Hasan Illaik, The Cradle, October 9, 2023 —
Whether this becomes a regional war or not depends entirely on Israel’s willingness to make unprecedented concessions.
West Asia may be headed toward a large-scale war that will extend well beyond the Gaza Strip and southern Israel, now mired in violent conflict.
“Operation Al-Aqsa Flood,” carried out by Hamas at dawn on 7 October, has already led to the killing of hundreds of Israeli soldiers and settlers, the capture of about 200 of them, and the destruction of Israel’s lauded deterrence.
Whether the war will bleed into multiple borders and arenas now depends entirely on what Israel does or does not do in the days and weeks ahead. Predictably, Tel Aviv – with the US and EU standing firmly behind it – has begun by launching a military operation in the Gaza Strip to eliminate the Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ) resistance movements.
After a round of consultations held with a number of western heads of state – led by US President Joe Biden and his French counterpart Emmanuel Macron – Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu confirmed in statements that his western allies have granted Israel full freedom to eliminate the Palestinian resistance in Gaza.
In a flurry of Instagram-worthy gimmicks, western capitals have already begun beating the drums of war – from lighting the Eiffel Tower in Paris with the colors of the Israeli flag to raising it at the European Commission headquarters in Brussels.
These galvanizing gestures to excite public sentiment are reminiscent of events in March 1996, when the west and its allies gathered in Sharm El-Sheikh to ostensibly ‘combat terrorism.’ Their goal was not to halt terror, but to destroy the resistance in Palestine and Lebanon. That conference was the green light for Israel to launch “Operation Grapes of Wrath” on Lebanon one month later. That military fiasco ended with Hezbollah winning points, increasing its domestic role, and establishing the resistance group as a Lebanese protector against Israeli attacks.
Last weekend, Israel once again captured the west’s undivided attention. Tel Aviv, along with Washington and other western capitals, are dead-set on restoring the deterrence destroyed by Operation Al-Aqsa Flood.
A ‘near-perfect’ operation
Hamas did not coordinate its military operation with any of its Resistance Axis allies. It also did not plan to achieve the stunning results that were soon to follow. The Qassam Brigades’ immediate goal was only to destroy Israeli army positions around the Gaza Strip and capture as many soldiers as possible, which they could later exchange for the thousands of Palestinian captives in Israeli prisons.
But the Palestinian resistance forces were taken by surprise at the laxity of the occupation army. Contrary to expectations, they stumbled upon security vacuums and poorly guarded military sites in which a large number of enemy soldiers and officers were fast asleep. It was this unexpected opportunity that prodded the Palestinian fighters to reach for bigger gains.
Hamas’ military leadership planned to carry out this operation in complete secrecy. Just weeks earlier, their fighters had conducted military maneuvers/exercises that were observed by the Israelis. But Tel Aviv’s rather complacent intelligence assessment had been that “Hamas is training for what it does not dare to do.” The Israelis, in short, thought that Hamas was merely flexing in order to gain financial concessions for Gaza. No actual operation was ever expected by Israel’s military brass.
The veil of secrecy over the operation also extended to the Hamas fighters who carried out the attack. Sources close to Hamas say that their cadres believed, until the morning of the operation, that they were assembling for a training exercise, not for the real thing.
Very few knew details of the comprehensive attack plan. Even Hamas’ allies in Lebanon and Iran learned of the operation at zero o’clock and not a moment before, according to well-informed sources in the Resistance Axis.
Even for this axis, the Hamas operation went beyond all possible expectations. Although true that many of the Hamas tactics employed are shared among the Axis’ fighters in Palestine, Lebanon, Iran, and Yemen, the innovation in the Al-Aqsa Flood operation was the signature of the Al-Qassam Brigades, and particularly its brilliant leader Muhammad Deif.
The operation was coordinated with remarkable professionalism: accurate and detailed intelligence was amassed, high-level training exercises organized, secrecy was paramount, and superior coordination was established between the myriad drones, paratroopers, and vast majority of Hamas fighters who crossed into the occupation state, through tunnels and above ground.
Al Qassam also planned to target Israeli communications towers and all military sites surrounding Gaza. From a military perspective, this was a near-perfect operation that led to the destruction of all the facilities of the Israeli army’s “Gaza Division” and the annihilation of entire Israeli brigades. For Israel, this was a total humiliation – something it had never experienced before, even in the devastating 1973 Arab-Israeli war.
A zero-sum game
With the support of the collective west, Israel is now assembling a plan to restore its deterrence. Operation Al-Aqsa Flood didn’t only affect the Israelis – it has also endangered western deterrence throughout West Asia and the Arab world. The decline in Israel’s deterrent capacity correlates directly with the weakening of western hegemony in the region.
While Israel has been scurrying around to mobilize its troops and equipment for a counterattack, the Americans sent messages to the Resistance Axis – specifically Iran and Hezbollah – saying, essentially: “We don’t want this to escalate. We want and need stability on the Lebanese border with Israel. We are urging you not to interfere in this war.”
The messages were sent on 7 October, as events unfolded, and through more than one medium. Hezbollah’s response was seen on the ground the very next morning, when it bombed Israeli army positions in the occupied Lebanese Shebaa Farms. This was a warning message, which was clarified further by Hezbollah’s Executive Council Chief Hashem Safi Al-Din when he said: “We will not remain neutral in this battle.”
Neither will Washington, which immediately announced $8 billion in aid to Israel, and sent an aircraft carrier to the eastern Mediterranean Sea. The US cannot afford for Israel to take more losses, but how far will they go to deter Tel Aviv’s adversaries?
Within the axis of resistance, from Iran to Gaza, there is a uniform decision to prevent the defeat of any of the principal allies. As this axis made clear during the Syrian war, a major attack on one will be viewed as an attack on all. Today, their red line is preventing the collapse of the resistance in Gaza.
Israel’s urgent need to restore its deterrence is not, however, possible without destroying Gaza’s resistance factions. Both Netanyahu and Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Galant have ominously warned that Tel Aviv’s response to Gaza’s attack will “change the Middle East.” Those are fighting words indeed: the US called for the birthing of a “new Middle East” during Israel’s month-long bombardment of Lebanon in July 2006.
Tel Aviv and Washington want to take down the Palestinian resistance while ensuring that no other battle fronts flare up to distract from that mission. Of course, the Resistance Axis principals will seek to do exactly the opposite, doing what is necessary to distract Israel from its strategic objective.
The situation is very complicated. If Israel manages to eliminate the Palestinian resistance – which it has never been able to do before – the entire region will undergo seismic changes and Tel Aviv will be able to impose its will across occupied Palestine.
Those gains would be extremely painful: the crippling of the Palestinian fighting spirit; No impediment to the Judaization of the al-Aqsa mosque; the possible annexation of the West Bank; increased settlement building; the mass detention of Palestinians with impunity; normalization with all remaining Arab and Muslim countries; and the loss of the Resistance Axis’ Palestinian ally.
These variables would fundamentally alter the balance of power in West Asia. The Axis of Resistance will not stand by idly and allow an Israeli ground operation against Gaza’s resistance – it will throw in new variables to confound and weaken the enemy.
If Tel Aviv – with western cover – decides to take this fight with the Palestinian resistance to the wall instead of striking a long overdue compromise and dialing back its occupation, other battle fronts will be opened against Israel’s military forces. As to the method, form, and location of those new frontlines, there are countless possibilities that will be kept under wraps as the picture gets clearer.