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Israel-Palestine war: How Gaza turned the tables on its gaolers

Responsibility for this weekend's onslaught lies with all those who long ago stopped thinking of Palestinians as people
Palestinians take down the fence on the Israel-Gaza border and enter Israel after clashes and attacks in Gaza on 7 October, 2023 (Reuters)

There has been a dramatic reversal of roles in the last 48 hours for a state accustomed to exerting total control over seven million Palestinians.

Palestinian fighters have been able to reach settlements adjacent to Gaza, rather than armed settlers terrorising Palestinian villagers. 

Residents of Sderot have been hiding in their basements wondering when their army will come to protect them, rather than residents of Huwwara or Nablus or Jenin, who are nightly traumatised by settler attacks and Israel army raids.

Palestinian fighters have seized dozens of Israeli soldiers and civilians, who are now in basements all over Gaza. 

No-one should crow about this. Innocent civilians have been killed; pregnant mothers have been terrified, and children have died. The onslaught fell on anyone who happened to be in its path, irrespective of politics, gender or age. 

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I know of one woman bitterly opposed to right-wing religious nationalist triumphalism, and a stalwart supporter of human rights for Palestinians, who has been dragged off to a basement in Gaza. 

But the scenes about which the world has lost its voice are not these ones. They are of Israeli soldiers carting Palestinians off to disappear for indefinite spells of administrative detention in prison.

There could be, according to the latest reports, close to 100 captives now in Gaza. The best-equipped army and police force in the Middle East have sustained unheard-of casualties - the latest toll, including civilians, is 600 dead and more than 1,500 injured - as they have been pinned down in street-to-street gun battles raging in villages and towns around Gaza. 

Massive intelligence failure

This is the first time such scenes have been witnessed since the war in 1948 that created the first Nakba and the state of Israel. These scenes are far worse to Israelis than the 1973 Arab-Israeli War, which was launched 50 years ago almost to the day.

“In 1973, we fought with a trained army,” veteran Israeli analyst Meron Rapoport told Middle East Eye. “And here, we are talking about people who have nothing but a Kalashnikov. It is unimaginable. It is a military and intelligence failure that Israel will take a long time to recover from, in terms of its self-confidence.”

The footage will tell all Palestinians that resistance isn't a lost cause against an overwhelmingly powerful enemy

The breach of the best-defended and surveilled fence along any of Israel’s borders, and an incursion of this size when the military headquarters of the army division controlling Gaza was seized, represents the worst failure Israel’s intelligence services have suffered in their history. 

Hamas achieved the element of total surprise. Israel’s famed military intelligence unit, 8200 - a unit that can hear every telephone conversation taking place in Gaza - has been blindsided, as has the Shin Bet, the internal security service. 

Israelis are asking themselves how their army got it so wrong, reportedly deploying 33 battalions in the occupied West Bank to protect settlers, while leaving the southern border vulnerable to attack.

All this has sent a shockwave sweeping through a nation so accustomed to being the Lords of the Land. Again, they are the ones who are supposed to spring the surprises, not their subjects. 

Coming back stronger

Only two weeks ago, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu waved a map at the United Nations General Assembly that obliterated all Palestinian territories. 

“I believe that we are at the cusp of an even more dramatic breakthrough - an historic peace between Israel and Saudi Arabia. Such a peace will go a long way to ending the Arab-Israeli conflict,” Netanyahu said.

US officials did not disagree, with one senior administration figure asserting that “the region’s about as stable as it has been in many years”.

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As if they were members of the same chorus, Washington, Tel Aviv and Riyadh were talking up the prospect of Saudi Arabia signing a normalisation deal with Israel, as if this in itself was the path to peace. 

They had all become so confident about writing Palestinians out of this equation, as if the entire population of Palestine would one day bin their flag and national identity, and acquiesce to the role of Gastarbeiter in someone else’s land.

A very clear message has now been sent that Palestinians do exist - and they are nowhere near being conquered.

Each time they have been obliterated as a fighting force - in 1948, 1967, 1973 and every operation since - new generations have come back stronger.

Hamas referenced Jerusalem's Al-Aqsa mosque in its operational name for the attack on southern Israel for a reason. This attack did not come out of the blue.

Al-Aqsa status quo

Exactly 33 years ago, on 8 October 1990, a group of settlers and the Temple Mount Faithful, an extreme-right group that has called for ritual sacrifice on the Temple Mount - an act forbidden by Israel’s chief rabbi - attempted to lay a foundation stone for the Third Temple at Al-Aqsa Mosque.

The Palestinian population of the Old City resisted, the Israeli army opened fire, and within minutes, more than 20 Palestinians were killed, with hundreds more injured and arrested.

Since then, Israeli leaders have been warned continuously to keep the status quo at a holy site claimed by both religions, and each year they have ignored those warnings and turned the screw.

No more so than today, when Al-Aqsa has been stormed repeatedly to allow Jewish worshippers access to the Islamic site where unsolicited visits, prayers and rituals by non-Muslims are forbidden, according to decades-long international agreements.

Israeli police patrol Al-Aqsa Mosque complex in occupied East Jerusalem on 5 April 2023 (AFP)
Israeli police patrol Al-Aqsa Mosque complex in occupied East Jerusalem in April 2023 (AFP)

These violent incursions were once the work of what was considered among Jews as fringe groups of extremists. No longer. They are now led by Itamar Ben Gvir, who parades under the title of Israel’s national security minister.

Day by day, a policy is being hatched with the support of Likud MPs, such as Amit Halevi, to divide Al-Aqsa Mosque between Jews and Muslims, just like the Ibrahimi Mosque in Hebron was divided in the 1990s.

Ben Gvir, the minister with the power to appoint Israel’s chief of police, has not spared Christians from his fascist policies. When five Orthodox Jews were arrested by police for allegedly spitting at Christian worshippers in the Old City of Jerusalem, the minister responded: “I still think spitting at Christians is not a criminal case. I think we need to act on it through instruction and education. Not everything justifies an arrest.”

The screw keeps on turning, be it at Al-Aqsa or in the appalling daily death toll of Palestinians, most of them youths. Human Rights Watch has noted that this year, up until August, was on course to be the deadliest for Palestinian children in the occupied West Bank in more than 15 years, with at least 34 children killed as of late August.

And this is greeted with silence from the international community, which is so fixated on a trade route between the Red Sea and Haifa. 

If anyone bears responsibility for this weekend’s bloodshed and the massacres of civilians that are, as night follows day, destined to take place in Gaza as the Israeli army mounts a ground offensive, it is all the foreign leaders who say Israel shares their values. All those leaders allow Israel to dictate policy, even though it blatantly undermines their own.

Landscape forever changed

I have no doubt that Palestinian civilians will now pay a huge price as Israel seeks its biblical revenge. Already, electricity has been cut to more than two million people in the Strip.

But I also have no doubt that after these events, it will not be business as usual. 

Having for generations denied the existence of the Nakba, Israeli MKs are now openly embracing another one. Ariel Kallner tweeted: “Turn off the enemy now! This day is our Pearl Harbor. We will still learn the lessons. Right now, one goal: Nakba!”

Netanyahu isn’t far behind in his call for all Palestinians in Gaza to leave their homes, as if there was anywhere for them to go. 

Smoke rises above buildings in Gaza City during an Israeli air strike on 8 October 2023 (AFP)
Smoke rises above buildings in Gaza during an Israeli air strike, on 8 October 2023 (AFP)

If Israel really wants to trigger a regional war, attempting a repeat of 1948 would be the quickest way to do it. Neither Egypt nor Jordan would tolerate it, and their peace agreements with Israel would be null and void.

A regional war would include the best-equipped resistance movement in the region. Hezbollah, which on Sunday started exchanges of fire with Israel on the Lebanese border, could well be reluctant to become involved. But it could also be dragged into it. Hezbollah has for some time been signalling that a ground incursion into Gaza would be a red line for them.

During the year, Hamas political leaders have been visiting Beirut and held meetings with Hezbollah Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah. Some sources say a decision has already been taken on a general mobilisation. From all this one can assume Hezbollah’s finger is on the trigger.

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Israel will also have to deal with the prospect of Hamas having dozens of hostages. The Hannibal Directive, a top-secret military order whereby Israel would hit its own forces in order to prevent them from falling into enemy hands, no longer applies.

Nor does the idea that 2.3 million people in Gaza could be corralled into a cage and kept on a low-protein diet, while their gaoler could throw away the keys.

This is the explosion that I and others have warned was coming, for some time. I have said that if Israel did not reverse course and start serious negotiations about a just solution to this crisis that gives Palestinians equal rights to Jews, there would be a response. It has now happened. When it’s over, the landscape will not be the same. 

As three of Gaza’s extended families were wiped out by direct hit on their homes with Israel's precision bombs, Rishi Sunak, the prime minister of the country which bears more responsibility for this conflict than any other, said Britain was standing with Israel unequivocally, and had Downing Street lit by a star of David. His home secretary, meanwhile, said anyone caught demonstrating in the streets in solidarity with Palestine would be arrested. The UK has consequently abandoned any future role it could play in bringing about an end to this awful conflict.

The responsibility for what happened over the weekend lies with all those who were deluded into thinking that successive generations of Israeli leaders could get away with doing whatever they wanted. The responsibility lies with all those, most Arab dictators included, who stopped thinking of Palestinians as people. Each will learn a painful lesson in the weeks and months to come. 

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

This article is available in French on Middle East Eye French edition.

David Hearst is co-founder and editor-in-chief of Middle East Eye. He is a commentator and speaker on the region and analyst on Saudi Arabia. He was the Guardian's foreign leader writer, and was correspondent in Russia, Europe, and Belfast. He joined the Guardian from The Scotsman, where he was education correspondent.
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