Syed Ata Hasnain | Israel-Hamas war might be transformative for Mideast

A war of such intensity, the employment of unbridled violence and the sheer brutality of the ongoing war between the Palestinian organisation Hamas and the State of Israel appears to be a new normal in the violent landscape of West Asia. One is reminded of the time when Yasser Arafat led the PLO and the militant methods then used to make statements of relevance. They pale before what has happened in the past few days on the Israel-Gaza border and is threatening to probably happen at the other borders of Israel too. In four conventional wars fought by the Israeli Defence Forces (IDF) with various Arab armies, we have never witnessed anything even remotely a patch on the intensity of brutality that the Hamas terrorists converted to tactical fighters launched against Israeli civilians and the citizens of several other countries. The conflict between Israel and Hamas is now several decades old, with frequent flashes of hostilities which did not end in anything decisive. However, this time the initiative by Hamas seems to be of a different order, a very negative transformation of the 75-year-old conflict.

A very brief look at the nature of operations by Hamas appears to suggest a clearer strategy but without anything near achieving a military victory. What comprises this strategy is the employment of unbridled violence without any qualms about the nature of the target. This is exactly the strategy employed by the Islamic State (ISIS) a decade ago when it attempted the capture of northern Iraq and Syria and resisted at Mosul and other large built-up areas through the employment of conventional means. The violation of all human rights is being blatantly advertised on the social media to create a fear psychosis among Israeli citizens. No doubt there will be many claims by Hamas of similar treatment by the IDF of Palestinian citizens, as a counter to the moral weapon used against the Palestinians.

Israel’s very existence has focused on its legendary and extremely sharp readiness to prevent any Arab-initiated offensive. Its intelligence services such as Mossad, Aman and Shin Bet are known to have developed such expertise that every intent of an adversary is well known and many lessons of the past are used as case studies to predict innovative methods that could be used. While the reputations of all these entities is enviable, it is forgotten that on almost the same day 50 years ago Israel was embarrassingly surprised by the Egyptian Army through one of the most intricately spun deception plans. On October 6, 1973, even by day the Egyptians could cross the Suez Canal and defeat the defensive system of the Bar Lev Line. This time Israeli commentators are blaming the hubris of the IDF and of the political leadership; the belief that Hamas or any other Arab or Palestinian organisations were under such intense watch that they could never muster tactical forces against the IDF. What Israeli intelligence did not perhaps cater for was the long-known fact that Hamas has no remorse about targeting civilians, or the aged, and women and children. This time they designed their operations around these targets and a few IDF installations closer to the Gaza border. The breaching of the fences and walls, and the use of tunnels and passages to induct the terrorists into Israel, was obviously planned and rehearsed. How this could have escaped the intelligence agencies is anybody’s guess. Perhaps Israel has diluted its human intelligence sources which were usually the most effective and reliable, in favour of electronic intelligence, in which there are greater chances of deception. Being small and intensely vulnerable to infiltration of adversary elements to cause harm, Israel has relied on physical obstacles such as walls and barbed wire fences. These have been converted into systems through the use of electronic surveillance and alarm systems. The Indian Army adopted similar systems for the Line of Control, but the difference has been the number of human resources employed to reinforce these systems. It seems that Hamas elements involved in the employment of para-gliders, bulldozers and other heavy equipment to breach and cross the obstacles could do all this with impunity. Even if early warnings were available, there were too few resources to respond. The Hamas hit squads could approach the obstacles at will and the proximity of the built-up areas close to the obstacles offered suitable targets. Being a small country with limited real estate, Israel can hardly be expected to leave tracts of territory without populating it.

The speed and brutality employed by Hamas was reminiscent of “shock and awe” at the tactical level. Hamas also seems to have exploited the Israeli perception that the mass use of rockets and missiles would be avoided by Hamas planners for fear of severe retribution. What Israel did not cater for is Hamas resorting to hostage-taking, being fully aware of the propensity of Israel to hold back the intensity of operations until the hostages are returned. Hamas’ readiness to accept the consequences is almost akin to the psyche of suicide bombers.

To say that Israel was unaware of the magnitude of munitions held by both Hamas and Hezbollah would be a fallacy. As early as 2017, the Israeli assessment was that 130,000 such pieces existed and could be brought to bear against Israel. Senior Israeli leaders did express their concern at that time but had no solutions except for the deterrence caused by the promise of heavy retribution. Hamas has employed almost 5,000 of these rockets and missiles without much interception by Israel’s famed Iron Dome anti-missile systems. There also does not seem to be any coordinated attempt by Hezbollah to assist Hamas, although some activities have been reported from the border in the north. A coordinated assault would have spelt an existential threat and brought more nations into the war, with possible Israeli reprisals without consideration for the consequences.

Both Hamas and Israel have limitations in further moves on the ground which can expand the scope of violence. Hamas is limited by the complete blockade involving the cutting of supplies, water, power and medicines. Israel has the severe limitation of lives of many of its citizens under threat; those taken hostage. Yet, both sides also have leaderships which have a propensity to care little for the consequences. We are thus perhaps just seeing the beginnings of brutality and human suffering in this intractable conflict, which could drag longer than any such event in the past.

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