHEMENT & IRANIAN STRATEGIC STAKES."
There had been increased efforts by the USA in the recent past to bring Israel & the Arab countries on the negotiating table to normalise their historically strained relations.
The Rapprochement effort started with the signing of the historic Abraham Accord (Israel-Bahrain-UAE peace deal) which was brokered by the Trump Administration, to the recent planned Saudi-Israel Peace Agreement brokered by the Biden Administration is perhaps seen by HAMAS as a ‘Containment strategy’ to further weaken the Palestinian cause by entering into strategic accords with major Middle east powers like Saudi Arabia, UAE & Bahrain which once stood explicitly for the Palestinian cause.
Peace agreements on similar lines had also been signed b/w Israel-Morocco and Israel-Sudan on some mutually benefiting conditions, this too brokered by the USA.
The heightened U.S. interest in West Asian affairs signifies the United States’ endeavour to restore its lost image of Superpower from a presently perceived image of “Superpower in Decline” in regards to West Asia.
The recently planned Saudi-Israeli rapprochement is also being sought by the Biden administration as a Foreign Policy Win for his government as the United States presidential elections are set to take place in 2024. The recent Saudi-Israel peace agreement is the catalyst in further weakening the diplomatic standing of the HAMAS vis-a-vis the Palestinian cause.
Along with the weakening of Hama’s diplomatic standing on the Palestinian issue due to these rapprochement accords, a major West Asian power viz. Iran which is an arch-rival of Israel also finds herself in a strategic dilemma with these rapprochement accords.
Simply put, the Abraham Accords and the planned Saudi-Israeli peace agreement would mean, in pure geostrategic terms, the creation of a ‘US-centred ring of alliances’ in the Middle East, controlling the critical Maritime choke points of the Strait of Hormuz, the Suez Canal and the Strait of Bab Al Mandab.
This will immensely increase the USA’s direct presence in these maritime choke points by virtue of the signatories (UAE, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia) of the rapprochement accords which have their exclusive economic zones (EEZs) & areas of influence in these critical choke points, putting Iran into a ‘Maritime containment’.
This US-centred ring of alliances has the strong potential to hurt the strategic stakes of Iran in the Gulf region. Furthermore, the proposed ambitious IMEEC (India-Middle East-Europe Economic Corridor) was seen as the last blow to HAMAS and other radical Palestinian groups which were fighting for the Palestinian cause.
This proposed economic corridor involves Israel's land as the transit route which further knits the Arab nations with Israel which is perhaps seen as a jolt to the Palestinian cause by HAMAS.
Given the shared interests of HAMAS and Iran in opposing these developments, it is very much possible that HAMAS at this very point in time decided to launch an unprecedented assault on Israel with the clandestine support of Iran to safeguard the duo’s diplomatic and strategic positions by derailing Israel-Saudi peace deal and sabotaging IMEEC.
The recent series of meetings between the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), Hamas, Islamic Jihad (another Palestinian radical group) and Hezbollah (another FTO) since August 2023 in Lebanon further transforms our doubts into firm conviction.
Since 2005 Israel has followed a “Mowing the Grass” grand strategy to deal with HAMAS in Gaza. Mowing the grass is a sort of Israeli strategy in which Israel considers HAMAS & other radical groups as ‘Weeds’ that need to be cut back from time to time and they do this by periodic retaliatory airstrikes and in some cases a ground campaign in response to rocket attacks carried out by these radical groups.
While it is unequivocal that Israel has an undisputed power in comparison to HAMAS but still till now it never completely obliterated HAMAS from the landscape of Gaza perhaps due to the apprehension that a more radical organisation will take up the place left by HAMAS.
So they always maintained them rather than uprooting them altogether. As an Israeli defence analyst put it, “We want to break their bones without putting them in the hospitals."
This grand strategy turned into a strategic and intelligence failure when on 7 October 2023, the so-called ‘Weeds’ undertook an unprecedented attack on Israel killing and slaughtering tens of thousands of civilians and combatants leaving the IDF to rethink its future course of action in Gaza.
Now Israel is dealing with a strategic quandary in which she has to go with an option to either completely eliminate HAMAS or continue the periodic “mowing the grass” approach and risk further such dreaded attacks. But, given the prevailing situations, the latter option doesn't seem viable.
It is apparent that the collapse of Israel's security doctrine and the number of casualties and abductees means Israel has got the strategic clarity & transitioned to a decisive decision to end the organisation's physical existence in Gaza. What remains to be seen is how Israel tactically carries out the ground campaigns alongside confronting ‘lawfare’ to achieve this decision.
The imminent ground campaign will also expose the IDF to a relatively new dimension of battlespace- ‘The Subterranean or Tunnel warfare’. HAMAS has built an extensive network of underground tunnels in Gaza, which it uses for various purposes, such as smuggling goods and weapons, storing supplies, and rockets, hiding fighters and hostages, and launching attacks on Israel.
As mentioned earlier, Gaza is a complex urban terrain and undertaking a ground offensive in such a dense area amid uncertainties of guerrilla warfare lands IDF in another strategic quandary that is a massive toll on both blood and treasure.
Back in 2014, Israel engaged in a 50-day-long ground war with Gaza, causing widespread destruction and tragically claiming the lives of over 70 Israelis and 2,000 Palestinians with a colossal $443 million economic loss.
Astonishingly, the current Gaza conflict has already surpassed those grim numbers in just a few days and the ground incursion has yet to begin. Here too given the prevailing situation, Israel in no way looks reluctant to carry out a massive ground incursion given the fact that this time Israel is getting substantial, economic and military aid from her Western allies to extirpate HAMAS.
Since the start of this war, the world seems to be divided into two camps, one defending Israel‘s action as her ‘right to self-defence’ and the other blaming Israel of disproportionate retaliatory atrocities & collective punishment which amounts to a war crime.
Undoubtedly, Israel has an inherent right to individual or collective self-defence in the event of an armed attack (Art.51 UN Charter) and accordingly her initial retaliation to the horrific attack of 7th October is also legit but alongside the right to self-defence, there is also a ‘Principle of and Proportionality & Necessity’ in the international customary law.
Simply put, the retaliatory actions of the state should be undertaken only if they are necessary and proportional to the security threat that they are facing. And if we apply these principles of necessity and proportionality to the present conflict, we can undoubtedly conclude that Israel has breached both these principles.
The principle of Proportionality was breached when Israel indiscriminately bombarded the besieged conclave with a staggering 6,000 bombs weighing 4,000 tons in the first six days of the war resulting in massive collateral damage. This is more than what the USA used in Afghanistan in an entire year.
Further, Israel ordered the complete siege of the Gaza Strip which houses 2 million people. Just to eliminate HAMAS with an approximate military strength of 40 thousand personnel (2% of the entire Gaza population) Israel besieged the entire conclave depriving millions of people of essential medical, food and water supplies, forcing them to starve. This is an apparent breach of both the principle of proportionality and necessity.
Israel now faces a complex ethical dilemma. While Article 51 of the UN Charter grants Israel the right to self-defence, its actions have raised significant concerns about adherence to the principles of proportionality and necessity within international customary law.
The extensive use of force, encompassing widespread bombardments and complete blockades, has resulted in substantial collateral damage and humanitarian crises. These actions bring into question whether Israel’s conduct aligns with the vital ethical principles of proportionality and necessity, which are fundamental in upholding ethical standards during armed conflicts.
THE WAY FORWARD
Achieving lasting peace in the region necessitates the denouncement of radical groups like HAMAS against Israel's right to exist, which in the current geopolitical landscape may not be feasible, making it imperative for these groups to shift their focus towards a two-state solution.
Additionally, strict adherence to United Nations Security Council Resolution 2334, which aims to remove illegal Israeli settlements in the West Bank is crucial. Lastly, India, with its positive relationships with both the Arab world and Israel, should play a mediating role, leveraging its soft power and diplomatic outreach for effective dispute resolution in the Israel-Hamas conflict. Eventually, any international endeavour that disregards these factual realities is ultimately an exercise in futility.
BY RAHUL KHULLAR