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The War Between Israel and Hamas

Israeli bomb in Gaza (Photo: Mohammed Ibrahim/Unsplash)
Photo: Mohammed Ibrahim/Unsplash

Israel is in shock. The most basic task of a country's defence forces is to guard and protect its borders. Yet the Israeli army was caught completely off guard when thousands of terrorists entered the country to murder and take hostages. Read the interview with Karin Aggestam, Professor of Political Science, Director of the Centre for Advanced Middle East Studies and expert on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

This article was first published in Swedish on 13 October 2023.

How could this happen?

– We don't know yet, but nothing seems to have worked the way it was supposed to. Israel seems to have relied on its high-tech surveillance of Gaza, with a limited military presence in the kibbutzim and villages close to the border. Military units were instead stationed in the West Bank to protect Israeli settlements. In addition, both the government and the intelligence services have completely failed in their information management. There have been reports that Egypt tried to signal to Prime Minister Netanyahu as early as a month ago that something big was about to happen in Gaza.

– Since the Hamas takeover of Gaza in 2007, and the subsequent blockade, Israel has made every effort to destroy Hamas’ system of underground tunnels that exists throughout the Gaza Strip. The US has helped with tracking systems, but it is clear that this has not been enough. Israel has also tried to restrict the entry of concrete to the Gaza as a way to stop the building of reinforced concrete tunnels.

Who can put pressure on Hamas to reduce the violence and release the more than 150 civilians and soldiers taken hostage?

– Qatar and Egypt have in the past had influence over Hamas and so has Turkey. But as things stand, I don't think they will succeed. Israel is not interested in a ceasefire at this point. They say their goal is to destroy Hamas.

– Israel will soon launch a ground offensive in Gaza but it is unclear how extensive it will be and how long it will last. As for the hostages, many of them are women, children and elderly. Their families and friends are desperate and deeply concerned about these developments. There is now a tug-of-war between relatives of the hostages and more hardline forces within the Israeli government. The latter include Itamar Ben Gvir, Minister of National Security, and Bezalel Smotrich, Minister of Finance. They belong to the most hardline extreme right in the Israeli government, and want to prioritise the destruction of Hamas.

Aren’t the people of Gaza putting pressure on Hamas? They are suffering tremendously from the Israeli bombings.

– Hamas exercises a theocratic authoritarian rule in the Gaza Strip, which means that other political groups, such as al-Fatah cannot operate there. But there are also Palestinians who support what is described as Hamas' armed struggle and resistance against the state of Israel. However, now that the extensive Israeli aerial bombing has begun and forced displacement, Palestinian civilians are focused on survival and finding shelter in the tiny strip that is smaller than Oslo, about 380 square kilometres.

Is there anyone who could pressure Israel to reduce the bombings in Gaza?

– Not right now. It is essential for the Israeli Defence Force (IDF) to restore confidence among the Israeli population and demonstrate its deterrence to enemies. Moreover, Israel has been attacked, and the US and Europe support its right to self-defence. However, the international community and the UN insist that the principle of proportionality is respected by Israel, that is, to avoid excessive use of force and respect the laws of war.

What is driving events at this point?

– The Israeli government has now created a war cabinet and a national unity government with some parties from the opposition to increase the legitimacy and operational capacity to wage war. The IDF is mobilising for a ground operation, but it is unclear whether the aim is to create a temporary security zone in northern Gaza, or whether it will be more extensive and prolonged. Either way, this is very risky and is likely to result in massive human suffering for the civilian population in Gaza. Right now, hundreds of thousands of Palestinians are forcefully displaced. Humanitarian aid such as water, electricity and medicine has been restricted. The border with Egypt is closed but attempts are made by the UN and the US to to create a safe humanitarian corridor and to re-open the border to allow for humanitarian supplies.

What is the risk of the war spreading?

– This risk exists and depends on the development of the humanitarian situation in Gaza and the Israeli ground offensive. There is already shelling in the north between Israel and Hezbollah in Lebanon. Violence has also spread to the West Bank and Jerusalem and there is also a risk of regional diffusion.

Karin Aggestam's research profile