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Fire and smoke rise above buildings in Gaza City during an Israeli air strike on October 8 (Photo: IBRAHIM HAMS/AFP via Getty Images)
Fire and smoke rise above buildings in Gaza City during an Israeli air strike on October 8 (Photo: IBRAHIM HAMS/AFP via Getty Images)

SocietyOctober 9, 2023

The war in Israel has deep roots and may spread

Fire and smoke rise above buildings in Gaza City during an Israeli air strike on October 8 (Photo: IBRAHIM HAMS/AFP via Getty Images)
Fire and smoke rise above buildings in Gaza City during an Israeli air strike on October 8 (Photo: IBRAHIM HAMS/AFP via Getty Images)

The new conflict in Gaza is part of a much bigger power struggle with a long, complex history.

In a shocking development on Saturday night (NZ time), Hamas militants launched attacks from the Gaza Strip into Israel by land, sea and air. The assault, in which civilians were killed and others taken hostage, prompted an immediate declaration of war from Israel and a pledge by prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu to inflict an “unprecedented price” in response to a “murderous terrorist assault”. The latest estimates are of more than 600 dead in Israel and more than 400 in Gaza.

The astounding strike into Israel with missiles, breaches of supposedly impregnable fences, microlite aircraft and boats on the coast has been condemned around the world. For the forces of Hamas it is seen as a historic success. It also represents a historic failure by Israeli authorities that pride themselves on sophisticated surveillance, deep penetration by intelligence, and advanced military technology.

As shocking as it is, the eruption of a fresh war between Israel and the forces of Hamas in Gaza is part of a much bigger power struggle in tiny slivers of land: Israel is smaller than Waikato and the Gaza Strip is about the size of greater Wellington. Israeli and Palestinian civilians will be the victims but the wider battle involves Iran, Saudi Arabia, and different visions of the future.

It is easy and understandable to buy into the tropes of the extraordinary Hamas attacks against Israeli towns and missile strikes further afield as part of a supposed colonial struggle against the oppression of Palestinians by Israel since its foundation in 1947.

There is a truth in that idea of the Palestinian struggle against Israeli oppression, including a 16-year blockade of Gaza. There is also truth in the sense of existential threat that Israelis feel, whether from Hamas in Gaza or Hezbollah in Lebanon – each of which is backed by Iran, a theocratic and oppressive state that badly needs an enemy to defend its domestic control and international influence.

In a matrix of complex, overlapping local and regional agendas, three factors are worth considering:

  • Iran backs Hamas and opposes US-led attempts to “normalise” relations between Israel and its Arab regional neighbours.
  • Hamas is in an internecine struggle to dominate Palestinian territories, having taken control of Gaza in 2007, and despises the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank.
  • Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu thrives in a crisis and may use the attacks to reinforce his right-wing government and counterprotests at home.

That the attack happened during the week of the 50th anniversary of the Yom Kippur War, when Israel was also taken by surprise by Arab neighbours, was surely no accident. It cuts to the core of Israeli identity: a state built in the wake of the Holocaust carving out a God-given right to live in sacred territory surrounded by hostile neighbours.

Why now?

Thinking about “why now” opens a set of questions that, as usual with the Israel-Palestinian conflict, opens out into regional and global issues of leadership, conflict and human rights. 

Iran, whose Islamic leadership gains strength from oppression at home and chaos abroad, backs Hamas not out of the goodness of its heart to support Palestinian ambitions of statehood and progress in Palestine but to use as leverage – a mechanism through which it can exert influence through terror and extremism. Moves towards the normalisation of relations between Israel and Saudi Arabia will only have added a sense of urgency in Tehran.

The same is true to the north of Israel, in Lebanon, where Iran backs the Hezbollah militia and political faction. The ambition is not to create a stable and successful Lebanon but a sliver of febrile chaos which, as with Israel, engages the attention of much bigger states because of the potential for regional and international blowback through religious or racial strife.

Lebanon is a warning of what the current crisis could foment in Israel: a chaotic and corrupt amalgam of ethnic and religious complexity overlaid with foreign interference. Add to that the interests of Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, other regional Arab states and Iran – plus the United States, China and Russia – and it all becomes rather complex.

It is also true that at times in its history Israel has destabilised Lebanon. It is not a pretty story and it is well documented in contemporary accounts and movies. It is inextricably tied to the foundation of Israel in 1947 and what Palestinians call the Nakba (catastrophe) – the expulsion or withdrawal, depending on whose history you prefer – of millions of Palestinians from what is now Israel in the face of terror and Israeli determination to carve out a state.

Millions of Palestinians still live in what have become permanent refugee camps or communities in Lebanon, Jordan and, more centrally to this conflict, the West Bank or Occupied Territories and the tiny coastal statelet of Gaza on the border with Egypt. We can expect the weekend attacks to create flare-ups, especially in the West Bank where Hamas may exploit dissatisfaction with the corrupt and moribund Palestinian Authority.

US president Bill Clinton stands between PLO leader Yasser Arafat (right) and Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Rabin as they shake hands on September 13, 1993 at the White House after signing the Oslo Accords (Photo: J. DAVID AKE/AFP via Getty Images)

A long history

The Authority is the legacy of the Palestine Liberation Organisation of Yasser Arafat whose legacy is the Fatah leadership in the West Bank and their hated rivals, Hamas. It is  complicated and ambiguous: the Palestinians are divided and so are Israelis, but only one side has a real and recognised nation with a world-class military and nuclear weapons.

Not only is it 50 years since the Yom Kippur War, it is also the 30th anniversary of the Oslo Accords. The result of years of talks organised by Norway, Oslo led to a famous White House agreement with president Bill Clinton, when then Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Rabin (ultimately assassinated by a hardline Israeli) and Arafat shook hands. It is hard to comprehend quite how far we are away from that moment of potential peace – including the recognition of the so-called two-state solution to create a Palestinian nation.

Recommend reading and resources

To stay on top of the story overall, it is hard to go past the major media organisations that have people on the ground – on both sides, in most cases of my recommendations, and with clear ethical and corrections policies and open sites: Reuters; BBC; Al Jazeera; CNN.

The liberal Israeli newspaper Haaretz offers comprehensive reporting and the more conservative Jerusalem Post takes a slightly different but still strongly reported perspective.

This Gaza war didn’t come out of nowhere on Vox is an interesting rapid analysis that focuses on decades of Palestinian frustration.

From an editorial in the Economist (paywalled): “The longer the fighting drags on, the greater the chance that violence spreads to the West Bank or Lebanon. The death of many civilians in Gaza, especially if seen as wanton, would harm Israel’s standing in the world as well as being profoundly wrong in its own terms.”

PLO: History of a Revolution is a comprehensive package on Al Jazeera.

‘The next days were hell’: how the Yom Kippur war realigned the Middle East is a valuable historical view from The Guardian.

Apeirogon, by Colum McCann, is a fictionalised account of a true relationship between a Palestinian and an Israeli united in grief at the loss of their daughters to terror attacks.

For more international coverage like this, sign up to the The Spinoff Members and receive The Bulletin World Weekly, Peter Bale’s round-up of the biggest stories in world news, in your inbox every Thursday.

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