By Steve Bell
The outbreak of war is not surprising. Ever since Netanyahu returned to government, in December 2022, his aim has been to gain Palestinian territory, destroy Palestinian resistance, and demoralise Palestinians through challenging sacred sites, particularly Al Aqsa. The rightist character of his coalition has fuelled this programme. But, decisively, his course has been cleared by the absolute failure of his international allies in the US, EU and Britain, to exercise any restraint upon his initiatives. Biden may have delayed an invite to the White House, to demonstrate some distaste. Yet the arms packages and political guarantees have been maintained.
A response from the Palestinians was inevitable. But the timing, scope and audacity of the military action was certainly a surprise. The breach of the security barrier, temporary occupation of Israeli positions and settlements, the loss of security forces, and capture of army personnel and civilians has deeply shocked Israeli society. There will be an accounting after hostilities cease.
Evolution of war
Following the initial blows delivered by the Al Qassam brigades, the military imbalance between the combatants asserts itself. The Israeli armed forces have regained the ground behind the separation barrier. The best equipped armed forces in the region are now concentrated upon a tiny enclave of 2.4 million Palestinians.
Gaza, under siege since 2007, was previously declared by the UN to be “unliveable by 2020”. On October 9th 2023, Israeli Defence Minister, Yoav Gallant said “I have ordered a complete siege of the Gaza Strip. There will be no electricity, no food, no fuel, everything is closed. We are fighting human animals and will act accordingly.” Objectifying the Palestinians will guarantee a bestial campaign.
At the time of writing, the Ministry of Health in Gaza has a recorded death toll of 704, with 3,900 injured. The vast majority of these will be civilians, many of them children. Residential towers and homes are being flattened. Civil and religious sites are being destroyed including the headquarters of the two main telecoms companies (Paltel and Jawwal), six mosques, the International Eye hospital, the Islamic Bank, and the Islamic University.
Seventy four thousand Palestinians have fled their homes to the precarious safety of UN school buildings. UNRWA, the UN body responsible for aiding Palestinian refugees, has put its food programme on hold until further notice. This means 112,759 families, a total of 541,640 persons, will not receive food assistance.
The Israeli population has also been hard hit. Israeli authorities claim 900 deaths (including 123 soldiers), and 2,400 injured. Israel’s UN envoy suggests between 100-150 prisoners have been taken.
This compares to 5,200 Palestinians in Israeli prisons. These have been detained without trial, or tried by military courts. The Israeli Finance Minister, Bezalel Smotrich, in a leak circulated from Sunday’s cabinet meeting, stated “We have to be cruel now and not think too much about the hostages. It’s time for action.” Such an attitude may be typical. But the Israeli government will face pressures to negotiate. Qatari government mediators are seeking to facilitate the exchange of the Israeli women and children captives for 36 Palestinian women and children in Israeli prisons.
Escalation and extension?
Outside of Gaza the situation of the Palestinians is completely fraught. Inside the formal state of Israel, the current scope for opposition is negligible. There is immediate danger from far right vigilante groups.
Inside the West Bank, a number of Palestinians have been killed since last Friday, with many more injured. There have been serious confrontations in East Jerusalem. Large numbers of Palestinians have taken part in demonstrations in Hebron, Ramallah and elsewhere. The small, autonomous resistance groups have taken some actions, but they have marginal weight compared to the Al Qassam brigades in Gaza.
There is much speculation about the role of Hezbollah, the Lebanese resistance movement. There were reported exchanges of artillery fire between Israeli and Hezbollah units on Sunday. On Monday, there was a reported infiltration by a Palestinian resistance group across the border from Lebanon, with four Israeli soldiers wounded.
Despite the obvious tension, there are limits in the likelihood of Hezbollah becoming involved. It can utilise its artillery, missiles and drones from Lebanon – and evacuations of Israeli communities close to the border have taken place. But Hezbollah demonstrated its strength in confronting the Israeli army inside Lebanon. It is quite another challenge to take the fight on the ground into Israel. However such a possibility cannot be entirely excluded.
Similar considerations obtain as regards the Syrian government. It is committed to securing the return of Syrian territory annexed by Israel in the Golan Heights. A mobilisation of Syrian forces has been undertaken in their proximity, but this also has a defensive character in the face of Israel’s declaration of war against Gaza.
The war aims of the Israeli government are not clear. Obviously it hopes for a crushing defeat of the Palestinians. But it may not be certain whether this can be achieved by an aerial campaign alone. 300,000 reservists have been called up, it would seem that an invasion is being prepared.
The Palestinian writer and Gaza native, Ramzy Baroud, wrote in the Palestinian Chronicle, 9th October: “Not only has the Resistance anticipated all scenarios, including the land invasion, but an invasion of Gaza would surely lead to thousands of Israeli deaths; let alone the harvesting of tens of thousands of Palestinian lives.” Such an assessment of potential casualties is likely to be shared by Israeli commanders. This may not prevent the Israeli government from proceeding.
Netanyahu’s government has accelerated the constitutional crisis in Israeli society. The war has now delayed the next chapter in that crisis. The opposition supports the government’s declaration of war. There is talk of creating a new government including members of the opposition. Reservists who had pledged to refuse to attend for duty in opposition to Netanyahu’s judicial reforms, are now answering the call up.
But the crisis is delayed, not averted. The failure of military preparedness and intelligence gathering belongs to Netanyahu’s government. The Haaretz Editorial on 8th October reads:” The disaster that befell Israel on the holiday of Simchat Torah is the clear responsibility of one person: Benjamin Netanyahu. The prime minister, who has prided himself on his vast political experience and irreplaceable wisdom in security matters, completely failed to identify the dangers he was consciously leading Israel into when establishing a government of annexation and dispossession, when appointing Bezalel Smotrich and Itmar Ben Gvir to key positions, while embracing a foreign policy that openly ignored the existence and rights of Palestinians.”
The “international community” response
As a stateless people, the Palestinians are particularly dependent upon states and peoples across the world for assistance. UN officials, whilst condemning Hamas, have called for a cessation of violence and urged restraint. More definitely, a number of governments including China, Qatar, Russia, Saudi Arabia and Turkey have called for a ceasefire and negotiations – which would be undoubted benefit to the Palestinians.
The United Nations Security Council (UNSC) held an emergency meeting on Sunday. The US government was determined to avoid any discussion of ceasefire and negotiations. This it guaranteed by insisting upon a condemnation of Hamas in any statement. Knowing this would be unacceptable to other UNSC members meant the US exercised by default, a veto on constructive discussion.
The US government frames the issue as “unprovoked” attack by the “Hamas terrorists”. It wants to create the most favourable conditions for the Israeli offensive. Biden has pledged additional aid to Israel. He has deployed a carrier strike group composed of the US’s newest aircraft carrier (USS Gerald Ford), a cruiser and 3 destroyers. He has augmented US aircraft in the region. These deployments are potentially a resource for Israel, and therefore a deterrent to Hezbollah or any government considering aiding the Palestinians.
The EU has fallen into the uncritical line with Israel, with various officials and national governments also opposing “unprovoked attacks by Hamas terrorists”. Some EU Commissioners have already overreached themselves. Announcements were made that all funding of Palestinian projects were to be frozen. These are worth 691 million euros. Such a stance did not go through the Council of Ministers, or the European Parliament. A number of national governments, including Denmark, Ireland, Luxemburg and Spain have opposed this move, causing a retreat. However the Austrian government has suspended all aid, and the German government is reviewing its funding.
However, the ferocity of the Israeli assault is creating divisions within multilateral organisations. UN Secretary-General, Antonio Guterres, stated on Monday 9th October, “I am deeply distressed by today’s announcement that Israel will initiate a complete siege of the Gaza Strip, nothing allowed in – no electricity, food, or fuel.” Today, the World Health Organisation has issued a call for the opening of a humanitarian corridor to Gaza. Doubtless such calls will multiply as the Israeli government actions become clearer.
Bipartisan Britain on alert
In Britain, the routine following of the US script prevails with government and official opposition. The Tories have pledged full support for Israel’s war. Theatrical gestures are offered by Prime Minister Sunak, who has ordered government buildings to fly Israeli flags. Home Secretary Braverman wants to use the opportunity to further restrict the rights to protest by threatening the use of the law against “pro-Hamas” supporters.
Labour’s Front Bench is anxious to endorse and elaborate on the US and British government positions. Rachel Reeves has discovered that Gaza is not occupied by Israel, despite the UN position otherwise. This has the bonus of relieving Israel of its responsibilities, under international law, of providing services to the occupied population. Yvette Cooper wants the full force of the law used against those who support Hamas, just in case Braverman proves too liberal. Wayne David has some concerns though, Israel’s response must be “proportionate”. Since September 29 2000, the total deaths inflicted from the other side are 11,439 Palestinians compared to 2,246 Israelis. That’s a ratio of just over 5 to 1. Is this the proportion to maintain, or is there another macabre algebra to uphold?
Fortunately for the Palestinians there are more representative forces rallying to their defence. The international solidarity movement today starts from the high points achieved in 2021 following the unified uprising across Palestine. Already major mobilisations have occurred in a number of countries in West Asia and North Africa – including where government’s have “normalised” relations with Israel. Activists in Britain should take heart from the mass actions in Bahrain, Iran, Iraq, Kuwait, Morocco, Oman, Turkey, Yemen and elsewhere.
In Britain already serious actions have occurred in cities and towns. Every action adds weight to the global majority who demand justice for Palestine. It is vital to amplify Palestinian voices and build the solidarity movement. The national demonstration on Saturday 14th October in London, called by the Palestine Solidarity Campaign and allies, is the first priority in this.