As the world watches fighting rage between Hamas and Israel, the escalation in battle results in more and more lives lost and more and more civilian distress especially for Gaza citizens who are besieged and blockaded by Israel, deprived of basic supplies of food, water or power. The air, sea, and land blockade has been ongoing throughout the last 16 years, but the siege is a result of the war of retaliation Israel declared against Hamas which, on Saturday 7 October 2023 conducted a horrendous surprise attack on Israel that claimed hundreds, and later thousands of lives, and caused grave damage. Hamas named its assault “al-Aqsa Torrent”, which serves to give insight to one of the reasons that led to the outburst of the harsh violence. Hamas’s operation came following widespread Israeli settler attacks, increased tensions at al-Aqsa Mosque in East Jerusalem and a record number of Palestinians killed.
It escaped no one’s attention that the date of the assault almost coincided with 6 October, the day in 1973 when Egypt’s army achieved the near-miraculous feat of crossing the Suez Canal and fighting the Israelis stationed on its eastern bank, who had occupied Sinai for some six years. But whereas the Egyptian move led to an ultimate peace agreement with Israel in 1979 and in Egypt regaining its Sinai Peninsula, it is not clear yet what Hamas hopes to achieve.
Israeli intelligence blindsided
On 7 October, the Palestinian group Hamas launched a massive surprise attack on Israel, including a barrage of rockets fired from Gaza and gunmen on foot breaching security barriers. They spread videos on social media showing Israelis being gunned down and several taken hostage.
A Hamas senior official said that the attack had been a year in planning and had successfully been kept top secret. “Only a handful of Hamas commanders knew about the Zero Hour,” he said of the assault which effectively blindsided the Israel’s military and intelligence agencies. Yet a Cairo satellite TV channel leaked information that Egypt’s intelligence chief Abbas Kamel had a week earlier warned Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that Hamas might conduct some big operation if Israel did not ameliorate the deplorable conditions of the blockaded Gazans.
In northern Israel, Israeli forces engaged in missile exchange with Lebanon’s Hezbollah militant group, eliciting fears of a broader regional conflict. Intense fighting between Palestinian and Israeli forces continued in several areas in southern Israel; Mr Netanyahu declared that the country is “at war”. He threatened to turn the besieged Palestinian enclave into a “deserted island”.
Israeli forces on the night of Monday 9 October issued evacuation orders to Palestinian communities in the Middle Area of Gaza and in Khan Yunis.
The UN said six Israeli missiles in al-Qarara had reportedly killed five family members including two girls aged 12 and nine, and that women and children were among 21 casualties after a strike on a residential building in Rafah. Medical teams were still unable to reach the area, the UN said.
More than 123,000 Palestinians were displaced in the wake of the relentless Israeli air strikes, the UN said.
By Tuesday 10 October, Israel had amassed 100,000 troops near the Gaza border and announced it would conduct a ground invasion.
Support, condemnation, economic woes
The United States sent warships and fighter jets, also air defence missiles, to support Israel. On Sunday 8 October President Biden deployed USS Gerald R. Ford, the US Navy’s most advanced aircraft carrier, six other ships and a number of advanced jets to the Eastern Mediterranean, as Israel’s allies, including the UK, rallied to its defence.
The move raises tensions in the region, with Iranian intelligence officials accused of planning Hamas’s surprise attack on Israel.
President Biden said that at least 11 Americans were among those killed in Israel following the attacks by Hamas, and that Washington believes it likely that US citizens are also among those held hostage by Hamas.
The West has declared full support for Israel, and harsh condemnation of Hamas’s atrocities. But not a few among the public expressed through demonstrations, fireworks, and social media support for Palestinians and condemnation of Israeli brutality past and present.
Turkey, Iraq, Iran, Syria, Lebanon, and Yemen, saw demonstrations in support of the Palestinians.
On the economic front, fears arose of a third wave of inflation following a spike in oil prices. Economists warned that the war would escalate tensions in the Middle East, potentially triggering sanctions and supply shortages. The dollar surged as investors fled to safe haven assets, also sending gold to a one-month high.
UN and Security Council
António Guterres, UN Secretary-General, said he was “deeply distressed” over Israel’s “complete siege” of Gaza. “While I recognise Israel’s legitimate security concerns, I also remind Israel that military operations must be conducted in strict accordance with international humanitarian law,” Mr Guterres said.
For its part, Human Rights Watch said that while Hamas committed war crimes, the collective punishment of Palestinian civilians could also be considered in breach of violations of international humanitarian law.
At an emergency session of the UN Security Council, there was no unanimity on condemning Hamas over its massive assault on Israel, neither was there any joint statement or binding resolution. This despite Israel’s ambassador, Gilad Erdan, showing graphic pictures of Israeli civilians being taken captive by Hamas. “These are war crimes—blatant, documented war crimes,” he said.
Riyad Mansour, Palestinian representative at the UN called on the Security Council to focus on ending Israeli occupation. “This is not a time to let Israel double-down on its terrible choices. This is a time to tell Israel it needs to change course, that there is a path to peace where neither Palestinians nor Israelis are killed.”
The US and Israel regretted the lack of unanimity at the SC, but members led by Russia hoped for a broader focus than condemning Hamas.
“My message was to stop the fighting immediately and go to a ceasefire and to meaningful negotiations, which was told for decades. This is partly the result of unresolved issues,” said Vassily Nebenzia, the Russian ambassador to the United Nations.
Pope and patriarchs of Holy Land
Speaking to faithful gathered in St Peter’s Square for his October Sunday Angelus address, Pope Francis said: “I am following with apprehension and pain what is happening in Israel, where violence has exploded ferociously, causing hundreds of deaths and injuries. I express my closeness to the families of the victims. I pray for them and for all those who are experiencing hours of terror and anguish.”
He begged both sides to “please stop the attacks and weapons and understand that terrorism and war do not lead to any solution, but only to death and suffering of many innocent people. War is a defeat, every war is always a defeat.”
The patriarchs of the Holy Land issued a joint statement that said: “The Holy Land, a place sacred to countless millions around the world, is currently mired in violence and suffering due to prolonged political conflict and lamentable absence of justice and respect for human rights. We, the Patriarchs and Heads of Churches in Jerusalem, have time and again appealed for the importance of respecting the historic and legal Status Quo of the holy shrines. In these trying times, we come together to raise our voices in unity, echoing the divine message of peace and love for all humanity.
“As custodians of the Christian faith, deeply rooted in the Holy Land, we stand in solidarity with the people of this region, who are enduring the devastating consequences of continued strife. Our faith, which is founded on the teachings of Jesus Christ, compels us to advocate for the cessation of all violent and military activities that bring harm to both Palestinian and Israeli civilians. We unequivocally condemn any acts that target civilians, regardless of their nationality, ethnicity, or faith.”
Egypt holds special concerns over the war in Gaza, not only because of the devastating humanitarian crisis and loss of lives, but also on account of Israeli calls on Gazans to flee Gaza. The only non-Israeli border with Gaza is that which it shares with Egypt’s Sinai, but any flight of Palestinians into Sinai would constitute a threat to Egypt’s sovereignty and national security, a matter Egypt has declared it would never allow. It would moreover cause incalculable damage to the Gazans themselves who would stand to forever lose their land and their cause should Gaza be evacuated of her nationals. The main crossing on that border is now closed.
President Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi has been contacted by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, King Abdullah of Jordan, Saudi Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman, German Chancellor Olaf Schulz and President of the European Council Charles Michel, to discuss the crisis in Gaza. The Egyptian President emphasised the dangers that a lack of political solution poses, stressing the need to address the root causes of the current conflict through a just and comprehensive solution to the Palestinian issue based on the two-State solution in accordance with international legitimacy. At the same time, he underscored the importance of ending the ongoing escalation and exercising self-restraint by all parties.
Egypt’s Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry was contacted by his counterparts from Canada, Portugal, Norway, Slovenia, Hungary, The Netherlands, and others to discuss a halt to the violence.
Mr Shoukry explained Egypt’s efforts to contain matters by attempting to persuade both sides to de-escalate operations and move towards a cease fire.
According to the Cairo daily State-owned al-Ahram, there have been Egyptian efforts to facilitate a prisoner exchange deal between Israel and Hamas, to secure the release of the women and children prisoners held by each side.
The Coptic Orthodox Church issued on 8 October a statement rejecting and denouncing the ongoing events between the Palestinians and Israelis, which resulted in hundreds of deaths and injuries.
The Church urged both sides to resort to dialogue and negotiation in order to save lives and avoid further bloodshed. It also praised the Egyptian efforts to contain the situation and reach a political solution that protects the rights of the Palestinian people and achieves peace.
Coptic Archbishop Angaelos of London took to his X (previously Twitter) account to say: “In the midst of extensive reporting, rhetoric and analysis of [the 7 October] attack and counter attack in Israel and Gaza, we cannot lose sight of the real human cost of hundreds who have died and many thousands bereaved and fearful on both sides today. Praying for peace and healing.”
On 8 October, an Egyptian policeman opened fire on Israeli tourists at Pompey’s Pillar site in Alexandria, killing two Israelis and one Egyptian, and wounding another Israeli who suffered moderate injuries and was swiftly moved to hospital. The assailant was promptly caught and detained.
On social media, some lauded the attack while others condemned the killing of unarmed civilians. Renowned Egyptian writer and TV host Ibrahim Issa called the attack a “terrorist crime,” adding that, “any attempt to justify it is a crime against humanity and the nation.”
Amr Magdi, researcher with Human Rights Watch, condemned the attack, saying on X: “No justification whatsoever for intentionally targeting Israeli civilians in Egypt, Gaza or anywhere else.”
11 October 2023