Analysis: Hundreds of festival-goers had gathered in farmland near the Gaza-Israel border for an all-night dance party celebrating the Jewish holiday of Sukkot, when Hamas fighters struck. They gunned down revellers and took others hostage, including Americans and Germans, as they launched an unprecedented assault on Israel.
The party was indicative of an blithe optimism felt by Israelis – the same optimism seen by the University of Otago’s Dr Leon Goldsmith, who returned last month from visiting the borders of Gaza, West Bank and Lebanon. “It’s a high-security environment but people were living normal lives in various towns and kibbutz.
“There was a lot of discussion about rocket attacks, and what you needed to do in the case of the sirens – 15 seconds to go to one of the bunkers which are scattered everywhere, normally painted with beautiful murals and in playgrounds and things. It’s a very bizarre environment.”
He had even gone for a jog along the border. “There was no real sense that any kind of perimeter incursion could occur. The Israelis thought they had that situation fully controlled. You can hear the surveillance drones above your head constantly.”
Goldsmith talked with Ofir Lipstein, the Israeli head of the Sha’ar HaNegev Regional Council, who described their plans to de-escalate by building a big light manufacturing industrial zone near the gate with Gaza, and then employing Gazans to come and work. Today, Goldsmith learned that Lipstein was killed in an exchange of fire with terrorists yesterday. And his hopes of de-escalating tensions have died too.
Many Israelis Goldsmith talked with had expected that the US-brokered Abraham Accords, by which the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Morocco recognised Israel’s sovereignty, would be expanded to include other Muslim nations like Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Niger, Mauritania, Somalia and Indonesia. This would increase Israeli security and lower the risk that other commercially-minded Middle Eastern states would militarily support any Palestinian uprising.
That optimism might be better characterised as complacency.
The Arab Muslims with whom Goldsmith spoke saw the geopolitics very differently. To them, the Abraham Accords, local moves like increased settler expansion, and international moves like Israel’s ambassador to the United Nations holding up a protest sign during a speech from Iranian president Ebrahim Raisi.
Goldsmith talked with West Bank academics, and with the director of the Al-Aqsa Mosque, on Temple Mount in Jerusalem. “He led us through the one gate that they control onto the compound. All the other gates are controlled by Israeli forces. And he was visibly agitated – they really feel they’re being hemmed in by the current Israeli government.
“He said rocks were being thrown up at the Al-Aqsa Mosque, and we did see Haredi ultra-orthodox Jews coming up onto the compound under armed supervision, which is basically just a provocation.”
“There’s the path of greater integration, greater stability. Or there’s the path of terror that Hamas is engaged in.”
– Antony Blinken, US Secretary of State
The rest of the world sees rock being thrown – whether by ultra-orthodox Jews or Palestinian youth – and is aghast that this could escalate to rockets and tanks. But to the peoples of Israel and Palestine, it’s part of an eye-for-an-eye escalation dating back to the founding of the state of Israel in 1948.
The Hamas attack on Israel came 50 years to the day after the start of the Yom Kippur War, between Israel and a coalition of Arab states led by Egypt and Syria. And today, to both sides, the big question is whether Arab states will again join the war.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken says the attack by Hamas was the worst on Israel since the Yom Kippur War but, moreover, that the magnitude and the scale of what Hamas did this weekend hasn’t been seen before.
The US has promised military support to Israel, while emphasising it remains committed to a two-state solution, and to its efforts to establish formal diplomatic ties between Israel and Arab nations in the region, including Saudi Arabia. “There’s the path of greater integration, greater stability,” Blinken says. “Or there’s the path of terror that Hamas is engaged in.”
It’s no secret that Iran supplies arms to both Hamas in the Gaza Strip and West Bank, and to Hezbollah in Lebanon – and early today, an Israeli Army spokesperson said the army was “looking to the north with full readiness”, referring to Israel’s border with Lebanon, where fears of escalation are mounting after an exchange of artillery and rocket fire by Hezbollah and Israel earlier in the day.
NZ’s laggardly response
Here in New Zealand, and likely in the foreign offices of our security partners, eyebrows were raised by an initial failure by Foreign Affairs Minister Nanaia Mahuta to condemn the Hamas attack.
Instead, she tweeted on Sunday morning: “Aotearoa New Zealand is deeply concerned at the outbreak of conflict between Israel and Gaza. We call for the immediate cessation of violence. The protection of all civilians, and upholding of international humanitarian law is essential.”
Otago University international affairs professor Dr Robert Patman believes Mahuta was trying to be balanced, in the early hours as information was still emerging, but she misjudged. “From a political point of view it would have been smarter to be quite upfront and say, ‘Look, this is an act of terror, which does nothing to advance a constructive solution’.”
First, National leader Christopher Luxon in the morning, and then Labour leader and Prime Minister Chris Hipkins early in the afternoon, followed up with far more robust statements, in line with the US, UK and Australia. Both leaders condemned the Hamas attacks, and said Israel had a right to defend itself.
But the Labour Government’s delay in firming up its position signalled, for the first time, a rift in the bipartisan single voice on foreign affairs that the two leaders had previously insisted they shared.
That was further highlighted by questions over the establishment of diplomatic relations with Palestine. Labour had earlier promised, if re-elected to government, to invite the Canberra-based Palestinian ambassador to present his credentials as ambassador to New Zealand. This country would join 138 of the 193 United Nations member countries in recognising Palestine.
Yesterday, Luxon distanced himself from those moves. “That is not our policy,” he said, in response to media questions.
The harder line from National is somewhat ironic, given it was a National Party foreign affairs minister who sought to restart the peace process when New Zealand was chairing the Security Council in 2015-16.
For his efforts, Murray McCully received a threatening call from Netanyahu on the eve of the vote in December 2016, warning that support for the United Nations resolution condemning Israeli settlement-building in the occupied territories would be viewed as a “declaration of war”.
Notwithstanding the “terse” phone call, the Security Council voted on the resolution condemning the settlements as a “flagrant violation under international law and a major obstacle to the achievement of the two-state solution and a just, lasting and comprehensive peace”.
It passed 14-0, with the US abstaining.
Divided international community
The problem, analysts agree, is that military action will not resolve the impasse – but neither is there any apparent diplomatic solution.
Patman says the US is seen as too closely aligned to Israel, for domestic political reasons, to be a credible mediator in the eyes of the Palestinians.
China has relations with Israel, and also with the Saudis and Iran because they supply the People’s Republic with oil. “China has actually emerged in the geopolitical sense as a player in the Middle East.”
But the US wouldn’t tolerate China playing a significant role in negotiating a ceasefire or more enduring solution. Somewhat echoing Mahuta’s initial stance, both Russia and China have called on all sides to exercise restraint and immediately end the hostilities.
These divisions in the international community, and especially in the United Nations Security Council, has left a gap for Hamas to move. It’s thought to be taking advantage of a weak and ageing Mahmoud Abbas administration in Palestine, and seeking to exploit a perceived domestic vulnerability for Netanyahu as he tries to strengthen his control by overhauling the judiciary.
Many Israeli commentators are readily conceding that, unfortunately, the policies of the past decades may well have contributed to the crisis the world is witnessing, Patman says. “That’s not in any way to condone this appalling terror attack, which only plays into Mr Netanyahu’s hands.”
Hamas may have thought it was exploiting a moment of weakness for Netanyahu, but the conflict will serve only to strengthen support for his hardline position. “When he says he’s going to war, my understanding is that he’s trying to do his best to finish Hamas as a military threat to Israel.
“This is a seven-decade-long conflict between the Palestinians and the Israelis. Where is the political solution to this problem? Because there’s no military solution to this problem. I mean, they can bomb the Gaza Strip into the stone age, but it is not going to solve the problem. The Palestinians are not going to lose their desire for self determination, just as the Israelis want to have their right to be able to exercise their self determination upheld and have their right to defence. Well, obviously the Palestinians want the same.”
Patman warns that any initial sympathy for Israel’s right to defend itself could be overtaken by concern that the retaliation becomes disproportionate, an act of vengeance.
Geoffrey Miller, a geopolitical analyst for the Democracy Project who is writing his PhD under Robert Patman’s supervision, says determining New Zealand’s response to the new war in the Middle East will be one of the new government’s first challenges – and as shown by the fierce reaction to the initial lack of direct condemnation of the Hamas assault by Mahuta, it will not be an easy path to navigate.
“As the war in Ukraine has shown, even distant wars can have an outsized impact, even half a world away. Crude oil prices have already risen sharply this year – and combined with a strengthening US dollar, these have caused New Zealand petrol prices to head back up to levels last seen in the immediate aftermath of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. The pain caused by rising inflation and the cost-of-living crisis – the number one issue of the election campaign – may not be over yet.”
As our markets editor Andrew Patterson reports, oil prices are set to surge as markets open. “Coming at a time of continuing military conflict between Russia and Ukraine that has already led to higher energy prices, the last thing the global economy needs right now is an escalation of tensions in the Middle East pushing oil prices even higher.”
Gas prices may also be impacted. The New York Times says the war is a blow to the ambitions of Israel and the wider eastern Mediterranean region to become a hub for exporting natural gas to Europe and elsewhere.
With an increase in fuel prices coming in the same week that Stats NZ will publish the latest rise in food prices, it’s likely the Gaza war will force itself into the consciousness of New Zealand voters. As I reported last week, cost of living is far and away the biggest issue determining the outcome of this election.
The appalling actions of belligerent Hamas militants and the grim response of the hardline Israeli president are first and foremost a human tragedy for the millions of civilians caught in their fire.
But the reverberations will reach as far as New Zealand.