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While the details are still emerging, the Hamas attacks from the Gaza Strip on Saturday were well planned and coordinated and involved land offensive, Para dropping and naval offensive. These were accompanied by rocket attacks into Israeli towns and villages closer to the Gaza Strip. As the final numbers are being counted, reports indicate that at least 300 Israelis were killed, a sizeable portion of them being civilians, especially women and children. Some reports put the number of Israelis kidnapped and taken to the Gaza Strip at over 50, and most appear to be civilians and hence cannot be described as prisoners of war. In several cases, there were house-to-house attacks by militants, something Israel had not witnessed since 1948. Some border areas witnessed close-range battles between Israelis and militant forces who could not return to the Gaza Strip.

In military terms, it was a well-orchestrated offensive against Israel, resulting in the largest single-day casualty Israel had faced since the founding of the state. Parallels have been drawn between this and the Arab surprise of Israel on the Yom Kippur day of 6 October 1973. This time, the surprise was accompanied by heavy Israeli human casualties and uncertainties over hostage-taking. While the intelligence capabilities of Israel are unparalleled and well-acclaimed globally, they are not fool proof. As the title of historian Uri Bar-Joseph’s book aptly put it: The Watchman Fell Asleep: The Surprise of Yom Kippur and its Sources. Intelligence is human and hence imperfect.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi is among the first world leaders to express unequivocal support for Israel, and he tweeted: “Deeply shocked by the news of terrorist attacks in Israel. Our thoughts and prayers are with the innocent victims and their families. We stand in solidarity with Israel at this difficult hour.” Though he did not directly mention Hamas, the implications are clear. Led by President Joe Biden, several Western leaders are quick to rally behind Netanyahu and express their support for Israel’s right to self-defence against attacks on the civilian population.

There were also contrary voices. Qatar, which provides political, financial or logistical support to various radical Islamist movements, including Hamas, quickly blamed Israel for the current wave of violence. Within hours of the start of the conflict, its Foreign Ministry declared that Israel is “solely responsible for the ongoing escalation due to its continuous violations of the rights of the Palestinian people, including the recent repeated incursions into the Al-Aqsa Mosque under the protection of the Israeli police.” Similarly, hailing the militant movement, a senior Iranian official depicted the attack a “turning point in the ongoing process of armed resistance by the Palestinian people.”

However, mainstream Arab states, especially Saudi Arabia, which is moving closer to Israel, called for an “immediate halt to the escalation of conflict between Palestinians and Israel.” Though Riyadh blamed ‘Israeli occupation forces, the erstwhile unequivocal condemnation of Israel is missing. Periodically facing the wrath of Iran-backed Houthi rockets from Yemen, the al-Sauds can’t be seen as lenient towards the Israeli civilian population becoming hostage to militant attacks from the Gaza Strip.

Like many other militant groups in the wider Middle East, Hamas is not known to be gender friendly. In the past, even male victims of kidnapping had traumatized ordeals under captivity. Will Hamas fairly treat its female Israeli captives?

Cynics see the Hamas onslaught as an opportunity for Netanyahu to get closer to Joe Biden, who met the Israeli Prime Minister on the side lines of the UN General Assembly last month, nearly two years after entering the White House. Some Western leaders who were not eager to engage with Netanyahu over the peace process and ongoing protests over his reform agenda were quick to rally around him. Terror attacks temporarily side lined larger differences between Netanyahu and Israel’s Western allies.

Given the magnitude of the Hamas attack, Israel will respond swiftly, decisively, and probably massively. The Gaza Strip is 365 square kilometres and is home to over two million Palestinians. Embedding themselves closely with the civilian population has been the modus operandi of Hamas, both to hide from Israeli retaliation and to increase its population support. Israeli ground offensive is inevitable, and the government has ordered full mobilization of the reservists. And we are in for a long haul.

Note:  This article was originally published in Financial Express on 8 October 2023 and has been reproduced with the permission of the author. Web Link

As part of its editorial policy, the MEI@ND standardizes spelling and date formats to make the text uniformly accessible and stylistically consistent. The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views/positions of the MEI@ND. Editor, MEI@ND: P R Kumaraswamy