Lubna Masarwa & Heba Nasser
Middle East Eye / October 7, 2023
‘It is the end of the doctrine of conducting the Israeli war in enemy territory’.
The Israeli-Palestinian conflict may have been completely reshaped and taken into a new phase, analysts believe, following the massive Palestinian attack on Saturday that has left Israel in a state of total shock.
“This is an unprecedented strategic attack, the end of which is difficult to ascertain because of the unusual nature of the escalation,” Ameer Makhoul, a Palestinian analyst, told Middle East Eye.
“Even if the Palestinian attack ends, its impact will be long-term and strategic, and will change the rules of the game.”
In the early hours of Saturday, scores of Palestinian fighters crossed from the besieged Gaza Strip into Israel by land, sea, and air, seizing control of towns and kibbutzim with shocking ease.
As thousands of rockets rained down on Israel, Hamas announced its operation, calling on all Palestinian factions and their allies to rise up.
By evening, pitched battles were still raging, while Israeli authorities acknowledged that several areas remained under Palestinian control. Hamas said it had kidnapped dozens of Israelis, including soldiers and civilians, an assertion that seems to be backed by video footage circulating on social media.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu declared a state of war. Soon after, Israeli air strikes began to pound the Gaza Strip. At least 250 people have been killed on each side at time of writing.
In Israel and beyond, comparisons quickly began to be made with the 1973 Middle East war, which Egypt launched almost 50 years ago with a surprise attack.
“There is a state of intelligence, military, and political confusion in Israel,” Makhoul said. “It is the end of the doctrine of conducting the Israeli war in enemy territory.”
What will Israel do ?
Hani Masri, a Palestinian analyst, said the current situation was a result of the “tragic” economic situation in the besieged Gaza Strip; Israel’s repeated attacks in the occupied West Bank, on holy sites and against Palestinian citizens of Israel; and its oppressive policy against prisoners, as well as the increasing possibility of a Saudi Arabia-Israel normalization deal.
Masri also said that Israel might use the current situation to draw attention from its own internal crisis, sparked by the Netanyahu government’s controversial judicial reform plans, which have split the country and sparked massive protests.
But while the assault will undoubtedly change the rules of the conflict between Israel and Palestinian groups, Masri said, it remains to be seen to what degree.
In one scenario, Israel might make a move to send soldiers to the Gaza Strip, effectively changing the status quo that has been in place since it withdrew its forces from the coastal enclave in 2005.
“Israel might also try to exact a heavy price from Palestinians and resistance factions, especially the Hamas movement, by assassinating major political and military leaders,” Masri said.
Further escalations might also prompt the opening of new fronts, especially on the northern border with Lebanon.
But, Masri added, it might be more difficult for Israel to change its rules of engagement with Palestinian armed groups, which it has sought to contain rather than engage in an existential conflict if groups such as Hamas hold Israeli prisoners.
Masri said Arab and international efforts may succeed in de-escalating both the situation and the severity of Israel’s retaliation. As a result, Israel may opt for a strong but calculated response without completely overturning its strategy of containment.
“In a third scenario, meanwhile, Israel would try to restore its collapsed deterrence power without pushing matters to the point of no return.”
Masri believed several factors may make Israel push for de-escalation, including a lack of appetite in the West for another major conflict while the war in Ukraine continues; and the violence coming as the Biden administration is making intense diplomatic efforts to broker a Saudi Arabia-Israel normalization deal.
While it is too soon to envisage how the situation will unfold in the short and long term, Masri said, “what comes after 7 October will be different than what had come before it”.
‘How could this happen?’
Many in Israel are still trying to piece together what happened on Saturday – and how – after the country’s usually formidable means of deterrence and defence appeared to fail.
Israeli journalist Meron Rapoport told MEE that it was the first time since 1948 that something like this had happened and that it was worse than the Middle East war of 1973.
“It is tough to comprehend. I can’t understand how something like this could happen,” he said. “Nobody believes that this has happened. It looked like there was no army there.”
“How do people without sophisticated weapons – they have Kalashnikovs and ride around on pickup trucks, without helmets or vests – how do they get through the fence that is supposed to be secured by the fourth or fifth most powerful army in the world?”
Rapoport believed that the breach into Israel, which he described as “unimaginable”, was a blow to its deterrence strategy and “a complete collapse of Israeli training”.
Israel’s confidence in its camera and drone surveillance, he said, has proved misplaced. Additionally, Israel has complete control over Gaza’s communication networks, which ought to have allowed Israel to know that an attack was imminent – and prevent it.
This, Rapoport said, reveals both a military and intelligence failure that will take Israel “a long time to recover from, in terms of its self-confidence.”
Rapoport noted that the Israeli army’s intelligence unit, known as Unit 8200, is able to know the most intimate details of Palestinians’ lives, yet was unable to learn that a few hundred fighters were going to stage a complicated and wide-ranging assault.
He anticipated that Israel’s response would be brutal for Palestinians over the coming weeks.
“Israel will want to take revenge and to kill as many Palestinians as possible. That’s what we will see in the next two weeks,” he said.
“But then Israel will have to decide whether to send the army into Gaza and how that will affect the West Bank.”
Lubna Masarwa is a journalist and Middle East Eye’s Palestine and Israel bureau chief, based in Jerusalem
Heba Nasser is a news editor at Middle East Eye