Israel-Gaza war: What has a month of bloodshed wrought?

Hamas killings on October 7 unleashed violence that has reshaped Middle East peace and security

Debris of buildings destroyed by Israeli air strikes in the Jabalia refugee camp. AP
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A month after the Israel-Gaza war began, the death toll has surpassed all of Israel’s previous conflicts with Hamas since the Palestinian group took control of Gaza in 2007.

Days before the Hamas atrocities on October 7, US National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan suggested the Middle East region had reached a “quieter” era.

Saudi Arabia had indicated the possibility of establishing diplomatic ties with Israel, along the lines of the Abraham Accords that have created an atmosphere of peaceful co-operation with some Arab countries.

As the Palestinian death toll passed 10,000 on Monday, a month into the war, the Middle East, and indeed the world, has become a much-changed place, with the conflict’s impact on global events as significant as Russia’s invasion of Ukraine last year.

But in Israel the threat of contagion is arguably far higher, with US aircraft carriers on station, amid Iran-sponsored Hezbollah attacks and rumbling of discontent across the region over the treatment of Palestinians.

Charlotte Leslie, director of the Conservative Middle East Council, said Hamas’s actions had also severely affected the relationship between the Middle East region and the West.

“People in the Arab world are very angry as they see the West upholding international rule of law very partially, without consistency,” she said.

Hamas's achievement

That stirring resentment is precisely what Hamas commanders were aiming for when, at 6.30am on October 7, they unleashed their fighters on Israeli settlements.

The ensuing atrocities have been well-documented, from the slaughter of entire families including children to the overrunning of Israeli outposts and the capture of about 240 hostages.

The 3,000 extremists sent into Israel were clearly well-trained and disciplined, and Hamas displayed a high level of military skill in using drones to knock out border surveillance and paragliders for an airborne assault along with motorbikes, speedboats and bulldozers.

The Israelis were taken by complete surprise and it was a difficult battle beating back Hamas, with 335 of its own soldiers killed.

Hamas had demonstrated it was a capable military force, said Sam Cranny-Evans, a military analyst at the Rusi think tank.

“From a purely military standpoint, Hamas has been professionalised to some degree, getting to grips with what it means to face the Israel Defence Forces and do that in a professional sense,” he said.

But beyond that the conflict had also galvanised resistance against the West in the Middle East with increased attacks on US bases in Iraq.

“That those organisations feel bold enough to step up those attacks says something about the way the West is perceived in the Middle East,” said Mr Cranny-Evans.

Day two

If Hamas’s plan had been to blind Israel with anger in its response to the rampage, it unquestionably succeeded.

By the second day of the war more 421 Palestinians had been killed, with thousands more dying in the coming weeks as Israel dropped 6,000 bombs on Gaza within the first seven days.

Israel also announced it would cut off all food, water and electricity supplies to Gaza and told 1.1 million to evacuate the north of the strip on October 11.

Very quickly international sympathy for the appalling suffering Israel had experienced ebbed away.

When an estimated 500 Palestinians were killed after the Al Ahli Arab Hospital was struck by a missile on October 17, many in the region readily believed this was an Israeli strike rather than the more likely explanation of a misfire by a Palestinian Islamic Jihad rocket.

“Every time a Hamas asset is taken out, because of the civilian death toll you are radicalising 100 more people,” said Ms Leslie, a former Conservative MP.

Western ebb

If the Hamas attack damaged Israel’s military, intelligence and political standing, it has also seriously undermined that of the US and other western powers.

In the immediate aftermath US President Joe Biden quickly gave unqualified support to Israel, as did Britain and others, probably cementing Israel’s desire to lash out in retaliation.

“It's very hard to know how to respond to an atrocity like that [October 7] but the West certainly has been very blank cheque to any actions that Israel takes,” said Ms Leslie.

“The West is now going to find it very difficult to play any kind of constructive brokering role, because they're not going to be trusted by the other side. They're now seen as a proxy for Israel, which means that the West's ability to have influence is diminished.”

A major motive for Hamas’s attack was to prevent the likely instalment of diplomatic ties between Israel and Saudi Arabia that might have pushed the militants into political isolation.

In that, it succeeded by driving a wedge between the two countries, as well as making Saudi Arabia’s relations with the West more difficult, just as President Biden was rebuilding his relationship with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

But it has also created a space for Russia and China to become potential brokers for the two-state solution. That position was previously occupied by Britain but its unequivocal support for Israel has made it appear one-sided, according to analysts, and not as trusted by Palestinians.

It also appears that Hezbollah may well be heading towards greater involvement in the war, which given its military strength, reinforced by its substantial Iran-controlled rocket arsenal, would be a significant escalation.

Who will win?

Israel has vowed to destroy Hamas and Hamas’s driving ambition is to destroy Israel.

This nihilism is unlikely to be resolved for some time, as they come to mortal blows.

The war could last for many weeks, months or indeed more than a year, potentially ending with a ceasefire and no winner.

In the past four weeks Israel has levelled much of northern Gaza and killed many hundreds of Hamas fighters.

With Gaza city now encircled, Israel will either strike the spider’s web of tunnels and fight street-by-street with the goal of eliminating Hamas’s leadership. The Israeli military is unlikely to stop before it is able to claim a form of victory.

“This has the potential to burn on for quite a long time and if that happens the ability for either side to claim some sort of definitive success diminishes quite significantly,” said Mr Cranny-Evans.

Ms Leslie, who as CMEC’s boss is well-connected to Middle East diplomats, said any resolution to the conflict depended on political discussions within the Israeli government.

She also suggested Saudi Arabia had “got itself into a very good position to begin to broker a day-after-tomorrow solution” but a resolution was difficult with the pictures from Gaza “clouding an awful lot of constructive discussion in the region”.

“There's a brutal catharsis that a political solution is needed, that you can't sweep the Palestinian question under the carpet, otherwise it explodes,” she added. “Perhaps this will be the traumatic event that draws us all together and say, as we always do, ‘never again’.”

Updated: November 07, 2023, 4:59 PM