What happens in Gaza doesn’t stay in Gaza
I’m still reeling in shock, disbelief, and anger at the brutal, well-coordinated Hamas attack on Israel from Gaza that began on 7 October.
Numbers are hard to verify in the fog of war. As I write this, the Israeli death toll has climbed beyond 1 200, with more than 2 900 injured. Thousands of rockets have been fired from Gaza into Israel, overwhelming missile defences like the Iron Dome by the sheer volume of simultaneous strikes. More than 100 Israeli Jews, and presumably citizens of other countries – women, children, men, the elderly, Holocaust survivors – have been dragged into Gaza as hostages and human shields. The fatalities and injuries in Gaza are approaching these levels after massive retaliatory air strikes by the Israel Defense Forces. They will surely climb as Israel seeks to destroy the Hamas threat once and for all. The sickening body count will continue. The international implications of this heinous act of terror, which may in time be called the “Sukkot War”, are already being felt across the world. And the geopolitical ramifications of this conflict are complex.
That this current war began 50 years after the Yom Kippur War of 1973 and on a Jewish holiday and Shabbat is no coincidence. The war in 1973 was also a surprise for Israel, stemming from poor intelligence and Israeli over-confidence after the stunning, seemingly miraculous successes of the 1967 Six-Day War. In the former war, Israel faced a full-blown attack by two Arab states – Egypt in the south and Syria in the north. No army wants to defend on two fronts.
One of the main fears is that the current hostilities will embolden Hezbollah in southern Lebanon to attack Israel’s northern frontier. Indeed, there have been some missiles fired from the north and infiltrations of Israeli territory from Lebanon. However, these seem to have been contained. For now.
Both Hamas and Hezbollah receive significant funding, weaponry, and political support from Iran. There’s evidence of Iran meeting with these terrorist organisations in the past few weeks. They may not be puppets or proxies of Tehran, making their own decisions, but these and other organisations, like Palestinian Islamic Jihad, rely heavily on Iran. Even if there’s not yet a “smoking gun” tying Iran directly to the invasion of Israel, there’s no doubt that it’s a strong supporter of these terror groups. It has also made repeated threats to wipe Israel off the map.
Iran is threatened by the real possibility of Saudi Arabia normalising its relationship with Israel. The two remain the biggest rivals for power in the Middle East, in spite of a rapprochement engineered by the Chinese earlier this year. As Israel retaliates against Hamas in Gaza, there will be thousands of civilian casualties, especially because Hamas sites its rocket launchers and other combat materiel in schools, hospitals, and mosques. This will make it very difficult for any Arab state to support Israel, and will almost certainly knock back any putative Israel-Saudi deal for months or years. Israel’s peace partners in Bahrain, Egypt, Morocco, and the United Arab Emirates will similarly be put under pressure. The longer this war lasts, the less international sympathy for Israel it will sustain.
As this all plays out, don’t be surprised to see Russian support for Iran – and hence Hamas and Hezbollah. The two rogue states have drawn close in the past few years, both suffering from Western sanctions. Russia surely backed Iran being invited to join the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa) grouping. But Moscow is also politically close to Jerusalem, with long-standing ties between the two leaders, and military co-ordination between the countries in war-torn Syria. About 1.5 million Russian speakers live in Israel, and Israel has been quieter than expected on Russia’s war in Ukraine.
President Joe Biden has publicly stated unwavering United States support for Israel, and that Washington will supply Jerusalem with all that it needs to defend itself. He has ordered battleships into the Eastern Mediterranean, and warned other powers in the region not to take advantage of the current conflict. This is a not-so-veiled threat to Iran. However, Congress is without a speaker of the house and Russia’s war on Ukraine is taking its toll, compromising the White House’s position to mobilise help for Israel. Don’t forget, there’s an election in November 2024, and a divided polity, which may complicate calculations.
The Western world has roundly condemned Hamas. Landmarks such as the Eiffel Tower, the Brandenburg Gate, and the Empire State Building have been lit up in the blue and white of the Israeli flag. Ukraine, in spite of its own war, has lit up public buildings in Kyiv. The sheer savagery of the attack has made even some sympathetic to the Palestinian cause recoil. The European Union announced a suspension of financial aid to the Palestinians, but had to backtrack as some member states objected.
The conflict has spawned demonstrations for and against Israel in many cities around the world. It’s a sad fact that antisemitism flares up across the diaspora when there’s fighting in the region. Don’t expect this time to be different. I’m aware of at least three rallies in South Africa in support of Hamas being called for this week. Jewish communities are holding communal prayer sessions. South African Jews and their supporters will need to be vigilant and careful.
And as for the South African government? Its reaction has been predictable. It cannot bring itself to condemn its ally, Hamas, no matter how depraved and despicable its actions. The statements from the department of international relations and cooperation shows absolutely no sympathy for the horrific trauma Israel has suffered. They tiredly repeat the same old mantras, heaping all the blame on the Jewish state. Don’t expect the Union Buildings to be bathed in blue and white any time soon.
While the hostilities may be focused on the 365km2 of the Gaza strip – an area four-and-a-half times smaller than Johannesburg – the ripples of war will wash up on many a shore.
- Steven Gruzd is a political analyst at the South African Institute of International Affairs in Johannesburg. He writes in his personal capacity.