The Guardian / October 7, 2023
Incursion shocks international observers, particularly among governments of the Middle East.
International leaders condemned an unprecedented incursion by Palestinian militants into southern Israel, while governments across the Middle East called for restraint after an attack that shook the Israeli security establishment.
“This attack is having a horrific impact on Israeli civilians,” the UN high commissioner for human rights, Volker Türk, said in a statement, calling on Israel to avoid civilian casualties in its response.
“Civilians must never be the target of attack,” he said.
Israel responded by attacking the Gaza Strip, leaving at least 198 people dead and almost 2,000 wounded, according to the health ministry.
Stéphane Dujarric, the spokesperson for the UN secretary general, said António Guterres was “deeply concerned for the civilian population and urges maximum restraint”.
Guterres called for diplomatic efforts to avoid a spiraling conflict and the return of Israeli civilians abducted to the Gaza Strip. “Civilians must be respected and protected in accordance with international humanitarian law at all times,” he said.
The US defence secretary, Lloyd Austin, said his organization would send support to Israel.
“Over the coming days the Department of Defense will work to ensure that Israel has what it needs to defend itself and protect civilians from indiscriminate violence and terrorism,” he said.
The French president, Emmanuel Macron, offered his condolences to the victims, while his German counterpart Chancellor Olaf Scholz described the “terrifying news,” of the attack. “Germany condemns these attacks by Hamas and stands by Israel,” he said.
The British foreign minister, James Cleverly, condemned the incursion, adding that “the UK will always support Israel’s right to defend itself”.
Egyptian officials said they were scrambling to contain the crisis diplomatically, including regular consultations with the Jordanian foreign minister, Ayman al-Safadi, in an effort to find ways to de-escalate the situation. Egypt’s foreign minister, Sameh Shoukry, held phone consultations with his German, Spanish and French counterparts as well as speaking to Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov.
“Egypt called for exercising the utmost restraint and avoiding exposing civilians to further risks, warning of serious repercussions as a result of the escalation of violence, which would negatively affect the future of truce efforts,” the foreign ministry said.
The incursion shocked international observers, particularly among the governments of the Middle East, upending expectations that Israel could continue to push for peace negotiations with former foes across the region despite increasing violence on the ground.
The reactions from leaders across the Arab world also underscored the deep divide between governments and the views of their civilians regarding relations with Israel. Abdulkhaleq Abdulla, a leading UAE academic, described his support for the incursion on social media, calling the militants “heroes”.
In Cairo, where Egyptian officials have clamped down on all forms of protest including those in support of Palestinian rights, the human rights activist Hossam Baghat posted to X, formerly known as Twitter, stating: “You cannot support freedom fighters in Ukraine as they resist Russian occupation but not in Palestine.”
Russia’s deputy foreign minister, Mikhail Bogdanov, said Moscow was in contact with Israeli and Palestinian officials as well as countries across the region, according to the Interfax news agency.
“It goes without saying that we always call for restraint,” he said.
Egypt, which has long mediated ceasefire efforts between militant factions in Gaza and Israel, stepped up talks with allies across the region. Hopes that Cairo could find a swift solution to the fighting appeared faint, despite Egyptian efforts to end three days of fighting between Israel and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad faction last year, which left at least 49 people dead after Israeli airstrikes on the Gaza Strip.
The Egyptian foreign minister, Sameh Shoukry, said he was working to contain the crisis in order to “spare the region from further tension and instability and prevent the situation from spiraling out of control”.
The Lebanese militant faction Hezbollah applauded the incursion. Despite a recent, if sporadic, increase in rocket fire from Lebanon into northern Israel including in April and again in July, the group tamped down on concerns that it could seek to join in the fighting.
Speaking via the Hezbollah-linked news outlet Al-Manar, it said it was “closely keeping pace with the important developments on the Palestinian scene and following conditions in the field with great interest”.
It also warned international actors seeking to normalize relations with Israel, a likely reference to Saudi Arabia, after senior advisers to US president Joe Biden reportedly visited Saudi Arabia last week for talks that included a potential peace deal between Riyadh and Israel.
The United Nations Interim Force In Lebanon, the peacekeeping force on the Israel-Lebanon border, said it had “adapted and enhanced our presence throughout our area of operations, including counter rocket-launching operations”.
“Our leadership has been in constant contact with the parties since the events began to ensure effective coordination and avoid misunderstandings,” they added.
Officials in Riyadh reacted by calling for “an immediate halt to the escalation between the two sides,” calling the developments unprecedented.
The Turkish president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, called for restraint from all parties, a sentiment echoed by Qatar, which has long provided financial support to the besieged Gaza Strip and blamed Israel for the increase in violence.
Turkey’s foreign ministry later said it was ready to take on negotiations to de-escalate tensions. Hakan Fidan spoke with his Egyptian counterpart Shoukry, discussing “ways to coordinate regional efforts to reduce the escalation”.
The UAE, which signed a deal to normalize diplomatic relations with Israel two years ago, also issued a statement describing “deep concern about the escalation of violence,” and calling for “maximum restraint and an immediate ceasefire to avoid dangerous repercussions”.
The UAE also called on international powers to revive negotiations through the Middle East quartet, a supranational mediation body comprising the the UN, the EU, the US and Russia.
Ruth Michaelson is a journalist based in Istanbul